Difficult topics are coming to the fore in the media right now about how schools work with students and how schools function in the community at a larger scale. I’d like to share my personal thinking on this as it bears upon our senior school environment and how I work with CMA students directly.
My thoughts below have been cut down to their most succinct form. Difficult topics are not well handled with simplistic or slogan-based thinking but neither do I have bandwidth at this time of the year to write a full essay on the topic. I’m seeking a compromise when it comes to brevity and I’m also leaving out particular elements where my thinking is still evolving…
Oppression has been and continues to be experienced by anyone in any community that is adequately different from some perceived norm. You can be oppressed for religious affiliations, gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, appearance, age, race, among many other things. The experiences of oppression range from bullying and name calling to actively being denied a particular quality of life or access to resources and to the health and economic effects suffered as a result of this lack of access.
That we oppress each other is not a trait of humanity we should be collectively proud of and it, among other traits, is something we need to grow out of as the dominant conscious beings on this planet.
The harms that arise from oppression are one of the features of our society that prevent its evolution and improvement. Those harms distract us from important growth. Our awareness of oppression is getting better yet we are having difficulty finding ways to meaningfully stop it.
One of the current means we have to stop oppression is to adopt the principles of diversity and inclusion as broadly as possible. Diversity means accepting different kinds of people and inclusion means acknowledging our necessary connection to everyone despite our differences. The principles themselves have myriad interpretations, some more productive than others, but in all cases, adopting these principles is among the challenges we must face.
The reason these principles are challenging to adopt is that they contest our habit of using differences to define and simplify others (She is not like me!) and our habit of deriving identity from the company we keep (I’m connected to these people but not those people!). They challenge our notion of belonging to a group and our notion of who the ‘other’ is that is excluded from a group. The adoption of principles like diversity and inclusion challenge us at our most basic biological level.
And so it is with great difficulty that we pursue these principles and their accompanying challenges. We can expect resistance to these ideas even as we incorporate them into our educational and hence, social fabric. We can expect difficulty in figuring out just how to incorporate the principles into a societal system that to some extent exists and functions despite their previous absence or perceived lack of relevance. Even before discussions of diversity and inclusion, we have seen tremendous societal advancement so why are these principles necessary now?
What we want in terms of education is for students to understand their responsibilities when it comes to the adoption of any new social principles whether they find themselves enthusiastic about that adoption or reticent.
If you are enthusiastic about a new principle, you need to define it carefully, you need to prioritise and plan the implementation of that principle in ways that lead to broad acceptance, you have to do the difficult work of building consensus, and you have to anticipate and listen to those who are less enthusiastic as well as express a willingness to make changes to your thinking in light of their concerns*. You have to admit that one thing you have in common with everyone is your ignorance on exactly what’s best for all.
If you resist the adoption of a new principle, you are responsible for expressing your concerns in a shared language and articulating existing societal strengths that you think are worth protecting**. You have to be open minded and express a capacity to engage in social experimentation in the face of the unknown. You have to admit that one thing you have in common with everyone is your ignorance on exactly what’s best for all.
That point of common ground, that none of us actually knows what will lead to the best outcomes for all, is the most humbling and most productive place to begin all our conversations. An underwriting premise of our educational offerings is that they prepare everyone for the necessary dialogue and diplomacy necessary for cultural evolution through the careful adoption of ever more humanitarian principles.
The worst-case outcome when adopting new principles in a community is the formation of camps who refuse to speak and harbor ill will toward each other. Education is one of the means by which this outcome is avoided and I ask that you join us in engaging these conversations respectfully, slowly, and with a sense of curiosity rather than certainty.
*Right now, we have parents wondering where their authority and autonomy in child raising bumps up against the responsibilities of public education. This is a real concern that cannot be written off as an extreme position.
**Right now, we know that young people face unnecessary and damaging difficulty in their lives relating to their gender identity and sexual orientation. Parents and educators want to help young people and this is a real concern that cannot be written off as an extreme position.