In the United States, the public education system has constructed and systematically widened the wedge between students privileged and unprivileged, and thus, the state has left the victims of the system increasingly unprepared to function in and to benefit society. Even those who receive a privileged American education may still be ill-equipped to thrive in today’s ever-changing world. In the pursuit of a quality education system, researchers, teachers, and policy-makers should be concerned with the pursuit of social equity. The purpose of schooling should be to create a more equitable society comprised of socially, emotionally, and intellectually competent citizens who can function in and contribute to society and its growth. Based on my personal experiences in Honolulu, Hawai’i, and the principles of Lisa Delpit, Paulo Freire, and James Baldwin, I will outline the three key components essential to this purpose: individualizing education to students’ needs, developing the whole person, and instilling agency and social consciousness.
Every student should feel like they can succeed in life and be the masters of their own destiny. In our unequal and increasingly diverse society, students enter the schooling system at different cognitive starting points and with various social and family circumstances, making it harder for every student to excel. In order to create equity, students need individualized education that meets their needs; especially for the students who don’t have as privileged of an upbringing as others. Delpit insists that “schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home” to make up for their deficit of the knowledge that is required by the dominant culture (286). Delpit pushes for teaching students the differences between their culture and the dominant culture (in the Mainland U.S., White-American culture), while also empowering them to love their own culture.
My own private high school had a majority Asian student body, consistent with the dominant races in Honolulu, so there wasn’t much need to teach us the dominant culture as we had been accustomed to it at home. However, the students at Kaimuki High, the low-performing school across the street from us were mainly Micronesian and Filipino. Many of them are low-income and first generation, and the school is consistently one of the worst in the city. Through a mentoring program between our schools, I learned about how much the Micronesian culture, which is tribe-based and emphasizes family over education, and I learned how hard it is to teach English grammar to students who mainly speak Hawaiian Pidgin English. Efforts to tie Pacific-Islander culture into schooling while also preparing the students to thrive in Hawai’i’s society would probably help to close the gap between Kaimuki High and better-performing schools like mine. This step to tailor education to the individual needs of this community may give these students more opportunities to excel in Hawai’i. As Delpit says, to accomplish this, the teachers must be aware of students’ cultural backgrounds, then implement the appropriate techniques to ensure that their pupils can understand what the Asian culture of power expects of them and so that they can thrive in the classroom and in society. Kaimuki High is just one example of a school that has not yet tailored the education to the culture. The first step to closing the opportunity and achievement gaps is accounting for students’ unequal and diverse circumstances and needs.
Equally important to individualizing education is developing the whole person. Schooling should impart to students all of the skills and competencies needed to function in society, rather than churning out content-learning machines. The first of these necessary competencies is critical thinking. Linda Darling-Hammond states that today, “the new mission of schools is to prepare students to work at jobs that do not yet exist,” further supporting the critical thinking and process approach to education over one that is information-driven (2). Along this vein, Freire created the idea of “problem-posing education,” in which students are both the pupil and teacher and are constantly engaging their cognitive abilities. Upon reflection, I have realized that my high school education consisted of what Freire calls a “banking education,” where the teachers disseminate knowledge and memorization is key. After coming to Yale, I wish that I had had more chances to engage critically with the material, learn how to make arguments, and have discourses with my classmates in a problem-posing atmosphere, as these skills are highly transferrable and useful.
Other vital ingredients for preparing students to function in society include emotional and social intelligence. In contrast to some of John Dewey’s ideas, education should not grow out of students’ social lives (diverse students have very different social lives, and a focus too heavy on the social takes away from the intellectual and critical), but rather, social learning should be interlaced throughout formal schooling. Students should learn how to properly interact with their peers and acquire, mainly through exploration, social skills such as empathy, compassion, collaboration, and leadership. One of the most valuable parts of my schooling was my tenth grade leadership class which emphasized personal growth, values, and awareness; I wish that these concepts could have been incorporated into all of my schooling as the class helped me gain confidence and social/emotional intelligence. Lastly to this point, part of social intelligence includes social awareness- of other cultures, current events, and social issues- something that my high school did not encourage, and I feel slighted because of it. Knowledge of oneself, other people, and society, will allow students to gain emotional and social consciousness so that they may become, in many ways, productive contributors to society.
Attaining and maintaining social consciousness leads us to the final component of my goals for schooling: instilling agency and a sense of purpose. Students should feel empowered to use their own knowledge and skills to contribute to and improve society. Personally, I feel strongly that every person should feel compelled to better society because, if every American lived with this purpose, our country would be a better place. Thankfully, many of my peers in this class have shared this sentiment. While molding its students’ minds, formal schooling should stimulate this altruistic mindset and encourage students to have agency and to make a difference. Baldwin puts it perfectly: “It is your responsibility to change your society if you think of yourself as an educated person” (5). Once the U.S. has equitable education, and students have the skills to function in and contribute to society, they can begin to question our society and improve it.
A schooling system that values equity will create a large cohort of educated individuals who can function in and benefit society. A schooling system that also values developing the whole person and empowering students to better society will create a large cohort of well-rounded, intelligent citizens that will continuously transform society. Schooling is the means for societal transformation, and if given the resources, the evolved form of schooling that I have described could truly revolutionize our society from the obsolete systematically inequitable structure that it is today.
Written for EDST 110: Foundations in Education Studies, with Lizzie Carroll
Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.” Collected Essays. 1963. RichGibson.com. Web. 2 September 2016.
Delpit, Lisa D. The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children. 3rd ed. Vol. 58. Harvard Educational Review, 1988. Print.
Dewey, John. “My Pedagogic Creed.” The School Journal. 3rd ed. Vol. LIV. 1897. 77-80. Print.
Freire, Paulo. “Chapter 2.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000. 71-86. Print.