JUST SCHOOLS: "Divided we stand, united we fall..."
Questions for Martha Minow and Richard Shweder
Two leading thinkers on justice and American education talk to Adam Strom of Facing History and Ourselves about why they edited a major new work exploring the challenges schools are facing in accommodating various races, backgrounds, and religions. The book came out of an SSRC project.
How did you come to the subject of your book Just Schools: Pursuing Social Equality in Societies of Difference?
MARTHA MINOW: I have been preoccupied with this issue for a long time. When I was a young girl, Studs Terkel invited me to participate in a discussion about "diversity in a pluralistic society." I then looked up every single word in that sentence and I've been preoccupied with the promises and challenges of diversity and pluralism ever since.
RICK SHWEDER: We started with a general interest in pluralism. We asked whether it's possible to have equality and difference at the same time. People who study social organization have long recognized that you can have diversity as long as you have hierarchy, of which caste society in rural India would be an example. And then, of course, the alternative way to have equality is to have uniformity; you can have equality if everyone is the same. Our challenge was to see whether there are examples of coexistence of different people who have different values, different beliefs, even different practices but who are also capable of extending to one another equality.
Why locate that conversation inside the public schools?
MM: Since Brown v. Board of Education, the meaning of equality under U.S. law has been tested in its most fundamental way in the context of schools, where the commitment to equal treatment of individuals is salient, and where the treatment of racial groups has been absolutely indispensable to understand what we mean by equality. Treatment of other group-based identities also organizes school efforts to secure equality: religious, gender, and linguistic backgrounds come to the fore as American schools try to work out what equality means.
How are controversies over immigration leading us to rethink the mission of public schools?
RS: There have been pendulum swings in the history of the United States with regard to schooling for immigrants, with strong attempts to force assimilation--the melting pot as a meltdown to a common standard. In Oregon, for example, a referendum was passed to prohibit private schools, which were viewed as places in which immigrants could perpetuate their languages and values, and to impose a common curriculum as a way of "Americanizing" immigrant children. After World War I the state of Nebraska passed statutes that prohibited the teaching of all modern foreign languages to children under the age of twelve, a prohibition based on the assumption that to be an American requires that you think in English.
At the same time, however, we have had strong pushes to think about the United States as a facilitative society that makes space for difference. We do have at least one self-conception, which views America as a land of immigrants and which offers a big tent for diversity.
The schools end up being battlegrounds for these opposing views.
In preparing the book, along with our co-editor, Hazel Markus, we set out to generate case studies that demonstrate experimentation with the tension between equality and difference, or between a pluralism agenda and an inclusion agenda.
MM: We found that there are local as well as national narratives being debated. Fights in Amherst, Massachusetts over the meaning of the phrase, "we are all multiculturalists now," as described in the book by Austin Sarat, are very different from the efforts that Heather Lindkvist describes as the public school system in Lewiston, Maine tries to incorporate Somali Muslims.
RS: In Lewiston the public schools are bending over backwards to find a way to accommodate the head scarf worn by Muslim girls, even in a context where the schools had already prohibited bandannas because of their association with gang activity. And then they are faced with this wonderful issue of: What's the difference between a bandanna and a head scarf, and what happens when a Somali girl wears a bandanna as a headscarf to show solidarity with non-Somalis who want to wear bandannas in the school?
This is a very different kind of discourse from that in France, where, as John Bowen's chapter explains, the head scarf is prohibited as a conspicuous sign of religion. But, the French civic republican ideal appeals to certain Americans, too. There is a tension between liberal pluralistic and civic republican forms of organization, which turns on how much you want uniformity and equality versus how much you value difference and want to preserve it.
In these contemporary debates, how has the earlier civil rights movement contributed to the discussion?
MM: At the turn of the 20th century, schools were implicitly, if not explicitly, designed to sort people, mirroring the social class divisions in society. Brown v. Board of Education and the movement leading up to it challenged sorting by race and established that schools should be evaluated by reference to equality.
We at least now aspire to the opportunity of every child having an equal chance at the American dream, at success.
Now we fight over the meaning of that dream. Is that a dream for everyone to take their freedom and go to Wall Street, to become suburban families indistinguishable from others, or to use their freedom to explore and deepen their own distinctive cultural traditions? Is the dream to forge an America that combines many cultures while preserving them or to leave behind language and culture of parents and grandparents in order to join an American mainstream?
RS: At the same time, there is a competition between two very different conceptions of nationhood, one of which is summarized in the familiar notion that "united we stand, divided we fall," a phrase that leads one to be suspicious of difference. But, imagine the alternative: "divided we stand, united we fall," where we fall when we try to unite people around a uniform standard, creating resentments that there isn't space for your way of life in this country.
So if you imagine division as something that creates subgroups, each of which has their own commitments, then the federal, decentralized notion of our polity can make space for factions to feel safe and at home. You can see how protecting diversity can be a process by which cooperation and social order are possible and safety can be maintained.
MM: I'm so glad you mentioned the word "safe." The chapters by Hazel Markus and Jim Banks systematically review decades-worth of research studies that examine how students feel safe or unsafe when they feel identified with or alienated from the classroom--and how those feelings affect their academic performance. Culturally responsive programs, those that make children of different cultures feel safe, have been associated with higher academic achievement. Students' sense of security and attachment to schooling can be positively affected by teachers who believe in their capacities and who combine praise and challenge in a way that makes each student feel like an owner of the classroom.
Related to recognizing differences between students, why is so much attention given to religious differences now?
MM: Global patterns of migration bring together students with different religious identities, which increases self-consciousness about religion. Also at work are changes in the United States' legal treatment of religion in places like public schools. This is a moment when families feel freer to make claims about accommodation for religion than they have in the past and the expression of identity in religious terms often seems meaningful to younger people.
For decades, many different kinds of immigrants and communities have become American by claiming religious identity. Doing so offers a parallel experience to other Americans who have claimed the freedom of religious difference as a part of their American experience.
But, because we are now in a transition about how courts interpret the Constitution's rules against establishing religion and rules promoting free exercise, we have school teachers and administrators struggling with uncertainty and asking themselves: "Am I violating something when I restrain the child who is reaching for that bit of bacon in the cafeteria in violation of their religious tradition, or am I protecting that child's rights?"
RS: The Islamic private school in Chicago, described in Barnaby Riedel's chapter, provides an example of these tensions. It is interestingly called the Universal School and universality is achieved by transcending national differences between students who come from places like Palestine, Syria, Morocco, Libya, and unifying them around an Islamic education, which looks for what is ecumenically Islamic and not culturally parochial, in the sense of being specific or local within each of those nation-states. At the same time, the school is looking for connections to character education curricula that have nothing to do with Islam at all. It is trying to find certain kinds of values, often socially conservative values, that can unify its students and provide a sense of transnational community.
Despite the predictions of three or four decades ago that tribes would go away and everyone would become individuals and that religion would go away and everyone would become secular, we find, ironically, that in weakening national boundaries, globalization sets up a process by which people try to reconstitute community at a different level.
One last question: what's at stake in the way educators resolve the difference/equality paradox?
MM: What's at stake is nothing less than the journey navigated by each child between home and school. Is it a journey of inclusion or exclusion, a journey on which the child keeps the home identity or loses it, a journey on which the child experiences subordination on the basis of race or class or instead has a sense of equal membership and genuine opportunity?
One thing that makes our project distinctive is our interest in paying simultaneous attention to success for individual students and to the school as a microcosm of these larger national and international trends.
RS: A variation on that notion is to face up to the fact that exposing everyone to identical conditions, or to the so-called "level playing field," may create more inequality, not less, and that not everyone feels that the particular level playing field they have been placed on is the right playing field. Given the reality of diversity as an input, you need to have the right playing field to maximize outcomes for different people.
At another level, what's at stake is whether we will allow experimentation to go on. A top-down answer is not going to work: someone sitting in their armchair and saying, "Let's make the whole system like this." We have entered a period now that allows for experimentation. The charter school movement allows experimentation. Private schools allow experimentation. We find different kinds of accommodations in public schools across the nation. I think we have to let those experiments run and then look at what's working. That diversity is very different from the French ideal of every child facing the same curriculum in identical order across the entire nation. Given the diversity of schooling we now have, we'll learn from more empirical research on actual cases.
Interview conducted by Adam Strom, the director of research and development at Facing History and Ourselves.