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How education can help fight systemic racism


The protests raging across the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death all call for an end to systemic racism and inequality, which have been alive and well since the very founding of the United States. There is much that needs to be done to address systemic racism from police reform to opening ladders of economic opportunity. Education too has a role to play.

The strategy of “divide and conquer” has been used for literally thousands of years to expand empires and extend control of authoritarian leaders. The military strategy of Nazi Germany was, as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently so eloquently reminded us, to divide and conquer, and the American response was “in unity there is strength.” This applies not only to military strategy and morale but also to the fabric of society and our ability as Americans to bridge our differences and connect with each other. It is why after World War II, a U.N. organization dedicated to education was founded, stating “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

This remains true to this day and it is why education in its broadest sense must be a part of the solution to build unity across our country. Education does play a crucial role in social mobility and ensuring economic opportunity and it is why so many school districts across the U.S. are concerned with helping all young people develop academic mastery and 21st century job skills such as digital literacy, creativity, and teamwork. This is why there are such deep concerns about equity of access to quality schools and the disturbing legacy of tracking African American students into less prestigious avenues of study.

But education also plays a powerful role in shaping worldviews, connecting members of a community who might have never met before, and imagining the world we want. It is this power to shape values and beliefs that has made education susceptible to manipulation by those who want to divide and conquer (e.g., why extremists such as the Taliban in Afghanistan prioritized interfering in education as a top priority for achieving their agenda). Hence it is this power that we must turn to in an effort to fight inequality and racism. In 1996, a UNESCO global commission chaired by Jacques De Lors released a report—now affectionately known in education circles as the “De Lors Report”—and spelled out the four purposes of education:

  1. Learning to know. A broad general knowledge with the opportunity to work in depth on a small number of subjects.
  2. Learning to do. To acquire not only occupational skills but also the competence to deal with many situations and to work in teams.
  3. Learning to be. To develop one’s personality and to be able to act with growing autonomy, judgment, and personal responsibility.
  4. Learning to live together. By developing an understanding of other people and an appreciation of interdependence.

These four purposes all remain urgent and relevant today but it is the fourth, learning to live together, that we must as a country pay more attention to. Luckily there are many in the education community that have for years been working on helping young people develop the mindsets and skills to live together. A number of organizations have long included fighting systemic racism in this effort, working tirelessly and more often than not with little visibility and recognition. Some of the best places to begin exploring this work include the nonprofit education organization Facing History, Facing Ourselves, which has been working for the past 45 years with teachers and schools across the United States to combat bigotry and hate and help build understanding across difference. Education International, a federation of the world’s teacher organizations and unions, has put forward the top 25 lessons from the teaching profession for delivering education that supports democracy for all and hence must foster inclusion and fight racism. More well-known to most Americans is Sesame Street, the children’s media organization that has for generations modeled tolerance to America’s youngest children.

On Saturday, June 6, Sesame Street and CNN will host a town-hall meeting titled “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism.” Finally, the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture has a host of resources for parents and families, schools and educators, and young people and adults for talking about race.  

As Brookings President John R. Allen so eloquently stated in his recent piece on the need to condemn racism and come together, the leadership for this is not going to come from national political leaders, but every teacher, principal, school superintendent, and parent of students can do their part to make sure education is playing its part and contributing to all of us learning to live together.



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