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On an Imperative to Educate People on the History of Race in America

photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. Statue profile at night

Many people don’t have much occasion to observe racism in the United States. This means that, for some, knowledge about the topic can only come in the form of testimony. Most of the things we know, we come to know not by investigating the matter personally, but instead on the basis of what we’ve been told by others. Human beings encounter all sorts of hurdles when it comes to attaining belief through testimony. Consider, for example, the challenges our country has faced when it comes to controlling the pandemic. The testimony and advice of experts in infectious disease are often tossed aside and even vilified in favor of instead accepting the viewpoints and advice from people on YouTube telling people what they want to hear.
This happens often when it comes to discussions of race. From the perspective of many, racism is the stuff of history books. Implementation of racist policies is the kind of thing that it would only be possible to observe in a black and white photograph; racism ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. There is already a strong tendency to engage in confirmation bias when it comes to this issue — people are inclined to believe that racism ended years ago, so they are resistant and often even offended when presented with testimonial evidence to the contrary. People are also inclined to seek out others who agree with their position, especially if those people are Black. As a result, even though the views of these individuals are not the consensus view, the fact that they are willing to articulate the idea that the country is not systemically racist makes these individuals tremendously popular with people who were inclined to believe them before they ever opened their mouths.
Listening to testimonial evidence can also be challenging for people because learning about our country’s racist past and about how that racism, present in all of our institutions, has not been completely eliminated in the course of fewer than 70 years, seems to conflict with their desire to be patriotic. For some, patriotism consists in loyalty, love, and pride for one’s country. If we are unwilling to accept American exceptionalism in all of its forms, how can we count ourselves as patriots?
In response to these concerns, many argue that blind patriotism is nothing more than the acceptance of propaganda. Defenders of such patriotism encourage people not to read books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-racist or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, claiming that this work is “liberal brainwashing.” Book banning, either implemented by public policy or strongly encouraged by public sentiment has occurred so often and so nefariously that if one finds oneself on that side of the issue, there is good inductive evidence that one is on the wrong side of history. Responsible members of a community, members that want their country to be the best place it can be, should be willing to think critically about various positions, to engage and respond to them rather than to simply avoid them because they’ve been told that they are “unpatriotic.” Our country has such a problematic history when it comes to listening to Black voices, that when we’re being told we shouldn’t listen to Black accounts of Black history, our propaganda sensors should be on high alert.
Still others argue that projects that attempt to understand the full effects of racism, slavery, and segregation are counterproductive — they only lead to tribalism. We should relegate discussions of race to the past and move forward into a post-racial world with a commitment to unity and equality. In response to this, people argue that to tell a group of people that we should just abandon a thoroughgoing investigation into the history of their ancestors because engaging in such an inquiry causes too much division is itself a racist idea — one that defenders of the status quo have been articulating for centuries.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully articulates the value of understanding Black history in a passage from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Even the Negroes’ contribution to the music of America is sometimes overlooked in astonishing ways. In 1965 my oldest son and daughter entered an integrated school in Atlanta. A few months later my wife and I were invited to attend a program entitled “Music that has made America great.” As the evening unfolded, we listened to the folk songs and melodies of the various immigrant groups. We were certain that the program would end with the most original of all American music, the Negro spiritual. But we were mistaken. Instead, all the students, including our children, ended the program by singing “Dixie.” As we rose to leave the hall, my wife and I looked at each other with a combination of indignation and amazement. All the students, black and white, all the parents present that night, and all the faculty members had been victimized by just another expression of America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant. I wept within that night. I wept for my children and all black children who have been denied a knowledge of their heritage; I wept for all white children, who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society; I wept for all the white parents and teachers who are forced to overlook the fact that the wealth of cultural and technological progress in America is a result of the commonwealth of inpouring contributions.

Understanding the history of our people, all of them, fully and truthfully, is valuable for its own sake. It is also valuable for our actions going forward. We can’t understand who we are without understanding who we’ve been, and without understanding who we’ve been, we can’t construct a blueprint for who we want to be as a nation.
Originally published on February 24th, 2021

On an Imperative to Educate People on the History of Race in America

photograph of Selma anniversary march at Edmund Pettus Bridge featuring Barack Obama and John Lewis

Many people don’t have much occasion to observe racism in the United States. This means that, for some, knowledge about the topic can only come in the form of testimony. Most of the things we know, we come to know not by investigating the matter personally, but instead on the basis of what we’ve been told by others. Human beings encounter all sorts of hurdles when it comes to attaining belief through testimony. Consider, for example, the challenges our country has faced when it comes to controlling the pandemic. The testimony and advice of experts in infectious disease are often tossed aside and even vilified in favor of instead accepting the viewpoints and advice from people on YouTube telling people what they want to hear.

This happens often when it comes to discussions of race. From the perspective of many, racism is the stuff of history books. Implementation of racist policies is the kind of thing that it would only be possible to observe in a black and white photograph; racism ended with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. There is already a strong tendency to engage in confirmation bias when it comes to this issue — people are inclined to believe that racism ended years ago, so they are resistant and often even offended when presented with testimonial evidence to the contrary. People are also inclined to seek out others who agree with their position, especially if those people are Black. As a result, even though the views of these individuals are not the consensus view, the fact that they are willing to articulate the idea that the country is not systemically racist makes these individuals tremendously popular with people who were inclined to believe them before they ever opened their mouths.

Listening to testimonial evidence can also be challenging for people because learning about our country’s racist past and about how that racism, present in all of our institutions, has not been completely eliminated in the course of fewer than 70 years, seems to conflict with their desire to be patriotic. For some, patriotism consists in loyalty, love, and pride for one’s country. If we are unwilling to accept American exceptionalism in all of its forms, how can we count ourselves as patriots?

In response to these concerns, many argue that blind patriotism is nothing more than the acceptance of propaganda. Defenders of such patriotism encourage people not to read books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-racist or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, claiming that this work is “liberal brainwashing.” Book banning, either implemented by public policy or strongly encouraged by public sentiment has occurred so often and so nefariously that if one finds oneself on that side of the issue, there is good inductive evidence that one is on the wrong side of history. Responsible members of a community, members that want their country to be the best place it can be, should be willing to think critically about various positions, to engage and respond to them rather than to simply avoid them because they’ve been told that they are “unpatriotic.” Our country has such a problematic history when it comes to listening to Black voices, that when we’re being told we shouldn’t listen to Black accounts of Black history, our propaganda sensors should be on high alert.

Still others argue that projects that attempt to understand the full effects of racism, slavery, and segregation are counterproductive — they only lead to tribalism. We should relegate discussions of race to the past and move forward into a post-racial world with a commitment to unity and equality. In response to this, people argue that to tell a group of people that we should just abandon a thoroughgoing investigation into the history of their ancestors because engaging in such an inquiry causes too much division is itself a racist idea — one that defenders of the status quo have been articulating for centuries.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully articulates the value of understanding Black history in a passage from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Even the Negroes’ contribution to the music of America is sometimes overlooked in astonishing ways. In 1965 my oldest son and daughter entered an integrated school in Atlanta. A few months later my wife and I were invited to attend a program entitled “Music that has made America great.” As the evening unfolded, we listened to the folk songs and melodies of the various immigrant groups. We were certain that the program would end with the most original of all American music, the Negro spiritual. But we were mistaken. Instead, all the students, including our children, ended the program by singing “Dixie.” As we rose to leave the hall, my wife and I looked at each other with a combination of indignation and amazement. All the students, black and white, all the parents present that night, and all the faculty members had been victimized by just another expression of America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant. I wept within that night. I wept for my children and all black children who have been denied a knowledge of their heritage; I wept for all white children, who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society; I wept for all the white parents and teachers who are forced to overlook the fact that the wealth of cultural and technological progress in America is a result of the commonwealth of inpouring contributions.

Understanding the history of our people, all of them, fully and truthfully, is valuable for its own sake. It is also valuable for our actions going forward. We can’t understand who we are without understanding who we’ve been, and without understanding who we’ve been, we can’t construct a blueprint for who we want to be as a nation.

Originally published on February 24th, 2021

Color Blindness and Cartoon Network’s PSA

photograph of small child peeking through his hands covering his face

Cartoon Network’s latest anti-racist PSA is undeniably clever. “See Color” takes place on the set of a PSA, where Amethyst, a Crystal Gem from the show Steven Universe (don’t ask me what this means), leads a couple of tots in a song about color blindness.

“Color blindness is our game, because everyone’s the same! Everybody join our circle, doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or purple!”

Amethyst isn’t buying it. “Ugh, who wrote this?” she says. “I think it kinda matters that I’m purple.” The children register their agreement.

“Well, I’m not an alien,” says the Black child, “but it definitely matters to me that I’m Black.”

“Yeah, it makes a difference that I’m white,” the white child chimes in. “The two of us get treated very differently.”

The Black child explains further: “My experience with anti-Black racism is really specific…But you won’t see any of that if you ‘don’t see color.’”

The idea that color blindness is deficient as a means of extirpating racism — because it blinds people to existing discrimination and invalidates legitimate race-based affirmative action — is not new. Indeed, the rejection of the philosophy and practice of color blindness has by now become the new orthodoxy in academic and left-leaning circles. That this rejection has trickled down to kids’ shows is surely a powerful measure of its success.

Conservative critics complain that the new anti-color blindness position is antithetical to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a society in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. This is a mistake. To see this, it is useful to understand the distinction in political philosophy between ideal theory and non-ideal theory. 

The distinction was first introduced by John Rawls in his classic A Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, ideal theory is an account of what society should aim for given certain facts about human nature and possible social institutions. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, addresses the question of how the ideal might be achieved in practical, permissible steps, from the actual, partially just society we occupy.

Those who reject color-blindness can see the color-blindness envisioned by King as a property of an ideal society, a society in which racism does not exist. In that society, the color of a person’s skin really does not matter to how they are in fact treated; hence, it is something we can and ought to ignore in our treatment of them. Unfortunately, we don’t live in this society, and in addition, we ought not pretend that we do. Instead, we ought to recognize other people’s races so that we may treat them equitably, taking into account the inequitable treatment to which they have and continue to be subjected.

But just as the norms which we must follow in a non-ideal society are perhaps different from those we ought to follow in an ideal society, so the norms we ought to teach our children should perhaps be different from the ones adults ought to follow. And there is a danger in teaching children to “see color” while also asking them, as we still do, to embrace King’s vision: it may very easily lead to confusion, or worse, a rejection of a color blindness as an ideal. After all, how many children are equipped to understand the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory? Imagine white children criticizing King as a racial reactionary because of the latter’s insistence that in his ideal society, judgments of people’s merits would not take their race into account.

On the other hand, perhaps risking this outcome is better than the alternative: another generation of white children who believe that because race shouldn’t matter in some ideal society, it therefore ought not matter to us. Can we really afford to risk another generation of white people who believe that the claim that Black lives matter is somehow antithetical to the claim that all lives matter? Perhaps not.

There are good reasons to reject color blindness as a philosophy and practice for the real world: it leads us to ignore actual discrimination and vitiates the justification for race-based affirmative action. But there are limits to what children can be asked to understand, and ensuring that they are neither led astray nor confused requires careful thought.

The Continued Saga of Education During COVID-19

photograph of empty elementary school classroom filled with books and bags

In early August, Davis County School District, just north of Salt Lake City, Utah, announced its intention to open K-12 schools face-to-face. All of the students who did not opt for an online alternative would be present. There would be no mandatory social distancing because the schools simply aren’t large enough to allow for it. Masks would be encouraged but not required. There was significant pushback to this decision. Shortly thereafter the district announced a new hybrid model. On this model, students are divided into two groups. Each group attends school two days a week on alternating days. Fridays are reserved for virtual education for everyone so that the school can be cleaned deeply. In response to spiking cases, Governor Herbert also issued a mask mandate for all government buildings, including schools. Parents and students were told that the decision would remain in place until the end of the calendar year.

On Tuesday, September 15th, the school board held a meeting that many of the parents in the district did not know was taking place. At this meeting, in response to the demands of a group of parents insisting upon returning to a four or even five-day school week for all students, the board unanimously voted to change direction mid-stream and switch to a four-day-a-week, all-students-present model. Many of these same parents were also arguing in favor of lifting the mask mandate in the schools, but the school board has no power to make that change.

Those advocating for a return to full-time, in-person school are not all making the same arguments. Some people are single parents trying to balance work and educating their children. In other households more than one adult might be present, but they might all need to be employed in order to pay the bills. In still other families, education is not very highly valued. There are abusive and neglectful homes where parents simply aren’t willing to put in the work to make sure that their children are keeping up in school. Finally, for some students, in-person school is just more effective; some students learn better in face-to-face environments.

These aren’t the only positions that people on this side of the debate have expressed. For political, social, and cultural reasons, many people haven’t taken the virus seriously from the very beginning. These people claim that COVID-19 is a hoax or a conspiracy, that the risks of the virus have been exaggerated, and that the lives of the people who might die as a result of contracting it don’t matter much because they are either old or have pre-existing conditions and, as a result, they “would have died soon anyway.”

Still others are sick of being around their children all day and are ready to get some time to themselves back. They want the district’s teachers to provide childcare and they believe they are entitled to it because they pay property taxes. They want things to go back to normal and they think if we behave as if the virus doesn’t exist, everything will be fine and eventually it will just disappear. Most people probably won’t get it anyway or, if they do, they probably won’t have serious symptoms.

Parents and community members in favor of continuing the hybrid model fought back. First and foremost, they argued that the hybrid model makes the most sense for public health. The day after the school board voted to return to full-time in-person learning, the case numbers in Utah spiked dramatically. Utah saw its first two days of numbers exceeding 1,000 new cases. It is clear that spread is happening at the schools. Sports are being cancelled, and students are contracting the virus, spreading the virus, and being asked to quarantine because they have been exposed to the virus at a significant number of schools in the district.

Those in favor of the hybrid model argue that it is a safe alternative that provides a social life and educational resources to all students. On this model, all students have days when they get to see their friends and get to work with their teachers. If the switch to a four-day-a-week schedule without social distancing measures in place happens, the only students who will have access to friends and teachers in person are the community members who aren’t taking the virus seriously and aren’t concerned about the risks of spreading it to teachers, staff, and the community at large. It presents particular hardship for at-risk students who might have to choose the online option not only for moral reasons, but also so they don’t risk putting their own lives in jeopardy. Those making these arguments emphasize that the face-to-face model simply isn’t fair.

Advocates of this side of the debate also point out that we know that this virus is affecting people of color at a more significant rate, and the evidence is not yet in on why this is the case. The children who are dying of COVID-19 are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. The face-to-face option has the potential to disproportionately impact students of color. If they attend school, they are both more likely than their white classmates to get sick and more likely to die. Many of these students live in multi-generational homes. Even if the students don’t suffer severe symptoms, opening up the schools beyond the restrictions put in place by the hybrid model exposes minority populations to a greater degree of risk.

Slightly less pressing, but still very important, considerations on this side of the debate have to do with changing directions so abruptly in the middle of the term. The school board points out that students that don’t want to take the risk of attending school four days a week can always just take part in the online option, Davis Connect. There are a number of problems with this. First, Davis Connect isn’t simply an extension of the school that any given child attends; it is an independent program. This means that if students and their families don’t think it is safe to return to a face-to-face schedule, they lose all their teachers and all of the progress that they have made in the initial weeks of the semester. Further, the online option offers mostly core classes. High school students who chose the online option would have to abandon their electives — classes that in many cases they have come to enjoy in the initial weeks of the semester. Some students are taking advanced placement or dual-enrollment courses that count for college credit. These students would be forced to give up that credit if they choose the online option. The result is a situation in which families may feel strongly coerced to allow their children to attend school in what they take to be unsafe conditions and in a way that is not consistent with their moral values as responsible members of the community.

Those on this side of the argument also point out that community discussions about “re-opening the schools” tend to paint all students with the same brush. The evidence does not support doing so. There is much that we still don’t know about transmission and spread among young children. We do know that risk increases with age, and that children and young adults ages 15-24 constitute a demographic that is increasingly contracting and spreading the virus. What’s more, students at this age are often willful and defiant. With strict social distancing measures in place and fewer students at the school, it is more difficult for the immature decision-making skills of teenagers to cause serious public health problems. It is also important to take into account the mental health of teenagers. Those on the other side of the debate claim that the mental health of children this age should point us in the direction of holding school every day. In response, supporters of the hybrid model argue that there is no reason to think that a teenager’s mental health depends on being in school four days rather than two. Surely two days are better than none.

Everyone involved in the discussion has heard the argument that the numbers in Davis County aren’t as bad as they are elsewhere in the state. In some places in the area, schools have shut down. In a different district not far away, Charri Jenson, a teacher at Corner Canyon High, is in the ICU as a result of spread at her school. The fact that Davis County numbers are, for now, lower than the rates at those schools is used to justify lifting restrictions. There are several responses to this argument. First, it fails to take into consideration the causal role that the precautions are playing in the lower number of cases. It may well be true that numbers in Davis County are lower (but not, all things considered, low) because of the precautions the district is currently taking. Other schools that encountered significant problems switched to the hybrid model, which provides evidence of its perceived efficacy. Second the virus doesn’t know about county boundaries and sadly people in the state are moving about and socializing as if there is no pandemic. The virus moves and the expectation that it will move to Davis County to a greater degree is reasonable. You don’t respond to a killer outside the house by saying “He hasn’t made his way inside yet, time to unlock the door!”

To be sure, some schools have opened up completely and have seen few to no cases. This is a matter of both practical and moral luck. It is a matter of practical luck that no one has fallen seriously ill and that no one from those schools has had to experience the anguish of a loved one dying alone. It is a matter of moral luck because those school districts, in full possession of knowledge of the dangers, charged forward anyway. They aren’t any less culpable for deaths and health problems — they made the same decisions that school districts that caused deaths made.

A final lesson from this whole debate is that school boards have much more power than we may be ordinarily inclined to think. There are seven people on this school board and they have the power to change things dramatically for an entire community of people and for communities that might be affected by the actions of Davis County residents. This is true of all school boards. This recognition should cause us to be diligent as voters. We should vote in even the smallest local elections. It matters.

Essential Work, Education, and Human Values

photograph of school children with face masks having hands disinfected by teacher

On August 21st, the White House released guidance that designated teachers as “essential workers.” One of the things that this means is that teachers can return to work even if they know they’ve been exposed to the virus, provided that they remain asymptomatic. This is not the first time that the Trump administration has declared certain workers or, more accurately, certain work to be essential. Early in the pandemic, as the country experienced decline in the availability of meat, President Trump issued an executive order proclaiming that slaughterhouses were essential businesses. The result was that they did not have to comply with quarantine ordinances and could, and were expected to, remain open. Employees then had to choose between risking their health or losing their jobs. Ultimately, slaughterhouses became flash points for massive coronavirus outbreaks across the country.

As we think about the kinds of services that should be available during the pandemic, it will be useful to ask ourselves, what does it mean to say that work is essential? What does it mean to say that certain kinds of workers are essential? Are these two different ways of asking the same question or are they properly understood as distinct?

It might be helpful to walk the question back a bit. What is work? Is work, by definition, effort put forward by a person? Does it make sense to say that machines engage in work? If I rely on my calculator to do basic arithmetic because I’m unwilling to exert the effort, am I speaking loosely when I say that my calculator has “done all the work”? It matters because we want to know whether our concept of essential work is inseparable from our concept of essential workers.

One way of thinking about work is as the fulfillment of a set of tasks. If this is the case, then human workers are not, strictly speaking, necessary for work to get done; some of it can be done by machines. During a pandemic, human work comes with risk. If the completion of some tasks is essential under these conditions, we need to think about whether those tasks can be done in other ways to reduce the risk. Of course, the downside of this is that once an institution has found other ways of getting things done, there is no longer any need for human employees in those domains on the other side of the pandemic.

Another way of understanding the concept of work is that work requires intentionality and a sense of purpose. In this way, a computer does not do work when it executes code, and a plant does not do work when it participates in photosynthesis. On this understanding of the concept of work, only persons can engage in it. One virtue of understanding work in this way is that it provides some insight into the indignity of losing one’s job. A person’s work is a creative act that makes the world different from the way it was before. Every person does work, and the work that each individual does is an important part of who that person is. If this way of understanding work is correct, then work has a strong moral component and when we craft policy related to it, we are obligated to keep that in mind.

It’s also important to think about what we mean when we say that certain kinds of work are essential. The most straightforward interpretation is to say that essential work is work that we can’t live without. If this is the case, most forms of labor won’t count as essential. Neither schools nor meat are essential in this sense — we can live without both meat and education.

When people say that certain work is essential, they tend to mean something else. For some political figures, “essential” might mean “necessary for my success in the upcoming election.” Those without political aspirations often mean something different too, something like “necessary for maintaining critical human values.” Some work is important because it does something more than keep us alive; it provides the conditions under which our lives feel to us as if they are valuable and worth living.

Currently, many people are arguing for the position that society simply cannot function without opening schools. Even a brief glance at history demonstrates that this is empirically false. The system of education that we have now is comparatively young, as are our attitudes regarding the conditions under which education is appropriate. For example, for much of human history, education was viewed as inappropriate for girls and women. In the 1600’s Anna Maria van Schurman, famous child prodigy, was allowed to attend school at the University of Utrecht only on the condition that she do so behind a barrier — not to protect her from COVID-19 infested droplets, but to keep her very presence from distracting the male students. At various points in history, education was viewed as inappropriate for members of the wealthiest families — after all, as they saw it, learning to do things is for people that actually need to work. There were also segments of the population that for reasons of race or status were not allowed access to education. All of this is just to say that for most of recorded history, it hasn’t been the case that the entire population of children has been in school for seven hours a day. Our current system of K-12 education didn’t exist until the 1930s, and even then there were barriers to full participation.

That said, the fact that such a large number of children in our country have access to education certainly constitutes significant progress. Education isn’t essential in the first sense that we explored, but it is essential in the second. It is critical for the realization of important values. It contributes to human flourishing and to a sense of meaning in life. It leads to innovation and growth. It contributes to the development of art and culture. It develops well-informed citizens that are in a better position to participate in democratic institutions, providing us with the best hope of solving pressing world problems. We won’t die if we press pause for an extended period of time on formal education, but we might suffer.

Education is the kind of essential work for which essential workers are required. It is work that goes beyond simply checking off boxes on a list of tasks. It involves a strong knowledge base, but also important skills such as the ability to connect with students and to understand and react appropriately when learning isn’t occurring. These jobs can’t be done well when those doing them either aren’t safe or don’t feel safe. The primary responsibilities of these essential workers can be satisfied across a variety of presentation formats, including online formats.

In our current economy, childcare is also essential work, and there are unique skills and abilities that make for a successful childcare provider. These workers are not responsible for promoting the same societal values as educators. Instead, the focus of this work is to see to it that, for the duration of care, children are physically and psychologically safe.

If we insist that teachers are essential workers, we should avoid ambiguity. We should insist on a coherent answer to the question essential for what? If the answer is education, then teachers, as essential workers, can do their essential work in ways that keep them safe. If we are also thinking of them as caregivers, we should be straightforward about that point. The only fair thing to do once that is out in the open is to start paying them for doing more than one job.

Removing Monuments, Grappling with History

Statue of confederate general Robert E Lee with spray painted writing on plinth

In the wake of nationwide protests against racial discrimination by the police, politicians and activists in a number of American cities have called for the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders from public spaces. The U.S. military even expressed its willingness to rename military bases named after Confederate generals. Some activists took matters into their own hands, toppling statues or defacing them with red-painted slogans and symbols.

Supporters of removal argue that Confederate monuments harm people of color by conveying messages of support for white supremacy. Critics allege that there is a slippery slope from Confederate figures to the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln. They also claim that removing monuments is tantamount to an Orwellian erasure of history, the sort of practice one would expect in totalitarian regimes, not democracies. So, what should we do with the statues? 

Let’s examine the arguments in greater detail. The argument that Confederate monuments harm people of color is based on a claim about what the monuments mean, or what messages they convey. The intentions of their creators are a particularly important source of their meaning, since they determine such basic facts as what and whom they represent, as well as the values they express. Most monuments to the Confederacy were erected either in the wake of Reconstruction or during the Civil Rights movement, when African-Americans in the South were agitating for greater political power and social equality, and they were intended to express opposition to these developments. Even apart from this history, monumental, idealized depictions of leaders of a state dedicated to the perpetuation of racial slavery are reasonably interpreted as endorsements of the values the Confederacy embodied. And when these monuments are sited on public land, as most are, this can be reasonably interpreted as conveying the endorsements of the public and the state.

Why does this matter? As the philosopher Jeremy Waldron points out, public art and architecture are important means by which society and government can provide assurances to members of vulnerable groups that their rights and constitutional entitlements will be respected. Such assurances are an important part of people’s sense of safety and belonging. But when the public art of a society instead conveys endorsements of subordination and discrimination, this robs members of vulnerable groups of these assurances, transforming the public world into a hostile space and encouraging withdrawal into the private sphere. Thus, vulnerable groups that are intimidated by monuments that express approval for their subordination may be less able to advance their political, social, and economic interests. Importantly, none of these baneful consequences turn on anyone’s being merely offended by racist monuments.

What about the claim that tearing down Confederate monuments will inevitably lead to the removal of monuments to the Founders and other beloved figures? There is a kernel of truth to this argument: questioning the appropriateness of honoring Confederates likely will lead to questioning society’s attitudes towards other historical figures. But it is not clear that this should not happen. At the same time, there are morally relevant differences between some historical figures and others. For this reason, reducing the harms caused by monumental depictions of some historical figures need not always require removing them from public space. What government needs to do with respect to those monuments it wishes to keep on public display is (1) forthrightly acknowledge the problematic aspects of a historical figure’s legacy; (2) endeavor to reduce the harms that might be caused by the monument; and (3) provide an adequate justification for not removing the monument from the public space. For example, while Abraham Lincoln’s actions towards Native Americans were reprehensible on the whole, there is a good case for honoring those aspects of his legacy that continue to inspire citizens of all backgrounds. Yet the less honorable episodes of his presidency ought to be acknowledged alongside celebrations of his achievements. 

Some claim that removing monuments constitutes an erasure of history, comparing it to burning books. If “erasing history” simply means “destroying something that existed in the past,” tearing down a monument erases history in precisely the same way as tearing down an old house. But as this example suggests, there are many cases of erasing history that seem morally unobjectionable, and the mere fact that something from the past will cease to exist is not in itself a reason to preserve it. Opponents of taking down the monuments sometimes argue that they teach us important lessons about our shared history. This argument at least offers a reason why it might be desirable to preserve this particular class of objects. The trouble is that the story they tell is often distorted and misleading precisely because they were intended not to educate, but to intimidate one group of citizens and cultivate admiration for the Confederacy in another. Monuments are more like billboards than books. Museums can educate the public more effectively than monuments, and without the negative consequences described above. Indeed, in some cases, monuments have found new homes in museums, where they can be properly contextualized for public consumption. 

 As Americans continue to grapple with their history, it seems likely that monuments to the Confederacy will not be the last lapidary victims of our historical reappraisals. But at least with respect to Confederate monuments, public opinion is coming around to the fact that this is a necessary and justified concomitant of the effort to make our society more equal and more just. 

Religious Liberty and Science Education

photograph of empty science classroom

In November, the Ohio House of Representatives passed “The Ohio Student Religious Liberty Act of 2019.” The law quickly garnered media attention because it seems to allow students to get answers wrong without penalty if the reason they get those answers wrong is because of their religious beliefs. The language of the new law is the following:

Sec. 3320.03. No school district board of education, governing authority of a community school […], or board of trustees of a college-preparatory boarding school […] shall prohibit a student from engaging in religious expression in the completion of homework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments. Assignment grades and scores shall be calculated using ordinary academic standards of substance and relevance, including any legitimate pedagogical concerns, and shall not penalize or reward a student based on the religious content of a student’s work.

Sponsors of the bill claim that students will be required to learn the material they are being taught, and to answer questions in the way that the curriculum supports regardless of whether they agree with it. Opponents of the law disagree. The language of the legislation prohibits teachers from penalizing the work of a student when that work is expressive of religious belief. This seems to entail that a teacher cannot give a student a bad grade if that student gets an answer wrong for religious reasons. In any event, the vagueness of the law may affect the actions of teachers. They might be reluctant to grade assignments correctly if they think doing so may put them at odds with the law.

Ohio is not the only state in which bills like this are being considered, though most have failed to pass for one reason or another. Some states, such as Arizona, Florida, Maine, and Virginia have attempted to pass “controversial issues” bills. The bills take various forms. Arizona Bill 202, for example, attempted to prohibit teachers from advocating any positions on issues that are mentioned in the platform of any major political party (a similar bill was proposed in Maine). This has implications for teaching evolution and anthropogenic climate change in science classes. Other controversial issue bills prohibit schools from punishing teachers who teach evolution or climate change as if they are scientifically controversial.

Much of the recent action is motivated by attitudes about Next Generation Science Standards, a science education program developed by 26 states in conjunction with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Research Council. The program aims to teach science in active ways that emphasize the important role that scientific knowledge plays in innovation, the development of new technologies, and in responsible stewardship of the natural environment. NGSS has encountered some resistance in state legislatures because the curriculum includes education on the topics of evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

Advocates of these laws make a number of different arguments. First, all things being equal, there is value in freedom of conscience. We should set up our public spaces in such a way that respects the fact that people can believe what they want to believe. The U.S. Constitution was intentionally written in a way that provides protections for citizens to form beliefs independently of the will of governments. In response, an opponent of this legislation might say that imposing a set of standards for curriculum based on the best available evidence is not the same thing as forcing citizens to endorse a particular set of beliefs. A student can learn about evolution or anthropogenic climate change, all the while disagreeing with what they are learning.

A second, related argument might be that school curriculum and grading policies should respect the role that religion plays in people’s lives. For many, religion provides life with meaning, peace, and hope. Given the importance of these values, our public institutions shouldn’t be taking steps that might undermine religion.

A third argument concerns parental rights to raise children in the way that they see fit. This concern is content-neutral. It might be a principle that everyone should respect. Parents have significant interests in the way that their children turn out, and as a result they have interests in avoiding what they might view as indoctrination of their children by the government. Attendance at school is mandatory for children. If the government is going to force them to attend, they shouldn’t be forced to “learn” things that their parents might not want them to hear.

A fourth argument has to do with the value of free speech and the expression of alternative positions. It is always valuable to hear opposing positions, even those that are in opposition to received scientific knowledge, so that science doesn’t just become another form of dogma. In response, opponents would likely argue that we get closer to the truth when we assess the validity of opposing viewpoints, but not all opposing viewpoints are created equal. Students only have so much time dedicated to learning science in school, so if opposing positions are considered in the classroom, perhaps it is best if they are positions advocated by scientists. Moreover, if a particular view reflects only the opinion of a small segment of the scientific community, perhaps it is a waste of valuable time to discuss those positions at all.

Opponents of this kind of legislation would insist that those in charge of the education of our children must value best epistemic practices. Some belief-forming practices contribute to the formation of true beliefs more reliably than others. The scientific method and the peer review process are examples of these kinds of reliable practices. It is irresponsible to treat positions that are not supported by evidence as if they are equally deserving of acceptance as beliefs that are supported by evidence. Legislation of this type presents tribalism and various forms of pernicious cognitive bias as adequate evidence for belief.

Furthermore, opponents argue, the passage of these bills is nothing more than political grandstanding—attempts to solve non-existent problems. The United States Constitution already protects the religious liberty of students. Additional legislation is not necessary.

Education, in part, is the creation of responsible, productive, autonomous citizens. What’s more, the issues at stake are crucially important. Denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change has powerful, and even deadly, consequences for millions of current living beings, as well as future generations of beings. Our best hope is to create citizens who are well-informed on this issue and who are therefore in a good position to mitigate the effects and to construct meaningful climate policy in the future. This will be impossible if future generations are essentially climate illiterate.

The Ethics of Homeschooling

photograph of young girl doing school work in room

The National Home Education Research Institute labelled homeschooling one of the fastest growing forms of education in the US with an estimated two to eight percent rise in the population of homeschooled children each year over recent years. Although home-based learning as a concept is an old practice, it is now being adopted by a diverse range of Americans. This trend of homeschooling extends to countries around the globe including Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, France, and Australia, among other nations.

One of the commonly cited motivations for homeschooling children is parents’ concern for their child’s safety. Homeschooling provides children with a safe learning environment, shielding them from exposure to possible harms such as physical and psychological abuse, bullying from peers, gun violence, and racism. Exposure to such harms can lead to poor academic performance and long-term self-esteem issues. Recent research suggests that homeschooled students often perform better on tests than other students. Additionally, homeschooling can also provide an opportunity for an enhanced parent-child bond, and is especially convenient for parents of special needs children requiring attentive care.

Homeschooling was legalized throughout the US in 1993, but the laws governing homeschooling vary from state to state. States with the strictest homeschool laws (Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont) mandate annual standardized testing and an annual instruction plan. But policing in the least restrictive states (Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana and Iowa) border on negligence. Iowa, in particular, has no regulations at all, and considers notifying the district of homeschooling merely optional.

Even though homeschooling is legal and gaining traction in the US today, it is not immune to skeptics who view homeschooling as an inadequate and flawed form of education for students. The prevailing critique of homeschooling has to do with the lack of social interaction amongst homeschooled children with peers, which is an important aspect of a child’s socialization into society. However, as most of homeschooled children’s social interactions are limited to adults and their family members, this could lead to the child developing issues in the future regarding learning to handle individuals with different backgrounds, belief systems, and opinions. Homeschooling advocates counter this critique by contending that the environment at home is superior to the environment children are exposed to at school, but it raises the question, at what cost?

Another aspect of homeschooling that is a point of contention is the lack of qualification of parents who choose to homeschool their children. While teachers have experience teaching students over the course of years and therefore develop action plans that work best with students, the same cannot be said for most parents who are not teachers by profession. Therefore, while homeschooling parents may have the best intentions for their children, they may be ill-equipped to provide the standard of education offered in public or private schools. Furthermore, the learning facilities offered by parents at home may not be on par with the learning facilities available in schools.

An additional issue that must be taken into consideration is that homeschooled children in states with lax regulations are at increased risk for physical abuse that goes unreported and undetected, as a result of children being sequestered in their homes. Approximately 95% of child abuse cases are communicated to authorities by public school teachers or officials. By isolating the homeschooled child, unregulated homeschooling allows abusive guardians to keep their abuse unnoticed. Isolating children at home also poses a public health risk as schools require students to be immunized, but this is legally required of homeschooled children in only a few states. Not only are unimmunized children vulnerable to a multitude of diseases, but also put other children and adults alike at risk of contracting illnesses.

Parental bias is an added complication that homeschooled children must deal with. Parental bias refers to dogma a homeschooled child may be exposed to on account of being raised solely on their parents’ belief systems. For example, most homeschooled children come from pious, fundamentalist Protestant families. Elaborating on the possible repercussions of unregulated homeschooling, Robin L. West, Professor of Law and Philosophy at Georgetown University Law Center writes in her article The Harms of Homeschooling, “[..] in much of the country, if you want to keep your kids home from school, or just never send them in the first place, you can. If you want to teach them from nothing but the Bible, you can.” Parental bias can therefore cause an individual to develop a skewed understanding of the world and can also pose issues in the individual’s life outside of home, when they are exposed to ideologies that are at odds with their own. If the homeschooled individual was raised in an environment with a homogeneous view on political, social or cultural issues, and if that is the only outlook that the child is exposed to, adjusting to the outside world with a plethora of opinions and values could cause internal dissension within the individual.

Given that one’s early experiences in life can shape our persona as an adult, going to a regular school instead of being homeschooled can serve as a primer to being better equipped at handling the “real world.” Furthermore, with the rising demand of homeschooling, it becomes essential to ask if the child is better off by learning about the “real world” while being sheltered by one’s guardians. If homeschooling is indeed the superior option, perhaps constructing a standard curriculum for homeschooling could address the concerns raised by critics of home-based learning.

Summit Learning and Experiments in Education

photograph of empty classroom

A recent New York Times article documented a series of student-led protests at a number of public schools throughout the United States against a “personalized learning” program called Summit Learning. The program, supported by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, aims to improve students’ education via computer-based individual lessons, and features A.I. designed to actively develop the ideal learning program for each student. The goals of the program seem especially beneficial to the underserved public school systems where the software is being piloted. Although the initial response was positive, parents and students in communities such as McPherson, Kansas, have begun to reject the program. Among their complaints: excessive screen time and its effects on student health; the connection of the program to the web resulting in students being exposed to inappropriate content; invasive collecting and tracking of personal data; and the decline in human interaction in the classroom.

Each of these points touch on broader issues concerning the ever-greater role technology plays in our lives. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the best way to technology into education, as well as the associated harms and benefits. It is probably unwise, then, to attempt to judge the consequences of this particular program in its infancy. It has been poorly received in some cases, but in many other cases it has been praised.

The more essential question is whether the education of young students should be handled by such a poorly understood mechanism. Some of the people interviewed in the New York Times article expressed the feeling of being “guinea pigs” in an experiment. Summit’s A.I. is designed to get better as it deals with more students, so earlier iterations will always be more “experimental” than later ones. At the same time, it would be irresponsible to risk the quality of a child’s education for the sake of any experiment. Underserved communities like those in which Summit is being applied also deserve some special protection and consideration, because they are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. It was precisely because of their generally low-performing schools that many of these communities so eagerly adopted the Summit Learning system in the first place.

One seemingly simple solution proposed by many of the protesting students is to allow opting-out of the program. While this would allow students a greater degree of agency and help to arrive at the optimal learning method for each student, it would also significantly undermine the already limited understanding of the efficacy of the system. If only the most enthusiastic students are participating, the results will be understandably skewed. As with other experiments involving human subjects, there is a difficult calculus in weighing the potential knowledge gained against the potential harm to individual subjects. In order to ensure the integrity of the program as a whole, opting out on an individual basis cannot be permitted, but the alternative is to force whole schools or town into either participating or not en masse.

Another consideration is whether there is a problem with the premise of Summit Learning itself, that is, “personalized learning.” Personalized learning follows the general trend in cutting-edge technology towards customization, individualization, and, ultimately, isolation. Such approaches do harm to our collective sense of community, but the harm is especially acute in learning environments. Part of education is learning together and, critically, learning to work together. We can see some evidence of this in traditional K-12 school curricula, which have historically centered on the idea that every student learns the same material; in other words, The Catcher in the Rye is only as important as it is because everybody reads it. By removing the collaborative aspect of classroom learning, we run the risk of denying students the opportunity to benefit from different perspectives and develop a common scholastic culture. Furthermore, by implementing isolating technology use in the classroom, schools sanction such practices for students, who may then feel license to repeat such behaviors outside of school.

In Colorado, The Right to Comprehensive Sex Education

A photograph of the Colorado Capitol Building in Denver, with green grass and blue sky

On January 30th, 12-year old Moira Lees testified at the Colorado Capitol in favor of HB19-1032, the new bill centered around sex education for public schools in Colorado. Moira was one of at least six other students who testified in support of the new bill. She bravely talked about how she wished that they taught what consensual relationships are at her own middle school. Consent was just one of the topics presenting in the new sex-education bill for Colorado which was an updated version of a sex education bill from 2013.  

In 2013, the General Assembly of Colorado revised a 2007 law on comprehensive sex education in public schools. This new law said that students had the right to a curriculum that was age appropriate, medically accurate, culturally sensitive to LGBT and disabled individuals, and must include information about safe relationships and sexual violence. However, schools were able to find loopholes in the bill. Schools that wanted to offer an abstinence-only curriculum could contract with non-profit groups and would provide the abstinence only education on school grounds on the weekends. Another loophole allowed charter schools to teach their own versions of human sexuality that often didn’t meet state standards. These loopholes were motivation behind the new bill, HB19-1032 that was testified for on January 30th.

The new bill proposes to get rid of abstinence-only education but most paramount, it teaches consent in sexual relationships. Susan Lontine (D-Denver), the bill’s proposer, says that the bill describes “how to communicate consent, recognize communication of consent, and recognize withdrawal of consent.”  This was one of the least discussed topics during the 10-hour long testimony, mostly because it was one of the unanimously agreed upon topics. Centennial Institute Director Jeff Hunt is a critic of the bill but agrees with the consent portion and believes that people of faith also support it. Hunt states that the lengthy testimony was centered more around debate of topics that should be openers for family discussion about values as opposed to public school curriculum.

Another important part of the bill is that the curriculum will have open lessons about human sexuality. The bill opens with a survey form 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey that states 9.6% of females and 18.5% of LGBT-identifying kids have felt physically forced into sexual relationships against their will. “These statistics reflect a dire need for all Colorado youth to have access to comprehensive human sexuality education that teaches consent, hallmarks of safe and healthy relationships, self-acceptance, and respect for others,” according to HB19-1032. Lessons about human sexuality cannot be “explicitly or implicitly” endorsing religious ideology and shame-based language should not be used.

Those opposed to HB19-1032 worry that parents would not have full knowledge of the information that their children are receiving, according to Jeff Hays, GOP Chairman. The bill states that parents would be notified about human sexuality classes and given the option to remove their children but would not be notified about the specific lesson plans. Colorado Catholic Conference worries that the teachings will stigmatize Catholic beliefs and will teach children that the church’s values regarding sex, relationships, and gender are wrong. Also under review is that currently HB-19-1032 does not require schools to tell students about “safe haven laws” which allows a parent to turn over a newborn less than 72 hours to any fire station or hospital with no questions asked, in order to protect the lives of newborns. If HB19-1032 is passed, schools would have to choose between teaching this new curriculum or teaching nothing at all on the matter.

At the heart of the debate regarding HB19-1032 is a question about the purpose of childhood education and how sex education supports those goals. According to philosopher Joel Feinberg, education is a part of the “right to an open future” and enables children to gain the knowledge, skills and tools, to shape their own individual life plans. The goal of sex education is for students to learn about sex and sexuality to gain skills for healthy relationships and manage one’s own sexual health. However, the question of the matter resides in if schools owe it to children to teach sex education in a comprehensive manner.  

Not teaching children on comprehensive sex education to the extent that bill HB19-1032 does could cripple youth’s ability to exercise their current and future sexual rights. Having sexual rights is to have one’s control over their own body and sexuality without violence, coercion, and intimidation. Without education on the subject, students could be exposed to additional harm including assault, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies. This bill is unique in that it addresses many aspects of “traditional” sex education like the biological aspects of sex but it also dives deeper into the social aspects.

The need for sex education corresponds to our developmental stages, according to Sigmund Freud and other developmental psychologists. During adolescence (twelve to eighteen years old) a major task is the creation of a stable identity and becoming a productive adult. Dramatic changes occur that lead to increased opportunities to engage in risky behaviors like sexual promiscuity. Adolescents are novices in reflective cognitive thinking which is why education on risky behavior, like sex education, is important at this stage of development.

But a government-mandated sexual education program feels, to some parents, like a violation of their autonomy. Some parents want to be a part of the discussions revolving around these topics, in order to talk about family values and have open discussions. There is the fear that when the state regulates this curriculum, it takes away from the parent’s say in the matter. At the same time, without this regulation, teachers could have full freedom to teach as they please on the course matter. Without regulation, teachers would have the opportunity to teach their own code of sexual ethics.

Kids are under more influence than ever about what is deemed as “acceptable” sexual behavior in society, from mass media to their friends, family, and religious expectations. With these added pressures, it is more important than ever for legislation like bill HB19-1032 to define to what extent teachers, schools, and the government have responsibility in teachings students about sex education.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

When It Comes to the Environment, is Education Morally Obligatory?

Image of plastic bottles floating in the ocean

In April of this year, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research reported finding record amounts of plastic particles in the Arctic sea. Ice core samples were taken from five regions in the area. Up to 12,000 pieces of micro-plastic particles per liter of ice were found in the samples.  Scientists believe that much of the plastic, cigarettes butts, and other debris came from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of floating waste occupying 600,000 square miles between Hawaii and California.

Plastics in the sea pose substantial dangers for ecosystems and marine life. As evidence of this fact, earlier this year, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Spain. Scientists concluded that it was death by garbage—64 pounds of plastics and other waste were found in the young whale’s stomach.

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Is the Global Citizenship Movement the New “White Man’s Burden”?

Photograph of Palais des Nations building with flags in two columns in front of it

In an age of red-eye flights and the ability to communicate digitally across thousands of miles, the world has never felt so small and interconnected. Despite this, the governments of countries across the world remain relatively segregated in regards to policies concerning citizenship and human rights. These issues were discussed at large during the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which took place on March 6 in the Palais des Nations. During the session, many different methods for improving human rights worldwide were discussed, including the concept of Global Citizenship Education. The movement for global citizenship counters the concept of isolationism and advocates for a set of moral standards to apply a global society. Though global citizenship sounds relatively straightforward, the movement is often steeped in questions of justice and national self-determination.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Program for Global Citizenship Education aims to improve human rights worldwide “by empowering learners of all ages to understand that these are global, not local issues and to become active promoters of more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable societies.” But does the call for global citizens risk the erasure of national identity? Are the standards set for development always just? And does the initiative for global citizenship encourage a 21st century “white man’s burden” mentality?

The term global citizen refers to “someone who is aware of and understands the wider world – and their place in it.” Though the concept of global citizenship is not necessarily new, the organized global citizen movement began less than 10 years ago. The organization Global Citizen was founded in 2011 with the mission of empowering individuals and communities to make an impact worldwide on a variety of human rights issues. Though one of Global Citizen’s largest goals is to eradicate extreme poverty, the organization also works toward securing gender equity, environmental health, and civil rights.  

Global Citizen takes steps to empower people at the local level, but is there a danger in redefining certain issues as inherently global? There have been ardent critics of this concept of the sentiments of global citizenship, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump. In a speech delivered in October of 2016, May expressed her discontent with the attitude of global elites. She commented, “Today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass on the street.” It’s obvious that May feels that globalization has erased local and national connections. She continued with a more controversial statement, declaring that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Only a few months after May’s comments, Donald Trump expressed a similar sentiment. He proclaimed, “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship,” in a speech given during his presidential victory tour. Trump appealed to the isolationist values of his supporters, promising that “Never anyone [sic] again will any other interests come before the interest of the American people.” For these politicians, and their supporters, global citizenship means abandoning national identity.

Though May and Trump’s comments were blasted as ignorant, uncompassionate, and even sympathetic to fascist values, whether or not one can ethically reconcile nationalism and globalism remains largely unanswered. In an article titled “Global Citizens vs the People,” Jim Butcher of online political magazine Spiked explains how global citizenship does not only contradict conservative ideology, but liberal populist ideology as well. Butcher argues that global citizenship does not necessarily mean renouncing nationalist sentiments, but he notes that global citizenship runs the risk of “seeking respite from democracy” and can in fact be “a way of avoiding having to address the political views and arguments of your fellow citizens.”

But some proponents of global citizenship claim that such criticism fails to acknowledge the difference between soft and critical global citizenship. In her article “Soft versus critical global citizenship education,” Vanessa Andreotti acknowledges the potential harm in global citizenship education, but believes that it can be eradicated by emphasizing critical thinking. It is possible for global citizen education to encourage its proponents to “project their beliefs and myths as universal and reproduce power relations and violence similar to those in colonial times.” This need not be the inevitable result, however, if global citizenship education gives learners the tools to critically assess issues of inequality and injustice, which are skills soft global citizenship fails to provide.

For example, while soft global citizenship may frame the solutions to global issues as humanitarian, critical citizenship frames these solutions as a political and ethical. Teaching these critical distinctions keeps the global citizen aware of their own biases and safeguards the global citizen movement from a patronizing mindset. And organizations such as Global Citizen arguably embody critical global citizenship education, with its mission explaining that “everyone from citizens, governments, businesses, and charities have a role – because none of aid, trade nor charity can do this alone.”

But global citizenship is also inherently reliant on globalization. Though critical global citizenship encourages people to think critically about the negative effects of globalization, it assumes that globalization can be used as a positive force. Some might argue that globalization has in fact created a new world hierarchy, specifically in terms of the standards of development. Post-development theory holds that the global crusade for development has failed and that in some cases development operates as a modern form of imperialism that is “a reflection of Western-Northern hegemony over the rest of the world.”

Prominent post-development scholars, such as Wolfgang Sachs, have argued that because development standards often include assimilation to Western lifestyle, “it is not the failure of development which has to be feared but its success.” It is undeniable that development standards are often set and enforced by the Western world, with Western countries holding the majority of power in prominent global organizations working toward development, such as the United Nations and the World Bank. A paper funded by The National Bureau of Economic Research’s Economics of National Security program found that since the UN’s inception, there has been an unwavering power bias in the secretariat in favor of Western countries. Though the UN maintains its mission is to keep peace throughout the world, one could argue that such an imbalance in institutional power is obstructive to this mission and actually reflects the continuation of geographical and racial inequalities spurred by the history of Western imperialism.

However, many supporters of globalization argue that the concrete effects of globalism justify its problematic ideological implications. The United Nations was single-handedly responsible for the eradication of smallpox, with its initiative in the 1960’s and 70’s through the World Health Organization. The UN also touts a variety of achievements through partner organizations like UNICEF, which, between 1990 and 2015, reportedly saved the lives of over 90 million children. The World Bank, an organization working to end worldwide poverty that also grew out of globalization, is responsible for providing essential health services to over 600 million people and providing 72 million with better access to clean water. These achievements are undeniably significant, and would not be possible without a unified effort and collection of people advocating for positive globalization.

Though the struggle for human rights and global economic equality has improved, the problems made apparent by globalization are nowhere close to disappearing. A world of global citizens might just be the solution that marks the 21st century as the century that eradicates extreme poverty and radically improves justice and equality. However, the effects of increasing the global stake in these issues will not be easy to backtrack if such initiatives are unsuccessful or have unintended consequences. We should not underestimate the potential of the global citizen movement to encourage a “developed man’s burden” outlook if it fails to encourage critical and ethical examinations of its followers.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

The 21st-Century Valedictorian and the Battle for First Place

An image of high school graduates during a commencement ceremony.

According to 16-year-old Ryan Walters of North Carolina, abolishing the title of valedictorian in high schools only serves to “recogniz[e] mediocrity, not greatness.” Ryan was interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article about ridding schools of valedictorian titles, and he provides a voice of disapproval and disappointment. After working toward the glorious title of valedictorian for many years of his life, Ryan’s dream is over, as his high school has decided to do away with recognizing the top performer in each graduating class. This harsh critique by the Heritage High School junior may have some validity, but it can also be refuted.

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Pronouns and Provocateurs: Wilfrid Laurier University’s Free Speech Controversy

A photo of an academic building at Wilfrid Laurier University

At the beginning of November, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University,  made the fateful decision to show a video clip of a debate about pronouns to her tutorial for students in a large first-year writing class. The debate, which aired on Canadian public television a year ago, featured firebrand Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and a crusader against political correctness.

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Should Universities Abandon Placement Exams?

A photo of California State University's campus

At most universities in the United States, students are required to take placement exams to determine their developmental level in math and English.  Students are placed in classes that are appropriate for a student at that developmental level in each of those disciplines.  Students who are placed in non-college ready, remedial classes are required to take up to three such classes before they can enroll in courses that actually count toward their degree.  Last week, the Chancellor of the California State University educational system issued an executive order doing away with placement exams.  Instead, students can try their hands at classes at a higher difficulty level than the placement exam would have indicated was appropriate.  Many community colleges have already moved away from the use of placement exams, but the move to this approach in the large Cal State system is noteworthy.

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In San Diego, Fighting Islamophobia in the Elementary School

In order to combat the “pervasive and underreported” bullying of Muslim children in public schools, the San Diego public school district’s board has launched a campaign to fight Islamophobia. As one of the largest public school districts in the country, San Diego has set an important precedent for other districts. For this reason, the decision, voted 4-0 on April 4, has received both praise and backlash on social media.

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The Implicit Bias of Zero Tolerance Policies

The promise of free and compulsory public education in the United States is the basis for an equal and educated citizenry and the foundation of our democracy. According to most, equal access to education levels the playing field and is the ultimate provider of social mobility and economic opportunity; therefore, we have the duty to inspect what threatens this access.

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Betsy DeVos and the Changing Face of Public Education

Betsy DeVos’ controversial nomination to the Secretary of Education position has left many folks on both sides of the aisle wondering where exactly the future of our schools lie. DeVos, a staunch believer in school choice, is hoping to fix the public school system in the United States by forcing schools to compete with each other. Critics were appalled when DeVos “called traditional public schools a ‘dead end,’” leading them to launch a hashtag on social media, #publicschoolproud, to show that public schools are still making an impact on the lives of them and their children.

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Move Over, Mercator: World Maps in Boston’s Public Schools

Schools in Boston recently decided to make the switch from the Mercator projection of world maps to the Gall-Peters projection, becoming the first American school system to do so. While seemingly uninteresting, making the switch from the Mercator projection is a step toward inclusivity and one that other schools should consider making.

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Questions of Access as Harvard Law Accepts the GRE

Since 1947, the LSAT has been a dark cloud hanging over pre-law students. A student’s LSAT score and GPA have been the main considerations in the law school admissions process for almost 70 years. Law schools have become more and more focused on the mean of their LSAT acceptance scores because it determines their national ranking. Thus, students with low LSAT scores but other qualities may not be admitted to prestigious programs.

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Should Private Schools be Outlawed?

Equal opportunity weighs heavily in American views of education. Not everyone can grow up to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but who gets to be CEO should be determined principally by merit, and not according to skin color, place of birth, or family wealth. Both conservatives and liberals describe education as a driver of equal opportunity. While some may be born into poverty and others born into wealth, a well-rounded education can be the leg up that the poor child needs to compete with the rich kids. The moral case for public education rests on its ability to give everyone a shot to rise to the top.

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