By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Embracing Diversity In Public Schools


As I walked into Rosman Middle School last week, I noticed a large poster on the wall with the following words: “We don’t all have to be the same, think the same, believe the same. But we do have to respect differences and protect ourselves and others from unfair treatment.” I cannot think of a better poster to have in a public school.

Educator John Dewey, considered the father of American education, asserted that one of our public schools main responsibilities is to educate students to participate in the democratic process. By exposing our children to views different from their own and teaching them to not only respect and protect the views of others, but to also consider these different views as valid alternatives to their own ideas, we are preparing them to live in a multicultural world and be citizens of a democracy. By doing this, we are also teaching our students to think critically.

Our society is becoming more diverse. According to the Center for Public Education, trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population. This is a good trend, not one to be feared, that helps sustain natural ecosystems, economies and communities.

Science has long informed us that the greater the diversity of an ecosystem, the healthier it is and the more likely that it will successfully rebound following a disaster like a flood or forest fire; economists say the healthiest communities have diverse businesses; and financial planners tell us to diversify our assets.

Now, researchers are telling us that diversity actually makes our communities more creative and more intelligent in solving problems, attracting new investment, and recovering from economic disasters.

In a recent Scientific American article entitled “How Diversity Makes us Smarter,” the author Katherine Phillips examines a growing body of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers that shows us that diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion, enhances creativity by “encouraging the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving.”

Recent research by Sheen Levine from the School of Management at the University of Texas and David Stark, a sociologist at Columbia University, shows that diversity improves the way people think. Their studies show that by “disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions.” Diversity benefits everyone, the majority as well as the minority.

We should be concerned then that the world of education is becoming increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomics. If you question this, use any Internet search engine to find and read about one of the most worrisome trends in our American culture: the racial and socio-economic re-segregation of our school children in the last 10 years.

Many of the ideals of democracy—including liberty, equality, individualism, and unity within diversity are supported and taught, not only by families, but also in our community schools. Public schools give our children a place to sit side by side with children different than themselves in a kindergarten class, learning to listen to each others’ show and tell stories. Public schools gives our children a common playground at recess to learn the give and take of compromise and conflict resolution. Public schools give our middle school students a chance to collaborate on a seventh grade robotics project with peers who have different skills and talents than their own. Public schools give our teenagers a classroom and a facilitator to help teenagers from various cultural backgrounds discuss the values and history of documents like Martin Luther’s King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

Public schools have posters on their walls that articulate the values we need to collaboratively and respectfully live by in a diverse world. Public schools secure our collective future in a Democracy that must embrace unity within diversity.

(Burrows is director of teacher education at Brevard College.)


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