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Photo by Emily Shahrzad Rahravan, Indonesia Semester.

Teaching Diversity

“Successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them. To resist our tendencies to make right or true, that which is nearly familiar, and wrong or false, that which is only strange.”

― Robert Kegan

Our job as educators is not to teach students what to think but how to think. To scaffold knowledge by building awareness, deepening understanding, and opening doors for engagement. To introduce and account for missing perspectives. To re-calibrate the natural tendency to accentuate difference and instead create safe spaces for students to engage with difference in responsible ways.

But the truth is this: it goes against our human nature. We are self-centered and self-absorbed people. We like people who are like us. We don’t like to feel uncomfortable. And this isn’t limited to Americans or westerners. It’s everyone. Humans. We crave acceptance, a desire which often manifests itself in demarcations – “us vs. them” mentalities where we align ourselves with people who look, think, and act like us. As such, it is imperative that educators begin, at as young an age as possible, to conscientiously introduce our students to difference in order to make it feel like a natural and essential part of their education, and to teach them how to think in a way that allows them to learn about different people, cultures, languages, and religions, without feeling like everything is something they have to accept. By allowing students to form their own sentiments (within a constructive and contained atmosphere), they retain agency in their educational process and feel empowered to have personal convictions.

My personal approach to diversity and difference is to try, so much as possible, to strip students of their selfishness and their desire to be surrounded at all times by various clones of themselves. If students can’t stretch themselves within uncomfortable conversations or debate a side of an argument that they have no personal affinity with within the four walls of my classroom, then I can’t expect them to leave me as responsible global citizens. Again, it’s about changing the thinking process. It’s one of the most powerful things we can do as humans – to form original ideas, and to evolve and elevate our thinking as time and circumstance change. But if I am not willing to create that space, or to have those conversations, then the kids leave my class the same. I can’t rely on someone or something else to teach them this mental aptitude – because it’s not natural, it won’t happen on its own, and it’s a skill that gets harder to cultivate the older we get.

I have to be honest and say that this is a responsibility that I personally feel very burdened with as an educator. I realize as I type this that my argument is in many ways philosophical and abstract – “have better conversations”, “create safe spaces for difference to be introduced and celebrated” … in many ways, easier said than done. And I would argue, better omitted if done improperly. It’s a delicate and temperamental balance. Am I doing it right? Am I doing it enough? Am I doing it thoughtfully and intentionally? I am constantly in fear of failing my students in this regard. BUT – for those of us willing to take up this cause, to commit ourselves to classrooms of introduction and inquiry, and to ultimately mold young people into well-informed, well-read, sophisticated, and refined young adults, I believe the reward could not be greater.

I often tell my students “6 + 3 = 9, but so does 5 + 4”. I firmly believe that the more constantly and consistently students are confronted with things that at first might seem unfamiliar, the more they start to see themselves in the unfamiliarity. Because it’s the human experience. We have more that unites us than divides us. And those are the things I want to see on this journey – to recognize pieces of myself in the people and places we will encounter.