We are smack dab in the middle of identity politics and culture wars. Every week brings new controversies. From intensely divided feelings about the Israel-Hamas war, to the former home secretary’s Trump-like posture that homelessness is a lifestyle choice, to Keir Starmer fielding questions about ‘woke’ teachers allegedly letting children self-identify as cats, hardly a day goes by without more identity storms raging through the media. So, what should educators do?
Critique, don’t cancel
Should they dismantle or retain statues and images of ignominious figures from colonial history? Oriel College, Oxford, for example, controversially refused to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes in 2021, after he had been exposed as the architect of apartheid. An alternative to retaining or removing, it, though, would be to reposition it.
Take Jonathan Jansen, the first ever Black dean at the University of Pretoria, South Africa’s most prestigious university. Following the end of apartheid, Jansen was immediately pressured to remove paintings of Boer trekkers that were hung in the education faculty building. However, he insisted, although many white perpetrators of apartheid had Boer ancestry, the paintings represented an important part of South African history and depicted how Boer immigrants had also endured struggles of their own, not least in resisting British colonial administration.
The point was not to erase history, Jansen insisted. It was to address it and add to it with new art that represented post-apartheid South Africa and the history of black, Indian and ‘coloured’ South Africans too.
Be pro and not just anti
Schools are adopting anti-racist practices that combat hate, prejudice, exclusion and inequality. Earlier attempts to approach anti-racism have used anti-bias training to surface hidden biases and get people to confront them. Not only were these programmes controversial, though. They were also ineffective. The civil service dropped them in 2020.
In an extensive review of anti-bias programmes, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev note that many workshops intended to reduce prejudice actually increased bias and led to a decline in outcomes such as recruitment and promotion of women and people of colour. Asking people “to suppress stereotypes tends to reinforce them,” Dobbin and Kalev argue.
But criticising anti-bias programmes shouldn’t give schools or governments an excuse to stop addressing racism altogether. A more effective alternative, they propose, is to get employees of diverse heritages to work together as equals on projects that serve their organisation.
An example is the many football clubs where members of their multiracial teams work with local schools. This aligns with the evidence on proven change strategies: they succeed when they are collaborative, are pursued over time and get people to engage in joint work together.
Essential for some is good for all
Identity matters for all of us. It isn’t just about ‘them’, the others. What is essential for some groups of children and young people often benefits all of them.
Technological adaptations of learning for pupils with learning disabilities also benefit other learners. Gender-neutral toilets can be designed so there are better toilets for everyone. Preventing bullying of pupils who are LGBTQ+ creates a safer environment all round. When immigrants and refugees are welcomed, this also establishes more welcoming cultures for other pupils who move schools – when their parents split up or move house, for example. Responding to different identities can contribute ideas and practices that benefit everyone.
It’s time to pull back from polarised opinions and bring identities together rather than engaging in bitter disputes that drive us apart. Education is least interesting when it’s about right answers. So let’s treat identities as providing teachable moments to explore, as offering changes that can benefit everyone and as being driven not just by what we must oppose but also by what we can build together.
Let’s not cancel, but question, critique and create. After all, isn’t that what education is for?
Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley’s The Age of Identity is published by SAGE this month