Equality Discourse in Education
“Once upon a time there was a language that was only spoken by a few.
The privileged were fluent but the rest hoped to pursue.
Ironically it was called the language of equality,
but the language never reached the true
tongues and students it hoped to reach
because the people who learnt didn’t plan to teach.” - Aranya Johar
In her Ted talk How language reveals our thoughts on equality, LSE professor of Political Theory Anne Phillips explores the history and development of equality discourse. She argues that regarding equality as conditional is inherently problematic. She mentions three ways in which discourse can portray equality as conditional and shows how each of these practices results in highly exclusionary consequences. But why is this relevant in the world of education?
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education”: education is identified as one of the rights we have in virtue of being human. But interestingly, in Article 1 of the same document, the authors feel the need to justify the equality they attribute to all humans:
“Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
By underlining what they identify as a common denominator characterizing all human beings (reason), the authors unintentionally create grounds for exclusionary practices. They implicitly communicate that if and only if x is endowed with reason, then they are entitled to human rights (including education). It follows that if x is not endowed with reason, then they are not entitled to human rights. This is problematic in two ways. Firstly, the definition of “reason” is vague and does not preclude the possibility that an individual be human and not endowed with reason. The mere possibility that this could happen undermines the framework entirely. Secondly, and equally dangerously, the meaning of “reason” is highly influenced by social practices. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term “reason” is defined as “the ability of a healthy mind to think and make judgements, especially on practical facts”. But it has not been employed univocally throughout history. During the Enlightenment, it was understood as a common denominator among white men only, even by those authors who advocated for equality and recognized potential in individuals regardless of class. Women, on the other hand, were associated with passion, and excluded from mainstream Enlightenment discourse for this reason. An insightful quote by Rousseau from his book Emile: Or on Education exemplifies this point:
“Thus the whole education of women ought to relate to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to make herself loved and honored by them, to raise them when young, to care for them when grown, to counsel them, to console them, to make their lives agreeable and sweet—these are the duties of woman at all times and they ought to be taught from childhood.”
This exemplifies Phillips’s first representation of why conceptualizing equality as conditional is problematic. Some may argue that today this is no longer a relevant issue: however, access to education is still profoundly unequal, and grounding equality in anything other than humanity allows for this injustice to be logically justified (while it should not be) by those interested in perpetuating it. Aranya Johar’s performance on the language of equality and its ironically exclusionary power captures the reason why education discourse is very relevant today.
Phillips’s second point about equality discourse is that often we expect individuals to earn human rights, particularly in situations where they are seen as “other”. This adds another relevant layer for analysis: citizenship and immigration status. This is also important in the world of education, because rights are governed and upheld by states. In order to function, these require some understanding of membership to determine the domain of the equality or justice they ensure. By establishing who is included, states also implicitly determine that everyone else is excluded, and this bureaucratic and political threshold is not always straightforward to cross, depending on the circumstances of people who wish to cross it. The result is that even in states like Finland which are explicitly committed to equity and integration of immigrants, first- and second-generation immigrant students perform achieve significantly lower results in schools than their native peers. Despite this clear institutional failure, discourse on education is often dominated by meritocratic language, implying that it is the responsibility of individual students to study and learn. As a result, even with regards to the right to education, it is essential not to speak of rights as something to be earned in virtue of “virtue” or merit.
Lastly, Phillips underlines the dangers of claiming to be “blind” to differences. Why should we need to be blind to given characteristics in order to treat people equally? This is extremely relevant in education, where the recognition of differences can empower students to be aware of the oppressive power structures that encompass them and provide them with tools to dismantle these.
As a result, the way we conceptualise equality in everyday discourse is extremely important for education. And we should in every way avoid creating further divisions by making equality conditional. In Johar’s words,
"It's time for this language of equality to no longer get lost in translation.
It's time for this language of equality to become mainstream communication.
It's time for this language of equality to set base
as the alphabet for the language of education." - Aranya Johar
OECD (2019). Country Note: Finland. Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) Results from 2018. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_FIN.pdf
Cambridge Dictionary (2020). Reason.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1979). Emile: Or on Education. Basic Books.
TEDx Talks (26 May 2019). How our language reveals our thoughts on equality | Anne Phillips | TEDxCourtauldInstitute [Video]. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yq2WycjTNg&feature=emb_title
UnErase Poetry (6 Mar 2019). "The Language of Equality" - Aranya Johar ft Siddhant (Women's Day Special) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7jpxFl7TG-w&feature=youtu.be
United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. https://www.ohchr.org/en/udhr/documents/udhr_translations/eng.pdf