Is Education the Great Equalizer?
Week 3 in Lima
“Education is the great equalizer.”
But is it really though? Is education, in all instances, a totally equalizing force? Can education truly close the gap between the wealthy and the poor, between all races and ethnicities, between all dialects and languages, between genders? And if education does have that potential, why hasn’t it happened yet? If I’m being honest, “Education is the great equalizer” sounds like one of those bogus sayings made up by the elite, wealthy people to give a false sense of hope to the marginalized poor — if you just work hard enough and get an education, you too can “climb the social ladder” and be just as economically successful as me!
From what I have seen here in Peru (and now even thinking retrospectively about all of the schools I have observed in the United States!) there is so much inequality in the quality of education that the very wealthy and very poor students receive and the resources that they have access to. In this system of education, while the wealthy are propelled towards even more success as a result of their high-quality education, the students that are already disenfranchised are continually being held back. So, is education in this very unequal system still equalizing?
What is it about our current education system that seems to be maintaining the social order and class differences instead of “equalizing”?
Education is not equalizing when not all students have access to inspired, well-trained, empathetic teachers that encourage flourishing.
Education is not equalizing when not all students have the assistance that they need in order to achieve their highest potential — students with mental, physical, emotional, or social exceptionalities.
Education is not equalizing when not all students have access to a safe space where they can eagerly ask questions and discuss their learning, or when there is not a productive environment for them to complete their schoolwork.
Education is not equalizing when not all students have the basic school necessities, such as paper and pencil, let alone a library with rich resources, a computer lab updated with efficient technology that allows all students to explore their passions, and textbooks to take to and from school every day to aid in their studying.
Education is not equalizing when not all students are given the opportunity to flourish in elective classes and extracurricular activities that may lead to discovering a deeper meaning in their lives.
While there are so many aspects of our educational system that are designed to hold students back, as Geoffrey Borman writes in “Compensatory Education: United States, Policies and Programs in Latin America”, it is not necessarily about the amount of physical materials, beyond the necessities, available to any given student that is the root cause of a unequal education. There are so many other variables that play a role in how effective education will be for a student. I believe that the biggest hurdle to an equalizing education is the lack of access to knowledgeable teachers that are able to accommodate every type of student learner that steps into their classroom.
Many well-intentioned people misunderstand what schools truly need, and in a heartfelt effort to improve education for the marginalized, they eagerly donate physical resources without understanding the true needs of the school. For example, if someone were to donate laptops to every student in a school that was struggling in an attempt to equalize the quality of education, it is very likely that the maximal good would not be done; the physical gifts are thoughtful but not necessarily sustainable…
What if the students cannot use their laptops because they do not have internet at home?
What happens when a laptop needs to be repaired but there is no money in the budget?
What if there are no well-trained teachers that want to work at that school?
At that point, without good instruction, the laptops are useless. Just because you seemingly gave the students the physical resources that you thought they would need in order to flourish in school does not mean that all of the other supports will be in place. Instead of focusing on the material resources, there should be an emphasis on the mental resources — making sure all the teachers and administrators are well-trained and supported, providing help for students outside of school time.
This idea of involving the people you are trying to help in the conversations around their needs goes back to Jacob Kushner’s article about voluntourism; it is imperative to bring those you are trying to help into the conversation when you are trying to help them. The people living the struggles every day will know much better what can be done to support them than others trying to support them from a distance. Just this week we saw a very good example of what real, sustainable help from an outside source looks like.
La Lombriz Feliz is an ecological center in a neighborhood called the 1 de mayo in Lima. Their focus is on taking organic materials that the people would typically be throwing away and composting all of the waste instead. Instead of ending up in a landfill, the center recycles the “waste” material and turns it into soil that can be sold or can be used by the town’s citizens to start their own garden, therefore making the town more sustainable as well. These efforts began in the late 1900s when German Jesuit missionaries came into the neighborhood and realized that the up-and-coming town’s waste was not being taken care of by Peru’s government. All of the town’s waste was being kept in a pit that was in very close proximity to the peoples’ homes, and as a result, illness was running rampant. The cause was soon found to be the organic materials that were ending up in the pit. In response to this realization, the German missionaries began to work ALONG SIDE the citizens to figure out a way to make the area healthier. The missionaries involved the community in all of the decisions regarding what steps should be taken to make the community more sustainable and worked to educate as many people as possible about how to compost their organic waste.
As a team, the missionaries and the members of the community worked to create La Lombriz Feliz. The fact that the missionaries took the time to involve the community is what I believe has led the organization to be so successful even today. The German missionaries are long gone from the neighborhood, and yet this organization is still helping so many people become more environmentally aware. Physical materials weren’t necessarily what allowed La Lombriz Feliz to flourish, it was the long-term work that the missionaries in conjunction with the community put towards educating and changing the mindset of the town. The ecological center now has the power to continually educate their citizens about how to create a more healthy and sustainable life.
These practices can also be applied to a more traditional school setting. In order to begin equalizing education, it is absolutely necessary to first begin by educating the teachers. Strong teachers mean strong students. Strong students mean more successful adults. The cycle of poverty and unequal education cannot be broken by donating physical resources to schools in need; we must begin by first providing mental resources that can be passed down through generations and create real change.