In times of racial injustice, university education should not be ‘neutral’

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Over the past year, public events have drawn attention to the lingering reality of systemic racism and colonialism in North America.

Canadian universities are paying increased attention to issues of indigenization, anti-racism, equity and inclusion. Many initiatives focus on advocacy and policies and procedures. These efforts are necessary.

At the same time, universities can do more. We can begin to see education as an opportunity and an obligation to empower graduate students to contribute to a fair world.

There is a central assumption that university education can answer questions of equity: that all education is meaningful and depends on how students imagine themselves in the world. Some university teachers might argue that universities cannot and should not indicate a preference or inclination for certain political values ​​or positions. However, we see education as part of a much larger framework.

Universities can play an important role in helping students develop their capacities to contribute meaningfully to a more equitable and just world.
(Shutterstock)

In teaching a course, instructors make a range of judgments: what course material to teach, whether or not to link course material to social practices, and how to position students in relation to the world around them.

Through these decisions, faculty members communicate to students what material is worth learning, its relationship to public concerns, and the student’s connection to the world beyond themselves. Faculty members do not choose to accept these concerns. All teaching provides information on what students consider important and how they understand themselves as part of the social fabric, with various obligations and commitments.

Four additional assumptions are essential to this understanding of higher education. First, we are always ethically involved.

Our choices matter. In the context of systemic racism and colonialism and other forms of inequity, our choices can in some cases reinforce the status quo, in other cases resist the status quo – and sometimes do both. Second, as recent events have pointed out, there are inequalities and injustices. We live in a world and a country where systemic discrimination is both widespread and deeply rooted.

Third, power matters. Access to resources and decision-making influence how communities benefit or suffer harm. Finally, particularly in North America, there is an ambitious societal commitment to the public good and justice. Many commentators, social movements and political leaders stress the urgent importance of fairness and the reduction of systemic discrimination now. Together, these calls articulate broad aspirations for the realization of societal commitments to the public good and justice.

Universities provide an environment in which to work together to imagine and engage in the world we want to live in. Students and instructors do not just cover “course content” or the central conceptual foundations of various disciplines. University education offers possibilities for how graduates orient themselves to the world around them, how we might live as “associated individuals”.

For example, engineering students can learn to apply their engineering knowledge to improve roads in particular communities. Students in health disciplines can learn to use their education to ensure equal access to care. Individuals studying law may have the opportunity to learn how to use their degree to contribute to a criminal justice system that does not protect one community while harming another. Conversely, students in any of these scenarios could be educated to lead them to very different choices.

A group of people working together at a desk.
Universities provide a space to work together and imagine the world we want to live in.
(Shutterstock)

In a world where injustice and inequity are rife, universities can play a much more proactive role in addressing systemic forms of discrimination and contributing to a world in which all students want to live.

Some educators cling to the idea that the classroom should be “neutral”, or totally detached from public life, and strongly deny the proposition that university education shapes the way students think and act.

We reject this idea. Not only is it impossible to avoid the ways in which education shapes students’ understanding of public life, it is also a significant missed opportunity.

Universities are places to work in a different world, to confront the questions of what it means to live well together. Knowledge acts in the world and affects the way people live.

We support work at universities in North America that address discriminatory policies and procedures. Along with these efforts, we are asking more of universities, of ourselves and of our colleagues. Canadian universities are public institutions. To better serve the public, faculty and administration will do well to identify and integrate the skills students will need to contribute to justice and equity in public life.

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