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Indiana, Duke, Yik Yak, and the purpose of education

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at www.21stcenturyscholar.org

The news has been full of lamentable examples of bigotry and discrimination.

The governor of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that permits businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion—a restaurant, for instance, could refuse service to a gay couple. The politician posed the law as a moral argument; and yet, any logical person recognizes how wrong the legislation is. Either he didn’t think or care about the signals such a decision sends to a gay teenager who lives in a small town in Indiana and struggles with identity issues.

At Duke University—just before the men’s basketball team won its fifth national championship—a student hung a noose from a tree. A few weeks earlier, a group of white men shouted racist chants at a black woman as she walked on campus. The examples illustrate that universities are not safe or inclusive places for many students. Would you feel safe as a black woman walking home from class at Duke? 

Sadly, the bigoted and discriminatory acts are occurring on campuses across the country. Yik Yak, a social media platform, permits users within a particular geographic range to post anonymous “Yaks.” Think about a bathroom stall or dormitory bulletin board where anyone can write anything, even the most racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Only Yik Yak knows the identities of users. Universities have requested the names and emails of offenders; the social media company—citing a privacy policy that guarantees complete anonymity, except for cases that involve the law—has not complied.

The inappropriate uses reveal where we are as a society. Some critics argue platforms like Yik Yak should not be permitted on campuses. I’m not sure censorship addresses the real issue. Bigotry and discrimination, however masked, are insidious. Sure, cyber bullying exists, but what happens in dorms and on campuses everyday. Have you heard the language of some students as they walk to class? Even if the social media platform didn't exist, people would still find venues and ways to express hate speech and commit violent acts, whether physical or symbolic. Duke illustrates that.

What’s the purpose of education? In No Citizen Left Behind, discussing the importance of civic education, Meira Levinson writes, “Part of the beauty of democracy, when it functions effectively and inclusively, is its ability to create aggregate wisdom and good judgment from individual citizens’ necessarily limited knowledge, skills, and viewpoints. To exclude citizens from this process is to diminish the wisdom that the collectivity may create” (p. 49). Examples like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak illustrate uncritical and intolerant responses to deeply rooted and complex issues. They are indictments of our current educational system and one-dimensional approaches to reform.

Standards, assessments, and school choice are important issues. We need to improve graduation rates and prepare students for college and career. But, we also have an obligation to nurture young men and women to be caring, healthy, and empowered citizens. That point is too often absent from public discourse. If we are serious about allaying intricate and enduring issues like intolerance and discrimination, policymakers have to widen the scope of educational reforms. Inclusivity is a precondition—not an accidental byproduct—of successful teaching and learning. Otherwise, instances like Indiana, Duke, and Yik Yak will continue.