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Blog July 12, 2023

Affirmative Action and Freedom of Expression

What does affirmative action have to do with freedom of expression? More than one might expect. Diversity is the silent partner of teaching young people to articulate thought. Without being exposed to difference, learners will have great difficulty knowing what they believe – and what they do not believe.

When we speak about freedom of expression, we can make the mistake of supporting an idea without content. But of course, there is no expression without content. Expression is always about something. But how does anyone choose what it is they want to express? By exposure to the ideas, thoughts, and expression of others.

Imagine a class of elementary school children. They are learning about the world around them. They are hearing what their fellow students think and believe, but they are required to pay special attention to their teacher. Imagine a class where the students come from a very similar demographic, but their teacher is a person whose experience of life is very different from their own. Their teacher can, and most likely will, open the students’ eyes to worlds beyond their imaginations. They might like what they learn, or they may not. They might want to agree with their teacher, or they may want to dispute what the teacher says. But once exposed, those students’ curiosity and imagination knows no bounds. As they grow, they become the artists, writers, musicians, law makers, leaders, helpers, and citizens of their community.

Where do the teachers come from? Universities. Those places where teachers are educated tend to be a bastion of well-meaning white women whose life experience can be quite small. Because this situation has existed for such a long time, the teacher-candidates themselves can often see this situation, not as one of privilege, but simply as the norm. Naturally our teachers are largely able-bodied white middle class cisgendered women—one of the greatest predictors of someone becoming a teacher is their having a first degree relative who is already a teacher. It is almost a hereditary characteristic!

Now imagine teacher education programs, in all countries, where those in positions of power seek to bring into their institutions those who have typically been on the outside. Where are the Black teachers? Because there has not been any collection of race-based data, we can’t say. However, ETFO admits that students of colour are not seeing themselves represented in their teachers. It is well-known that when you don’t see someone who looks like you in the job that interests you, you are less likely to work toward getting that job.

I was once in an Ontario city, which I will not name, during February, Black-history month. I asked the history teacher at a high school what their school did to celebrate and to teach about Black history. The answer? Nothing. We don’t have any Black people in our school, she told me. While this may or may not have been the case, all the students were missing a crucial opportunity to hear a voice that was different from their own.

In the same city, when the news was beginning to be reported about the terrible treatment of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools, I asked a class of high school students what they knew about the residential school system. They looked at me blankly. One of the students thought she had heard something about the topic. But here is the part I found most troubling. Twenty-five percent of the student body in that school was Indigenous. The teachers? As far as I was told at the time, none. Were the Indigenous students in the class afraid to speak on the topic? I can’t say for sure, but I can say that I had a strong feeling that if there had been Indigenous representation among the teachers and the administration, the expression in that class would have been different.

The problem with the chilling-effect, and I do believe that this is what schools experience, either knowingly or unknowingly, is that we will never know what we did not read, hear, or see. The students who never had a chance to learn a point of view (and yes, every teacher has a point of view) that differs from their own or that represents people from whom they have not heard, cannot muster informed arguments, cannot wonder what life is like elsewhere, cannot hear a new song.

When institutions of higher learning open their doors to the kinds of people who have not been previously admitted, they are not admitting unqualified candidates. They are preferentially seeking people whose trajectories have turned them away because they haven’t felt welcome.

The recent US Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative action at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina effectively struck down such programs across that county. Students from disadvantaged origins will be permitted to relate their personal stories of hardship and discrimination in the application essays they submit, but there are lots of such stories (Remember the early TV reality show “Queen for a Day?” The winner was the woman who cried the most and whose sob-story was most compelling. She sometimes won a washing machine. Is this what the US universities want from their applicants? Perhaps only if they are not legacy admissions whose family wealth and whiteness have already guaranteed them a place.)

While the actual data on diversity in Canadian universities and faculties of education are still hard to get, my hope is that learning about the retrograde decision in the US will spur our universities to get to work to find the candidates our classrooms need so badly. And here is the good news: We understand equality rights. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in section 15, subsection 2 not only provides for affirmative action, it also protects it. Unlike some of our friends to the south we do not think that the status quo in 1789 represented fairness nor do we believe that we cannot work to make things better for everyone. Our freedoms are interdependent. When we unfairly restrict one, we harm them all.