The walls of school discrimination

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Twenty-two years ago, on November 9th 1989, the Berlin Wall fell down. This episode was a symbolic mark of the end of the Cold War, which divided the world into two antagonic blocs in search for hegemony. On the 20-year-birthday of this historic event, the first edition of the annual conference “Falling Walls” took place in Berlin, a joint effort of several German institutions with the aim of presenting to the general public how science has contributed to confront contemporary global challenges. They realized that the falling of the wall, more than an isolated episode in time and space, also offers a good metaphor to inspire the struggle against less visible walls that still drives our society apart – the socio-economic, cultural, natural (not to mention the many brick-and-mortar walls that still endure). 

After following the third edition of the conference, I couldn’t help but borrow the metaphor: which walls do still need to fall in the Brazilian educational system? Many observers have recently focused their criticism on what we could call “the wall of low performance”, which would undermine Brazilian international competitiveness and the sustainability of its economic growth. Schools would be failing, in other words, in the way they prepare our students for the market, not providing the necessary technical skills to any economic player. These circumstances would compromise our ambitions to become a relevant global power. 

There is an old and thicker wall, however, that continues to corrupt us in a deeper way. I’m refering to “the wall of school discrimination”, the one that segregates and excludes students due to their respective social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical or intelectual habilities and so on. Discrimination pervades the whole range of human diversity and oppresses those groups that occupy the lower ranks in these various socially constructed hierarchies. Turning a blind eye to this wall diminishes us and fails to prepare our students for democracy. Schools, in such case, would be refraining from developing the necessary moral competences that undergird a political regime based on the premise that every individual has equal dignity and deserves to be treated as such.

The relationship between these two general goals of education - the economic and the political - will never be stable and quiet. After all, they often point out to different directions (clashing priorities in the curriculum, teaching strategies, assessment criteria, etc) and must be accommodated through balanced solutions. There is not, without doubt, a single formula that works in any time and place. This tension, however, needs to be constantly monitored so none of these dimensions are forgotten or suppressed.

The ideal of inclusive education partakes this political project. It sees the different not as a threat, but as an opportunity to the moral improvement of everyone that participates in this process. It intends to bring to the same learning environment students that, because of their particular disability, challenge those pedagogical principles that assume homogeneity among students. It radicalizes the diversity in the classroom. It is not about an inconsequent bet, nor of a naive and uninformed choice. To the contrary, it is the product of a long period of research and concrete experimentation which have demonstrated the virtues of this practice. Moreover, it is now demanded by legal provisions of every kind: from international treaties to national laws, from federal laws to state and local laws, from decrees to ordinances.

As in any large-scale social change, those involved are removed from their comfort zone - students (disabled or not), parents, teachers, schools and governmental institutions. Resistance and new types of conflicts surely arise in the course of this process. Significant social changes are always accompanied by risks and hardly predictable consequences. Researching, disseminating and submitting to public debate concrete cases of inclusive education is a prudent strategy of the Diversa Project to guide this process of change. It does not ignore nor underestimate the difficulties of this path, but it helps to diagnose and face them in a self-conscious way.

The promotion of equality in diversity and of the culture of respect for difference is the great political contribution that the inclusive school can give to democracy. It is from this perspective that schools must reinvent themselves. The challenge is no less ambitious than this.

Conrado Hübner Mendes has a PhD in Law by the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and PhD in Political Sciences by USP (University of São Paulo). He was Hauser Research Scholar at New York University, fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study of Edinburgh and Yggdrasil Fellow at the Christian Michelsen Institute, Norway.

©Rodrigo Mendes Institute. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.5. The copying, distribution and transmission of this work are free, under the following conditions: You must credit the work as authored by Conrado Hübner Mendes and licensed by Rodrigo Mendes Institute; the use for commercial purposes is forbidden; the change, transformation or building upon this work is forbidden, except with express permission of the licensor.

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