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A Complex Week: Lessons to be Learned

It has been an unsettling week as the world and, at a micro level, the St. Clement’s School community watched the United States election results unfold. As Principal of a girls’ school I lead a diverse community, and therefore respect that there may be diverse points of view on the election. However, this election has implications for our School.

Over the last year and a half, women and girls have witnessed a Presidential candidate, and now President-elect, who has, on a number of occasions, openly denigrated women, who clearly articulated racist and homophobic leanings and slurs, and who appeared to have no regard for the importance of bringing a country together and ensuring its respect by other nations around the world. It is evident to me that our mission of developing outstanding women who are intellectually curious, courageous and compassionate has never been more important.

As one parent wrote to me on the eve of the election, “I suspect, though, whatever happens tonight, the depth of ugliness that has now been exposed, and the discourse that has been made acceptable, is not going to fade quickly. I have no idea how any institution dedicated to preparing young women for this complex world treads around that, going forward.”

It is a good point and one about which I have since thought a lot. There is no doubt in my mind that that there has been inappropriate, ugly discourse and that goes against everything I and so many others believe in. There is an urgency for ALL of us to change the discourse but to do so in a way that, frankly, very few of us are used to doing.

As an educational institution, we must ensure we are committed to discourse that reflects social justice for each individual within the community and more broadly.

I am reading an excellent book and could not be more appreciative of the timing. Is Everyone Really Equal: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo has reminded me of important considerations while I’m trying to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical results of this election.

Firstly, the authors discuss the importance of Critical Theory reminding the reader, “To engage in a study of society from a critical perspective one must move beyond common sense-based opinions, and begin to grapple with all the layers that these various, complex, and sometimes divergent traditions offer.”

Secondly, readers are reminded of the importance of acknowledging that knowledge is socially constructed. As the authors note, “The key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective and universal.” They remind educators that our responsibility, in understanding the notion of socially constructed knowledge, is to ensure guidance of our students along at least three dimensions:

1. In critical analysis of knowledge claims that are presented as neutral, universal or ‘objective,’
2. In critical self-reflection about their own social perspective and subjectivity, and;
3. In developing the skills with which to see, analyze and challenge ideological domination

All of these dimensions afford an opportunity for us, who seek to understand, to acknowledge the power of positionality, which asserts that “knowledge is dependent upon a complex web of cultural values, beliefs, experiences and social positions.”

What is evident to me beyond the shock of the outcome of the election, beyond the complete inappropriateness of the behaviour of the now President-elect, is that in the case of this election, there is a need to understand and work through an evident deep divide within a country. Our learning must be less about a particular country and far more about how to ensure all voices and perspectives are heard and understood so that our discourse is open, is progressive, and nurtures intellectual curiosity, courage and compassion.

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