In a world rife with social struggles between races, genders, classes and countries over material and symbolic resources, Ruha Benjamin sees schools as laboratories of democratic participation, where society incubates a better world in the hearts and minds of its students.
Benjamin, a Princeton professor who specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, biotechnology, race ethnicity and gender, and health and bio politics, inspired a packed crowd with her keynote address at ISTE 2016 on Tuesday.
“Teachers, if actually unified and empowered, can change the direction of history,” she said.
It was a sentiment that brought down the house.
Benjamin’s first step to creating a society where people care and sacrifice for one another is to examine whose version of the good life is setting the standards — and whose voices are being ignored. Real power, she contended, lies with who gets to dream today, including the lower income and minority students in our classrooms.
Finding the right focus, to riff off technology terms, boils down to gaming vs. hacking. Gaming, in Benjamin’s study, involves recreation, competition and consumption — all perfectly fine values with their place, but not if they become the defining feature of the good life. The problem is, it depends on our own needs and wants, she pointed out, and overlooks the fact that good living actually requires more of us: courage sacrifice and purpose.
Hacking, on the other hand, is a mastery, a collaboration, an in-depth understanding of how something works, so you can make it better. Your goal is to subvert the system to make it do something it was never designed to do.
The latter, of course, is educators’ end game. “When we begin to rewrite codes rather than code switch, we can set out to embed new values and new social relations into the world,” she said.
So if the mission is not merely to empower our students to succeed in the world as it is, but rather design alternatives to the current system, educators need to embrace a rigorous imagination or they’re only creating a shiny new version of the same old thing, she said. Here are four ways to embrace real change:
Start early. Elementary schools are in a better position to teach equality than personnel departments and training coaches.
Be conscious of slant. Headlines like “5 Ways Women in Tech Combat the Odds” focus on becoming less susceptible to discrimination rather than expecting people not to discriminate.
Push past fixed notions of progress. As Benjamin phrased it, prepare students not just for a job but a purpose.
Include everyone. One bright bulb does not enlightenment make, Benjamin assured. Placeholders aren’t inclusion. Make sure the weaker contributors still have a chance to participate and master their potential, too.
Most of all, always be aware that technology also can increase social divides, so don’t leave students to their own devices. “Love is, in fact, the most powerful technology at our disposal, with its ability to reshape human relations as we know it,” she said.
Watch highlights from Benjamin's powerful keynote: