Magazine Feature

The Promise of Inclusive Education

Inclusive education builds critical thinking—the intellectual tools for reflection, continuous inquiry, constructive dialogue and the possibility of changing one’s perspective—and is an essential lever for democracy.
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Illustrations by Maggie Chiang

The ultimate value of an inclusive education for K-12 students centers on the interdependence of our many different identities, histories, cultures, languages and religions. Indeed, if we take a deep breath and reflect on the composition of our nation, an inescapable fact cuts through the cacophony of noise underscoring debates about diversity and inclusion: We cannot avoid the rapid demographic changes—among and within groups of people—that are redefining our identities.

Consider, for example, this benign analogy: the proliferation of different flavors of ice cream. In any supermarket frozen food aisle, one is immediately accosted by the plethora of choices in the ice cream section. Traditionalists among us might reject any and all newfangled flavors, steadfast in their view of the ice cream universe as only representing a fundamental choice between vanilla and chocolate. Nonetheless, such binary thinking regarding preferences will not change reality. The number of available flavors is indeed multiplying, as more choices beget a greater demand for our individual preferences to be recognized and fulfilled.

Diversity is a catalyst for change—a force that, when coupled with the power of consumption and our specific identities, further affirms our own interests while enhancing the choices available for us to express them. This self-perpetuating momentum highlights the extent to which inclusive education, rather than representing a mandate foisted upon students and parents, is an inevitable extension of the growing diversity of our society. This realization can serve as a starting point for constructive dialogue about inclusive education’s intrinsic value and promise in the 21st century.

In seizing this opportunity for dialogue, however, we can neither disregard nor sugarcoat the United States’ long record of genocide, slavery, disenfranchisement, discrimination and inequality. For those of us whose histories, languages, religions, identities and cultures have been systematically excluded, misrepresented or de-emphasized in school textbooks, there is a deep appreciation for inclusive curricula capable of acknowledging all cultures, histories and lived experiences.

We live in an imperfect—and often hurtful and dangerous—society. Try as some might, we can neither wish away nor totally ignore the persistence of poverty, sexism, ableism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, violence and police brutality. Expecting schools to shirk the responsibility of acknowledging and supporting students currently living in trauma and alienation is both unrealistic and cruel. Equally important, failing to affirm all students’ voices, stories and struggles undermines their rights to learn optimally and betrays the core mission of education in a democracy.

Inclusive Education Is Crucial to a Diverse Democracy

Ironically, the more that people democratically demand their different identities, choices and interests be included and affirmed in schools, the more others, who do not share those identities, choices and interests, feel threatened and potentially excluded. Fueled by political rather than pedagogical agendas, this cyclical phenomenon has generated widespread cognitive dissonance and conspiratorial accusations that previously excluded or marginalized identities are being prioritized via the diversification of K-12 curricula.

Lost among this sea of seemingly intractable disputes is a simple but profound fact: People do not change their minds about how they feel without first changing how they think, how they deliberate and how they process cognitive dissonance when confronted with opposing perspectives. The potential to unlock this sequential code is emblematic of the ultimate promise of inclusive education because its democratic value lies not in affirmation of specific identities over others but rather in the opportunity to learn from, and engage in, productive dialogues about our differences while in school.

Democracy cannot be sustained, let alone flourish, in the 21st century without open and robust spaces for rational discussion and analysis about our different experiences and viewpoints. This is an essential reason why inclusive education is crucial to our basic self-interests and our collective success. Our schools must furnish a diverse platform to teach all students how to intellectually navigate a world full of profound challenges and an assortment of competing ideas, perspectives, cultures, religions, languages and philosophies.

A truly inclusive education is additive as opposed to reductive. An inclusive curriculum harnesses the power of our differences to test what F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed was a first-rate intelligence in a complex and ever-changing world: the ability to hold two or more opposing viewpoints, perspectives or ideas in the mind simultaneously and remain fully functional.

Inclusive education, if developed comprehensively, strategically and comparatively, can therefore be one of the most important democratic levers in the 21st century.

Illustration of a person standing in front of a large open book.

Inclusive Education Fosters Critical Thinking

Inclusive education provides an adroit pedagogical vehicle for schools to maximize critical thinking opportunities for students. Critical thinking in the context of inclusive education can be defined and broken down in various ways, but for the sake of expediency, let’s consider the following elements:

  • The application and deconstruction of facts and procedures in the process of problem-solving.
  • The capacity to be objective and defer one’s own experience when listening to others and analyzing different perspectives or viewpoints.
  • The utilization of abstraction and conceptual reasoning as a means to promote a mutually inclusive understanding without the benefit of a shared reference point or common belief system.

These aspects of critical thinking, when consistently reinforced in practice, create opportunities for students to view the world in entirely different ways.

Fostering critical thinking through inclusive education also debunks narrow-minded claims that diversifying the curriculum represents some kind of unilateral imposition of one perspective or identity over others. Instead, pairing critical thinking with inclusive education develops intellectual tools that generate authentic reflection, constant inquiry, and the possibility of changing one’s mind or perspective while examining one’s own identity.

James Baldwin, reflecting on the relationship between inquiry, identity and education, said: “The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.”

What is thus central to the pedagogical relationship between critical thinking and inclusive education is that such an education teaches all students in an increasingly diverse environment the importance of asking questions of the universe and learning to live with those questions—without forfeiting one’s own identities or belief systems.

As Baldwin so eloquently reminds us, continuous inquiry and identity formation are not mutually exclusive outcomes, even when the relationship between the two processes generates cognitive dissonance among individuals and between groups of people. Moreover, linking Baldwin’s insights on education back to Fitzgerald’s insights on true intelligence, critical thinking allows students to transcend either/or solutions and to intellectually remain fully functional when they are confronted with two or more opposing viewpoints, perspectives or ideas at the same time.

The operative phrase to highlight here is remaining “fully functional.” We are living in an era of seemingly endless competition for self-affirmation and individual expression that does not easily lend itself to consensus-building across difference. Indeed, a cursory glance at Twitter provides an ugly reminder of the dangers of unbridled individual expression when critical thinking is noticeably absent, and when the primacy of people’s feelings and beliefs takes precedence over objective facts, accurate information and balanced perspectives.

Focusing on Labels Negates the Diverse Practices and Benefits of Inclusive Education

In the U.S., it is not uncommon for parents to react poorly to the perception that schools are pushing a particular agenda or mandate regarding what their children must learn or believe about others. This tendency is most often triggered when singular labels applied to complex phenomena capture the public’s eye and serve as lightning rods of contestation and controversy. Such is the case in Florida and elsewhere, as the pitched battles over critical race theory and LGBTQ+ rights so painfully illustrate.

Inclusive education is not solely defined by curricular debates or volatile reactions to changing student identities. The diverse field of inclusive education encompasses a wide variety of practices, bolstered by an array of community, nonprofit and corporate partnerships and programs (both in and outside schools) that are committed to supporting student success. Moreover, the inclusive missions of these organizations, partnerships and programs are not myopically focused on specific students’ identities, cultures or histories but instead are better understood as emblematic of place-based strategies designed to serve and support all students who reside within specific catchment areas.

One such place-based organization is Heights, which operates in the city of Philadelphia and offers a glimpse of the power and grace of inclusive education. The school district of Philadelphia is one of the largest public systems in America, serving a predominantly Black and Brown student population in an under-resourced city with one of worst child poverty rates in the nation. Heights was recently created by merging two nonprofit education organizations that had bravely concluded that working separately to support public school students in Philadelphia was not enough. They recognized their impact could be progressively scaled up and improved by combining forces.

Heights’ educational and equity mission is an ambitious one, centered on the long-term goal of making Philadelphia a national model for economic mobility for young people. In what amounts to year zero of the merger, Heights is already serving almost 4,000 students, with the potential to grow these numbers in the next 5 to 10 years. Heights’ educational programming spans K-5, middle school, high school and dual enrollment, creating college and career pathways in partnership with 23 public schools. The organization provides scholarships; student stipends; academic, college and career counseling; Out of School Time programs and summer academic support; corporate and industry-specific internships; and 17 college and university partnerships.

The fact that first-generation children of immigrants and Black, Indigenous and other students of color are the primary recipients of these supports is a source of pride and a central aspect of Heights’ mission. It is also a fact that the students the organization serves represent the demographics of the city’s public schools. In fact, while Heights is working to create pathways that recognize students’ individuality and self-worth, it is also committed to making the case that the organization’s support will result in positive change and economic opportunity that benefit all Philadelphians.

Organizations like Heights demonstrate that inclusive education extends far beyond the labels often used to typecast its purpose and limit a greater awareness and appreciation of its diverse impact. Heights is just one of countless local, regional and national programs and organizations that fall under the broad umbrella of inclusive education while annually serving thousands of students. Such organizations work tirelessly to nurture students’ humanity and talents via targeted improvements in both educational and workforce systems—simply because these programs are desperately needed for the betterment of all citizens.

The lesson here is a basic one: The fundamental mission of public schools is to educate all students to the best of their abilities, but educators and school administrators cannot fulfill this crucial mission without our support as public education faces many serious challenges. The good news is that inclusive education provides a pedagogical platform broad enough to address these challenges—if communities and parents across the nation resist falling prey to political agendas that repress the inexorability of diversity and weaponize misunderstanding and fear.

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