Equal education can lead to equal opportunities

William Egginton’s book “The Splintering of the American Mind” explores ideas about how humanities can change the face of the American education system.

William Egginton stands at the front of the Lindsay Young Auditorium on Jan. 27, 2020 for the Distinguished Lecture Series in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo/ Ashley Depew

The 2020 Super Bowl’s halftime show has generated a lot of attention, and people have mixed views on the Latin-infused performance. In addition, for the first time in Super Bowl history two Latina women were the headliners for the show.

In 2019, the NFL released a diversity and inclusion statement that promoted honoring the differences of all Americans while embracing shared roots.

Shakira is Columbian and Jennifer Lopez’s parents are both from Puerto Rico. Toward the end of the performance Lopez paraded onto the stage with a reversible, body-sized shawl. One side was the American flag and the other side was the Puerto Rican flag.

Both sides were a part of the same whole, even though they were different. That’s the message. Diverse groups reflect the voice of a country’s people, but how has extensive diversity affected the voice of America?

The Problem

Decker professor of Humanities at John Hopkins University and Director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute William Egginton wrote a book applauding the progress America has made in bringing equality to diverse groups. However, he proposes that there is a problem of improper communication across the gap between these groups.

College is thought to be a place where students of different views can feel comfortable with discussing pressing issues. Egginton echos this point.

“Shouldn’t academia be a place where—if anywhere—there is a presumption in unfettered-ness and the pursuit of truth?” Egginton said.

As mentioned in his book “The Splintering of the American Mind,” 65% of polled university students were not completely sure it was safe to hold an unpopular opinion on campus. To his surprise, Egginton found that more than 80% of faculty felt the same way.

Following up these statistics, he wrote that the American collegiate education system is not functioning like it is intended to. As he put it, it’s not “broaden[ing] our intellectual horizons.”

The proposed solution in his book is to re-establish the humanities at the forefront of a higher education.

“The basis of a liberal arts education is that different people should sit around the same table and honestly discuss topics,” Egginton said.

He proposes in the book that there is inequality in education, which means inequality to access of good liberal arts programs. He also writes that private universities that offer a firm liberal arts foundation are too expensive for most families to send their children to. This is not only true for universities. He applies it to K-12 education as well.

Defunding of public education has created the exclusive liberal arts education, rather than the inclusive liberal arts advancement.

The Root of the Problem

Egginton cites the Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez from 1973. The court voted in favor of not establishing education as a guaranteed equal right for everyone. This meant that unequal funding to schools was constitutional.

The higher income neighborhoods have more tax dollars for their schools, while lower income neighborhoods have less. These tax bases are driving unequal public education the most because they are contributing to the range of low economic development in some areas compared to high economic development in others.

“There are also increasing degrees of inequality within the college-educated populace at large, including vast numbers of students who have borrowed excessively to join that world, only to drop out with no degree and encumbered by debt,” Egginton said.

Lower income households settle in affordable neighborhoods. Their schools are not as polished as the higher income neighborhoods’ schools are. Families with extra money might send their children to better schools, feeding back into the system of unequal opportunities for education.

This coincides with the economic statistic that only about 50% of children born in the 1980s earned more than their parents. Which is a steep decline from the 90% of children born in the 1940s who earned more than their parents.

“You have to have a society that’s willing to spend money on education because it sees it as a priority,” Egginton said. “It sees it as the way the economy as a whole marches toward the future and that your society as a whole becomes a better place.”

He believes education is the key to a properly working democracy. The American democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people.

Our Part

Amy Elias is a professor of English and the director of the Humanities Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. For the last two years, the humanities department has hosted discussions titled “Humanities Matters.” “The Splintering of the American Mind” was one of the books attendees discussed last fall. They also host the “Distinguished Lecture Series,” which Egginton was a part of last week.

These discussions and lectures explore the role of humanities in education and to the country. Speakers have presented ideas about the value of liberal arts education and seeing the university as a force for change. Students and faculty are encouraged to participate in these discussions.

“The university is not a place that you come to. You are the university. You make it into what you want it to be. Right? It is for you. It is by you,” Elias said. “You make it. The university is not a place. It’s a people. And the students are the people. If you make your voices heard, and you tell us what kind of education you want and need and what kind of world you want to build, we’re here to engage with that.”

Elias and Egginton similarly envision a society where the diverse populace can effectively communicate their differences with eyes on a better future. Using a combination of the 2020 Super Bowl’s viewer base and their own individual fan bases, Shakira and Lopez teamed together to support different cultures while bringing light to the pressing issues of today’s society.

Edited by Donna Mitchell and Ciera Noe

Featured photo by Ashley Depew