DEI initiatives are killing education

Activists are stifling the freedom to think

2nd December 2022
Alexander Hughes

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is increasingly on the curriculum in international schools but this is to the detriment of education, writes Alexander Hughes.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (better known by its acronym DEI, sometimes with an added ‘J’ for justice) is increasingly important to international schools. It gives them an opportunity to address sensitive issues and burnish their multicultural credentials. Less often discussed is the shattering effect that this agenda can have upon the freedom of speech and thought once considered crucial to education itself.

International schools are responsible for the education of some 8 million students worldwide, these are primarily the children of a local elite who want their offspring to be immersed in the English language. They are prepared to pay expensive fees to give their children a chance of winning a place at a top university in the US, UK, Canada or Australia. But it is for this reason that the freedom of speech crisis in western universities and society at large should not be ignored by those involved in international education.

On university campuses, we see protesters shutting down speakers and threatening students and professors who do not conform to a worldview that is steeped in critical social justice ideology. Attempts to restrict speakers at the world’s third highest rated university, Cambridge, has left students and faculty fighting for freedom of speech. UK universities have applied trigger warnings to more than 1,000 texts and sensitivity readers are now routinely employed to censor literature and culture to ensure language is inclusive.

Much of this censorship is called for in the name of ideas that have relatively obscure academic origins. Concepts like critical race theory, intersectionality, microaggressions, decolonising and safe spaces may have begun life in humanities departments but they have become popularised, at least in part, through DEI workshops. The activists behind these concepts claim that truth is relative, sex differences are socially constructed and that western colonialism is the source of all the problems in developing nations. DEI coordinators are now introducing these divisive and censorious ideas into schools.

Education or indoctrination?

Behind the smiling faces that illustrate the DEI pages on the websites for international schools lie resources based on highly contested ideas that teachers are expected to implement. For example, the DEI page of United World Colleges has a ‘wheel of power’ which profiles children according to their class, race and sex. It covers unconscious bias, microaggressions and critical race theory as if they were facts. Other organisations such as the Educational Collaborative for International Schools recommend similar resources.

The educational vector of Critical Social Justice is Critical Pedagogy, which seeks to exploit children as political activists rather than viewing them as learners with individual needs. Far from a fringe ideology, it has become a central idea of education departments, to the point that Cambridge University erected a bust to the father of Critical Pedagogy, Paulo Freire.

Even the largest player in international education, the famous International Baccalaureate (IB), has given the green light to the 4460 global schools within its organisation to introduce and promote DEI initiatives. Headquartered in Geneva, the IB started in 1968 as a pre-university qualification for expatriate youngsters. Since then, it has expanded into the entire range of the child’s development with a primary and middle years programme, although its core business is getting young people into western universities. Justin Trudeau and Kim Jong-un are counted amongst its notable alumni.

Emerging out of post-war Europe, the IB was built around an expectation that learners would be open minded, intellectual risk-takers, balanced, reflective and knowledgeable thinkers. It aimed to inoculate young people from the easy answers, them-and-us groupthink and pseudoscience that characterise totalitarianism. It also helped privileged youngsters stay grounded by requiring them to complete community service and ‘theory of knowledge’ activities in order to pass the qualification.

DEI initiatives, with their emphasis on sexual and racial profiling, restricting speech on the basis of inclusion, rewriting history and pathologizing people with different opinions, should be completely incompatible with the genuinely enlightened aims of the IB. But now the new head of the International Baccalaureate, Ollie Pekka Heinnen, is steering the programme towards goals of Critical Social Justice:

I am talking about efforts to support diversity, equality and inclusion – often driven by young people and their desire to make the world more inclusive. Within our work as an educational organisation this presents us with challenges – not least of all when it comes to the content of the curriculum. More specifically, the issue of ‘decolonising the curriculum’.

The IB now has a DEI statement infused with the language of critical social justice:

We will work to promote the voices, identities, and leadership of marginalized people in our work, both as an employer and as an educational organization… we challenge ourselves to become a more diverse, open, inclusive, and accepting organization.

Superficially, these things might sound desirable, but every word conceals a political agenda. For international school teachers, inclusion would be understood as meeting the needs of all children. In CSJ-speak, inclusion means restricting language that perpetuates what activists consider to be harmful stereotypes.

For example, in my recent experience teaching in an international school, a DEI draft policy emerged, following a rapid consultation with a working group which only individuals considered to be marginalised were allowed to attend. The policy contained words that were considered exclusionary, such as ‘manhole’, and terms that should be used including the degrading neologisms ‘cismale’ and ‘cisfemale’. Staff quickly fell afoul of the new policy: two were reprimanded by the principal, one for using the word ‘gents’ when reporting smoking in the boys’ toilets and the other for using the phrase ‘young lady’ in his report on a pupil’s progress. International teachers tend to work on insecure, short term contracts. Those who do not comply with DEI mandates could find their career cut short. With social justice comes social punishment.

Exploiting children

At my former school, the DEI policy established a so-called ‘affirmation model’ of care for children who have self-diagnosed gender dysphoria. This requires staff to use a child’s chosen name and pronouns without first discussing this with their parents. This effectively means socially transitioning a child without parental consent or knowledge. A school councillor explained to me that unless people affirm a child’s chosen identity, they will be at risk of self-harm or suicide and that informing parents might put the child at risk. This is the approach advocated by activists, advocacy groups, and some medical associations, particularly in the US. A fellow teacher at a different school has told me that that staff are now ‘encouraged’ to declare their personal pronouns in their emails.

Yet new NHS guidance advises against affirmative care as a matter of course. It makes clear that social transition – such as the use of pronouns and neopronouns – should not be regarded as a neutral act and can have ‘significant effects’ on ‘psychological functioning’. Doctors dealing with gender dysphoria are now expected to take into account their patients’ broader mental health. Sweden and Finland have also pulled back from the affirmative model of care; these nations are not usually considered regressive backwaters. All of this suggests that international schools should, at the very least, examine a multi-disciplinary approach when considering policy in this area.

The IB’s Middle Years Program (MYP) school guidance document, Principles into Practice claims that: ‘During adolescence, the role of language in identity affirmation is of particular significance as a pedagogical principle.’ But it then goes on to state: ‘Identity is dynamic and shifts as relationships alter over time’. This accepts the possibility of social influence on identity but, at the same time, argues that teachers must not participate in social influence themselves, only “affirm” the outcome.

This blank-slatism underpins the house of cards that critical social justice is built upon. It puts parents squarely in the frame as suspect transmitters of the harmful stereotypes that allegedly perpetuate systemic injustice. The old trope of ‘false-consciousness’ is repackaged as ‘innocent socialisation’, in guidance from Optimus Education, one of the largest suppliers of education training and resources.

Teachers as subject experts

In my experience as a Design and Technology teacher, learning is best when it is an exciting encounter with the unknown. Our goal is to help students realise weird and wonderful responses to design briefs, building new skills along the way. DEI activists subvert this process, replacing the unknown with their own dismal conclusions. A new IB design textbook reads like an extended social justice lecture. It has activities on George Floyd, Churchill’s alleged racism, what it means to be woke and redesigning pride flags. What happens when a child muddles up the colours on a pride flag, or otherwise gets a ‘wrong’ answer to these activities? Grading students on their political views amounts to indoctrination, not education.

Despite talk of ‘decolonising the curriculum’, DEI remains a deeply neo-colonial project, born out of western thought and universities, English Language-driven and pushed with fanatic like fervour irrespective of context. DEI has to be done now, in order to save us all from the original sin of unconscious bias. In schools, the day-to-day implementation of DEI programmes is often handed over to so-called experts. But this means schools are handing the levers of power over to political activists.

Teachers often forget that their individual and collective experience makes them the experts in both their subject and the students they teach. As such, we must not be afraid to scrutinise and challenge external materials far more carefully, and not let harmful assumptions go unchallenged. Avoiding the language of critical social justice may prevent ideas and activists getting a foot in the door. International schools should take note of the popular and democratic calling to account of schools in the west that has followed the teaching of critical race theory and gender ideology.

Freedom of speech and thought is the beating heart of education. It permits the freedom to think, engage in discussion and explore new ideas. DEI, by contrast, regulates what young people can think, what words they can speak, and increasingly with ‘Social Emotional Learning’ programmes, what feelings they can have in their hearts. The IB and international schools must be willing to assert their core principles and defend the freedom of teachers to do what they do best: helping young people to become autonomous, free-thinking, self-governing individuals.

Alexander Hughes teaches at an international school.

Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash.