Does “Intersectionality” Stymie Education Reform?

There are many reasons that a whole array of education reforms always seem to be flapping their wings and never taking off, but I am beginning to wonder if yet another reason is fairly basic: the academic flavor of the moment, intersectionality.

Since the term was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality has become favored buzzword among the academic elite. What this word boils down to is that every injustice—large, small, real, or perceived—is related to every other injustice, creating overlapping circles of injustice that begin to sound like a Venn diagram on speed, and this tends to result in an incredibly expansive (yet oddly exclusionary) definition of any social or political issue. Consider the following example from a recent academic publication’s abstract examining Obama administration education policies:

“Utilizing the aforementioned intersectionality perspective, we assert that the documents examined demonstrate limited attention to the interlocking and intertwining of the multifaceted dimensions that education policy should consider. In conclusion, we argue that the Obama administration’s current federal educational policy inadequately contributes to the cultivation of citizenship and flourishing.”

Excuse me while my eyes glaze over.

To a certain extent, intersectionality is simply old wine in a new bottle; over a hundred and fifty years ago Karl Marx certainly understood the connection between, for example, economic status and social advantage or disadvantage.

However, the factor that I believe has driven intersectionality to its current exalted place in academia is as old as civilization itself: a need for community. If every injustice is related to every other injustice, it is possible, thanks to the Internet and all the connections it now provides, to create a vibrant international community of the excluded and aggrieved. Moreover, in an age of anxious academics clawing for position in an extraordinarily tough job market for professors, this provides an excellent opportunity for debates that can lead to endlessly spinning conference presentations and academic papers—Hello, tenure!

The question I have often had, however, is whether all this challenging and enlightening discussion readily translates into operational and accountable movement toward positive change. Protest is helpful in terms of drawing attention to the problem—but how does this translate into specific actionable steps toward improving the situation? I am certain that I am not alone in asking this question, and I worry more and more that what those on the right derisively call “the grievance industry” is, to quote The Bard, “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

To proclaim that all the problems plaguing our schools and students are due to external factors is to, in essence, let educators off the hook for their shortcomings because intersectionality-driven analysis by its nature will find that the true source of the problems are societal defects beyond the control of our schools; therefore, nothing can change until society itself is perfected. Could there be a better prescription for both never-ending anger and continued inaction?

I know that I find myself growing frustrated when I hear again and again that the real problems plaguing our public schools are wholly due to racism, sexism, heteronormative biases, or some other attitudinal issue. These are all certainly a legitimate portion of the discussion, but because of this overly broad focus, basic school management reforms that might positively impact classroom instruction and accountability then fall by the wayside because to make choices runs the inherent risk of “excluding” some population of students or educators.

If we insist on testing as a way of measuring learning outcomes, we “exclude” those who are not good test-takers or for whom the test is inherently biased; if we attempt to fire bad teachers and administrators, we might “exclude” teachers and administrators who are being unfairly stigmatized by their evaluations; if we want to change the curriculum to more closely align it with college and career readiness, we might “exclude” the arts and music, which would produce a generation of troglodytes.

Every move, every opportunity, and every initiative runs the risk of exclusion, which in the age of intersectionality will offend—everyone. To move forward, something must be, by necessity, left behind, but that is pretty much an impossibility thanks to the “tweet storms” and other related Internet heavy weather that inevitably result when anyone feels their needs and wants are not being sufficiently respected.

Intersectionality-driven thinking tends to look outward toward all the factors that impact students before they set foot in the classroom; if we want change, we must focus inward at what happens after students walk into the classroom and be unafraid of the controversies long-needed structural changes to our system of public education will involve. Everyone is free to get on their high horses, but if we want to improve our schools, we are going to need to climb down, gather round the campfire, and be willing to accept difficult compromises in order to help those who most need our help—the children of our country.

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