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    The Radical Notion Behind UN SDG 4 – FAWCO Education Team Op-Ed

    By Michelle Miller, AIWC Cologne 


    As part of its special consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, FAWCO supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Of particular relevance to this op-ed, the FAWCO Education Committee focuses its efforts on SDG 4, to “[e]nsure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”  

    diversity inclusion education 2023 JuneAt first glance, it might seem quality education is a goal with which anyone living in the twenty-first century can agree. However, once you begin to look more closely at the language of SDG 4, you begin to see how radical a notion is actually being espoused by the United Nations in this particular SDG.  Yes, quality education sounds good, but what can the UN mean by demanding that education is also “inclusive” and “equitable?” Can they really be arguing that all of us, regardless of nationality, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation or health status, should have access to an affordable and high-quality education? Yes, that’s exactly what the UN is doing. But if you are still not sure why I am calling this a radical notion, I’m sure you’re not alone.  

    Of course, we all could name some countries in the world where there is no such thing as inclusive and equitable education. Just think of the plight of girls and women in Taliban-led Afghanistan. But surely, you may be saying, those examples are few and far between! In the last 50 years, we have made real progress toward educating all children born into this world. We have indeed made progress, but the pendulum is swinging back toward reactionary impulses, and not just in countries where democracy hasn’t obtained a strong foothold, such as Afghanistan. No, this movement backward is nowhere more clearly evident than in the world’s longest-standing democracy – the United States.  

    Consider US history for a moment. As I write this, the US is celebrating Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last of the enslaved human beings in the US were informed that they were free. While this is certainly worth celebrating, it is important to note that it would take another 89 years before Black kids in the US had anything resembling a quality education, when the US Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that separate is not ever equal when it comes to education. Yet here we are, 69 years later, and three days ago, Texas became the most recent state to pass a law closing the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) programs of its public university system.

    At the same time that some state lawmakers are arguing that DEI programs are “racist,” bans against books are proliferating in some US school districts, mostly in the South. One rather shocking example was the recent complaint from a parent in the Miami Lakes school district in Florida against “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman’s poem that she read at President Biden’s inauguration. The parent averred that the poem is “not educational” and includes indirect hate speech. I cannot help but wonder if Amanda Gorman were not Black, if this parent would have made the same arguments against this poem. In any event, the poem has been removed from elementary school libraries in that district.

    child writing in book 2023 JuneIt is in this context of book bans in US schools and the abandonment of DEI programs in US public universities that it becomes clear that we are nowhere near achieving SDG 4, even in a democracy such as the US. If inclusive, equitable, quality education is necessary to enable global citizenship and to foster strong democracies (and I would argue that it is crucial to reaching either of these aims), why are we having such trouble implementing this goal? Arguably, it all comes back to the old adage that knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you can achieve. Why, with the right knowledge you can even overcome the disadvantages of racism and sexism, and of heterosexism and ableism. In fact, with truly inclusive, equitable and quality education, we could create a truly level playing field.  

    Remember those reactionary forces I mentioned above? These are people who think you shouldn’t have power unless you are white, or male, or straight, or perfectly healthy. They are terrified of sharing their power. And that is why SDG 4 is such a radical notion. If a quality education were meaningfully inclusive and equitable, then everyone would have access to the knowledge they need to realize their own power. I believe we are at another historical tipping point. Either we allow books to be banned and DEI programs to be closed and head back into the darkness, or we maintain our vigilance and fight to implement SDG 4, drawing closer to a future where every person has equal access to a quality education, and power is thus genuinely shared.     


    Photos credit: Canva

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