teacher things

Knowledge is Power; Power is Freedom

Somewhere in the fifth in-class viewing this week of Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 Nobel Prize speech, I decided to write a post discussing education.

Often, I spend time thinking about education on a microcosmic scale — given that it’s my job to do so — and I neglect to think of the global implications of education. But, something one of my students said today regarding Malala’s speech has stuck with me. He mentioned that we, in the U.S., take for granted the educational opportunities that we are allowed to have. While this sentiment is true, the way this student said it, staring at his laptop, absent-mindedly scrolling through something on his screen, that made me wonder whether he actually believed the words he articulated.

Through careful thought, it seems more likely that he was simply regurgitating a sentiment that we are taught in the United States: we are privileged. But, if we’re aware of this assumption and we understand that compared to the rest of the world, we have more educational opportunities, how is it that, globally speaking, we’re still educationally deficient?

According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are still 750 million adults throughout the world that lack even basic reading and writing skills. Even more staggering, two-thirds of that 750 million, which is nearly 500 million for those of us disinclined to calculate numbers, are women. While this is significantly better than nearly 40 years ago when the literacy rate was around 56 percent, we still have a long way to go before global literacy can be considered a problem that has been solved, especially considering the gender gap that persists in the fight for education. According to UNESCO’s data, globally speaking, women are 8 percent less likely to be literate than their male counterparts, which is not even considering the regional disparities. In places like Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, women aged 15 and older are one-fifth less likely to be literate than their male counterparts. Malala cites reasons for this in her 2014 speech, highlighting social taboos, religious extremists, and child marriage laws as explanations for this gap, but regardless of the reason, it is something that needs to be addressed head on.

Back to the student from my class. He mentioned this notion that kids in the U.S. may be more apt to take advantage of the fact that we are given free and public access to school. I can see his reasoning because he sits in class surrounded by students who would much rather play games on their laptops than listen to and potentially learn from my lectures and lessons. However, is this a common theme amongst students? Or, do we live in a privileged bubble? Personally, I think it’s a bit of both. As teachers, we are consistently asked to improve upon and reflect on our instruction. We are asked to engage all learners at every point throughout our instructional time, and we do it happily. We do whatever it takes to ensure that our students learn.

But, what if the student doesn’t care about learning?

One of the details that I found most striking in Malala’s speech is the example she gave about she and her friends drawing mathematical equations on their hands with henna, rather than the traditional flowers and patterns. My students listened with no reaction and the room full of people laughed, as if she was making a joke. But, I see it differently. I see it as an example of students who value education and value what education can do for them. I see it as a scream from girls who realize that progress is made when traditions are added to and challenged. I see it as an unbridled passion from students who understand that knowledge is power and power is freedom.


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