I recently saw a group photograph of a number of young schoolchildren somewhere in the United States. What I noticed particularly was their diversity. There were Asian-American kids, Native American kids, African-American kids, Latin American kids, Caucasian American kids. All American kids. I had no way of knowing from the photo, of course, any differences beyond the obvious ones of skin color, facial structure, and hair. But I imagined that there were poor kids and rich kids and middle-class kids. Healthy kids and chronically sick kids. Kids who would later become gay, or straight, or bisexual, or transgender, and those who would reject sexual labels. Kids raised in Muslim homes, Jewish homes, atheist homes, humanist homes, Christian homes, Buddhist homes . . . or no homes. Kids of differing intellectual abilities, physical abilities, and talents. Kids born on third base and kids with at least two strikes already against them.
To me, the photo represented the American ideal expressed in the motto of the United States, E pluribus unum, out of many, one. Unity in diversity. The picture encouraged me, let me feel hopeful. And then my worries about the current state of our society shadowed the ideal image.
If we are to work toward accomplishing our American motto, I think our best chance of success is to start with children. Children learn what they experience and what they are taught. Which brings me to wonder about the learning environments we provide for them.
In the small town I grew up in, I think there was a Roman Catholic parochial school. But every child I knew went to public school. Although there were many other kinds of differences, there was almost no racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural diversity among us. Part of our homogeneity included what I at least believed were shared civic values, useful guides to living successfully with each other in our school and in larger communities.
How can we make one out of many? How can we build a cohesive society without giving up our many different identities or imposing them on others? This is the age-old dilemma of human civilizations, all the more pronounced in our increasingly diverse and intermeshed modern world.
I think I understand something of the desire to teach children one’s own cultural and religious heritage. I imagine that is what has prompted what I see as the continuing splintering of American education. It seems to me that the trend began with private schools for the wealthy and parochial schools for the religious – Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. But insularity has proliferated with evangelical Christian schools, charter schools, home schools. I sense a fear that one’s own values will be lost if they are not inculcated in the young in protected, homogeneous learning environments. There seems to be a lack of trust that there are values we can hold and teach in common while embracing diversity. But both are what I want children to learn: shared civic values we can agree on within the context of our own and other people’s different experiences.
Diversity without any anchor in identity can be disorienting. But remaining anchored only in what one already knows prevents us from moving, from learning anything new. I don’t think we learn about differences from sameness. We learn sameness from sameness, differences from differences. We need both. Universal, public education, at least as I idealize it, can offer both. Diversity does not preclude values we can agree on. Without values we can share, I am afraid that what is now splintered, whether our education system or our entire society, will shatter.
I believe our Seven UU Principles are values on which everyone can agree. I do not offer them as partisan ideals. Quite the contrary. Because they come as close as anything I know to universal values that are widely shared. I’ve never met anyone who disagreed with them in principle. Affirmation of each individual’s worth and dignity. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Acceptance of each other. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and use of the democratic process. Peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence. If there are better values we can all agree on, I’m happy to listen and learn. In the meantime, I will continue to affirm and promote the UU Principles as values children should learn and adults should use to determine public policy.