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Equity and Diversity: Beware the Buzzwords (Pt. 2)

The number of language teachers who champion the term ‘equity’ without practicing it in their classrooms is surprising. For example, very few, if any, would willingly choose to give all students exactly the same grades or ensure that each one had developed precisely the same skills to the same level. After all, that’s what equity means – equality of outcomes.


“Equity is the enemy of both free choice and competence.”


A shining example of the misguided notion of equity occurred recently (and which I previously blogged about) when the Tokyo Medical University gerrymandered the outcomes of its entrance exam scores to ensure that ‘disadvantaged’ male candidates were on par with the more competent female hopefuls. Males are, it was argued, as a group, naturally less mature and articulate than similarly aged females, and thus in order to correct that which nature or society had made inequitable, the exam outcomes were manipulated.


Perhaps some people are confusing equity with equality. The latter is a broader term and would tend to be applied more to opportunities or choices. This important distinction marks equality and equity as being mutually exclusive entities. If you somehow manage to create equality in opportunities or choice, you will almost certainly not get equitable outcomes. And vice-versa. Equity is the enemy of both free choice and competence.


Think of your own classroom. Sure, most conscientious teachers would attempt to establish a classroom in which all members have an equal opportunity to improve their English skills. But no matter what efforts that teacher carries out, those who have greater competency will naturally produce superior outcomes. Those who choose to study or practice harder, those who take notes, or simply make an effort will generally have better results as well. So, when there is equal opportunity, individual choices and competencies will produce differing outcomes. Equity aims to negate the products of human choice and to deny, or stifle, competency, as we can see in the Tokyo Medical University escapade.


“…equality issues are much more complex that the glib uttering of panacea buzzwords would indicate.”


However, even the term ‘equality’ should not be used lightly. How exactly is equality to be applied? Does it mean ‘sameness’? If so, are we then not favouring uniformity over diversity? If we believe in equal access to health care and equal treatment at equal cost, as most would, how do we square that with the person who chooses to live hundred of kms from the nearest healthcare center? And what of those who wilfully abuse and harm themselves through bad lifestyle choices? If someone who takes care of their own health ends up financing those who choose not to do so hasn’t the principle of equality been breached? In we belief in healthcare equality would it mean no clinical priorities — that critical cases should wait just as long for treatment as those with minor issues? In short, equality issues are much more complex that the glib uttering of panacea buzzwords would indicate.


The same goes for diversity.


Diversity is treated by teachers as if it were inherently desirable and beneficial. And indeed it sounds good until you are leading a classroom task or activity that requires uniform participation and coordination from among all students. Having some students then demonstrate their ‘diversity’ might not be so welcome.


Nonetheless it is hard to argue against the value of diversity in terms of an output of ideas, strategies, and other challenging, creative endeavours. Unfortunately, in my experience, many of those, not only including, but especially, language teachers, who advocate for diversity of ideas actually believe in anything but. In reality, certain ‘unpleasant’ beliefs are quickly designated as incorrect (or more pejorative terms are used) and students are guided towards the most acceptable perspective, namely the teacher’s.


“What on earth is a ‘Burmese/Thai/Vietnamese thought’ anyway?”


But what about the call for diversity in terms of classroom makeup? It is a theme that I run into with some regularity and it is one that I vehemently oppose for its underlying implications. This is the popular notion that, to use Japan as an example, if there were more nationalities or ethnicities, or more marginalized people in Japan’s homogeneous classrooms there would be a subsequent increase in the degree of diversity of thoughts, ideas, approaches, and beliefs. And this, it is believed, would be a good thing – invigorating the classroom.


Unfortunately, this notion rests upon maintaining some very deep-seated and unwarranted prejudices. First, people’s beliefs ideas and thoughts are not wholly determined or limited to race, ethnicity, or culture. Having a Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai student in the largely Japanese classroom does not imply that we will now somehow have a smattering of Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai thoughts (what on earth is a ‘Burmese/Thai/Vietnamese thought’ anyway?) displayed in the classroom – and that these will be distinct from the apparently uniform, monolithic, hive ‘Japanese thoughts/ideas/beliefs’.


Rather, it is likely that the SE Asian students will have their OWN thoughts and ideas which may or may not cohere with certain individuals among the Japanese contingent. Maintaining the belief that Thai people will automatically produce ‘Thai thoughts’ is severely stigmatizing and, in fact, rather bigoted. I’m sure many readers have experiences cases in which certain Japanese have decided that your well-considered individual beliefs/ideas were somehow indelibly tied to your foreignness, which allows your interlocutor to dismiss the content. After all, it’s just an automated ethnic product.


“…parroting buzzwords might actually have negative consequences for our learners.”


The second problem is that it presumes the hive mind of Japanese. That Japanese students are only capable of a few, set, pre-programmed modes of thought which will be manifested as a group. The possibility that there might actually be a variety of original and compelling approaches, schemas, and modes among the existing Japanese students seems to elude such teachers – often the very ones championing diversity.


Allow me to use a cooking analogy. Adding seasoning to a bland stew might make it taste better, but it doesn’t follow from that the more tastes you stir into the pot the tastier it will become as a whole. Sure, you don’t want to eat the same dish every night, but throwing a mishmash of ‘different flavours’ into the classroom stew will rarely produce a palatable brew.


Diversity is not always beneficial, particularly when it involves stigmatizing. Equity is dangerous and irresponsible. And inclusivity, which I also blogged about previously, has a dark side that should be avoided. Let’s not fall into the trap of parroting buzzwords that might actually have negative consequences for our learners. As language teachers, we should be particularly sensitive to this.


Many of the concepts discussed above figure prominently in Mike Guest’s novel ‘The Aggrieved Parties’

So do traditionally marginalized people: A gay couple in Cambodia, one a member of an ethnic minority. An impoverished rural Cambodian villager. An American war orphan who has never seen his ‘homeland’. A multi-lingual Taiwanese private investigator raised in Fukuoka. A Japanese woman suffering from a debilitating neurosis…


Mike’s Goodreads literary blog, ‘Honeyed Badger Feet’, can be viewed here.

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

2 Responses to Equity and Diversity: Beware the Buzzwords (Pt. 2)

  1. Let me get this straight. You think that teachers who believe it is a good idea to share differing cultural perspectives of international students are racists who think that all people of x nationality think alike.

    Also, diversity causes chaos.

    Well, okay then.

  2. Thank you for providing a textbook example of ‘So what you are saying is (fill in the blank with a ridiculously hyperbolic interpretation)’ syndrome.

    Not biting.

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