What’s identity got to do with schooling? Infinite Intersectionality within Quality Education

By Sara Murdock

In March 2018 I served as a delegate to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women on behalf of Graduate Women International . I attended with the imperative to learn how policy, governmental, and NGO perspectives identify and describe examples of quality education from across the globe. Much of my own research on education has been from a social equity standpoint, whereas my prior exposure to UN work had suggested that educational access (aka enrollment) and attainment (aka graduation) are top priorities.

Over the course of ten days I sat in on sessions arranged by UNESCO, UNICEF, and ECOSOC . I heard testimonies by leaders from grassroots organizations and international governments, all concerned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As I kept my eyes and ears peeled for even the slightest reference to SDG #4, Quality Education, I made note of how success was defined. For example, was success defined as students in seats (again, enrolment), students completing programs (again, graduation), or in terms of what students learned and how those skills and perspectives equipped them for lucrative yet meaningful careers? In other words, are students jumping through hoops without a substantive trajectory on the other side or are they prepared to engage lifelong careers, whether in their communities or on a global stage? What and who is the educational process serving?

In Cultural Studies we often discuss specific identity markers such as gender, sex, race, and ethnicity as integral to how a specific location develops a sense of collective identity. The area studies model asks that researchers hone knowledge about a particular geographic region, language, aesthetic, cuisine, history etc. What we sometimes overlook is what happens when cultures encounter one another, a phenomenon virtually impossible to avoid in our era. When we reach across sectors, across the political aisle, and across the globe, we can be guaranteed that multiple identity marks come into play. While conversations on intersectionality have expanded past their starting place (arguably at race, class, and gender) to include religion, disability, socio-economic status, immigration status, language, and political affiliation, a dizzying array of identity markers are still often accidentally omitted. My experience in academia tells me that researchers need to hone in on one or two specific identity markers as a way to avoid an unwieldy scope so that we might complete our projects. What we sacrifice in the name of completion might just be the rich detail needed to understand what “quality” means; in the case of “quality education,” how can we really expect to deliver amazing curricula with truly beneficial outcomes if we are viewing our students simply as female… or female and of color… or female of color and queer… or female of color and queer and disabled… or… or … or… ?

These questions are on my mind as I walk into a conference room off the UN concourse to attend a panel discussion on financial support for girls in Zambia, whose families often cannot afford the basic supplies that they need to attend primary school. I, and everyone else in attendance, had to apply for visitor status, and we all received fancy UN badges for our troubles. Around the oblong tables sit several dozen adults, almost all women, in either formal office wear or traditional national dress. The panel is comprised of officials from the Zambian government, the World Bank, UNICEF, and the regional segment of an international steel company based in Western Europe. Within a few minutes of the panel’s start I learn that the conversation, ostensibly about how to get girls educated, is actually about how to prepare girls in school for work in the steel industry.

I won’t say that I understand the particulars of this pipeline; I have only generalized ideas of what skills one needs to work in the steel industry or, for that matter, any industry within Central Africa. I do know that the proposal sounds like one of human resources, not education. While the theme of how to train Zambian girls to become workers for a specific company does not sit well with me, I’m not making an argument here as to whether equipping humans to work in specific industries regardless of their personal passions is good or bad. I’ll save that for a deliberation on neo-liberal economics. What I notice is that, in this instance, a Western institution is governing the cultural development of an entire cohort of young ladies in Zambia. My query is about how one cultural ideology—skills-based employment—is interfacing with Zambian culture. Of course the conversation is about gender. We are talking about girls, after all. But who are these girls? According to the brief documentary shown during the session, they want to be mechanical engineers, lawyers, teachers, urban planners. I would wager that their aspirations are wider reaching than what the promotional video represents. Why? Because they are children: their hearts are full and their imaginations are bubbling.

How, though, does this anecdote relate back to questions of identity? I suggest that even something as nebulous as one’s conceptualization of career and what it means to add value is part of identity. While identity markers deserve to be included in conversations about what one needs to learn, oversimplification leaves out such nuances. Even taking gender, location, and socio-economic status into consideration crowds out the individual factors that a particular student needs to truly excel. If we’re just talking about butts in seats or even graduation rates, then identity markers reign supreme. Extrapolating out to skills attainment for jobs placement we might get a bit more specificity. But to really honor the psycho-social capabilities and broader praxis (idea + action) capacity of each student, limited identity markers don’t get us very far.

Why, then, did I get on a plane and then sit in on dozens of conference rooms for ten days in order to witness discussions on gender-related access to educational attainment? Yes, the umbrella topic was women and girls—a crucial lens from which to do research and create projects—but skilled researchers know that no one identity marker is sufficient to make systems-wide observations. By hearing programmatic ideas from across sectors, cultures, ideologies, and demographic markers, it becomes clear that examining social equity is a practice of seeing the chaotic overlaps between programmatic intent and the actual impact of those objectives upon humans. The deeper topic, then, is not gender, but is about how an identity marker like gender must be put in conversation with other cultural factors.

Sara Murdock is a PhD Student in World Arts and Cultures. She received a CSW Travel Grant in 2017-2018.