Is Separate Ever Equal?

I’ve found myself pondering this question, as school sessions get underway. Earlier this year, I visited Kosovo and Macedonia, speaking on the topic of women’s entrepreneurship (naturally) to a number of audiences – including a high school class in Tetovo, a town not too far from Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje. It was a fantastic experience, and I was delighted to engage in a lively dialogue with the students, male and female alike.

While there, though, I learned that the school classes are segregated within the same building, with the classes being taught in Macedonian (with a largely Eastern Orthodox Christian population) held at different times of the day or on different days than those taught in Albanian (for a largely Muslim population). It reminded me of another trip not too long ago to Belfast in Northern Ireland, where – although “the troubles” have largely quieted down – Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods are still separated by cement block walls and students still go to separate primary and secondary schools. This was actually even the case for me in my Arlington, Virginia elementary school neighborhood in the early 1960’s, where a wall separated white and black neighborhoods and schools were not integrated until my third grade class, after the implementation of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision abolished the “separate but equal” segregation practices of the past.

While language and cultural preservation is an important concern, if children are taught separately in that manner from a young age, how are we ever going to get along? Further, while some tout the value of separate classes or even schools for girls (where some studies show that they may learn better and be better prepared to take on leadership positions after graduation), others decry that position and say that separate education, even by gender, perpetuates existing societal divisions (see an excellent article from a few years ago by Wendy Kaminer in The Atlantic on this point).

We do all have to get along in a multi-cultural world, with different points of view and varied life experiences. The more we understand each others’ points of view, the better off we will all be, and that education and exposure to diversity should start in primary school. What do you think – is separate ever equal?

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