The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted glaring inequities in our education system. In order to even the odds, we need to have a serious discussion about privilege.


If the future of work is remote and the future of education is on a similar trajectory, what does that mean for the millions of kids who even under constant teacher supervision, in regulated classrooms, already fall through the cracks? The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted glaring inequities in our education system, and we need to have serious discussions about privilege if we want to even the odds.

The promise of remote work for all is awesome. Heck - I’m writing this newsletter on an iPad in the middle of the woods. But when you suddenly have to switch from the order you’ve always known to a setup you’ve never contemplated, theory and reality take their juncture. The digital education revolution was heralded as a great equalizer; The dream that a kid from Pakistan could get a world-class education at a fraction of the cost, completely virtually, simply by having access to the internet. While that long-term ideal may still hold, in the present things are rarely that simple.

As a governor and member of the board of trustees for a school in London, I saw firsthand the difficulties teachers faced in keeping children engaged, particularly those from homes that don’t have the equivalent resources to keep up with a barrage of coursework and schoolwork. I heard stories of kids having to hotspot internet from the phones of parents and siblings, and multi-child households with only one laptop having to rotate between children in different year groups and parents who also needed to be in work meetings throughout the day.


The widening divide

Part of the reason remote learning is failing many children is the simple fact that small children find it hard to sit in front of a screen unsupervised for hours when the content on-screen is not entertaining. They can't concentrate fully on back-to-back classes and homework assignments without supervision and socialization. Knowing this, teachers have increasingly relied on support from parents to keep their children from failing.

What this has meant is more and more women are being conscripted as emergency teaching assistants. Those who could still work pulled double duty, cataloged by horrific stories like this in the NY Times. Those who couldn’t work had their hands full with the unpaid labor thrust upon them.

The number of women in the American labor force dropped down to levels not seen since the 70s. Meanwhile, those families who could already afford childcare or a parent actively at home raising kids before the pandemic had far less adjusting to do. Their children had been better prepared for high-engagement schooling including home tutoring, and their parents had the resources to make the transition more effective.

While children are feeling the brunt of this adjustment, many parents have faced considerable impact. Per the Guardian:

Three out of 10 parents of primary school children say they are also feeling more anxious, 14% are crying more often, 18% are having more sleepless nights, 10% are arguing with their partner more and a quarter are being less patient with their children. Just 28% of parents reported they were having none of these problems.

Many schools have dispensed with grading students altogether due to drops in attainment levels across the board, but many still are. For older students in their formative years, the big question will be the impact of subjective predicted grades from teachers who can't see or interact with them. This is particularly important when you consider the well-documented history of racial bias affecting the potential trajectory of students simply on the basis of predicted grades.

One study estimated that on average students will have lost five to nine months of learning by July 2021. That picture is even bleaker for students of color. Being less likely to have internet access at home or access to live teachers, they are estimated to fall six to 12 months behind in the same time frame.

Parents from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who previously had to tell their kids they had to work twice as hard and be twice as good to get half as much as privileged peers, now need to add that their children will have potentially lost twice as much education in the last year.

The privilege formula

In the past few years, we've heard a lot of 'social justice' words tossed around such as privilege and systematic injustice. I know many people have subconsciously begun switching off their ears because they assume what comes next will be an unjustified attack on their personhood. People hear the word privilege and think—I've had a hard life, how could that possibly apply to me. They baulk at the idea that they've inherited some magical attributes simply by virtue of being white or male or in a dominant group, and I think some of these feelings are justified.

Frankly, not enough people have a well-grounded definition of what privilege means and are equally bad at elucidating those views so that people will listen. I heard someone I respect in an interview recently discussing the value of hard work and equality of opportunity, but when pressed about the impact of privilege their riposte was limp and wavering.

So let's dispense with weaponized politicization and have an honest chat. For me, 'privilege' in the modern context is best described as the intersection of fortune and friction. Hence it applies not just by virtue of race, but a variety of factors endowed randomly by birth. This is what many refer to as the birth lottery.

The privilege formula graph
The privilege formula graph

The impact of fortune

Fortune in this context has nothing to do with wealth. I see fortune as the convergence of hope and luck. Very few adults can be truly successful in the modern sense with only a singular instance of luck. There are always several. Behind every story of pulled bootstraps lies a fine harvest of luck. Chance occurrences that were capitalized on. What enables that luck, and what many with privilege have in abundance, is hope.

Hope is something we teach children from a young age, and it manifests itself in confidence and audacity. It's being picked first on the football team. It's being told from a young age that you are smart, and pretty, and can make anything you want of yourself. It's not being told that you are going to have to fight and suffer just to survive. Suffering isn't cute.

By whatever virtues you have at your disposal, when you are groomed to believe doors will be opened by your hard work, skill, beauty and predisposition, meritocracy is an honest reality.

If meritocracy is reality, the world is yours for the taking if you simply work hard enough. You will never be judged or disadvantaged by anything other than your own efforts. You may receive additional benefits by being tall or handsome or strong or brave, but that can't be helped. You were born that way. Any hope you have of future success will live and die by your confidence and audacity. You just need to be willing to take risks, capitalize on the fleeting opportunity and believe in your ability to execute.

Please note I have not said that all of the above instantly accrue to anyone born caucasian or male. That said, in a world increasingly dominated by people who share those characteristics, their visibility only adds to your hope. If they can do it, why can't you? When you hear stories of their confidence and audacity you know these traits work and can be emulated. When opportunity knocks, strike. That's how fortunes are made.

People of all races and backgrounds benefit from good fortune to different extents, whether you're growing up in Lagos or London. What turns fortune into privilege, however, is friction.

The force of friction

In our modern world, many things are multiple times easier than they used to be. In times past, if you seek new knowledge you would need to visit your local librarium. In antiquity, knowledge archives were the preserve of rulers and esteemed scholars who would travel between Alexandria, Ephesus, Constantinople and Nineveh. And when you found information worthy of bringing home from your travels you would ask the archivist to let you copy it word for word, by hand, into a fresh scroll.

Today you have a device in your pocket with more computing power than the rockets that sent man to the moon. If you can access the internet, you can tap into an unfathomable well of humanity’s collective wisdom. And that's only scratching the surface.

Friction in this context refers to resource availability. If you don't have the internet you will face almost insurmountable friction in the modern world. This applies at scale. If you want a good job but didn't go to a good school, you will face higher friction. If you are building a tech startup and are not in silicon valley, you will face higher friction.

Suddenly, the cumulative ease of being born to the right parents at the right time, in the right society in the right country, compounded with good fortune, yields tremendous privilege. Luck and opportunity are everywhere, but they certainly exist in higher concentration around those who face less friction.

If your parents can afford to send you to a better school, or happen to have the right contacts, the friction you face in encountering stimulating ideas and converting those ideas into viable opportunities decreases drastically. It's a lot easier to be in the right place at the right time when you were there all along.

While natural friction may always exist via resource availability, societies also artificially construct friction through resource allocation. Looking through that lens you quickly realize that despite the genuine abundance of luck, knowledge and opportunity, access to it for many groups is severely hampered, and often on an institutional level. For example, it is well documented, statistically, that Black people and other minorities face worse outcomes as a result of resource allocation in healthcare, education, justice, housing and in the workplace.

Going a step beyond that, one of the most frequently misallocated resources is the 'benefit of the doubt'. When 'good kids' from 'good homes' are let off by policing and justice systems, prioritized for healthcare and given internships or second chances in the workplace, we are perpetuating a system that unfairly introduces friction into the lives of citizens who ought to be equal.

Solving the privilege problem

I do not believe that inherently, privilege is always a bad thing. Considering the scale of our world there will always be varying degrees of fortune and natural friction. When you break down the factors that constitute privilege, many of them are good things. The issue is that society should seek to give these things to as many people as possible, rather than pretending it doesn't exist and in doing so bolster resource hoarding and the manufacture of institutional friction.

Part of the reason people are often confounded by the term 'white privilege' is that it is a singular term used to encompass a multiplicity of incremental factors which, when taken as a whole, confer societal benefit. Privilege manifests in various forms and it is okay to discuss the benefits incurred. We can then speak openly about how to ensure those benefits can be better distributed. Vilifying all endowments of birth ab initio is reductive and polarising.

I'll give you an example. Growing up left-landed in Nigeria as recently as the '90s, as I did, meant that teachers had ample license to flog it out of you at every opportunity. If a question was asked and you raised your left hand, you were called to the front of the class and beaten as an example to your peers. If you were given something and you took it with your left hand you were beaten. If you were caught writing with your left hand you were beaten. As a result, despite my left hand still being dominant, I no longer know how to write with it. I can only write with my right hand.

Now, I'm sure we can acknowledge there was privilege automatically conferred by birth to anyone born right-handed in this society. That doesn't mean every right-handed person was evil. However, if as a right-handed person you deny that any form of privilege existed, you are only allowing such injustices to proliferate. Acknowledging the existence of that right-handed privilege also doesn't mean you should be crushed underfoot in a bloody revolution. All it means is maybe we shouldn't be introducing manufactured friction for left-handed students so that all students can benefit equally from the privilege of a good education.

Evening the odds

As society moves to embrace more remote forms of education, it becomes more crucial that we engage in these discussions rather than shying away from the perceived discomfort.

The internet has gone a long way towards democratizing access to information, and we should consider how can we bolster access for those born with greater natural friction, i.e. those from underprivileged homes in under-resourced neighborhoods.

How can we ensure that children from those backgrounds are nurtured with hope from a young age, and taught that they can achieve anything they set their hearts on? How can we ensure these children have positive role models that look like them in every avenue of life, that can teach them lessons in confidence and audacity? How can we put them in and around enough spaces where chance and luck can intervene? How can we support the families of young children and enable greater community support structures for teenagers?

The more we can openly consider instances of privilege, the more we can work towards reducing friction and widening access to fortune and opportunity.


If you have any thoughts on education or privilege, I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

Man in smart suit holding his duffle bag and phone waiting for someone in New York: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in New York

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Young Babylon by Lu Nei - impulsively bought. One of my favorite books and well translated from the original Chinese. Essentially a young Chinese Holden Caulfield navigating factory life in industrial China.
  2. The Czar’s Spy by William Le Queux - read. A great meandering mystery you’d never guess was written in 1905. It’s the kind of pure mystery where neither you nor the protagonist has any idea what’s going on until the end, but I loved the ending.
  3. Going Postal by Terry Pratchett - read. The first book I read in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld catalog, and a great introduction to his work. It’s the first book featuring Moist von Lipwig, so you’ll have no issues starting here.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • Tag - A film I’d watched ages ago on Netflix and couldn’t remember if it was one of the hidden gems or yet another terrible comedy. I rewatched it. It’s awesome.
  • The Great Pretender - An interesting anime I picked up recently, following the exploits of a gang of con artists who only steal from the wealthy and corrupt.

Resources:

  • HBO Max - I hate the fact I have to keep circulating through every streaming app, but they have a great catalog and I need to watch Judas and the Black Messiah.
  • Life Wheel (Notion template) - Take control of your life trajectory and continually hone the balance between the areas of your life you care most about. This tool helps you chart your progress in various areas of your life both as a visual wheel and with progression bars.
  • Twitter Spaces - I was just invited to participate in the beta, but it’s looked awesome from the conversations I’ve seen held by other creators. Stay tuned for more from me here.

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