Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves (Lee Pellegrini)

The age of identity

New book by Lynch School co-authors focuses on kids, identity, and belonging

In 2022, the United Nations convened a meeting for worldwide education leaders in response to a global crisis of equity and inclusion, quality, and relevance in education. Against this backdrop, Lynch School of Education and Human Development Emeritus Professors Dennis Shirley and Andy Hargreaves have collaborated on their fifth book, The Age of Identity; Who Do Our Kids Think They Are and How Do We Help Them Belong? Written for educators, families, school board members, and “everyone else invested in education who wants all children to be treated fairly and succeed,” the new book takes a proactive approach to building a learning environment that values the diverse identities of all students.

In this Q&A, the authors address how to best promote identity in schools and to find common ground across all of our differences.

How can common ground be found between, as you’ve outlined, the “push in educational institutions and workplaces toward inclusion of different identities as ways to increase equity and opportunity,” and “an indignant backlash from groups who have felt threatened or overlooked by these developments”?  

We propose three elements which are indispensable to solving our many challenges related to identity. First, we need broad representation of diverse groups in our schools and universities, to promote full and free exchange of different and even conflicting ideas and experiences.  

Second, our teaching and curriculum need to focus on learning to weigh and balance different sources of evidence, and also on learning to draw on different theoretical perspectives to understand and be curious about those whose lives and struggles are different from our own. The essence of learning in the humanities is to be introduced to different historical and cultural perspectives and to believe that others’ experiences are accessible to all of us, even if we don’t all share the exact same identity.  

Third, we call for the cultivation of open-minded sympathy for the suffering and marginalization of others, by drawing on our own experiences of suffering, even if not of the same sort, to create emotional and ethical bridges between us. As Adam Smith pointed out, sympathy is the basic emotion of democracy.

What do you anticipate will be the barriers and challenges as school leaders who embrace your advice attempt to implement your recommendation in their districts?

One big barrier is the power of social media to simplify and distort complex arguments, and then to spread them online with no sense of social responsibility.  Another challenge is an insistent political culture that thrives on innuendo and character assassination. The biggest challenge, though, is people’s fear for themselves, and as we have just seen with the hesitant statements by Ivy League presidents regarding campus protests about the war between Hamas and Israel, we cannot lead from positions of fear. But we shouldn’t overstate these challenges, either.

Our book sets out 12 guiding principles that leaders can use to help everyone move forward together—including simple codes of conduct such as humility, irony, courage, solidarity, and civility. Ultimately, all young people want to learn, and the vast majority of educators and parents are trying to do their best for their students, even if they disagree sometimes about how to proceed.

What gives you hope that society will, as you’ve stated, “move beyond rage to reconciliation”?

It’s important to be hopeful, but not naive. The Age of Identity is based on longitudinal research from the Canadian province of Ontario, which for many years was making impressive progress in promoting diverse identities as part of a system-wide emphasis on young people’s well-being. Our collaborative research, in other words, was conducted in a climate of inclusion, not indignation.  Since then, things have flipped dramatically in Canada and elsewhere. We do believe that the spread of difference offers positive possibilities, but it will not look after itself without a strong accompanying narrative of inclusion.

One such narrative that we picked up from our Canadian educators is the idea that what’s essential for some kids is usually good for all kids. Self-advocacy by kids with special educational needs can prompt more personalization and student voice for all kids. Gender-neutral bathrooms mean everyone will get better bathrooms. When we welcome immigrants and refugees, this can create a more welcoming culture for all students—children and young people in military families that are constantly moving, or whose parents have to transfer because of their work, for example.

How can the core messages of your book reach school boards, and what would motivate them to embrace your approach?

Belonging is a big part of our book. Parents want success, and they want to be properly informed about their children’s development. There are forces out there feeding the media with harmful myths about excesses of identity politics—like the completely fabricated story that teachers were putting out cats’ trays for kids who identified as cats. Schools and their principals need to get out in front of all this, not be afraid, communicate with parents in non-technical language, and get everyone to commit to building belonging together.

One simple message of our book is that there’s more to all of us than meets the eye, so we need to take the time to pay greater attention to one another rather than rushing to conclusions based on one or two tick-box aspects of each other’s identities. We’re finding that this idea resonates strongly with educators and school board members.

You characterized the early 1990s as the Age of Achievement and Effort, where the focus was on “testing, data teams, and teaching to prespecified standards,” instead of on “developing visions for educational systems related to what countries wanted their students and societies to be like.”  Are there features of the Age of Achievement that can or should co-exist with the Age of Identity, where “young people (are treated) as human beings, rather than mainly as academic performers?”

The aspiration to accomplish something important is a core part of young people’s healthy development.  We squander that natural propensity when we turn schools into test-centered factories that make learning onerous and joyless, as the Age of Achievement and Effort did. Whatever shortcomings the Age of Identity may have by comparison, it is broadening our understanding of what education can be for all young people and especially the most socially marginalized ones.  This is a net gain that augurs well for a more inspiring school system in the years to come.