* This is a contributed article and this content does not necessarily represent the views of IBTimes.

Education is facing a crossroads. One path lures us towards wielding the classroom as a weapon for political warfare. The other calls us to hold the classroom as a lever for raising understanding and building bridges across differences.

Truth, dignity, and perspective-taking are not only essential ingredients for learning, without them our students will be starved of the skills they need to step forward in a globalized multicultural economy. When we lack the capacity to view the world through another’s eyes, we cause harm - even with good intentions. I’ve learned this as a teacher and also as a cancer patient.

In January 2020, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In a bid to protect my hair against chemotherapy-induced alopecia, I bought a Scalp Cooling Cap to wear during treatments. This medical device is relatively new, so the nurses and I worked together to follow the directions provided. I was told that to achieve the best results I would need to thoroughly wet my hair so that it would lie flat under the cap. As a Black woman, I knew that wetting my hair would have the opposite effect; my type of hair expands in response to moisture. Even after contacting the company for further guidance, however, we received no additional information, and I lost all of my hair.

When the company later phoned me, the spokesperson admitted that they did not have sufficient research to accurately recommend how Black women with my type of hair should use their product. After doing my own research, I learned that the scalp cooling technology was approved by the FDA in 2017, even though the test trials included no Black women. Despite the requirement to include diversity in clinical trials, even an organization as scientifically ‘objective’ as the FDA failed to take Black women like me into consideration.

I do not believe that I was the victim of deliberate, racist exclusion, and that is exactly the point. Rather, for the predominantly White researchers, doctors, and approval board members, Black people with hair like mine were not even considered.

Mine is not an isolated anecdote, but part of a societal trend. Non-dominant groups are frequently ignored; for example, the US government did not adequately test the impact of a crash on a female dummy until 2012, which meant that female drivers have a 71% higher chance of moderate injury than men. Similarly, studies on erectile dysfunction outnumber studies on premenstrual syndrome (PMS) by five to one, even though more women suffer from PMS. Indeed, poor airport design and wheelchair access are why only 36% of disabled people took a flight in 2018.

We have to ask how so many educated designers and regulators are able to neglect such vast swathes of the population. Part of that puzzle can be solved when we look at what our children are taught in schools.

In 2018, the NYU Metro Center analyzed three elementary school resources. Despite a predominantly non-white demographic, 82% of the story authors on the State recommended Pearson ReadyGen Curriculum were white, 8% were Black, 8% Asian, and 2% LatinX. This asymmetry has consequences; a 2010 National Education Report found that the “overwhelming dominance of Euro-American perspectives leads many students to disengage from academic learning.”

But there is also a cost for students who find their experiences repeatedly mirrored across the curriculum. The lack of diverse representation lessens their ability to empathize and learn from people and cultures who they perceive to be different from themselves. Like the scalp cooling cap researchers, they see the White experience as the “universal” and fail to consider what they might learn by including more diverse perspectives.

Ultimately, books are the most revolutionary perspective-taking tool ever invented. When the printing press exploded in Germany’s Gutenberg in 1452, literacy rates across the world sky-rocketed, movements gained a voice and the scientific revolution went into overdrive. Curiously, rates of violence seemed to decline as thousands were finally able to peer into the mechanics of another’s mental world. When we read another’s perspective, we cross a bridge towards understanding another’s experience.

Research has unequivocally proven that exposing people to different perspectives increases their ability to engage with those who do not belong to the same social or racial group. That’s why more empathy means better business. 61% of employees found interviewed by Catalyst claimed they were more likely to be innovative if their leaders were empathetic. In a global economy, cultural awareness is an increasingly valuable currency.

Lessons of awareness, empathy, respect, listening, and love are reinforced every day in schools. For those who decry diversity, inclusion, and equity work as divisive, note that - in the words of Audre Lorde - “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

Bringing authentic diversity to school curricula is not about making children feel bad. It’s about bringing visibility to experiences, histories, and truths that have been ignored or hidden. It’s about preparing future researchers to insist on full representation in clinical trials. It’s about learning from diverse perspectives to make this world a better place for everyone. For it’s in sharing our differences, that we find our shared humanity.

Nicole Tucker-Smith
Nicole Tucker-Smith Nicole Tucker-Smith