What Can A 16 Year Old Teach Us About Education Today?

If you had the opportunity to meet President Obama and the Queen of England what would you want to discuss? Now imagine, you are 16 years old, what topics would be most important to you at that age? Your school? Your parents? Your favorite celebrities? For one 16 year old today, educational equality, rights for women, and terrorism are the issues she eagerly wants to discuss with heads of state and members of the United Nations. If you have not heard of Malala Yousafzai, her story is sure to inspire.  A year ago, at age 15, Malala was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen simply because she wanted to go to school. Miraculously, she survived and is now bravely speaking out in an effort to improve educational opportunities for children around the world. In this post, Mediha Din describes education from the sociological point of view known as Conflict Theory.

According to Conflict Theory, education is a mechanism that produces and reproduces inequality in society. Malala Yousafzai is passionate about combating this inequality. The recent 20/20 special about her journey describes a young girl growing up in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan. In 2009, the Taliban banned girls in her region from attending school.

Malala began a blog for BBC News in opposition to the order and voiced her desire for education. Soon after, the New York Times created a documentary about her struggle for education, and her name became known.

In 2011, Malala told CNN, “I have the right of education. I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk.”

A year later, Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman while riding the bus home from school. She amazingly survived and continues to work as an activist for children’s education.

Conflict theory is a perspective in sociology that sees the world as an arena of competition. When analyzing any situation from this point of view, a conflict theorist emphasizes the importance of:

1. Competition: over scarce resources

2. Inequality: conflicts between haves” andhave-nots”

3. Discrimination: different treatment and opportunities for different groups such as rich versus poor, males versus females, employers versus employees.

Malala’s story clearly illustrates a competition over scarce resources. In this case, the precious resource is education. “In some parts of the world, students are going to school every day. It’s their normal life,” Malala told Diane Sawyer in an interview for ABC News. “But in other parts of the world, we are starving for education … it’s like a precious gift. It’s like a diamond.” Today, millions of children around the world reach age 15 unable to read or write. According to data from the Central Intelligence Agency, 774 million people age 15 and older are illiterate, 52% of these people live in South and West Asia, and 22% percent live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Inequality among males and females is also evident in this data. Globally, 2/3 of illiterate adults are women. Among these women, 54 of the 76 million illiterate women come from just nine countries: India (where almost 30 million young women are illiterate), Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, Egypt and Burkina Faso.

For Malala, obtaining education as a girl in the Swat Valley of Pakistan was a struggle she was willing to risk her life for. Inequality in education is not however simply a problem of developing nations. Here in the United States we also see gender as well as socio-economic status playing a role in educational injustice. Research from the American Association of the University Women’s report How Schools Shortchange Girls, states that “teachers give more classroom attention and more esteem building encouragement to boys. In a study conducted by Myra and David Sadker, boys in elementary and middle school called out answers eight times more often than girls. When boys called out, teachers listened. But when girls called out, they were told to “raise your hand if you want to speak.” Even when boys do not volunteer an answer, teachers are found to be more likely to encourage them to respond or provide an opinion than they are with girls.

Socio-economic status and race also play a role in the quality of education children in the United States receive. Author Johnathan Kozol has been researching and writing about the disparity in educational quality in the United States for 50 years. One of his most well-known books, Savage Inequalities, describes how racial segregation still exists in American schools, the lack of resources available to children who are of low socio-economic status and racial minorities, as well as the overcrowded and unsanitary learning environments in some schools.

One example of this was described on the Oprah Winfrey show episode Failing Grade which featured a short documentary titled “Trading Schools.” Students from a low-income community in Chicago who attended Harper High School (just 40% of its 1,500 students graduate), spent a day at a public school about 35 miles away in suburban Naperville, Illinois- Neuqua Valley High School (a $65 million facility where 99% of students graduate).

When students from Harper High School arrived at the suburban school, they were shocked to see that it offered an Olympic-size swimming pool, a gym, fitness center, award-winning music department, huge computer lab, and rigorous course curriculum. In contrast, students from Naperville were amazed to see that when they arrived at Harper High that they had to pass through metal detectors before entering the campus and the school only offered two advanced placement courses (compared to the twenty-four offered at their school). The documentary vividly depicted the two public schools, just one hour away from each other, both offering very different educational environments to American youth.

Malala recently met with President Obama just before the second official International Day of the Girl where the President signed a proclamation stating “on every continent, there are girls who will go on to change the world in ways we can only imagine, if only we allow them the freedom to dream.” When Malala Yousafzai met with Queen Elizabeth, she demonstrated that she is very much aware that educational inequality goes beyond developing nations, stating “I hope that we will all work together for the education of every child, and especially in this country as well, because I have heard about many children that cannot go to school So I hope that we will continue our work on youth empowerment.” Access to high quality education is a fight not only for a young girl growing up in a rural part of Pakistan, but also for thousands of children in the United States, and around the globe.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Watch Malala Yousafzai’s speech at the United Nations. What social problems does Malala discuss in addition to gender inequality in education?
  2. Read more about educational inequality in the United States. What do you think can be done to improve dropout rates in U.S. schools?
  3. Watch the 20/20 Special About Malala Yousafzai. How does her schooling experience compare to yours?
  4. The United Nations Millennium Project has a goal to “ensure that, by 2015, children all over the world, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” Read about the plan here. What improvements have been made in global education since 2000? What problems still exist?