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My Identity and My Education

holsn39's picture

Heather Olson
September 2009

My Identity & My Education

    I identify as a woman, a youth, a white US American, from an upper-middleclass family. Recognition of how this social categorization has shaped my life and self-identity is something I am always attempting to obtain and be aware of. The formal and informal education that I have experienced in my life has brought me to find many other forms of self-identity including sexual, political, spiritual, and personal. Before I expand on how I see myself let me say that there is nothing constant or accurate in my self-identification. I recognize that the process of finding and expressing one's self-identity is greatly influenced by patterns of identification that we see, hear, read, and are demanded from us either through denotative or connotative means.
    Political identity is something I have used to identify myself in relation to other people in my culture and society (city, state, country, and globally on selective issues). My romantic view of myself in the political world would be as a progressive activist, environmentalist, humanitarian, feminist... conscious thinker. Does my life reflect what these identities should imply? Sometimes. Over the past few years I have been trying to uncover my spiritual identity that I believe is the root of my personality, my consciousness, and my drive for living and interacting with the universe how I chose. When considering how I would reflect on my relationship between myself, my gender, and my education, it is important to first understand how I make judgments regarding these subjects. I find it valuable to distinguish between what exists as 'Truth' in respect to laws of the cosmos (what some may see as laws of nature, others might call creations of divine energy), and what is 'conditional truth', or what is true as a product of culture and society. The distinction between these two kinds of 'truths' can be blurry, sometimes nonexistent, especially when talking about cultural. When I try to understand how and why concepts of identity (gender or other forms of identity) exist and are taught it is important to consider where we are influenced. Why is it even important to look at the relationship between education and identity? Since education is such a defining and influential part of my life I think it is valuable to take the time to look at how it is defining me, and if it's how I want to be defined.
    My formal educational background has been primarily the public school system. In addition to formal education, and perhaps more influential, I have been educated from other sources including my parents, peers, travels, UU church, nature, mixed media, and visual environments. The quality of education I received at my high school was very inconsistent. When my teachers designed the class for me to think, contemplate what they are teaching, and develop knowledge on my own, I found school to be interesting.  I went though my four years of high school with a very critical perspective, always noticing what was 'wrong' or 'ineffective'. This critical mindset allowed me to have self-created freedom.  I decided for myself when I was working hard enough or not, how many classes I should take, why I was even going to school, and how my teachers should be treating their students.  I found it more worth my time to go through school with this critical eye.
    One thing that soon became clear was that the curriculum was inconsistent with the inclusion of women. Some classes were phase 1/phase 2 including none or a select few women.  Other classes were phase 3, beginning to point out where women in history are lacking.  My Anthropology class was my only class that was phase 5 because we studied people (all inclusive) and culture from an attempted objective standpoint.  This was my favorite class of all four years of high school.  In contrast, I had a chemistry teacher who was clearly sexist and was reported numerous times over the years as making girls feel uncomfortable and violated.  I think that there is a serious issue with the school system when students are not comfortable going and talking to their teacher alone after class and when blatant sexism is reported to the administration they have no power to fire the teacher or demand any change.  It is interesting to notice that even despite the fallbacks of the school system as far as sexist male-dominant education, girls do succeed academically.  There were far more female students getting good grades and going to college than male students at my school.  So if I judged my school by considering the actual student body and their academic success and involvement in their education I would say it had reached stage 4, women making history.  Why is there so much disparity between the stages of curriculum and the actual situation of women in my previous school?  I believe it is non-formal education that brings the women of Cleveland high school to stage four.  Every student at this school lives in Portland Oregon, a city that fosters creativity, freethinking, activism, and individuality.  I think that the culture of this city has had it's influence on all of us and has taught people to not see gender as such a defining part of who we are and what we are fee to do.  Although the formal education and some aspects of culture and society are forcing gender identities and the implications of gender roles in my past community, there is also a growing counter-culture that embraces freedom of identity that some people see as anything from normality’s to eccentricities.
    I am seeking education that inspires me to be able to find new self-identities, enables me to define success for myself, expands my knowledge of the universe, and ultimately helps me find joy and self-confidence.  I also want to understand how I influence or could potentially influence the people around me so that I can make more conscious decisions. About a year ago for the first time I identified myself as a member of the queer community and this brought significant change to my perspective on gender identity and gender roles.  Suddenly feminism became inspiration to be an activist not a just perspective I agreed with.  Why did it take the adoption of queer identity for me to have passion about an issue that affects all women, within or outside of the queer community?  Being queer forces you to redefine your gender identity along with sexual identity because you associate yourself with other people who have crossed traditional gender standards.  I want to learn how activism can create social change in a larger community and eliminate some disunity that I have experienced in different social groups. I want to be an activist, and more of an activist than am I today.  It is crucial that my teachers are activists because if they are not then it becomes difficult to find purpose in learning.  I hope that my education will redefine what "activism" means and keep learning from seeming meaningless and arbitrary. My impression is that in college activism and education will be more united than in high school. 


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Anne Dalke's picture

laws of the cosmos?


let's start with the image you end w/, because I'm not sure I understand its significance in the context of the essay you've written. Is this "African Queen" a representation of (or even from) that all-inclusive anthropology course you took in h.s., the only one that would have met the requirements for McIntosh's fifth stage?

And then I'm wondering, in the context of y'day's class discussion, in which it was suggested that "truth" is not a useful--or even viable--term in science, whether you are re-thinking the distinction you make "between what exists as 'Truth' in respect to laws of the cosmos (what some may see as laws of nature, others might call creations of divine energy), and what is 'conditional truth', or what is true as a product of culture and society." Is each category a story, made by humans? Is the naming of natural "laws" a story, an account of what seems predictable?

...which brings us to your good questions about "how and why concepts of identity (gender or other forms of identity) exist and are taught." Your classmate Karina has one I-think good answer to that question: convenience.... the convenience of constancy and consistency as far as the ongoing story is concerned. It’s far more convenient to believe in a permanent truth, a set of facts, then to take a conditional approach to reality and always be ready to adjust to a shift, to embrace paradigm shifts. Predictability is valued and defended to the point of obstinacy. It is far more difficult to live with the notion of a relative and temporary truth.

But maybe it's time to question not just our identities but the very concept of identity....?