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Isolation & Exposure

seaandsun's picture

The recent events at Bryn Mawr have caused me to consider the role exposure plays within the realm of education. Exposure to cultures, values, religious beliefs, political positions, and experiences other than my own. Humans tend to isolate themselves with the familiar, which can affect our access to learning about and understanding people who don’t fit into that category. I realized that although my generation still has a ways to go in terms of seeking out and benefitting from diverse communities, we have far more opportunities to do just that than our parents ever did.

My mom was born in 1955 and raised in a suburb of Detroit. Upon buying their house in this idyllic, middle-class neighborhood, her parents were required to sign an agreement stating that they would not sell the property to a person of color. This was standard throughout the area and it was one of the reasons that my mom can recall knowing only one black family in her childhood. She was in the second graduating class from a new public high school that had an almost entirely white student body and she went on to a 4-year university with only a slightly more diverse population. Yes, she had access to the public schools she attended for elementary, middle, and high school because her family was white and therefore able to live in that particular neighborhood. Yes, the housing regulations in her neighborhood prevented black families from gaining access to those same schools. What my mom didn’t have access to was a classroom with students from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds that could have provided exposure to experiences and views other than her own. She was isolated in an environment that didn’t challenge her perspectives, didn’t fight the racial stereotypes that were an ingrained part of her community. For the record, my mom is a loving, open-minded, and progressive person, but she still struggles to remove from her worldview certain negative associations developed in her childhood. When I think about the ramifications of her upbringing, it reinforces my belief that exposure, even if it is sometimes unfamiliar or uncomfortable, is an essential part of education in a global society. Though surrounding ourselves with people who share our experience and values helps us feel that we belong, we must also challenge ourselves to appreciate the differences and similarities within the people who don’t immediately seem like us.


jccohen's picture


Your discussion of your mom's access and lack thereof reminds me of the legal issue in the Fisher case (and all the cases leading up to this): specifically, the official valuing of diversity as a learning tool for everyone in the higher ed context.  This is indeed a legalization of 'exposure' as a value, and demonstrates - I think - how legal and policy initiatives can play a crucial role in shaping people's experiences.  I'm curious too about how your mom now perceives all this.  Is the version you write here something that she would ascribe to?  And in what ways can you/we learn from her efforts to resist all this and 'struggle' to find her way to other kinds of influences, attitudes, and learning?