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DEI Education in America Goes Back to the 18th Century

The nation is embroiled in a fierce debate over diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in public schools. So far in 2023, 35 bills to ban DEI in state university systems have been introduced in 20 state legislatures, often accompanied by proposals to ban the same programs in K-12 schools. The governors of Florida and North Dakota have signed these bans into state law, with many more copycat bills pending final approval or working their way through state legislatures.

Following the civil rights movements of the 1960s, educators and social justice leaders devised programs to diversify K-12 and higher education and make them more accessible to historically disenfranchised groups, while enhancing classroom content for all students. But throughout the intervening decades, conservative think tanks have consistently called DEI initiatives nothing more than reverse discrimination. The Claremont Institute, for example, calls DEI “radical” and contrary to “our civilization’s principles.” Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, describes DEI as “the nemesis of the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge.”

But the case of Anthony Benezet (1713-1784), a Quaker schoolteacher and abolitionist in 18th-century Philadelphia, rebuts the idea that DEI measures in schools are antithetical to the egalitarian ideals and Enlightenment values upon which America was founded.

Benezet is well-known to historians of Quakerism and abolitionism. Yet his work, and the pivotal role of teaching within it, deserves greater prominence in contemporary debates over education.

Benezet did not use the present-day language of diversity, equity and inclusion, but the spirit of that language was essential to his vision of education. Benezet’s educational philosophy and today’s DEI programs share the belief that all students should enjoy equal access to education as a means of addressing past inequalities while enriching student learning.

Benezet was born to a French Huguenot family, which immigrated first to London and later to Philadelphia in 1731, when he was 18. He joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers, as a teenager and went on to play a “pivotal role in disseminating Pennsylvanian Quaker antislavery to a wider and ecumenical audience.”

Benezet first became a schoolteacher at the Germantown Academy in 1739 and later joined the storied Friends’ English Public School — eventually renamed the William Penn Charter School — where he rejected authoritarian approaches, including harsh discipline and physical punishments, common in schools at the time. Instead, Benezet took up an unconventional philosophy for that era by treating students with kindness and adapting his teaching methods to their personalities and interests. His teaching innovations included modernizing curriculums to accommodate how different children learn and make education “serve more effectively the needs of growing children and a changing society.”

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post