Anti-bias courses that pigeon-hole actually harms

Jun 1, 2018 by

Back in the late 1960s the Berkeley CA school district required its teachers to sign up for a course in Minority History and Culture. An enthusiastic newbie, grad student between coursework and dissertation and former Peace Corps volunteer, I signed up for the first class that was led a couple evenings a week by a couple of black professors from S.F. State. The content was mostly about the African-American experience in America. Other minorities were largely excluded.


Several student members of the emerging Black Panther party were in my classes, so I thought I’d be a better teacher by gaining a greater understanding of where they were coming from. Had it not been for the course, I probably would not have read Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” and some works of W.E.B. Du Bois. Never being one for political correctness, I enjoyed bantering with the profs and challenging some of their points of view, especially the ones I thought were ridiculous.


In retrospect my major takeaway is that our schools, churches, businesses, etc. provide a valuable service when they encourage people to educate themselves about people who are different. But you don’t get there by making people wrong, as many are prone to do in this age of political correctness and divisiveness. One-off anti-bias trainings like Starbucks offers in my view will have little lasting value as research has shown, even though It might make guilty white liberals feel better and perhaps help their business’ bottom line.


Rather than offer anti-bias training apart from other controversial social health issues, help people discover and deal with the various biases that make us human through well-crafted, voluntary courses of study that address several of the community’s hot social health issues. We have no lack of these:


  • Bullying § Opioid/drug abuse § School shootings § Mental health breakdowns § Teen suicides § Sexual misconduct § Interracial strife § Deteriorating police-youth relations  § Assimilating recent immigrants, § School disciplinary incidents, just to name a few.


Keeping such issues in their disciplinary silos through separate programs to address every problem is neither effective nor affordable. Much as I admire the work of organizations that are addressing these issues, their highly targeted responses tend not to provide sufficient time and subject matter breadth for the in-depth training in emotional intelligence that today’s world requires. In a word, our communities must build better people to deal with this evermore complex world, and that requires opportunities over time to practice building healthy relationships in continually shifting situations. Such a course, probably team taught, would seem as important as any other.


Students, and for that matter most Americans, need courses, retreats and town meetings that would help them develop and defend points of view on controversial issues and listen carefully and respectfully to one another while they argue. I largely developed and taught such a course at Berkeley High School (CA) that remained in the curriculum for over 25 years (links below). One of my successors wrote a book about her experiences with it. I look forward to hearing from any community or organization that believes such a course is worth updating and would like to run with it.


Barry E. Stern, Ph.D., Consultant in Education and Career Development, Purcellville, VA

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