10/03/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

You Must Learn: What Is Diversity?

Just like I told you, you must learn

It's calm yet wild the style that I speak

Just filled with facts and you will never get weak in the heart

In fact you'll start to illuminate, knowledge to others in a song

Let me demonstrate the force of knowledge

Knowledge reigned supreme

The ignorant is ripped to smithereens

What do you mean when you say I'm rebellious

'Cause I don't accept everything that you're telling us

What are you selling us the creator dwellin' us

I sit in your unknown class while you're failing' us

I failed your class 'cause I ain't with your reasoning

You're tryin' make me you by seasoning

Up my mind with see Jane run, see John walk in a hardcore New York

It doesn't exist no way, no how

(KRS-One, "You Must Learn," [1989])

In this classic song by Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One, the knowledge that is being taught in schools is questioned, and more importantly whether what is being taught is relevant pedagogy for contemporary, urban public school students. In today's politically correct society, we often speak of wanting "culturally relevant pedagogy," an "inclusive classroom for all," and teaching the "whole child," but what do these words really mean in their practical application, especially at the urban school level?

Currently, in suburban Denver, students are striking over their Advanced Placement U.S. History courses being reorganized by a district curriculum committee that seeks to revert back to a more "traditional" approach, or what they describe as American "values" (e.g., patriotism, citizenship, etc.). However, what they really mean by a more "traditional" approach is a reversion back to the canon of white male dominance at the expense of the more authentic mosaic that America was both established upon and most certainly is today. Given that America was founded on the notion of dissent, the behavior of these students is actually engaging them in patriotism directly. In much of mainstream media, these students are viewed admirably (see this HuffPost article), which is a wonderful message from the mainstream media in support of a diversity-based curriculum. However, it is inescapable that these are predominantly white students arguing for diversity in their curriculum, and they are much more likely to be listened to, and heard, than students of color who argue for the same thing.

In today's society, even though young people have a tremendous amount of buying power, and even though social media, television and most consumer goods are aimed at attracting the crucial pre-teen (tween), teen and young adult demographic, we do not view this population as being "powerful." We especially do not view adolescents of color as having "power," no matter how power is defined.

Webster's online dictionary defines diversity the "the condition of having or being composed of differing elements" or "an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities." This definition is often oversimplified as meaning the "differing elements" of race, class or gender. We rarely identify diversity discourse as including discussions of other issues or differing perspectives. Unfortunately, what gets lost when we oversimplify diversity are the multitudes of complex intersectionalities that make up who an individual is. In short, if we only see the diversity of people through these three lenses, we are missing a more accurate and three-dimensional element of individuality and humanity.

In the case of the example in Colorado, we are not allowing for the possibility of a diversity of opinions because we, as a society, do not value the totality and agency of young people. We want them to purchase products and be consumers (see Apple), but we do not want them to challenge power. We want them to be seen but not heard. We want them to be critical thinkers but not critical of us. We want them to learn how to be change agents but not change us. This hypocrisy is not lost on the youth of today (or of any other generation, for that matter).

What do these hypocrisies say about our education system and, more importantly, the greater society as a whole? Why is it that we consistently send mixed messages to young people about agency, power and challenging norms but expect them to only read these lessons through the lens of acquiescence and not be bold enough to implement them?

We must listen to all students, regardless of what they look like, their ethnicity, or their sociocultural backgrounds. They remind us of why we are lifelong learners. Meaningful dissent can be the foundation for meaningful change. If we want problem solvers in our society, then we must let all students consider (openly) when things are and are not working. Let the young people learn, but let us also learn from them.