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Parsing the Idea of Education as Society’s Great Equalizer

Parsing the Idea of Education as Society’s Great Equalizer

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By Tamara Herdener
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, School of Security and Global Studies, American Public University

In 1848, Horace Mann, an American pioneer of public education, stated, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

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Almost two centuries later, the United States continues to strive for equity and equality. So it begs the question, is education really the great equalizer. If so, how can barriers be removed to let education do its job of being the great equalizer?

Education Can Be the Great Equalizer if It Is Holistic

Education can only hope to be the great equalizer if the notion of education is holistic. Educators are learning that what is thought of as traditional education – reading, writing and arithmetic – in a vacuum is worthless if students are not taught and empowered to meet their physical, mental, social, and emotional needs.

Could a barrier to education be the assumption that people are born with the knowledge to meet these needs? People must be taught how to meet these needs. Until that is accomplished, reading, writing and arithmetic will not be fully understood and therefore not utilized to create equality. To answer the why and how education is an equalizer, a foundational assumption must be that it is defined as the development of a person’s intellectual, physical, mental, social, and emotional skills.

A Well-Educated Citizenry Results in a Strong Economy

Typically, education for all is often motivated by money; a well-educated citizenry results in a strong economy. Is this market-driven impetus for education enough? Albeit a strong economy is a welcomed outcome of equal education, isn’t a healthy, content, and thriving citizenry an even greater motivation for it?

Education uplifts people, expands their perspectives, and increases their tolerance of themselves and others. It also boosts their sense of safety and self-esteem, contributes to clarity in their decision-making abilities, infects them with lifelong curiosity, and a desire to learn and expand all aspects of themselves. All of this leads to an overall sense of contentment.

Education Is an Equalizer in People’s Overall Conditions

Maybe this overall sense of contentment, not the economy, is the essential stimulus to motivate society to use education as the great equalizer? Horace Mann does not say that education is the great equalizer in the economy or in the workforce; rather, he says it is an equalizer in people’s overall conditions, in their health, safety, well-being and overall happiness.

Yet the question remains, “How is education the great equalizer?” Is there equal access to it? The simple answer is no.

We have some distance to go on that front. However, technology — specifically online education and online educational resources — is playing a part in overcoming some of these barriers.

Thanks to technology, education is now more accessible to low-income households. With the need to work while obtaining an education, high school or college, online learning is a solution. This is especially true for those programs where there is no need for asynchronous participation. A student is able to work any schedule — days, nights, weekends — and still be able to pursue his or her schooling.

Online Students Are Not Judged by Their Age, Race, Gender or Other Personal Factors

Additionally, the online learning environment creates a learning platform where students are not judged by their age, race, gender, physical abilities or income levels. There is no need to share such information in the online classroom. However, the hope is that the online classroom is a safe and supportive environment where students feel free to express themselves to the level of their comfort zone.

Many online schools offer support to further the holistic education of their students. They do this through counseling services, mentoring, social opportunities with classmates such as clubs and organizations, free wellness programs, career counseling, alumni chapters, and even community service opportunities.

Education in the broader, holistic sense can truly be the great equalizer not simply by equalizing the workforce to create a stronger economy, but rather by creating equal access to it. That in turn results in greater opportunity for self-actualization to flourish. We see ourselves as human beings in our sense of worth, belonging, acceptance, and overall enjoyment and contentment in this one, unique lifetime we are all given.

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About the Author

Tamara Herdener has practiced law in the public sector at the municipal and federal level for more than 20 years, including eight years of service in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She has been a professor in the Legal Studies Program at American Public University since 2005. Tamara earned undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Foreign Languages from Seattle University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Notre Dame Law School. 

Ms. Herdener serves on a variety of educational committees in her community. It is through her many years of teaching and in these service capacities that she developed a passion for understanding and meeting students’ needs from a holistic approach. She believes that approach positively impacts the greater common good. She is a firm believer that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

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