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4/17/13

Bergeron Equality


I love teaching "Harrison Bergeron," Vonnegut's short-story featuring a dystopia which achieves "equality" by making everyone "the same." Smart people wear devices that chime loudly in their ears, preventing them from thinking clearly, and preventing the less intelligent from  "feeling bad" for not being able to achieve the same intellectual heights.

Beautiful women wear masks, because biologically, some women will never be as beautiful, and it is unfair. The most skilled ballerinas dance with chains and weights, forced to maintain the same degree of clumsiness as their peers.

Rebel Harrison tries to overthrow the system by removing all his man-made handicaps, and likewise "freeing" a beautiful and skilled ballerina. Together, they dance on a televised performance, temporarily proving the beauty of diversity before being shot down by the Handicapper General.

Harrison Bergeron always elicits an interesting discussion from my students on what equality is, and what is looks like in real-world application. Some students decide that equality is bad, because "equality means everyone has to be the same."

I usually use this as an opportunity to talk about how I try and incorporate equality in my own classroom. My average class size is 32. (It's obscene.) In any given class, a few students show a propensity for intellectual greatness. They are probably smarter than me. The majority of students are what I call "average-bright." They are smart and capable...just like "everyone" else, including me. I also work with students who struggle on various levels. Some are very smart, but work with learning disabilities that cause them to process information differently. I would not label any of my students as "dumb," but they are all very different.

So how do I teach the same thing to 32 individuals with different needs, and how do I grade their individual progress in a way that is fair?

Choice.

For most major assignments and class discussion, I provide choices for how a student proves academic growth. I try and make sure there is a choice for most major learning styles, and ability levels. For example, some students will write a formal academic essay arguing a point central to the novel. Others will write and perform a speech. Some will create multi-media presentations. Others will create original art or poetry.

I try and help each student identify the best choice for their learning needs. But the standard is always the same: Show me what you know about X. As the year goes on, I encourage them to try new choices, and adapt their assignments accordingly. But, they are all learning "the same" thing. The standard is the "same," but differentiated (education word!) to who they are. None of my students are the same, but I'd like to think I work with them as equals.

With the Mormon community's renewed interest in discussing female ordination, the one argument I hear over and over again from naysayers involves some variation on the "Men and women are different! They don't have to be the same to be equal!" theme. There is a lot of Valerie Hudson tossed around (that's a whole other post,) and by the end, I am supposed to accept that because men and women are different, I cannot expect them to hold the same privileges, or Priesthood.

The same naysayers also offer this stunning intellectual insight: Men can't have babies. "Maybe we should start a movement for men to get pregnant!" It would be unfair to both sexes to give women the Priesthood when we can never give the equivalent to men. Except we can. It's called Fatherhood. And yes, I understand that carrying and giving birth to a baby is different than providing sperm. But if men and women are to be equal partners in parenthood, despite biological differences, is it so illogical to make them equal partners in Priesthood, despite those same biological differences?

Of course men and women are different.

But the funny thing about people who rail against gender equality in the church, who claim men are women are just so different and therefore must maintain separate roles, is they actually want men and women to be the same. They are the Handicapper Generals of the church, attaching chains to the legs of any woman skilled enough to both nurture and provide, and chiming loudly in the ears of any man who dares to see beyond his role to "preside" in the home.

According to the current model, all men will want and hold the Priesthood the same way, and all women will produce and care-for children the same way. Their argument, "men and women are equal with different roles" really means "all men are the same as all other men, and all women are the same as other women."

But if men hold Priesthood because women have uteri, what happens to the woman who cannot have children? Can she have the Priesthood, because, just like her male peers, she "can't have babies?" Should we stop giving men the Priesthood until they have children, because women don't get their "thing" until the sperm hits the egg? I mean, if things are already equal in patriarchy land, what do we do when different men and women don't fit the same roles?

Men and women aren't different because of their genitals or their internal organs, men and women are different because people are different.  I am not the same woman as my sister, mother, or daughter. I am not the same individual as my husband, father, co-worker, or friend.

Just as in my classroom, equality in the LDS church doesn't mean making everyone the same. It means giving everyone access to the same standard (Show me what you know about X,) and allowing everyone to achieve that standard in ways best suited to their individual needs.

In a Mormon context, the standard we are all striving for is the same: Be more like Jesus. But the way we get there, the way we show our learning, doesn't involve two assignments determined solely on gender. Instead of assigning the same two paper topics to all the students, imagine a world where women could become more like Jesus by offering a poetic Mother's Priesthood blessing to her sick child. Imagine fathers learning how to nurture their own children, not just "babysit" them while Mom is at Enrichment. Imagine all the original art and poetry we could create by offering the Priesthood to all members.

We wouldn't make men and women the same. We would recognize men and women for what they really are: Individuals capable of eternal progression beyond their physical anatomy.


In "Harrison Bergeron" beautiful people wear masks, so as not to remind others of what they do not possess.  Smart people go slowly insane from the constant ringing in their ears. As followers of Christ, what are we masking, and who are we driving slowly insane each time we claim our anatomy as our destiny? More importantly, who do we shoot down as apostates for daring to dance a little differently than before?