Sunday, January 31, 2016

Do you see segregation in this photo? I do.

Photo by woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons license.

"The most segregated hour of the week is on Sunday morning."

Have you heard this? I have. I suppose the meaning is that people tend to go to church with people of their same backgrounds, be it a national background, a racial background, or what have you. Given that I go to a Chinese church with few non-Chinese, it's obviously not any empty sentiment.

Nevertheless, I don't think it's true. That is, it may be true in the racial or ethnic sense, but that's not the only kind of segregation. In fact, segregation happens anytime we force others to be separated from people who are different from themselves. When we think of the biases that exist, we think of sexism, racism, classism, and a few others. Too often, however, we ignore age.

In my opinion the most segregated time of the week is Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 3:00 (or thereabouts). We call it elementary school, middle school, and high school. We call it 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. Here we force children, for many hours every day, to be with other children of approximately the same age, give or take a few months. We enforce this segregation as if kids have nothing to learn from those older than themselves or younger than themselves, as if they have no skills to develop by interacting with students who are older or younger than themselves. And this despite the fact that children have primarily interacted in mixed-age groups throughout history, pretty much up until this Prussian experiment we call the public school system.

We force upon our children an unnatural division as if all students of a given age are supposed to hit the same milestones at exactly the same time, as if they can't be inspired by those older than themselves, as if the can't learn empathy and compassion and capacity to nurture others by being with those younger than themselves. What's the most segregated place in America? The public schools. It always has been. Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka legally destroyed institutionally approved segregation of schools by race. I fear it's merely wishful thinking to image a similar ruling based on age.

There are many kinds of bias and discrimination. There are many ways that we, as humans, segregate ourselves. In almost every case, these discriminations and segregations bring about primarily negative results. It's time we rethink what we think we know about public education. It's time to reevaluate how we segregate children from one another. In a world where young people are increasingly only amongst peers, 24 hours a day (thank you, social media),  it's time to rethink and recognize the value of students mixing with those of a variety of ages.


  1. Matt, fascinating thought! I have often thought that homeschooling multiple children of various ages all at the dining table would be in some regards unfortunate. Why do I hold that belief? I want to re-examine the attitudes I have toward mixed ages in my home classroom; maybe there are many advantages of learning with multiple grades and developmental ages.

    p.s. It is snowing a little bit in Changsha today. Miss you & Liao Sha every day!

    1. In many ways, I think this problem of "age segregation" is more of a problem today than in the past. In the past, people had larger families and children would interact with children of different ages within their own families. Also, kids throughout neighborhoods used to play together for hours after school and on weekends, kids of various ages.

      Now, kids don't really play outside with each other very often. Kids are shuttled from activity to activity (e.g. sports teams), often with the same age group that they spend time with at school. The same thing happens with Sunday school at churches, especially large churches.

      I think we often do it for the benefit of adults who like orderliness (of which I am one) rather than for the benefit of children and basic human development.

    2. Yes! I experienced that age-mixing in neighborhoods as a kid, so did my parents. Very interesting.

    3. Check out this blog post:

      Key sentence (near the bottom): "Don’t take your kids to a megachurch, where they’re insulated from everyone who doesn’t fit into their age group."