I’ve talked before about former sociology students reverting to individualistic perspectives after being exposed to the “real world,” but that idea depends on students learning about the impacts of social structures in the first place. I’ve run into particular problems in class when discussing the effects of poverty on educational outcomes. No matter how many examples I give demonstrating the effects of inequality, students continually get caught up on the fact that some poor students “make it.” In an attempt to counteract this, I recently explained inequality to my students as a room on fire.
I started by drawing a top-down view of a large lecture hall on campus and asking students where the exits are. In this particular lecture hall there are three exits, two at the back and one at the front. I told the students that the lecture hall holds several hundred students and asked them how many students they think would be able to get out if a fast-moving fire broke out in the center of the room. They thought that 1/4 of the students might escape. Then I asked them how many exits there would need to be for every student to have an equal chance of escaping. One student said that there would need to be an exit for every student in order for their chances to be truly equal.
Next, I erased the three exits from the drawing and drew a single exit at the front of the room, asking the students how many people would be able to escape with only one exit at the front of the room. They answered that they thought only the students in the front few rows would be able to get out. Hearing this, I asked the who they would blame if most of the students in a lecture hall with only one exit died in a fire. One student said she would blame the school for building such a poorly-designed lecture hall. Why, I asked wouldn’t they blame the students at the back of the room for not trying harder to get out? The reason, they said, was that the students didn’t design the room so it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t get out.
Inequality, I told them, is like a room on fire. A few students (usually those who were lucky enough to be born near the exit) end up getting out but this does not mean the students who don’t get out are to blame for their inability to escape from a poorly-designed system. Whether the ashes of this metaphor will resonate with my students remains to be seen.