BYU Alumna Delivers Annual Cluff Lecture on Racism, Early Childhood Education

Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, a BYU alumna and current faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about racism in early childhood education.

PROVO, Utah (March 5, 2020)—Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, PhD was the speaker for the Benjamin Cluff Jr. Annual Lecture, hosted by the David O. McKay School of Education. Dr. Adair’s presentation, titled “Agency as a Tool to Fight Racism: What Charles Mills, Gloria Anzaldúa and Texas First Graders Can Teach Us About Personhood,” highlighted the exceptional research done by Adair and others to confront racism in elementary schools.

Dr. Adair, who is an associate professor of childhood education and Director of the Agency and Young Children Research Collective at the University of Texas at Austin, utilized her background as a cultural anthropologist to understand the role of agency for schoolchildren in the classroom and how the agency of children of color may be limited.

“I’ve learned over the past 10 years that agency, or at least the enactment of our agency, has as much to do with power as it does our own choices and accountability,” Adair explained. “I have also found that racism is a major factor in who gets to use their agency at school. Racism, to me, is one of the great evils that prevents white people from progressing.”

Before diving into her research, Adair—a BYU alumna—offered a message of hope to BYU students “who feel average.”

“I was a very average BYU student,” she said. “I never got awards. I didn’t have any major accomplishments when I was here. I got a B-minus in beginning clogging, to give you a sense of how average I was.”

Adair’s research followed the impact on agency—by her definition, “the ability to influence and make decisions about what and how something is learned”—on social and academic development in children.

As she traveled to many elementary school classrooms throughout California, Arizona, and Texas, she found a noticeable difference between schools in middle- or upper-class areas with predominantly white students as opposed to those with mostly children of color. The classrooms in more affluent areas allowed students to ask questions, move around, and work on projects, while the predominately minority classrooms were strictly organized in where students sit, when they talk, and who they work with.

“I thought to myself, and have been thinking ever since, ‘how is this equity?’” Adair wondered. “How is one group of kids being able to use their agency at school, and all these other kids are not?”

Adair referenced the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who proposed that a better measure of a nation’s development than its income is the agency and wellbeing of its citizens. That inspired Adair to launch her own research on the ability of elementary students to determine what they learn and how they learn it. Her findings echoed the philosophical premises of Charles W. Mills, who argued in his book, The Racial System, that racist measures have classified people into human and sub-human groups, unfairly categorizing individuals of color to a lower social status.

In filming classroom settings and presenting her clips to different school districts, school administrators, and parents, she came to the conclusion that educational equity is not achieved by trying to repair young children, but by working to fix discriminatory systems and teaching practices.

Quoting Mills, Adair said, “As long as this studied ignorance persists, the Racial Contract will only be rewritten, rather than being torn up altogether, and justice will continue to be restricted to ‘just us.’”

—Samuel Benson (Sociology, ’23)