An earlier version of this essay appears in educational Horizons Spring 2008

The Purpose of Inclusion: education or merely socialization?

Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 2/13/18

According to the big shot running the meeting the other day, anyone who questions inclusion is a candidate for commitment. Our special education textbook is almost as supercilious: "Inclusion is a belief system shared by every member of a school as a learning community . . . about the responsibility of educating all students so they reach their potential." It is precisely this kind of simplistic triumphalism that makes it next to impossible to improve practices that are sadly insufficient. So yes, I question it.

Unlike the aforementioned true believer, the textbook goes on to admit that the real world is not quite so tidy and to cite a few sources that show problems:

In today's schools, what is considered inclusive practice varies widely depending on the clarity of state and local policies related to inclusion, the resources available to foster such practices, teacher and administrative understanding and commitment, and parent and community support.[1]

Ya' think?

If inclusion means on one hand the latest good-willed attempt to solve the problem of what to do for our extreme cases -- our privileged, our victims, our victimizers, and our unfortunate -- by careful placement and enhanced resources, then I'm for it. But let's acknowledge the reports indicating that this problem is still pretty intractable, and try to do something sensible about it.[2].

If, on the other hand, inclusion means that every kid should be confined for the greater part of the day with students requiring extraordinary attention (much less every psycho, free rider, and drug dealer), then no, I'm not for it, and the law does not require it.[3].Our textbook finally acknowledges that inclusion

... does not mean that every student is educated with peers at all times, but it does mean that the responsibility of discovering effective means for all students to learn together is taken very seriously, and deviations from this approach are made with reluctance and only after careful deliberation.[4]

With that caveat I have no quarrel. We know that the old special education models did not work adequately, and I'm glad they have been discarded. I believe full inclusion is the right thing to do. Nonetheless, in nearly every conversation I have with practicing teachers, they express frustration and sadness, usually without prompting of any sort, over students questionably included or included in large classes with inadequate support.

In nearly every observation I conduct, I see other kids bored stiff; they could have been challenged and could excel or even come to love learning, except that the teacher is pressured to focus on the "bubble kids" most likely to show substantial improvement on test scores. I also see far too many kids who think they can get by with insubstantial and careless work, and they are probably right. If inclusion for students with disabilities is combined with weak administrative support on behavior problems and modest intellectual goals for everyone, the process is unlikely to work. Making this right-thing-to-do even more problematic is that we are trying to include an extraordinary range of abilities, advantages, disadvantages, and handicaps while also trying to keep the criminals and those who hate school (for no matter how good a reason) in school.

I've seen this situation before, in my generation's struggles with another right-thing-to-do that has, until now, been sacrosanct: desegregation. If by desegregation one meant the morally necessary attempt to resolve three hundred years of racial injustice, to promote domestic tranquility, and to guarantee a decent chance at the American dream to decent people of all races, then I'm for it. In fact, I spent the greater part of my career working awfully hard to make it work, occasionally putting myself at considerable physical risk. By the twentieth century our society had been so morally corrupted and impoverished by generations of racism and discriminatory schooling that we rightly put freedom of association in abeyance, or at least reduced it considerably. But how far can we take that reduction in the twenty-first century and still call ourselves "the land of the free"?

Leveling downward is not compatible with education, either, by any definition of the word to which I care to subscribe. If by desegregation we mean the socially toxic result of miseducating kids of whatever race to the level of the street-corner hustler or the semiliterate Ku Kluxer, then no, I'm not for it at all. I did my high school teaching in Charlotte, North Carolina, the "home" of busing, in the 1970s and '80s, and I witnessed firsthand the results of doing the right thing badly; now I read that just about everything we accomplished for desegregation back then has been undone.[5] For many years I was a good soldier and kept my mouth shut. I'm too old for that stuff now.

Part of the problem, I think, was that we were desegregating without any regard whatsoever for whether or not that particular child belonged in that particular class. I well remember the sweet little old lady from downstairs coming into my classroom at the beginning of every semester with her clipboard, and moving kids -- lots of them -- to and from advanced and low-level classes simply to comply with the court order. You, you, and you are now slow learners. Sorry.You, you, and you are now advanced. Congratulations.

I believe the other problem with desegregation, and now inclusion, lies in an uncritical infatuation with socialization, resulting in a seduction pulled off with an awful cynicism.[6] To quote British philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

Modern governments are not interested in education: they are concerned only to impose "socialization" of one kind or another upon the surviving fragments of a once considerable educational engagement. . . . [This is] the alternative to education, invented for the poor as something instead of virtually nothing.[7]

While the rationale for both desegregation and inclusion is multifaceted, nuanced, and intellectually and morally compelling, most of the evidence for their effectiveness has been built around socialization, and socialization done poorly, at that. Discrimination may or may not be an evil, depending on how it's done, but indiscriminate inclusion may bring with it an evil far worse, and I fear it will hurt the kids with disabilities, probably even worse than their nondisabled classmates.

"Socialization" is important, but it is not unproblematic. A facile "They're all equal in God's sight" from developmentally delayed social gospelers just won't do, nor will an equally facile "They all have to learn to get along with all kinds of people" from historically bypassed egalitarians. Most children are perfectly capable of learning about a sewer without having to roll around in one, so it stands to reason that they can also learn about felons without having to sit beside them eight hours per day, one hundred eighty days per year, for twelve (or more) years. Our society has not yet provided enough support or alternatives for exceptional kids, nor has it learned how to discriminate well.[8]

To make inclusion work beyond the merely "adequate," we need to provide more attractive alternatives for those kids who don't want to be in schools and who detract from the education of those who do. We need to give teachers more support and give the kids more teachers -- I would suggest no more than fifteen kids per class in inclusive settings. Blithely asserting that "individualization," "inclusive practices," or a bigger "bag of tricks" will solve the problem of extreme cases applies methodological Band-Aids to political diseases, places undue burdens (including a deeply unfair load of guilt) on conscientious and overloaded teachers, and ultimately hurts far too many kids.[9]

As with segregation, this is not a methods problem; it is a policy problem. "Best practices" should never be a bureaucratic placebo for bad policy. A naive notion of equality and socialization is no more helpful than is a bigoted attitude toward diversity and social mobility. Contrary to some egalitarians, a good society rightly honors those who through intelligent good will, artistic talent, athletic prowess, or plain honest hard work make our lives better. Conversely, a good society shelters all children from being held down by conservative elitists, held back by liberal egalitarians, or held up by criminals. Benjamin Barber elegantly describes a kinder view of equality:

When democratic citizenship insists on leveling, it demands that slaves be emancipated, not that masters be enslaved; that suffrage be granted to the dispossessed, not taken from the powerful; that I win the exercise of my rights, not that you lose the exercise of yours.[10]

Contrary to some devotees of socialization, schools are not likely to fix every kid, and not every kid belongs in a school. Unless we figure that out, we will find ourselves increasingly burdened by schools in which nobody belongs, and as usual, the exceptional will be victimized even more savagely, because they are more vulnerable. The thrust of this column is simple: inclusion is not likely to work if we insist on including the victimizers with the victims.

Equality and socialization should accompany -- not replace -- judgment and education. To substitute the former for the latter, or vice versa, is an unsafe practice, pure and simple. No child should be denied the benefits of our education, but many do not deserve the burdens of our schooling -- as it is currently practiced.


1. Marilyn Friend, Special Education: Contemporary Perspectives for School Professionals. 2nd ed. (Boston: Pearson/Allyn Bacon, 2008), pp. 20, 21.

2. Start with Friend, then go to the USDOE's site and take up with <>, and then surf from there. Be forewarned, however: although the research is pretty solid that inclusion seldom hurts and often helps students with disabilities, and may have affective and social benefits for all, the research "suggesting" that it doesn't hurt "the other kids" academically is dated, limited, and unconvincing. Those who even think about it generally finesse the issue. And even its most enthusiastic proponents do not approve of inclusion without adequate support systems -- including alternative systems for those who resist schooling and make it difficult for others. And that is my beef. See also Debbie Staub, Inclusion and the Other Kids (Newton, Mass.: National Institute for Urban School Improvement, 1999), ERIC ED 439206.

3. "All children have the right to learn together";"[t]here are no legitimate reasons to separate children for their education. Children belong together -- with advantages and benefits for everyone. They do not need to be protected from each other" (Organization for Inclusion,Acceptance, and Respect,"Questions and Answers about Inclusion" <>). Such statements are sentimentalist rubbish. Ask any cop, social worker, or even bullying victim whether protection from some children is needed. And that kind of bogus "rights talk" just trivializes worthy and weighty matters: one could just as easily invent a "right" to learn separately, a "right" to attend the college or university of one's choice, or even a "right" to live in a smoke-free city. I found it interesting to hear not long ago that Estonia has declared Internet access a "fundamental human right." It may indeed be very desirable, but compared to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . c'mon, folks, get a grip.

4. Friend, Special Education, 21.

5. My own experience gives me enough lamentable war stories from "back then," and Ann Doss Helms's articles in my hometown Charlotte Observer about post-desegregation outcomes are depressing reading. For broader perspectives and some precise figures, see the NAEP reports on the racial gaps at < nationsreportcard/ltt/results2004/sub-reading-race.asp>; the Uniform Crime Statistics published yearly by the FBI at <>; the drug-abuse figures and the teenage-pregnancy figures released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at <http://www.drugabusestatistics.>; and the findings of the Guttmacher Institute at < state_pregnancy_trends.pdf>. Maybe I have to confess that although my generation of teachers did a good job with a lot of individual kids, societally we may have been a disaster.

6. Most of us are probably aware that St. Peter left half the statement unsaid: Love may indeed cover a multitude of sins, but infatuation can lead to a lot more. I Peter 4:8.

7. Timothy Fuller, ed. Michael Oakeshott on Education (New Haven:Yale, 1989), p. 86.

8. "Enough support or alternatives": my best suggestion at this point is in Wade A. Carpenter (2007):"For Those We Won't Reach: An Alternative" in Educational Horizons 85 (3): 146 - 155.

9. "Methodological Band-Aids . . . political diseases": an intentional mixed metaphor. I'm not disputing the need for better teaching methods for intellectually challenged and behaviorally challenging children; I am asserting that they may be necessary, but they are unlikely to be sufficient.

10. Benjamin R. Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone:The Politics of Education and the Future of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 6. Allow me to add the suggestion that an aristocracy of everyone is the only democracy worth living in.