Reading the World: Schools vs. Society

For the better part of the last decade I’ve been a high school social studies teacher. I’ve spent a considerable amount of energy during that time explaining to students that taking education seriously and going to college was the path out of pretty dire circumstances. Even though I do my best to tell them the truth, I essentially end up telling them the same things that were told to me as a first generation college student: school will make your life better. I do this knowing that college, and our entire education system, does little to address the myriad issues plaguing society. So, I add in a cautionary tale about student loans and I discuss the reality of being people of color, but when it comes down to it, I have endorsed the idea that education is the yellow brick road leading them to…. We never get that far.

It’s not that I don’t agree, I actually do think education is key in creating a more just world. However, I am increasingly aware the yellow brick road seems to be a road to nowhere. In my experience we like to wax poetic about the benefits of education and position a college degree as the holy grail of disrupting oppression. We do this at the expense of a fundamental truth: education (and therefore schools) do not exist in isolation. That is to say they are products of our very sick society. It is true education (and therefore schools) may be part of the cure, but they are not THE cure. This is what education reformers will never tell you. They will come up with all sorts of fancy words, spend millions on commercials and billboards, to convince us that education is broken and they got the solution. They will lobby politicians and appear on FOX News in service of furthering a narrative which places the blame for this broken system at the feet of people of color and the poor. They will unveil charter networks who are “beating the odds,” and they sing the praises of schools that feel more like prison than they do institutions of critical thinking. They will tell us what matters is the “improved” (read conformed) behavior of students who are “at risk;”  yet they will never tell us what these students are at risk of. They won’t prioritize equity and justice. They will never acknowledge that it is actually completely and totally logical, intelligent, understandable and healthy to be skeptical, angry, untrusting and even belligerent towards a sick system. How do schools address this reality?

And this system is sick. When you have to remind the world that Black Lives Matter. When Donald Trump is seen as “telling the truth.” When you have an entire industry getting rich from locking up citizens for nonviolent crimes to the point of having the largest prison population in history, you are sick. Instead of embracing this truth, schools, for the most part, run from it. Schools continue to push standardized curriculum which feign high expectations while insisting high GPA’s and ACT scores will stop the trauma. This weekend there was a house fire in North Minneapolis –a section of the city that has largely been divested from and ignored by the powers that be– in which three children lost their lives. The cause of the fire appears to be an oven being used to heat the house because the landlord hadn’t turned the heat on yet. What section of the ACT will cover this injustice? How exactly will 4.0’s help my students heal? When will state math standards require students to calculate the amount of profit generated by slavery? And what about reparations? In places that are ostensibly hallowed grounds of critical thinking these issues will never be addressed. Instead, students across the country will be told that if they just don’t talk when the teacher is talking everything will be ok. That even though every 28 hours someone who looks like them losses their life to the very people sworn to protect them, they should focus on being respectful. They shouldn’t make a fuss as McGraw-Hill rewrites the ugly history of slavery to make white folks feel better, just keep your shirt tucked in! Where exactly is the yellow brick road leading?

I’ve told students knowledge is power, but that’s not totally true. Knowledge — depending on its source and mode of production– can lead to power, but power is power. Schools can play a major part in empowering communities. They can be sites of power-giving knowledge production, but only if they are willing to do the work. Instead of focusing on controlling behavior and drill and kill instruction schools need to build healing and truth-telling into the curriculum. Schools need to, as Paulo Freire says, be willing to read the world before reading the word. One very tangible way to do that is by being accountable to community. Instead of assuming the onus is on students and families schools would be wise to assume systems have stifled the genius of community, and then be intentional about centering that genius. One organization that is doing just that is the Teaching Excellence Network (TEN). TEN allows communities and schools to work together in order to solve the very real issues facing society. Inherently, when you are accountable to community the issues affecting the community becomes the focus. When that happens knowledge is power.

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The most insidious aspect of this cycle comes in the condescending advice I’ve heard given to students far too often: “change it from the inside.” This is often couched in feigned understanding of young people’s frustration at a system they inherently know is designed to chew them up and spit them out at the first sign of resistance. It once again places the responsibility on students,’ this time to be extraordinary in order to survive with enough strength to then “change it from the inside.” Shame on us. We need to stop telling students this immediately and start creating schools that assist in the changing.

I told my classes today that I wasn’t sure if college was going to make their lives better. I told them what I did know is that they are brilliant and can change the world. I believe that. When will schools?

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