Who is Dr. Cornel West referring to when he says, “We need a renaissance of courage and a willingness to sacrifice?” This is what he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! during a discussion on his new book Black Prophetic Fire about the legacy of leading African American voices including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. He was referring to blacks themselves like when he confessed his fear that we may be witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time. Black prophetic fire, according to Cornell West can be summed up as a deep love for justice, love of the poor and working people and a love for black people. He tells us this can best be understood if we consider the four essential questions W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with in his lifetime: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force? This fire Cornell West refers to is the very notion of agency and social responsibility and it begs the question- What is the ethical culture driving our conversation about public schools today and what is your personal responsibility in making a difference?
This past weekend The New School and The Nation magazine hosted a talk entitled Saving Public Schools. It was moderated by Chris Hayes and included a handful of well-known education pundits—Dana Goldstein, Pedro Noguera and Randi Weingarten along with one community-based equity activist, Zakiya Ansari. Opening the dialogue was The Nation’s Besty Reed followed by New York City School chancellor Carmen Fariña, who I knew about but still had not heard speak. When I looked at the panel and around the New School auditorium it first appeared to be a pretty diverse group although in retrospect, I’d have to admit I remembered very few Latino and Asian faces in the room and I’d venture to say there were fewer attendees who would identify themselves as poor. Later when Chris Hayes asked how many of us were familiar with the Common Core Standards over ninety percent of us raised our hands. Chris had to laugh calling us outliers, who else would come out on a Sunday evening to hear a panel talk on public education? My mind flashed to a scene in a dystopian novel I’m reading called The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks that talks about people who are informed:
“Well, of course I’m a citizen,” he said. “I was born and raised in Britain.”
“It’s just a label that my father uses. Ninety-nine percent of the population are either citizens or drones.”
Dr. Bennett took off his gold rimmed spectacles and polished his lenses with a green flannel cloth. “Would you mind explaining this?”
“Citizens are people who think they understand what’s going on in the world.”
“I don’t understand everything, Judith. I never said that. But, I’m well informed about current events. I watch the news every morning while I’m on my treadmill.”
Maya hesitated, and then decided to tell him the truth. “The facts you know are mostly an illusion. The real struggle of history is going on beneath the surface.”
Dr. Bennett gave her a condescending smile. “Tell me about the drones.”
“Drones are people who are so overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving that they’re unaware of anything outside their day-to-day lives.”
“You mean poor people?”
“They can be poor or trapped in the Third World, but they’re still capable of transforming themselves. Father used to say, ‘Citizens ignore the truth. Drones are just too tired.”
The talk lasted for about two hours at which point I left the New School auditorium in a semi-apathetic haze. I’m not sure if it was the after effects of the cold medicine I had taken or if it was the actual talk but I couldn’t help think we haven’t even begun the difficult work that lies ahead of us as we face the failure of perennial reform compounded with a decade’s worth of policies that have strangulated the public education system. The numbness I felt reminded me of a NYPR program I had accidentally tuned into just a few weeks earlier called ‘Staring Into The Abyss’ in which Brook Gladstone spent an hour discussing the poignant question: Why is nihilism so trendy and is this really a new phenomenon? I know apathy is not nihilism, but they are definitely close relatives especially when one considers the impact the war on public education has had on teachers and teacher educators.
Digging into the abyss, I was able to pull up one surviving frustration of mine, however mangled and in somewhat critical condition. It had to do with responsibility and agency and Dana Goldstein’s comment about the promise of the Millennials (which contradicted to some extent LaMotte’s argument in her article, Forget the Millennials. Gen Xers are the Future of Work published in TIME magazine online on October 2nd). It had to do with the notion of race and class and does change happen from the inside or from the outside, from those struggling to survive or those who are privileged? Goldstein proposed that with the advent of Millennials investing in urban centers, public schools can be revived. Millennials are educated, have money (equaling choice) and purportedly believe in the promise of diversity and democracy. Chris Hayes and Pedro Noguera conspired around this prospect by sharing a story about a school in Brooklyn in which parents have been actively trying to encourage an equal mix of middle and upper class white kids with poor and blue collar black and brown kids. Zakiya Ansari looked annoyed and asked, “Why do we need white kids to make a school work properly?” At that moment, the white woman sitting next to me mumbled something to the effect of, “Once Millennials arrive on the scene, poor folks can’t afford to stay so how is that going to help?”
Funny, how race and class were interchangeable in this conversation. White is equated with middle/upper class and black and brown folks with poverty. I wonder if New Yorkers can see these two identities as being separate these days. If not, what does that mean for the children being educated in segregated schools and what does that mean for their educators? Who is driving the conversation? And who is responsible for making a change?
In response to Ansari’s question, I’d say, it’s not that we need white kids for schools to be good. However, if the professional “successful” world outside school is integrated (as depicted in the media, the movies and TV) children need to see the same demographics in the classroom if we want them to identify themselves as a part of this reality. Otherwise, it’s natural for children to question their place and value in the world, which is what it means to be ‘marginalized’ in society. The question of segregated schools is much less about the quality of education in contemporary society (although this certainly is important and dates back to the pivotal case separate but equal)—but more about how schools need to reflect the type of society we want to live in. Do we want our children to grow up in a divided, racialized and segregated world? How are children going to learn about citizenship, democracy and agency in a segregated setting?
When I was growing up, I had the fortune of attending public schools that were rich in diversity. Today, many of us recognize we were lucky to have a quality public school education with this experience. Just by exposure alone, it was evident to us that American society is a fabric threaded of different colors, ethnicities, languages and religions. That is not to say we had a utopian system back then. My mother, like many others, had to fight to get me into a good junior high school that was just outside my ‘zone’ but was easily accessible to our neighbors with non-Latino last names. The point is, fellowship with children and families from different backgrounds provided us with a broadened perspective of the world, taught us how people coexist and helped us learn important skills about how to negotiate in society—skills that continue to shape how I see and interact with the world today. Regardless of the quality of education, children who have segregated educational experiences are missing out on critical social, emotional and cognitive skills required in a global community. Teachers in segregated schools are very aware of this. It comes out in the academic performance of their students. In my doctoral research entitled, The Impact of Teaching Literacy for Social Justice on Student Achievement (2007), I documented how a teacher was concerned that although the African American students (in a segregated, African American school) were easily engaged and could critically examine and respond to literary experiences that spoke to the African American experience about slavery, oppression and persecution; they couldn’t transfer this knowledge when learning about the Jewish American experience and the holocaust. The challenges of learning multiple perspectives in a segregated school setting as presented by Kozol (2005) are real.
After the event, walking down Sixth Avenue looking for a place to eat, I began to think about how powerful it would be if everyone who attended the talk sent their own kids to the public schools. What would that look like, a school comprised of these folks, the ‘intellectual class,’ or at least purporting to be? That’s when it occurred to me that that’s exactly what a private or selective school looks like. The fact that most education pundits, policy makers, well paid administrators, university professors and white collar professionals opt to send their own children to private or highly selective public/charter schools is a topic rarely brought up in these settings. It’s not that these educators don’t care for ‘other people’s children,’ it’s just that like Pedro Noguera said, “educated folks with means regardless of their color will never send their kids to bad (or questionable) schools.” Bad schools where perennial reforms exist can only happen to poor folks struggling to survive. Is it because poor people (now joined by a growing number of ‘falling’ middle classers) don’t have a voice or is it because they really don’t have a choice? Or is it because they are too tired to even light the fire?
Is there a possibility that we may have created a choice-less “choice” system that in actuality perpetuates quality education for the privileged? How can we expect the down trodden to be responsible for their own uplifting? What are the different levels of courage required to stand up and fight for what you believe in depending on your position in society? What kind of sacrifice can we ask of people who are struggling for their survival? Who is driving the conversation around public education and what is the ethical responsibility of the intellectual community? What is the social and moral responsibility of the private school sector with regards to the public school sector knowing that these are the decision makers and drive public policy? Can we require private schools to collaborate and share resources and social networks with public schools? How do private schools churn out a citizenry that recycles the same inequitable conditions in society?
Education reform has historically and consistently been about experimenting, examining and dissecting public school kids and mostly poor public schools. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to how we educate children of privilege and unpack notions of entitlement, elitism, competition and Darwinism. Dana Goldstein stated early in the talk that one of the original purposes behind public education was moral. How can we consider the moral purpose of public schools without considering the ethical culture of our private schools simultaneously? I wonder if it’s possible to reposition education reform. Consider school reform not as a business of fixing the poor but as a holistic endeavor in which we are all implicated in the need to change how we do things for all kids, and that includes all kids, the rich kids too, and the sons and daughters of all the reformers and the intellectuals, too, who sit and talk about wonderful, really big ideas like equitable funding in our country. My guess is that we’d have a very different kind of conversation, one that gets at the true nature of our people, willing or unwilling to sacrifice the benefits of privilege.