posted by Amy on Dec 22
In her 1997 book, Ghetto Schooling, Jean Anyon argues that all attempts to reform urban education are doomed to failure unless and until the political and social isolation, poverty, racism, and hopelessness in urban environments are remedied. Anyon describes the generational and systemic dysfunction, abusiveness, low expectations and incompetence within the school system, in addition to physical defects (old, crumbling, dirty buildings, lack of instructional materials, overcrowded classrooms, etc.) and characterizes them, correctly, as symptoms of a larger issue of impoverishment in every sense of the word. However, an even more fundamental truth that the book reveals, but fails to develop, is that almost all schooling in the United States is inherently oppressive and dehumanizing. The assumptions, underlying principles, and educational theories that are producing dehumanized, oppressed, uneducated poor children who go on to become criminals, inmates, drug addicts and unwed mothers are also producing conscienceless, depressed, dissatisfied, debt-ridden middle class and upper class MBA’s, professionals, managers, bureaucrats, and others who, in less obvious ways, are just as dehumanized and oppressed as the poor. It is no wonder we struggle with obesity, family violence, divorce, alcoholism, eating disorders, shopping disorders, hoarding disorders, gambling addiction, sex addiction and unhappiness at all levels of society. Our culture is built on fallacious values and ethical constructs. The education system is a product of those values, and it perpetuates them.
Our culture defines education as a process where the schools, as owners and controllers of information, fill the empty heads of the students and shape them into a product that will be of use to business. Since the economy is based on consumption and finance, the most valued output from the education system is a well-trained consumer-debtor. Now business leaders like Michael Bloomberg want to take over education and use a business model for how to do a better job of this, including de-professionalizing teachers and emphasizing high-stakes testing of easily-measured “facts” about achievement. These are the same people who keep creating massive economic bubbles, who steal money by abusing the trust of their friends, who remorselessly lay off thousands of workers while simultaneously giving themselves obscenely large bonuses, who take advantage of the publicly-financed infrastructure that makes it possible for business to be carried out in a safe, secure legal environment, and who see no contradiction in wanting both privatized, minimally taxed profits and socialized risk. The fact that so many people think it is a good idea to turn our children’s futures over to hedge fund managers and other Masters of the Universe speaks volumes about what this culture really values.
Everyone-the president, the Secretary of Education, and most of the proponents of reform-talks about how our schools are failing to prepare students to compete in the global economy. Everyone says this means the system is broken. That is not what it means. The system was never designed to make sure everyone could succeed, either in the economy of the 1900′s, the 1930′s, the 1950′s or today. The system we have-and have always had-is preparing people to fill the roles that they, by virtue of their class-by an accident of birth-are intended to fill. Ghetto Schooling shows that the highly-esteemed Newark public schools never did do a good job educating the poor, especially minority and immigrant children, but in the days that uneducated people could find work the problem was hidden. Today the system is working to line the pockets of the business interests that make money from having more and more of the same results. These same business interests are the ones that control public policy in the United States-who consistently claim that every effort to make things better for the poor and middle class will be bad for business and, thus, bad for all of us, and who block efforts at real reform.
Poor people in the U.S. are not needed to be workers in the global economy. The market keeps seeking less and less expensive labor, and it keeps moving to poorer and poorer parts of the world to find it. Poor children in the U.S., especially poor minority children, are being efficiently and relentlessly prepared for the roles that the global economy has assigned them. Girls are producing new soldiers for our military machine and new inmates for our thriving prison industry, as well as the next generation of mothers for the next generation of killers, criminals and baby makers. Poor kids fill up our military service, our prisons, our homeless shelters, our “poverty industry.” If there were any serious desire to improve the lives of poor school children, or, for that matter, if this really were the land of opportunity and if we really did value equality and democracy, we would have a mandatory livable wage, universal health care, universal child care and preschool, and publicly supported (debt-free) higher education for everyone who is capable of doing the work. There would be a preferential option for the poor in school staffing, capital investment and funding. Poor kids would have the best of everything-parks, recreation programs, arts, music, practical arts, leadership training, nutrition, and the best teachers, books, libraries, art supplies, musical instruments, school buildings, principals, office staff and custodians. Their parents would get parenting education, job training, and counseling. That’s not happening. Instead we have school voucher proposals and charter school proposals and any number of ideas that amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or completely delegitimizing and dismantling public education.
Anyon says the teacher education curriculum at Rutgers demonstrates “that all students are capable of meeting the demands of cognitively complex activity” (176). That phrase jumped out at me. Every human being on the planet easily and instinctively engages in “cognitively complex activity.” Learning to speak, walk, sing, ride a bicycle, tell jokes, go to the store, buy bread and bring back the right change, stay out of your dad’s way when he’s in “one of those moods,” or sell crack on a street corner are all “cognitively complex” activities. Memorizing disembodied bits of “information” devoid of context and without any apparent relevance is mind-numbing. Drill and repetition are the best ways to teach nonsense, but are the worst ways to make meaning. The human brain inherently makes meaning, makes connections, and engages its environment. Every normal, healthy toddler is endlessly curious and has a relentless drive to explore and learn. If by the time they are in second or third grade children are no longer hungry to learn it is not because the work is too “cognitively complex” it is because it is lifeless, stultifying, boring and meaningless, and it’s being doled out by teachers who despise the students. (As Anyon’s book demonstrates, it also has a great deal to do with the challenges the kids face at home and on the street, in the violent, dysfunctional, hopeless environments in which they live.) Forcing kids to sit in rows filling in worksheets and parroting back bits of disembodied, irrelevant information is abusive and pointless, yet Anyon tells us of numerous court cases in New Jersey arguing over whether this sort of “basic education” is sufficient for poor kids, and even whether they are capable of benefiting from anything better. Children can sense that hidden curriculum, and the underlying hostility and contempt. They are much smarter than anyone is giving them credit for.
An educated person is one who is fully human, who is liberated from oppression, control, hatred, nihilism and domination, and whose capacity for reflection and action is fully realized. An educated person is a Subject and not an object. He or she has the capacity to effect change, to lead, to create, to think, and to transform. Although it is obvious that the kids who can barely read or write have not been educated, many of the ones who do “succeed” under the current rules of the U.S. education system are also uneducated under this definition.
Everything about a ghetto child’s life conspires to turn her or him into an object. That is tragic in itself, and cause enough for devoting a lifetime to changing those circumstances. But nearly every school child in the U.S. is oppressed and dehumanized, and is being made into a cog in the same machine. The ones who can earn money are being trained-by popular culture, by advertising, by propaganda, by virtue of the jobs they manage to land after they get out of college, to consume. The ones who fail to earn enough money for that become products-soldiers, prisoners, street people. But all are objects. Some of the “successful” ones are being trained as knowledge workers, professionals, financiers and executives. Others are being trained to be military officers, jailers, police officers, propagandists, and intelligence officers who help keep the underclass under control. Some of them are politicians who, by running for and holding office, maintain the illusion that voters have a voice in the policies that perpetuate this system while making sure that the interests that bought their election are served. They are all victims. They are all cogs.
The cogs are produced by “training.” Training turns human beings into objects who have no personal power, no agency. Objects are acted upon; they have no power to act. They are trained to respond in predictable ways to propaganda, to marketing, to cultural forces, and to what they were told in school. Subjects, on the other hand, are fully human. They think, create, learn, and act.
The military-industrial-entertainment-insurance-medical-energy-financial complex does not want Subjects. You can’t keep actualized human beings from asking questions, demanding answers, questioning authority and wanting a better life. They don’t toe the line. They might get together and talk to each other and learn from each other. They might form a tenants’ union, a food co-op, a parents’ committee. They might start demanding that their children quit being treated like criminals in their schools. They might start voting. They might organize and collectively insist on being treated like human beings.
Christianity is humanizing. It teaches that everyone is a unique, precious, child of God, made in God’s image. Christians believe that it is God’s will for God’s kingdom values and kingdom rules to be followed on earth. Christians believe that God is Love, and that human fulfillment comes from loving God and loving all our fellow human beings-not just the ones who look like us, or worship as we do, or believe as we do. “Love your neighbor” means “love everybody.” An injustice done to any member of society damages everyone. These kinds of Christian values are a threat to maintaining an oppressive system. Authentic Christianity is countercultural. If mobilized, it would be a counterweight to training, and a force for authentic education.
A loving school system would treat each student as an irreplaceable, precious member of God’s family. It would nourish the minds, bodies, and spirits of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. Students and teachers would cooperate in a dialectical process of discovery, learning, and awareness. It would liberate them from sin, from hatred, from abuse, and from oppression. It would actualize potential. It would be holistic, healthy, respectful, and efficacious.
This is not soft-hearted, soft-headed idealism. It is extremely difficult to dismantle oppressive systems. The oppressors and the oppressed are equally captive, equally invested. A loving, life-affirming education system would be threatening to the established order, and many vested interests would be dislodged by a truly revolutionary education consciousness. Ending poverty, racism, isolation and hopelessness, and radically reforming the underlying philosophy of education is, as Marian Wright Edelman says, “the civil rights issue of our day.” It should be the number one priority for all people of faith and good will.