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Something to Fight For

Dear Diane,

It has been reported that 56 percent of black Chicagoans (over the age of 16) are not employed, 21 percent are officially unemployed, and a third live in poverty. These figures are double and triple those for whites. So says my friend Don Rose (based on data from Megan Cottrel of The Chicago Reporter in a piece titled "Second City or Dead Last"). But more and more members of the lower-middle-class white community are moving in this direction, too. In fact, it's even affecting—less dramatically—the solid middle class (like my own children and grandchildren). Isn't it time to look beyond schools to blame our plight?

But it's considered "soft racism" to mention these factors as relevant to the test-score gap, the graduation-rate gaps, etc. We are expected to believe that young people growing up in such intensely poor communities will not be damaged by it unless we have "low school expectations"—plus lazy, overpaid, unionized teachers!

But then there are the tax cuts for millionaires, not to mention all the "minor" tax advantages we provide the rich ("estate planning" techniques that poor children's families can't take advantage of, tax breaks for off-shore operations, and on and on). This is money that gets poured into improving the lot of the families of the super-rich, providing their kids with smaller class sizes without sacrificing higher-paid teachers or any of the other trade-offs (cutting music, cutting art) we suggest for public education.

Yes, poverty can sometimes be overcome with hard work and high expectations—plus luck. So why am I so grateful that my own children do not face the harshest choices?

Of course we know that this whole rhetoric of "try harder" is an excuse for us to make sure it doesn't cut into our comfortable lives. Consciously? Unconsciously? It's too obvious to think the connection is missed by the best-educated in the land. I may lose a few friends by saying it, but it's hurting me too much not to do so.

Democracy simply will not, even in its present rather shallow form, survive such disparities, and the absurd mindset of those who excuse it, ignore it, or feel sure it cannot ever happen to them and theirs must be changed.

When I suggested, last week, that the winners are not safe either, I was partially thinking of the environment we share. I was also thinking of public parks, streets, and on and on, unless we literally intend to build two separate worlds for the haves and growing numbers of have-nots. Aren't we, to some extent, in this together?

But what infuriates me equally is that the money we DO spend on education is not spent to protect democracy for rich or poor. It's built on a huge hoax that we've bought into because tackling the reality is fraught with risks. What I admired about John Dewey was not so much his pedagogical ideas as his willingness to confront the class nature of education.

Schools as we know them were never designed to level the playing field—but at their best to raise the floor for all. Public schooling wasn't until recently even designed to include people of color or most women and poor people beyond grammar school. In 1900, only a small percentage of people graduated from high school and maybe 2 percent went on to college—and most of those weren't considered by colleges to truly be "ready." I was born at the moment in history when a majority of young people entered high school for the first time; and, it wasn't until after World War II that a majority graduated. I'm preaching to the expert! Sorry, Diane.

We now have 12 years plus many all-day kindergartens to do what schools once had a few years to do. The labor movement, among others, spent 100 years pushing not only for fairer wages, but a fairer and longer system of schooling. But the movement didn't get far before it was overcome by the modern state of our other union—the United States of America.

In all these years we have never seriously confronted society with the question of "why?" Do we really want schools to undo our class divisions? Do we want them to produce adults who are members of a shared and commonly cherished adult world—with inequities that we could all imagine living with? With adults who more or less equally appreciate and utilize democracy for their own self-interests, have more or less equal access to the media, to political influence, with fair and equal protection of the law?

I'd like, Diane, given the obvious reality of the above (it's said harshly, but isn't it the simple truth?), to suggest we shift the discussion. Maybe it's time to think together about what schooling could be if we truly saw it as the bedrock of democracy—if we imagined we cared enough for the future of democracy to put everything we have into using schools toward such an end. We need something to fight FOR, not just against. The billionaires' reforms take us backward, so what would forward look like?

Let's take seriously that democracy rests on a people with more or less equal access to the power of the mind and the power to be heard. The events in Egypt and Wisconsin give me the courage to imagine there might be a brighter future ... someday ... on behalf of such an agenda. How does a truly good education fit into such a dream?

I have some ideas I'd like to throw out for criticism next week. Now I'm off to North Carolina, and then to Ann Arbor, Mich., to visit two good schools—one private (a Friends school) and one public.

Deborah

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