I’ve been writing the past couple days about my gradual progression from relatively mainstream to, well, a little out there. I’m convinced it’s only because I’ve been committed to learning the truth and making different decisions based on what I’ve learned. I’m wondering if you’ll reach the same conclusions I have, so let’s keep walking through it.
After that trip to Ferguson in August 2015, like I said yesterday, it was only a few months until I was approached about starting a blog focusing on education in Seattle and Washington State. As a parent with kids of color in Seattle Public Schools, as someone with a writing background, deep connections to education in the region, and a burgeoning understanding of our obligation to be activists and advocates, it was a natural fit, and I started writing in earnest in January 2016.
From the beginning, I felt that part of my role in writing this blog should be to talk candidly about race and racism, especially in Seattle, which is one of the whitest major cities in America — and also one of the most notoriously “liberal,” which contributes to a post-racial or non-racial mindset in a number of folks who believe their values and their votes are progressive enough to where they don’t have to question their mindsets or their actions.
Above all, though, I wanted to do my part to constantly, urgently redirect the focus in conversations about education to issues of equity.
Our schools are inequitable. That much I knew coming in. Students of color are disciplined more frequently and harshly than white students, even for the same basic behaviors. The are typically viewed and treated differently based on their teachers’ implicit biases. These and other factors combine to produce opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines.
In other words, students of color and low-income students have access to fewer, different and inequitable opportunities than their more affluent white peers. This creates what is often referred to as “achievement gaps,” which refers to the discrepancy in academic outcomes based on these same factors of race, gender identity and family income.
But the more I wrote, the more I found I had to learn, and as I learned about the theories and realities that have created our current inequities, I also started to live first-hand the experience of inequity in education. I experienced the failures of our public school system at Emerson Elementary School, the neighborhood public school where we send our son, and I realized — vividly, painfully — that every year we fail to close the gap or to improve a struggling school represents at best a year lost for thousands of kids and families in Seattle. At worst, it represents a year of continued trauma.
I tried to figure out what to do. I began to surprise myself by wondering, at what point is it irresponsible to send my biracial son through these doors every day?
(I’ve started to develop an idea, by the by, that each government agency and public institution should have to operate under a Hippocratic Oath of sorts. “First do no harm” should be the foundation, the baseline threshold to be met, and only if they can abide by that simple first rule does anything else matter.)
Compounding the unacceptable present reality, I started to realize that inequity in education seemed to be permanent, a fixed state of affairs. Things had “always” been like this. In Seattle, for instance, someone writes a news story about the segregated “school within a school” at Garfield High School every few years, but it has taken decades for things to even begin to change. Emerson has been neglected by the system, I came to find, for decades. We’ve been naming, discussing, lamenting and arguing over the opportunity gaps in Seattle Public Schools since the 1950s — yet they persist, wide as ever.
What was I possibly going to do or say on this blog that was going to be somehow different enough to do what no one else had ever done? I couldn’t come up with any reason to believe I was on a path to creating change that others hadn’t already tried. In fact, it seemed clear I was on a well-worn trail. So, I stopped walking so fast and started trying to dig deeper.
Where did our system of schooling came from? What was it designed to create?
As it turns out, America’s public schools were designed in the early 1800s to emulate the Prussian model of education.
A number of America’s foremost educators at the turn of the 19th century, such as John Griscom, Horace Mann and George Bancroft, admired and sought to mimic German/Prussian trends in education. By 1852, Mann had successfully established compulsory, tax-funded, Prussian-style “normal schools” as the rule of law in Massachusetts, and the system grew from there.
By the way, the literacy rate in Massachusetts prior to compulsory schooling was 98%. It has never been as high since. Hmm.
See, the system we adopted was not designed to nurture free-thinking, passionate, brilliant adults. Its primary goal was the preservation of the privileged ruling class in America and the conversion of citizens into capital. The Prussian system, as explained concisely by Don McFadden, “was characterized by compulsory attendance, teacher colleges, standardized national tests, national age-graded curriculum, compulsory kindergarten, the fragmenting of concepts into separate subjects with fixed periods of study, and the state ultimately asserting a superior claim to the child over the rights of the parents. This was a radical departure in methodology and content from the successful traditional forms of education in America.”
As Gatto wrote, our schools were designed “to be instruments for the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce, through the application of formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.”
How do you figure? Well, the Prussian system had a set of goals it aimed to produce in schooling its students.
Again from Gatto:
“The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.
“The area of individual volition for commoners was severely foreclosed by Prussian psychological training procedures drawn from the experience of animal husbandry and equestrian training, and also taken from past military experience.”
That, I have to admit, lines up with my own lived experience as a child. I have clear memories of conversations with my parents in third grade about how it felt like my teacher and my time at school were trying to squeeze me down and make me be like everyone else.
On top of all these unsavory beginnings, education was also never designed for anyone but white boys. So all of our inequitable results have been baked in from the beginning and reinforced along the way.
This is by no means to say there is no place for education in society. The key lies in the difference between schooling and education, between assimilation and liberation, between empowerment and manipulation.
It just means that school as most of us have experienced it is only one of many, many possibilities for a child. As I learn about new possibilities with less and less loyalty to my preconceived notions, much of my searching is based on a handful of basic questions. How do I want my children to spend their days? What are my hopes and dreams for them? What are their own hopes and dreams? What, in my wildest imagination, would the schools need to be like to be fully geared toward those goals?
Division and oppression are fundamental to American capitalism, and they are uniquely woven into the fabric of American democracy. We live in a society based on oppression. That means, I believe, that everything has one of two sides: oppressor or oppressed. Oppressive or not. Supportive of oppression or in active opposition to it.
Education can be a tool of oppression and assimilation, or it can be education designed to liberate. Gray area in an oppressive society is a mirage created by privilege.
How does it look to live that way, though? What does it mean to live as though you know our system of education is not broken, but designed to be inequitable and oppressive? What does it mean to stop accepting the gray areas, or to stop pretending we are innocent bystanders? I didn’t know. I still don’t entirely.
At a certain point, though, I had written so much about taking action when we see injustice that just writing wasn’t enough to keep me from being a hypocrite.
In a lot of ways, that led to me driving out to Standing Rock one day in November 2016. Nothing has been the same for me since. It never will be.
I’ll get to that tomorrow.
Thanks for reading.