Does your education reflect you? Photo by Eve Arnold, 1958 / Magnum
Our current political crisis, also known as Election 2016, where the weaknesses of the American two-party system are on flagrant display, is a perfect illustration of what happens when American education creates and reinforces a myopic, small-minded culture of exclusion. If the goal of the American education system is to create a society where critical thinkers are the minority and ethical behavior is a niche interest, then it is a booming success. All my post-baccalaureate reading and learning has brought me to the conclusion that American public education is a system built by capitalist white supremacy for the purpose of maintaining capitalist white supremacy. Why on earth would I want to send my children of color to get an education like that?
What has changed since 1957? Elizabeth Eckford (sunglasses) and Hazel Bryan (yelling), Sept. 4, 1957 photo by Will Counts
People who critique education systems are very concerned with diversity in the student body and what impact it has on students, but not enough people are talking about the diversity of the curriculum. Predominantly white schools, and even predominantly black and Latinx schools, that use mass-produced American textbooks and curriculum guides (from McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, Prentice Hall) have no hope of producing “well-rounded” students who have a strong understanding of the continuity between the past and the present. These books do not discuss the events in history that demonstrate America’s continuous commitment to white supremacy. They do not point out how structural racism functioned in the past or connect that to how it works today. And they make no effort to provide students with primary source material from non-white, non-male historians and historical organizations. Mainstream American education is a lie of omission. Schools are never going to tell students the whole truth if they are hindered by the books on their shelves and by the boards of education that provided them.
What does a mainstream American curriculum look like? It’s a curriculum that perpetuates the myth of the first Thanksgiving and doesn’t draw on any primary sources from the Wampanoag people who were present. It mentions the Trail of Tears, but fails to enumerate and illustrate the massive numbers of Native Americans killed by European settlers, leaving out Columbus’ own words about enslaving them written in his diary on the day he first met them. It’s a curriculum that will tell you the date the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, but leaves out all of Lincoln’s racist rhetoric about sending African Americans away to any location outside the US because he had no belief in an America where black people could live freely and equally with white people. It will tell you how Mount Rushmore was built and the life story of each president represented by the monument, but it won’t tell you about the broken Treaty of Laramie or about the mountain’s sacred significance to several Native tribes. It won’t tell you the Works Progress Administration slave narratives even exist in the Library of Congress. It won’t tell you what Filipino Americans have contributed to the United States. It won’t tell you how many innocent people have died due to American drone strikes since September 11, 2001. It won’t tell you how United States immigration policy has been shaped specifically around racial prejudice since the first Naturalization Act was ratified in 1790. Why doesn’t basic education tell the whole story? What’s the outcome, on a national level, when all this information is left out?
The outcome is millions of Americans who don’t know what’s wrong with saying and believing, “I don’t see color,” who don’t see the value of adding ethnic studies to schools, who don’t understand what Affirmative Action is or who benefits from it. The outcome is millions of Americans who think access and opportunity are zero sum games where white people lose if people of color gain.
The outcome is also millions of Americans who are willing to agree with Steve King and Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly. Millions of people wholeheartedly accept abject lies and coded language that buttress an idealized mythical America that they learned about in school — but that doesn’t actually exist. They believe America is a white country founded by peaceful Pilgrims in the midst of an unsettled wilderness. Folk tales about Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Paul Bunyan lead them to believe America was built by the ingenuity and strength of white men. They envision American military history as a picture book of brave white soldiers defending the country against evil enemies from backward foreign lands. They believe these myths and defend them because their education has given them little reason to believe otherwise.
American education functions very well to create a white American public that is defensive of “freedom” when dropping bombs on people in other countries, but can’t understand how stop-and-frisk policies violate American citizens’ freedom.
Liberty and Freedom, for whom?
American education functions very well to create a white American public that is defensive of “freedom” when dropping bombs on people in other countries, but can’t understand how stop-and-frisk policies violate American citizens’ freedom. It creates a country of people who shout “LIBERTY” while grilling hot dogs on Memorial Day — but who also suggest that black people should just comply without question when police violate their civil liberties for showing up to work, driving to see their fiancée, or smoking during a traffic stop. It functions to create and sustain an American public that is hungry and excited to hear Steve King pronounce that white people are the only ones on earth who have contributed to human civilization. After reading James Loewen’s survey of the top-selling American history textbooks in Lies My Teacher Told Me, I am ready to conclude that American public education never held it as a goal to prepare a citizenry that could easily detect and refute a bald-faced lie like that.
When American children are taught the highlights of American history, the America’s Greatest Hits version of history, instead of a full, complex story of America, they miss the opportunity to see how valuable their individual contributions are to the collective movements that seek true freedom and equality for all people. They miss the chance to understand that the housing discrimination, the job discrimination, and racist immigration policies that Americans of color are fighting against today are part of a centuries-long history. And they miss the chance to empathize with disenfranchised, dispossessed people because they don’t know the context or history of protest. Instead of putting present-day struggles into historical context and explaining to students how systemic racism works, mainstream education misses the opportunity. I cannot be persuaded that this is anything other than a purposeful omission. Of course, the American public will react with irritation and anger, quick to label protesters as ungrateful agitators, when they have no empathy or understanding of what the protesters are fighting for.
Greatest Hits-style education leaves Americans unprepared to advocate for their own rights and makes them complicit in exploiting the rights of others..
Protestors in Charlotte courtesy of itsgoingdown.org
Black History Month, Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and field trips to every museum in a student’s city or state will never be enough to educate Americans on each of these people’s contributions to the United States. As long as the literary canon is dominated by white male authors, Americans will have a myopic view of what constitutes “great writing.” As long as math lessons don’t include the origin of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, Americans will not give credit to those who built the foundations of math itself. When we don’t discuss the pivotal roles of (Mother) Mary Harris Jones and Larry Itliong in the Labor Movement, Americans will assume that stereotypes of women and Asians must be true, since they don’t appear in history books. Making a special month on the calendar to give a shallow recognition to a certain group of people is nothing compared to incorporating these people, their stories, and their contributions into the mainstream curriculum. This is the difference between nominal “diversity” efforts and actual integration.
Greatest Hits-style education leaves Americans unprepared to advocate for their own rights and makes them complicit in exploiting the rights of others. People who are taught that the fight for workers’ rights was won when US child labor laws were implemented won’t ask about who, exactly, sewed the soccer ball they bought for a bargain price at WalMart. They will assume everything they have was made under healthy conditions by people being paid fairly when they are not taught about what workers are fighting for in 2016. People who think that America’s meat industry is all tidy and cleaned up since Upton Sinclair and the USDA came along won’t question how, exactly, their ground beef got to their grocery store at such a low price.
So even though we are taught the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law, we are not taught how regular citizens can participate and organize in real, tangible ways other than voting for president. I don’t think this is an accidental omission.
Oil spill victim
Americans who are unaware of the long history of corporate abuses of people and the environment will accept capitalist politicians’ promises that corporations will regulate themselves and that the free market will make the best decisions. And then they will be surprised when pipelines break and poison whole cities. If Americans are not taught how individuals like Rosa Parks worked as an investigator and activist with the NAACP for 11 years prior to the bus boycott flashpoint, they won’t follow that example. Basic public education (or private, for that matter) does not give us this example nor does it explore all the different avenues to civic engagement. So even though we are taught the three branches of government and how a bill becomes a law, we are not taught how regular citizens can participate and organize in real, tangible ways other than voting for president. I don’t think this is an accidental omission.
Sanjay Patel’s DNC2016 fashion statement
Liberal and left-leaning Americans of all colors watched the Democratic National Convention this summer without a critical eye or ear, getting carried away on buzzwords. Lots of buzzwords like “unity”, “freedom”, and “opportunity” were floated at the DNC. But it bothered me, because watching as a black woman, I know that a black girl witnessing the nomination of Hillary Clinton does not have the same chances as a white girl of achieving what Hillary has achieved. That’s a statistical reality and fact. An Indigenous, Black, Muslim, Chicana, or Asian girl will have to put in more effort and overcome more barriers than a White girl in order to follow in HRC’s footsteps. Those barriers include people in positions of power (like professors, hiring managers, and CEOs) who were educated in a patriarchal white supremacist system and who don’t see them as equal or fully American.
And the fact that a black girl doesn’t have the same chances as a white girl at anything in American life means we are not unified or free or, least of all, EQUAL. And that’s NOT what was being talked about. We need to talk about and implement a plan for how that inequality is going to be solved. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was praised widely for merely mentioning the existence of systemic racism, but we need to be more explicit about the fact that because of systemic racism, black and brown girls face more hardships than white girls. We are living in inequality RIGHT NOW.
It’s not a mystery where this pesky systemic racism comes from, how it works, or why it is still a problem … But it’s not being taught in schools. So it does, in fact, seem like a mystery to millions of Americans.
I wanna see the receipts, Hill
It's not a mystery where this pesky systemic racism comes from, how it works, or why it is still a problem. We don’t need a fact-finding commission to help identify the sources of inequality or its impact on people’s lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates made it VERY clear in The Case for Reparations what structures created and perpetuate inequality. The information is already in our hands. The research has been done. But it’s not being taught in schools. So it does, in fact, seem like a mystery to millions of Americans.
What we need are elected officials who have the moral resolve to stand up to white supremacy. We need people who believe in creating truly equal access to opportunities and who understand the importance of representation to populate the seats on the Boards of Education. We need more regular people who demand better.
Even Montessori, Waldorf and other alternative pedagogy schools that address whole child integration of mental, spiritual, emotional, and community development fail to address the fact that all this development is still happening in a racist, white supremacist environment.
Protest, Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., the day after the shooting of Michael Brown. AP Photo/Sid Hastings
People have to realize that diversity is not just different foods and festivals. Diversity in education is acknowledging that the fourth Thursday in November is a day of remembrance and mourning as well as a day of thankfulness. Diversity in education is recognizing that Susan B. Anthony was a champion for women’s suffrage — but that she was also racist and spoke out against black voting rights. It’s acknowledging that Americans smudge sage in their homes because their ancestors have done so for centuries, that Americans observe Ramadan, that Americans are fifth-generation Chinese and Chicano families. Christian-dominated, capitalist, white, cis-heteropatriarchal supremacy in America is not going to change without changing the way we teach children.
If people of color are going to feel any sense of pride and if we are going to have a thorough knowledge of ourselves and our history, it’s not going to come from the aforementioned mainstream education. It’s not going to come from any institution whose stated purpose is not explicitly centered on the uplift and love of a specific non-white community. Any school that does not have the explicit purpose of teaching an empowering, radically inclusive curriculum can be safely assumed to serve a pro-capitalist, pro-white supremacist purpose. You can know this is true by looking at the outrage of white parents when supplemental information about the experience of other ethnic groups is provided in schools. The state of Arizona banned Mexican American Studies in Tucson public schools in 2012. Universities from coast to coast still struggle to implement diversity goals.
Even Montessori, Waldorf and other alternative pedagogy schools that address whole child integration of mental, spiritual, emotional, and community development fail to address the fact that all this development is still happening in a racist, white supremacist environment. And children of color need their psyche and bodies protected from that. We are raising children of color; their inner narrator needs to be attuned to THEIR perspective and THEIR experience. Internalized racism is the guaranteed result when POC listen to the dominant, mainstream narrative without realizing where and how they are and aren’t being represented.
Parents of children of color shouldn’t have to choose the least-racist school from their neighborhood options.
Downtown Detroit, photo by the author
Parents of children of color shouldn’t have to choose the least-racist school from their neighborhood options. They shouldn’t have to choose between a racist principal but a welcoming student body at one school or a supportive principal at another school with a hostile student body. Families of color have more opportunities than ever to live in wealthy school districts with robust academic programs — but why would they choose to do so when they know it’s an environment full of microaggressions where the curriculum won’t represent them? Environments like those have real and often severe mental health outcomes for students of color.
What every student of color should have is an opportunity to learn in an environment that includes them. Some schools are doing it — but we need many, many more.