The sports industrial complex as currently constituted is built on the backs of black athletes and incentivises universities and high schools to emphasize the athletic potential of many children over their academic achievement. Many students are accepted into top tier colleges that typically would be denied entrance, if not for their potential to help win games and earn top dollar for the university. The merging of higher education and capitalism in college sports creates a high school-to-college pipeline, of star athletes, which makes education secondary and compromises the educational system. Teachers, counselors, coaches are all complicit.
High school counselors know the athlete-friendly teachers and courses that offer the least rigor. Teachers know who to keep eligible. School administrations may even pressure teachers to cooperate. As a result, kids are considered for college that would not have a chance at getting in were it not for sports. Once they make it to college, they are either kept eligible by questionable means or they simply do not graduate. Many of those that graduate do not have the knowledge or skills the degree signifies.
Sports vs. the Sports Industry
Growing up, sports was a constant companion in my life. I played basketball as far back as I can remember. I played football from age ten through high school and community college. The importance of athletics in the lives of children is not lost on me. The fun, camaraderie, sportsmanship, collective defeat and triumph and physical training were all good for me and I have seen the positive attributes of youth sports. My own children have all been involved in organized sports as well.
However, the system, the sports superstructure, from my vantage point as a high school teacher, is beyond flawed. There are success stories in which young people are able to use sports to earn an education, maybe play professionally, and go on to do great things and become better people in the process. Many young people have had the chance to broaden their horizons and go where they never thought they would due to playing high school sports. There is another side to the coin, the business of college sports. This is harmful for the educational development of black youth. I say black youth, young men in particular in particular, because they dominate the most visible high school and college sports, football and basketball.
This sports superstructure is a capitalist venture based primarily on the athletic prowess of young black men. It is exploitive and even brutal and callous to some young athletes. The profitability of professional sports is contaminating the educational system that it is linked to. The education of countless talented black youth is one major sacrifice being made at the altar of the almighty dollar.
Black Youth and the Sports Assembly Line
Black youth are bombarded with images of wealthy black sports and entertainment figures to the point that they think those are viable routes out of the neighborhood, out of poverty, to success. Football and basketball are the sports with the lowest graduation rates in college. They happen to be saturated with black talent. Over half of college football and basketball players are black men, yet they only make up about 3% of undergraduate students. African American men are woefully underrepresented in the university as a whole and in specific fields of study, but jam packed into sports programs where many do not even graduate, or are kicked out of the university if they cannot perform athletically. Black athletes are fodder for an industry, that will eventually toss them aside, and few will actually benefit.
The process starts as children. Many black youth with demonstrable talent are put on the sports assembly line before they are out of elementary school. They are told, ‘this is your ticket’. Even before they are aware of the academic requirements, children know they are going to college on a sports scholarship. They associate college life with athletics. The only exposure they have of college is a visible sports program. Once they become older and head to high school, grades are just something they have to get to stay eligible. Education is not valued in its own right, youth are encouraged to get by and stay eligible as opposed to trying their best, earning high marks and taking challenging courses.
We are placing athletic development ahead of educational development. I have seen students that cannot write a paragraph get pushed through classes and kept eligible by maneuvering them through the educational gauntlet. Teachers are asked to give promising athletes advantages that would never be offered to other students. I have witnesses students who lack reading and writing skills, or are not doing well in one class removed and placed in less challenging classes to ensure their eligibility. If a kid cannot read or write, our concern as an institution should be their education, not eligibility or a scholarship. We should be ashamed to graduate students that have grown leaps and bounds athletically, but have not made similar strides academically.
Black students are socially conditioned that sports and entertainment are realms for black people, but the same conditioning does not exist when it comes to intellectual pursuits. Black youth should be encouraged to be scientists and engineers as much as they are encouraged athletically. The school system apparently agrees that sports is the best option for black youth, since they perpetuate the narrative. No one says explicitly, “sports are more important than academics”, but the message they get is that they are expected to spend more time practicing and preparing for sports than school. As sports are stressed over academics, money is used for sports programs at the expense of education, while students are failing academically, the college sports industry has become a fetter on education.
Sports to Finance College
The parents, coaches and teachers of these students have very practical reasons for supporting such a system. They want the best for the student and hope to give them a chance to be successful and that starts with financing an education. The fact that child sports is growing exponentially, primarily by parents trying to find a way to finance college is an indictment against the financial accessibility of higher education today.
Parents and students are banking on sports to get them to college instead of their intellect. Many will be woefully unprepared for the academic rigor of college life. Some have been walked through high school with the easiest schedules, instructed by teachers who ‘play ball’ with administration to pass the kids on. For the ones who graduate high school and go on to college, this will continue as they are herded into athlete friendly majors and classes to keep them eligible.
It is these black athletes that bring in the money that funds the university as a whole, way beyond the athletic programs. The revenue and prestige that elite college athletes bring to a university in turn puts pressure on high school programs and coaches to win games and get their athletes attention from college scouts.
All this attention and training is provided for these children to progress athletically, in the midst of a permanent achievement gap. There is no secret about the underachievement of black students, there are millions of children who would be better served learning to perform basic math skills and reading and writing at grade level. The achievement gap between black students and their counterparts has been festering for years. Nothing is being done about it. Little more than half of black boys graduate on time, compared to 80% of whites. If black students were an educational priority, their lack of academic achievement would be considered a national crisis. No one lifts a finger to address how African American students are being underserved academically, but the cogs of the athlete mill keep churning out elite black athletes to bring in revenue for universities that many black athletes will not graduate from.
College sports does not have to be the main gateway to professional football and basketball. There is no reason why the two have to be married. It just so happens that these are the most exciting, revenue producing sports and they are a cash cow to universities. The pairing of sports and education and the business interests it represents at the higher levels compromises the best educational interests of students. The NCAA is a racket based off the exploitation of black athletes.
Too many are essentially robbed of an education as children and carried through school; their talents are used to make tons of money for universities while many will not graduate, only a small percentage will play professional sports, and even less will have the tools for a successful life beyond sports. The treatment of black students is indicative of our educational priorities and our general view of black males. The ease with which we dismiss the educational needs of black students and simultaneously exploit their athletic gifts is proof that they are still seen largely as easily exploitable, physically strong and intellectually lacking.
I wish some folks would just say what they feel, I can’t even say white folks because some ignorant negroes are the same. I really doubt that they care about the flag this much. I just don’t understand that level of sensitivity for a flag, it’s borderline pathological. The real problem is the reason the players are taking a knee and the implications of it all. There are too many veterans coming out in support of Kaepernick and the NFL players for it to be about veterans. I have many vets in my family, even old school, country boy, Vietnam vets that support the players taking a knee. The language of patriotism is used to couch racist attitudes based on a mythological American paternalism.
They really have a problem with what taking a knee represents. It questions the legitimacy of the entire system, this so called democracy. The players are telling the world that they are not content with police murdering black people in the most egregious ways on film, and not being held accountable by simply taking a knee. This type of unruly behavior by Black people and the reaction that it elicits goes back to the founding of this nation. It challenges the narrative of America as a beacon of freedom for the world.
What They Really Mean
They are offended that we are not happy with what “America” has “bestowed” upon us. they think they let a few of us in some little club and we are ungrateful. That’s why they always bring up the “millions of dollars” the players make. Paradoxically, Black people are viewed as children that have been given everything, even though the opposite is true. ‘How dare they refuse to stand for the flag that has given them the opportunity to play sports for money’, they say. This fictitious view of African-Americans as recipients of gracious opportunities that America has showered upon them is at the root of their perceived ingratitude. Black people were not even allowed to play professional football until the 50’s. It was the 1980’s before the NFL had their first Black starting quarterback, Doug Williams. Despite having to fight for every inch of progress, even in professional sports, they are expected to shut up and be appreciative. Of course this mentality is not new. It goes back to the stereotypical ‘uppity nigger’ label attached to black people, either after emancipation, returning from a World War, achieving any notoriety, title or wealth that he/she thinks entitles them to any degree of equality or humane treatment.
If Americans were not so scared to tell the truth, we wouldn’t have to read between the lines of their rhetoric. It’s not hard to see the racist vitriol through their thinly veiled words and attitudes. Anyone who knows history can see through the, ‘they make millions of dollars’, ‘they should be more appreciative’, ‘respect the flag’, ‘the veterans fought for your freedom’ type of nonsense. How did veterans fight for the freedom of Black people when the same people who sent them to fight, took away said freedom? These reactionary attitudes are as old as America itself.
They think Black people should have more appreciation for America and it’s symbols. America has given so much to civilize Black folks and bless us with ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. They ‘let’ us come from the ghetto and make lots of money playing a game so we should shut up or they may take it away. America is giving Black athletes and entertainers a chance to be the ‘good, responsible black people’, ambassadors to the world to show how great and harmonious America is. Public display of dissatisfaction is breaking the deal. We saw this with Paul Robeson in the 50’s, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommy Smith in the 60’s, they were publicly flogged and punished for their misdeeds, namely garnering international solidarity with the struggle of Black people. The privileges that come with mainstream acceptance for African-American public figures comes with strings attached, ‘shut up and play’, ‘never speak up in the interests of your people’. If these conditions cannot be met, ‘back to the field’ like the days of old. This is the consciousness behind the president’s and much of America’s call to fire the “sons of bitches”. Now baseball players, hockey players and even German soccer players are kneeling in support of the NFL protests.
This visceral response of some segments of America to a relatively tame act is evidence that they just want Black people to shut up while cops have the free reign to kill us. Where is their humanity? They are more offended by kneeling than Terence Crutcher, Laquan Mc Donald or Oscar Grant being murdered by cops for nothing. Kneeling during the anthem is the most passive and weak protest imaginable. It’s not even breaking a rule, it’s not disruptive, it doesn’t even make a scene and still, it’s too much for some to bear. This is what makes it so powerful at the same time. It speaks volumes about the sentiment of much of America. Even the most quiet, polite act of resistance strikes at a nerve and triggers a collective fear and disgust, disguised as an affront to their patriotic sentiments. Even the tiniest peep from those who wish to stand for the oppressed is unacceptable.
Any self-respecting people would be ungovernable with what has been going on with Black folks here. If Whites thought the cops were more likely to shoot them because of their race, they would be armed in the streets ready to revolt. Greece went up in flames after the police shot an unarmed man. the same folks losing their minds wouldn’t be so mad if players took a knee for homeless vets, ocean pollution or anything other than Black people. If the NFL protest is legitimate, what does that mean? It means that their beloved American, meritocratic, democracy is a sham, a lie. Thus, taking knee is disrespectful, those taking knee are ignorant ingrates and whoever the police choose to shoot is a thug that deserves it, no matter how much reality conflicts with this imaginary world, it is a necessary illusion to protect their fragile worldview.
What bothers me more is the arrogance of it all. I know the protest is not against the anthem or the flag itself, despite what detractors may say but perhaps it should be, at least against the idea that black people, of all people, should be expected to stand for their pro-slavery anthem written by a racist slave owner in the first place or their enslaving, Jim Crow flag. They must be crazy. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of history that paints America as some benevolent civilizer of her African descendant, so-called citizens instead of the vile, violent exploiter that it has been. The response of much of America is based on this debased understanding of American history.
If the NFL tries to force these men to stand, I hope they all kneel en masse. I hope the situation escalates to just one team refuses to suit up. Ultimately that’s where their power lies. Our kids are watching and idolize these people. The players themselves, let alone the owners, are not worthy of our support, if they bend to this kind of fascist pressure. Taking a knee was a personal choice by Colin Kaepernick and was not meant to challenge us in the way it has. His conscience would not allow him to stand for the Anthem and a flag that oppresses Black people. However the situation has escalated and the only choice the NFL players have is to stand together or capitulate.
What strikes me is how much the military is touted as a job training program or some type of travel agency to students and how little the actual purpose of the military is mentioned. The point of the military is to kill enemies of the US government. Anything else they do is peripheral.
In my years of working in low income, title one schools, I have seen military recruiters on campus using some questionable methods to recruit kids. They once used a military customized Dodge Charger with all types of technology and artillery attached. I have seen them use video games and even a huge Suburban with a trunk full of speakers blasting throughout the campus. I have even had recruiters in my class. The military presence in high school is ubiquitous. Recruiters and ROTC students walk around campus in military regalia all day. It doesn’t seem to fit well in an academic environment. Of course students should know that the military is an option after school, but joining the military is an adult decision. The point of the military is to kill and this carries risks that students are not equipped to assess, especially when one factors in advertising and all the bells and whistles that come with recruitment.
Why are they here?
An obvious question, at least to me is, “Why are they here?” Of course one could argue that the students have a right to know all their options available to them after high school. There are opportunities to earn money for college, learn a trade, travel the world, or serve the country. What strikes me is how much the military is touted as a job training program or some type of travel agency to students and how little the actual purpose of the military is mentioned. The point of the military is to kill enemies of the US government. Anything else they do is peripheral. Killing is a brutal and gruesome business and obviously involves risks of being killed, maimed or psychologically disturbed. I have never seen this laid out plain by a recruiter. In my opinion this is dishonest, even worse, predatory towards young people who are not sophisticated enough to dig below the surface.
As recruiters they have been trained how to recruit. They are taught how to relate to kids and how to use what they like to get their attention and how to sell them a product. It seems as though they are also directed or trained to steer the conversation away from actual combat, the possibility of being shipped to a warzone, politics, or any unpleasant topic that may challenge the narrative they are trained to put forth. Our students on the other hand are not prepared to deal with these adults on an equal footing.
Recruiters in School
Last week, I had two representatives of the United States Army come to my class. Of course my kids were prepped and ready to ask the tough questions. We dealt with questions of imperialism, morality, PTSD, civilian casualties, sexual assault etc. in the military for a couple days before the guest speakers arrived. I couldn’t have someone who is in essence hustling a product, discussing such matters with my students without preparing them beforehand. The recruiter seemed unprepared and downright shocked at the questions he had to field from some of my students about high rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans, how cases of sexual assault are dealt with in the military, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more. The recruiter masterfully dodged, dismissed or brushed off their concerns. One student asked if the recruiter had ever killed anyone and how he deals with it psychologically, to which he curtly replied in the positive and that he has no qualms with it. The man said he didn’t want to talk politics but went on and on about how the US can kick North Korea’s ass. He also made light of PTSD comparing it to feeling uneasy about riding in a car for the first time after a car accident.
He then went on and on fetishizing the weapons and ammunition he is qualified to work with, harping on how his favorite weapon shoots ammunition so big, with so much force that it can “take off your arm just whizzing by”. He detailed kicking in doors in Afghanistan like it was a video game. All this to appeal to the most base conditioning of our male students but nothing dealing with the reality of warfare.
The recruiter continued, offering $7,500 to any student who “joins the army today”. This started a round of side discussion and commotion among the kids. This type of recruiting is immoral. These students come from low income background and do not understand that $7,500 really ain’t shit. Any lump sum of money can fire them up.
Using the ASVAB to Cloud Intentions
What’s foul is how they couch all this in publicizing the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery), a test that gages what what military career one is fit for. Instead of simply coming in and announcing the test, saying it over the loudspeaker or giving me the information to pass out, an entire class period is dedicated to announcing this test. Once a student takes the test, the military will have access to their contact information and school records, unless the student opts out of sharing such information before the test.
This is obviously a thinly veiled ploy to get sensitive information from students for the purpose of recruitment. Parents should have to give written permission for military access to their personal information just like they do in order for students to play sports or attend a field trip. It seems quite irresponsible to ask children to opt out of giving their sensitive information to third parties that are seeking to recruit them without notifying their parents.
Military’s Impact on Mental Health
All of this was all profoundly aggravating to me. I had just gotten over the news of a man that I had known for over a year who grabbed national headlines for walking into his ex wife’s class- where she taught as a special education teacher- and shooting her and a student dead, injuring another student before turning his gun on himself. This all took place in front of a classroom full of small students.
This was indeed a horrible and shameful act for which there is no excuse, however, what the news did not discuss was his time in the military and how it affected him mentally. Nor did the media fit this tragedy in the larger context of the difficulty faced by returning veterans upon coming home and the scores of other vets that have flipped out and killed people due to mental instability. Stories like this are swept under the rug or explained away as an aberration when the numbers say other wise; in fact military service has been identified by the American Public Health Association as common indicator of poor mental health.
I have never seen university, trade school or community college representatives with as much unfettered access to students as the military. They even have a military training program, JROTC, in which students basically take a class that indoctrinates them into the military with ranks, drills and all. School is an academic environment, in which students should be encouraged to challenge the prevailing wisdom of the day. The military, on the other hand, is a hierarchical dictatorship in a sense. There is no democracy, personal opinion or questioning of authority involved. You have to do as you are told. JROTC programs for high school students promote blind patriotism and military values. One student recently asked me, “Why is it that in your class, America always seems to be aggressive and in ROTC, America is always the ‘good guy’ in wars?” Obviously, this child is getting a military interpretation of American history in ROTC class. This is crazy, the goals of the two institutions are incompatible and the military has no place in school, at least not on equal footing as colleges and universities.
The decision to join the military for 4 years is a heavy commitment, much more so than college, given the risks involved, especially with the dubious and aggressive nature of American wars. No high school junior should be offered money to commit to the military or seduced with video games and customized cars. If they should be there at all, recruiters and ROTC instructors should be honest and up-front with children about the risks that military life entails even once one has completed their term. The minimization of the possibility of combat, PTSD, death or injury is criminal when recruiting for an organization whose sole purpose is to kill. I thought preparing my students with critical information to counter the attractive spiel of the recruiters would be sufficient, now I know better. Next time I am asked to host recruiters to publicize the ASVAB, I will decline.
King went up against the system, he advocated civil disobedience, non cooperation even when facing the cops. He even recognized that he could not condemn the rebellions in the ghettos of America without first condemning the violence of the American government, who he called “the greatest purveyors of violence on the earth”. They want to water his image down to where it means nothing. We have to reclaim his image and portray him as the lion he is.
The Real King
Image and ownership of image are a trip. Especially on Martin Luther King Day. What is Dr. King’s image, vs. what he really represented in his life? If we are to believe the dominant institutions, we may think that his main contribution was reconciling with white people or turning the other cheek. Local communities organize a day of service in his name. I want to remember a different King. Not the sanitized, santa claused, market driven version of King. Martin told us that an unjust law is no law at all, he criticized our system as approaching spiritual death for spending more money on war than uplifting the people, he spoke against imperialism and white supremacy, even connected our struggle here at home to the world struggle. Martin fought for justice, he gave the greatest sacrifice one could give for the movement and sacrificed every day until he was cut down prematurely.
King was no chump. He stood on his principles like no one else i know of. He went to jail, he was stabbed in the chest, his home was blown up, he was slandered in the public and he never budged and it killed him in the end. What sacrifice, what courage. What a savage American government that murdered him. If King’s death teaches us anything, it is that this system has no regard for freedom, justice or equality. We are appealing to a system for justice and freedom that waged a war on freedom fighters. We cannot appeal to a system for justice if it is diametrically opposed to it at its very core.
The Laundering of King’s Image
I never once heard King advise people to plant gardens or pick up trash. Those things are great, but to honor Martin Luther King with a day of service is laughable. King went up against the system, he advocated civil disobedience, non cooperation even when facing the cops. He even recognized that he could not condemn the rebellions in the ghettos of America without first condemning the violence of the American government, who he called “the greatest purveyors of violence on the earth”. They want to water his image down to where it means nothing. We have to reclaim his image and portray him as the lion he is. He wouldn’t be asking us to clean up or to provide free labor. He would be more likely to ask us to organize and fight for justice.
School children recite his words, but why do they never learn anything he wrote after 1965? Why do they not read “Beyond Vietnam” where King eviscerates the actions of this system at home and abroad, or his criticism of capitalism and materialism. Students are only allowed carefully picked excerpts from the ‘63, March on Washington, which is a piece of poetry as well as a call to action and maybe “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in high school.
These place King squarely in the civil rights box. He was bigger than that. He challenged the legitimacy of America’s foreign policy, economic system and fundamental values. Thanks to people like Dr. King, we have evolved to the point where we can all agree that basic civil rights should be accorded to all people. However, questions of war and peace, criticism of capitalism, and condemnation of America’s values as a nation are not so neatly agreed upon. A national figure like King calling them into question may influence students to ponder those questions themselves. They can’t give us the real King, he is too inspiring, too willing to put it all on the line again and again, too willing to face death, too unwilling to quit.
America vs. King
Students know Martin, not as a rebel, but as a cartoonish, smiling Santa Claus like figure that made some speeches and convinced white people to free black people. They know nothing of his more radical analyses or the danger he looked in the face until it ultimately claimed his life. They are unaware of the lengths the FBI went to track and discredit him or even how much of the youth and the media who once adored him, turned on him in his last days.
Let us not forget that it was this system that killed Dr. King. The US government was implicated as being involved in his murder in a civil trial in 1999. The King family does not even believe that James Earl Ray was guilty of killing Martin Luther King. His murder was part of a larger plan to dismantle the movement and stop its fractured parts from coalescing under the leadership of a “Black Messiah”. For a time, King was considered to be the most dangerous man in America, that possible messiah. This places American democracy as an institution squarely antithetical to Dr. Martin Luther King and what he represented.
If King is the dreamer, America is the dream killer. King was no fulfillment or representative of American Values, he was an opponent of them and every effort to wrap Martin Luther King in red, white and blue is a lie. Every attempt to water him down to four words, “I have a dream” or pretending to honor him by divorcing him from the very principles he stood for, a blatant hypocrisy. Though he fits right in the pantheon of American dissent, he belongs to the people, even when we overlooked his contributions and we must fight to keep him from being coopted by his enemies.
fascist narrative is that traditional values are under attack and need to be restored… public education is one of the main battlegrounds in the so called ‘culture war’ to ‘Make America great again’.
The Spectre of Fascism
“Fascism is capitalism in decay”, said Lenin. We’ve seen this before. When the traditional capitalist system is failing, there are cracks within the ruling class, and its accompanying political structures are in turmoil, a section of that class backs a strongman for its own protection. These strongmen have a populist appeal, yet they are married to the interests of big business. They do not always come to power by coup d’etat or machine gun politics. The potential for fascism is built into the capitalist system itself. Adolf Hitler, fascism’s poster boy was elected as chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Today, we see all these pieces of fascism coming together with the election of Donald Trump. This does not necessarily mean that death camps and forced labor are next, but we should be prepared for what is to come. It is pretty clear that among other things, the traditional fascist xenophobia, expansion police power, dismantling of unions and accompanying corporatism will be accelerated based on his rhetoric and his cabinet full of corporate pirates and gangsters. How will this affect our jobs and our students? Continue reading “Public Education and the Spectre of Fascism”
We should encourage our students to imagine a different world. They have been systematically taught that this is the best of all possible worlds. Early in every school year I ask my US History students if Columbus’s “discovery” of America was a positive development. Most students say “yes”. This is not a problem in itself. However, when asked why, most say something like “Had it not taken place, we wouldn’t be here now”, or “we wouldn’t have the freedoms we enjoy”. As if living on the cusp of mass environmental catastrophe or nuclear annihilation are great developments, as if obscene inequality and state sanctioned murder is ok. If this system had any interests in actually educating youth to be independent thinkers, there would be some effort to actually teach them what’s going on and what must be done to change it and that another world is possible.
Oppressive Atmosphere in Schools
School is quite regimented and authoritarian. Students are told when they can use the bathroom or blow their noses. They are often asked what they want to be or how much money they want to make, but they are seldom asked what kind of world they want to live in and how they plan on contributing to it. Students have not been given the chance to imagine a world that is different from this one. They do not even question whether it should be different. They are taught to accept the world, its injustices and power structure as it is. It is something they are encouraged to fit into instead of challenge. Emphasis is placed on being college and career ready, which is fine, but to the exclusion of changing the world. They are taught to revere authority, but never taught to when it is appropriate to question those in authority. Teachers, counselors, administrators, even cops and security guards force a worldview and conduct that is restrictive and oppressive, which does not foster a culture of democracy.
Of course structure is important for children, however, there should be a gradual release of containment as they get older. The high school student is as regimented as the elementary school student except in the most trivial of ways. In fact, as they get older, the more they are feared instead of trusted. They don’t even know they are stifled. It’s all they know and they act out in class and towards authority figures. At best, they know how to shut up and follow directions. This has consequences beyond the class.
They actually believe that they have no constitutional rights because they are minors. Students are taught that they should be treated like criminals for their own good. We, as the adults stand by as they are illegally searched by cops and security. One time, I, as a new teacher consented to allowing cops in my room during instructional time to randomly search my students for drugs. Still, I am ashamed of my silence. I was still on probation and did not want to risk my position. The passivity training worked on me as well.
Anti-Politics in School
Another time, I had some anti police brutality activists in my class to talk to the kids. Many asked interesting questions like, “is it legal to protest?” Some cried as they told stories of how they and their families have been treated by police. What I learned was how afraid they are of authority. We have kept them in a bubble, protecting them from participating in the political realm, even when they are victimized; we, for some reason, believe they have no place taking part in it. When thousands of Los Angeles students walked out of school for immigration reform in 2006, or when students from a local high school tried to leave to join a march, security measures were taken to lock the school down after school hours to keep them from participating. Activists leafletting the students after school had been intimidated by cops because, of course, children should not be exposed to the real world, only the fabricated world we give them.
Foul language and gang related talk and activity are tacitly accepted and unchallenged even by security and teachers as we walk across campus and witness it all. Gang related writing, graffiti and stickers decorate the school walls, perverted or drug related pictures on the front of t-shirts are all tolerated to some degree, but when the “We are all Trayvon Martin” and “Fight the Power” stickers started to appear on the walls, they were scrapped off immediately. All the while, I’ve been walking by the same tag on the wall every day since. The students engage in nonsense because it is the only permission they have to step outside the lines with the least consequence. Principled action outside the prescribed lines is unacceptable.
Structure for Order and Obedience, not Democracy
The freedom they are given is trivial. So is ours as adults, so it does make sense that we will reproduce those structures. School structures are undemocratic because the world we expect them step into is highly undemocratic. A school system that promotes democracy will unravel this whole fucking system. Work, where we spend much of our waking hours is authoritarian, most of us have no voice over our working conditions. In our society, we may be given some license or permission to engage in the activities we want, and we call that freedom. We little or no influence over public policy.
Of course I understand the need for rules and structure. There should be methods to ensure students are in class, not aimlessly roaming campus, drug and alcohol free, dressed appropriately, speaking appropriately, attentive, etc. This requires some rules and regulations in the interest of the students. The rules are not made in the interest of the students or democracy but in the interests of order. Students have the same freedom in high school that they have as middle or elementary school children.
How does it benefit students to be told when they can go use the restroom? The fact is, we’re not preparing our students to participate in a democratic society because we don’t have one. We want to emphasize career and college readiness because we are educating them for the market not society at large. At best, we expect them to fit like cogs in a machine rather than questioning the legitimacy of the machine itself. The values most visibly encouraged are respect towards authority, nationalism, punctuality, ability to meet deadlines, organization, abstaining drugs and alcohol, not speaking out of turn, trying your best. All of these are good, but they generally seem to involve conforming to the status quo.
School Culture and Passivity
This affects our disadvantaged students who are routinely fed nonsense about the pathology of the poor. Minority students are not able to resist internalizing their treatment as potential criminals when black youth are treated as such as early as elementary school. All the dysfunctions of our society are reproduced, not challenged in our education system and the youth are expected to fall in line. In my class, I have had white students discuss how they are treated differently than minorities, athletes discuss how they are given privileges. There is no appropriate time for students to address injustice in school, even if face to face with it. Immigrant students and their allies at my school site were planning a campus speak out in the quad during lunch to discuss concerns of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. They didn’t even plan to miss class, but administrators rounded up the leaders and coerced them to call it off.
All this is accompanied by a social studies curriculum that shuns all forms of radicalism. In my extremely dated, district issued, US History textbook, Malcolm X is described as a proponent of violence. The Communists and Anarchists of the labor movement are all but written out of history, except as Haymarket bomb throwers. There is no critical commentary about any war or foreign intervention perpetrated by the United States. Every bomb that has ever been dropped is described as being done with benign intent. Any radical stance against American policy is somehow characterized as violent or irresponsible. In my experience most teachers perpetuate this view of history as well. As a result, there is not even a model of principled radical action against the ruling class that children can learn from, unless they have a teacher determined to provide one. For social activism to be sanctioned, the dissent has to be non socialist, non violent and/or non threatening.
We are at the point where whatever we teach in schools, has to start from the premise that what we have been doing isn’t working. Hundreds of species are lost everyday, the oceans are dying, humanity itself is threatened. Students should be encouraged to imagine a different world. They have been systematically taught that this is the best of all possible worlds. Early in every school year I ask my US History students if Columbus’s “discovery” of America was a positive development. Most students say “yes”. This is not a problem in itself. However, when asked why, most say something like “Had it not taken place, we wouldn’t be here now”, or “we wouldn’t have the freedoms we enjoy”. As if living on the cusp of mass environmental catastrophe or nuclear annihilation are great developments, as if obscene inequality and state sanctioned murder by police is ok. If this system had any interests in actually educating youth to be independent thinkers, there would be some effort to actually teach them what’s going on, what must be done to change it and that another world is possible.
We should challenge our students to raise their voices, if we actually want to live in a democracy. As educators we should encourage a critical view of our history and our place in it. We want to channel the thoughts, feelings and ideas or our students into positive action even if it challenges the status quo. Academies, charters are all popping up claiming to encourage independent thinking and problem solving. They want education geared to the needs of the market. They want youth that can solve problems of production, marketing and maximizing profit not human survival. We want them to know formulas and theorums, document analysis, basic science but nothing tied to how the world actually works and how to change it. We want critical thinking, but only about how to solve the problems the system faces, not the system itself.
Social Justice, Critical Pedagogy
The social fibers in our society seem to be unraveling and the ruling class is scrambling to keep it together, as they fight over how to handle gaping social conditions. Historically oppressed minorities and immigrant groups are reminded daily how little they are valued by this society. We are in the midst of a system of mass incarceration and a scourge of unaccountable police murder and brutality, viewed online like the public executions of the past; cities across the country are seeing rebellions and riots. Refugees flee their homelands to come to America, the very place responsible for the policies that forced them to leave in the first place are rejected and sent back callously. If not, they are forced to eek out an existence in the shadows of society as family bonds are fractured and relatives are deported. The numbers of homeless are swelling as tent cities of mentally ill, drug addicted and struggling people, dot the urban landscape. This is the richest, most powerful country in the world with a wealth gap that is beginning to mirror that of the underdeveloped world.
As a society, we have no answers to these problems. As educators, with access to the future of this nation, what has been our response? Since we as, teachers are generally regarded as ideological custodians of the system, largely, it has been as tools in the reproduction of the status quo that got us to this point. In recent decades, we have seen an attempt to separate from that tradition with Social Justice education. Social justice education is a means to encourage students to analyze the world and see their place in it as an agent of change for a more just world. What does a social justice framework mean?
Cal State Channel Islands school of Education website says,“According to Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a leading scholar in education, a social justice framework is one that “actively address[es] the dynamics of oppression, privilege, and isms, [and recognizes] that society is the product of historically rooted, institutionally sanctioned stratification along socially constructed group lines that include race, class, gender, secual orientation, and ability [among others]. Working for social justice in education means guiding students [and often being guided by students] in critical self-reflection of their socialization into this matrix of unequal relationships and its implications, analysis of the mechanisms of oppression, and the ability to challenge these hierarchies.”
Social justice education in my understanding, borrows primarily from Paolo Freire’s “conscientizacao” or raising of consciousness, central to critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is defined by Wikipedia as, “a teaching approach inspired by Marxist critical theory and other radical philosophies, which attempts to help students question and challenge posited “domination,” and to undermine the beliefs and practices that are alleged to dominate”.
The point is to join students in recognizing and acting to change material social conditions facing the oppressed. The consciousness being promoted by Freire is in part, class consciousness. This is what is missing from most of the social justice inheritors of Freire’s legacy, a thorough analysis of capitalism and its role in promoting the inequality that we encourage students to challenge.
Social justice education should not simply be bourgeois, liberal identity politics. As a social studies teacher, it is important to view history and society from the vantage points of historically disadvantaged groups like women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people etc. This is why the movement for ethnic studies is positive. However, in all the talk about safe spaces and micro-agressions that seem to be popular today, we may be missing the macro-agression of class oppression. We forget that the gripes associates with all these oppressed groups stems from a capitalist superstructure.
The Need for Class Consciousness
With all of our great intentions we run the risk of giving our youth a fractured view of the world and the workings of class oppression. Aside from teaching the youth to view the world from their own social station as minorities, women or LGBTQ, etc. we should also draw lessons from what these groups have in common as “oppressed people” and about class struggle.
I work in the most depressed neighborhood of our local community and all my students think they are middle class. Of course most are not. The more astute of my students recognize that racial and gender discrimination exist. They do not recognize how this is linked to capitalism or their role at the bottom of it. There cannot be a real grassroots movement to empower the poor among the youth if they all think they are middle class. This society teaches them that poverty stems from character flaws instead of the nature of the system. As a result, they do not want to identify with being poor. They do not wish to carry the flag or the social burden of being lower class.
As educators, we should not want our students to analyze the symptoms of the capitalism as separate and unrelated, oppression of blacks over here, women over here, etc. They must be encouraged to question the legitimacy of the entire system, not just the way it affects particular groups. We are afraid to deal with the topic of class struggle unless we’re referring to the a struggle for poor folks to get into the middle class. Never is it analyzed as a social dynamic, complete with power relations and consequences that affect their lives. They have been taught in school that this system works like a referee, fair and consistent, rewarding those who work hard, not as a tool of the ruling class to protect their interests.
What we do not recognize is that inequality is in the fundamental nature of this system. We treat inequality as if it were some type of mistake. The official view of history posits that overall, the system works, but there are some kinks in it. America is trying to live up to their claims of equality in the declaration of independence, but there is just some historical baggage there and the people just need to participate more to help America get over the historical humps of white supremacy, class oppression and sexism. On the contrary, such inequality and oppression comes from conscious policy in the interests of the ruling class, not bad laws or voter apathy.
Ethnic Studies and Identity Politics
We are seeing a push for Ethnic Studies in high school curriculum. This is a positive development, but what must be addressed is the tendency for such courses to fragment history and view it from a single perspective which can encourage isolated identity politics instead of solidarity. Of course there is value in analyzing history from a particular ethnic standpoint, but within an overall critical, historical analysis that transcends any particular historical narrative.
What is important in history, be it ethnic studies or not, is a historic, systemic analysis of governing institutions and class dynamics. This can highlight how the system actually perpetuates inequality and needs it to survive. The system itself is the problem, it needs dismantling, not fixing. It is built on inequality. Critical pedagogy recognizes the dialectical relationship between the subjective and the objective. We need to see how the system operates wholly, along with the perspective of any particular group.
At best identity politics and similar manifestations mitigate the effects of this system on one’s own people. The legitimacy of the system itself must be challenged outright. It is too big and complex to challenge from such a narrow perspective. My position is not that ethnic studies and identity politics are harmful or unnecessary. My point is that we need more. We need these perspectives to supplement a well rounded analysis of the system towards the people in general. Any understanding of the workings of a complex system needs to be understood from the outside in, not the inside out. One cannot understand the body by looking only at the liver and its relationship to the rest of the body; one has to study the workings of the body as a whole and then focus on a particular area.
If critical pedagogy matters, it should be a radical thrust in education to foster solidarity, not just liberal identity politics, we have plenty of that. Freire’s work was part of a larger social movement to challenge the status quo, not just fit in it, or make it work better for us, or make its effects less severe on a particular group. Though not openly advocated, his philosophy has the potential to sow the seeds of rebellion. This is a line that we cannot be afraid of if we want to raise consciousness, if we want to change the world.
We cannot water it down. In my experience, it seems as though Social Justice education is an attempt to engage in critical pedagogy without the attachment to radical tradition. He writes about the relationship between the people and the operations of the system as being dialectical. We must see our society from the ground level as well as from a bird’s eye view and how the viewpoints are related.
Academic Achievement Gap Rooted in Oppression
Over the years I have done significant research on the achievement gap between some racial minorities and white students in American schools. All the journals, books and articles I read were limited to American publications. This only gives a limited view of the problem. I thought it would be wise to look at the situation in other countries with a similar history of conquest, genocide and codified racism.
America is historically a white, colonial, settler state, meaning Europeans came, conquered, cleared the place out and established a racial hierarchy with them at the top. A mainstay of American culture has been a belief in white, intellectual and cultural supremacy over the indigenous people and Africans. These are some of the same people under-performing in America’s schools today.
There are other societies that have historical commonalities with America. It seems as if white supremacist, colonial, settler states have the same discrepancies that grow out of this similar history. Indigenous Hawaiians, Aboriginal Australians, South Africans, Maori from New Zealand and Indigenous and African people throughout the Americas under-perform compared to white students in their respective societies.
The oppressed populations are also economically depressed and fill the prisons, similar to African and Native Americans in the US. Perhaps the problem is not the students of certain oppressed ethnic and racial backgrounds, but the societies that were built on their backs. All these societies have histories of white supremacy and institutionalized inferiority of oppressed people that were consciously fabricated by the ruling group; thus, the achievement gap is a normal function of the society. It’s a legacy of educational imperialism, if you will.
We are expecting students of oppressed groups to fully engage and buy into the system created by their conquerors. This is a gap that may not ever be bridged under the current social relations. Out of that gap grows resentment, misbehavior, distrust, apathy and under-performance. These are defense mechanisms against what may be argued, is a hostile system.
What does it suggest if this achievement gap did not exist and students performed at or above the level of the colonizing culture under their educational system. It may suggest that they have completely bought in to the perspective of the ruling class and have ceased to resist. This is not the case and should never be. Education has always been a tool of conquest and should not be assumed neutral. It is the system that needs to be changed and people have to do it.
The similarities do not end with education. Look inside the prisons in these societies. The oppressed groups make up disproportionate percentages there as well. There is a trend here and it’s not surprising. The historically dispossessed are still just that, dispossessed, just in a different form. Much of the rhetoric coming from the ruling classes in those societies mirror that of the US. They also have a history of blaming the conquered people for their lack of upward mobility.
There are attacks on their culture, their self-destructive behavior, propensity for criminality, antisocial behavior and apathy as if it is totally unrelated to their complicated history with white settler colonialism, enslavement, genocide and capitalism. Surprise! People that have had their land, culture, labor and language debased in the most violent and oppressive manner do not adjust very well or very quickly to the institutions that were built on top of them.
People often look at the educational success of immigrant groups in the United States to highlight the low performance of African Americans. “If they can come here with nothing and succeed at the highest levels in America’s schools and universities, what’s wrong with these African Americans?” It is interesting to note, the most educated immigrant group here in America is Africans, particularly Nigerians. They spring from the same gene pool as African Americans, but they come here without much of the cultural baggage and inferiority complex that Africans in this hemisphere have developed.
On the other hand, the cultural context that reared their cousins in the Americas taught them that they were deficient, many internalized it to varying degrees over the centuries. The socio-cultural institutions that maintain a people’s self esteem have been compromised if not destroyed. New institutions have developed in their place, but in the context of race and class oppression. This is at the root of the achievement gap. This is what needs to be rebuilt.
Critics postulate and pontificate about the dysfunction in African American culture. They decry the lack of fathers in the home, the predominance of drugs and violence in their communities as if they just fell into that situation. Those problems did not exist when they were taken from their homeland in chains. The condition that oppressed people all over the world find themselves in grows out of their historical experience with their oppressors. It is then, the very inheritors of the fruit of this legacy, that then turn and criticize those they have dispossessed.
Educational Gaps Can’t be Closed in Isolation from General Struggle
In most situations, the ruling class and their allies from the oppressed groups fail to see why these people they did so much to civilize and educate cannot properly function in their society with all the opportunity they have been given. Well maybe ‘those people’ don’t see it the same way. Perhaps their pronounced levels of inter-generational trauma, self loathing, lack of confidence and resentment that was involuntarily piled upon them for centuries has something to do with their failure to succeed in that same system. Perhaps this is because those institutions do not grow organically from them, but were imposed. The problems faced by the oppressed cannot be fixed in the context of the oppressing system.
In recent years, there has been some attempt to include oppressed people in the curriculum and mask the cultural disdain of the ruling institutions towards them as well as programs to help them out. The gaps remain and they will as long as education is rooted in the larger hierarchical system. It takes more than piecemeal educational or community programs that focus on isolated issues to close achievement gaps created and maintained by capitalism and white supremacy over centuries.
The closing of these gaps in the context of the ruling system could in fact indicate a capitulation by the oppressed, a full acceptance of the system. These discrepancies do not only represent a history of oppression but a history of resistance that must continue and intensify if the poor and oppressed are to live with dignity, these institutions have to be rejected at some level. The school has to be a point of struggle.
It is there, that the students must challenge the authoritarian structure and cultural hegemony inherent in school and society. The oppressed must lay claim to education. If they are to do so, it is impossible to do it in isolation. They must lay claim to education along with everything else. If not, any progress on this front or any other is simply a concession made in the interests of the ruling class that can be reversed.
Educational equity in America or anywhere else must not come from an acquiescence to the system or acceptance of it. It should come from a larger change in society in which new, revolutionary institutions have replaced the traditional oppressive ones. Institutions like education generally mirror the social relations around them.
Thus, equity in education has to be part of a general awakening of the people that challenges the status quo and fundamentally changes society. Education is not an island. We cannot have a society with a strong legacy of colonialism, slavery, genocide, oppression, and inequality and expect to be able to have an educational system without the same baggage.
The Role of Critical Education
Our students must be positioned to recognize the cultural baggage that they bring as well as the baggage inherent in the system and challenge them both. The intellectual challenge should eventually give way to outward manifestations of resistance. This is where critical education is necessary, to provide the intellectual impetus to awaken students to the world and their place in it. Hopefully some eventually take it and run with it, applying practice to theory.
I have seen this happen as student’s consciousness rise to a level that action is necessary. In recent years, we have seen high school students walk out of school in response to police brutality in the community and the nation. College students have stood up against racism on campus, forced the resignation of administrators and even a student athlete strike. Latino students walked out of school all over Los Angeles as part of the immigration protests of 2006. These activities don’t just take place, they happen as part of a general upsurge in society that must intensify to make fundamental change. We must assist students to see their place in history and act on it as agents of their own liberation.
The changes we want to see in education, we should be working for in the larger societal context. Let us not limit our focus to equity in schools, but to building a society that values its children equally. This calls for a radical restructuring of, well, everything from our economy to our culture and challenging the reactionary forces that benefit from the status quo. Of course this challenge must come, in part, from the youth, students in particular. Our part as critical educators is assisting the students to read the world and their place in it and helping them to envision an alternative.