Education for Liberation - Pt I  
Jul 4th, 2003
by Rootsie

My years as a teen and working with teens have made me smart-mouthed and irreverent. Like them.
But I work to see the truth and try to tell it.
I happen to believe that telling the truth is what will save us.

Who is us?
All of us.
We are us.
And we belong to each other.

When I left Minneapolis, I told everyone I would not return to teaching. At least for a minute. I qualified it thus many times, and wondered at it. No wonder. Three months later, a week after I would have started my fifth year at Minneapolis Edison High School. I accepted a position at Mt.Abraham Union High School in Bristol, Vermont, one of those 'charming' Vermont towns.

I srepped in for the Advanced Placement English and Theater teacher who is on sabbatical. My dream job. I couldn't refuse. I take a picture out my classroom window every day, to record the change of seasons, the mists, the rains, the brilliant northern sky.

I have fewer than 20 students in a class. The schedule is humane for both teachers and the 500 kids. There are no bells, yet everybody is on time, or very close. Kids with discmen are sprawled in the halls, doing their work. My computer talks to my printer. The xerox machine works, I can use it whenever I need, and make as many copies as I want. I don't have to buy my own paper.

As I was walking in the other morning, through the clumps of kids, I noticed especially the boys, some with their skateboards, relaxed and undefended. They did not have to put their game faces on with their baggy pants, making ready to retaliate physically for any perceived slight or 'disrespect.' No shields up. No false bravado. No swaggering caricatures of masculinity.

Most of my students are fluent readers. The few who are not stick out. I have my students' consent to teach them. They want to like me. We share a set of assumptions, though I constantly challenge and push them to be aware that this is so.

I tell them of the ones I've left behind: they ask so many questions, I feel like an anthropologist being debriefed upon returning from my foray into the land of 'the other.'

"Did you see anybody get shot?" No. But some of my students have been shot dead.

"Were they mean to you?" Hardly ever.

Like Scheherezade I come with tales of veiled Somali girls with skin-tight skirts and platform shoes, of Laotian Hmong gangbangers, of disaster and want. I tell them of little Michelle, mean to all, and how she melted once I named for her the harshness and meanness of her world.

"Nobody has ever been sweet to you, have they?"


I end by telling my rapt little audience, "But they are just like you, you know." Beautiful, bright, and funny. Responsive to love as adults often are not. Demanding relevance. Demanding truth.

In spite of my tearful rage that this dream job evokes by its contrast to the one I left, I am made hopeful by the openness and compassion of these faces before me. They want a just world, and they are willing to entertain some very painful ideas to bring it to pass.

But this fact kindles its own anger: to be the teacher I must be, I'm bringing the hardest truths imaginable, to children, while my government and its institutions and its media apparatus, those bastions of adulthood, refuse to entertain any introspection at all. I take my role as an educator in a 'democracy' as a sacred charge. As an educator in a democracy, my teaching must be liberatory.

However, as the great teacher Paolo Freire points out, before liberation is possible, the nature of the oppression must be dissected, deconstructed, 'broke down.'

Let me break it down for you: you are furious Jamal because you are a black man in America. And Brandon, look what your white skin buys you.

It is coming all too clear to many Americans that we have lost control of our government. And no wonder, I fume from where I sit. Who's voting? Who's in jail? Who can read and do long division? Who has a pretty purple and gray-tiled bathroom in their school?

No school I have worked in shows any significant success with economically or racially disenfranchised children. The middle class students, teachers marvel, 'teach themselves.' As for the rest, they are written off, fractions of percentage points in dropout rates, and later, fractions of percentage points in incarceration rates, murder rates. This is not an exaggeration; neither is it 'liberal' demagoguery.

To argue, as so many do, that the poor performance of students is due to defective families, defective teachers, and defective children, is to sidestep the real issue: American refusal to entertain its own history.

The idea behind public education in America is to 'level the playing field' for all, to feed the meritocracy we so fondly believe we have achieved here. But it is in these same institutions that we see the failure of meritocracy on graphic display. There are success stories but by and large, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and instead of addressing this disparity, schools reinforce it.

The irony here is that the idea of universal public education took hold during the Reconstruction period, when newly-free blacks saw education as the lynchpin for their success, opening thousands of schools, training thousands of black teachers. Today, the descendants of these pioneers are the main casualties of a broken system which serves, whatever the intention, to cement the black position at the bottom of the economic ladder.

I learned very early that in order to be of some use to disenfranchised children, mostly black and Native American, I had to find a way to overcome their resistance to learning from me, or any other representative of the system. By the time they sat in front of me as 9th graders, sagging in their chairs and rolling their eyes, they had been thoroughly taught that there was little or nothing to be found in school that was of any relevance to them. I was shocked. Children are supposed to be full of questions, of wonder. Who had done this? It seemed to me a prosecutable offense, a violation of the very nature of childhood.

I quickly realized the problem: adults were not telling them the truth, and, wise souls, these children intuitively understood this. During adolescence, which begins to set in around the age of ten, children begin to look beyond their personal and familial concerns to engage a larger world. And what do they see? The same thing I do, a world laboring under staggering injustice, daily horror, endless war, and most of their teachers addressed none of this. Instead they were exposed to a barrage of 'innovative learning strategies', standardized test preparation masquerading as curriculum, diversions and distractions of all kinds, accompanied by repeated experiences of failure, while their essential questions were being ignored: why does my family have so little when the ones on tv are so rich,? Why are white people afraid of me when I walk down the street with my friends? Why is this school so broke down and dirty? Why is my neighborhood so trashy when the one the white kids live in is so clean and neat and quiet? Children are unable perhaps to conceptualize injustice, but they experience it all the same.

And schools address none of this, even though many teachers in poor urban schools choose to work there because they care deeply for the ideal of a just society, and rightly see schools as a way to address disparities. However, for many reasons, including burnout due to ridiculously stressful working conditions, fear of censure by their superiors for pursuing a 'political agenda', and even fear of the children themselves, few teachers are willing to engage issues of race and class and power with their students. Few are willing to tell the children the truth.

Well what is the truth? The truth is the pain and the anger I saw in so many children. I realized that, as in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, I was looking at the enraged little ghosts of a denied history.

Why is an honest engagement with history so important? Nelson Mandela knew when he instituted his committees of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: it is only through a thorough, painful examination of the dynamics of oppression that oppression can finally be broken. There can be no reconciliation between black and white, between Native American and white, without the truth of white oppression being aired, in detail, until all Americans as a matter of course understand that the evils of the past inform the present in an immediate way.

On 9-11 the response by the 'average American' was a shocked, "Why do they hate us so much? Why do they want to kill us and are even willing to kill themselves to do it? Why are they so angry?" These re the same questions teachers ask each other about their students every day. American naivete in turn shocked the world. Americans believe their own patriotic rhetoric, but have allowed their government, an oligarchy of the rich, the white, the few, to run roughshod over the rest of the world while they bask in relative affluence and security. A democracy without a democratic educational system is simply an impossibility. It is not enough to make the children come. And such naivete at this late date is ugly, and essentially unforgivable.

My colleagues over the years have told me that I am 'obssessed', that I go in too close to kids, that I let them 'get to me.' This is so. I am obssessed with basic justice. I love my students deeply, and make sure they know it. And because I love them, I open myself to the criticism that I pursue a 'political agenda'. Teachers say it is always their duty to present all sides of an argument, to be 'objective.' But what is their response to the objective pain and fury of their students? As I see it, 'the other side' bombards children from every direction, from the media, television, advertisements, from the responses they get on the street every day, The most important tool I can give to them is the wherewithal to view critically the influences on them to think in a certain way about themselves and the world. I feel no need to defend the way things are except as a topic for debate.

The idea of 'responsive citizenship' in a democracy goes to the issue of power: who has it, how do they fight to keep it, and how can I move powerfully in my own life and influence the world around me? In order to address this issue, I can see no way to sidestep an analysis of the status quo that is not highly critical. Thomas Jefferson said we need a revolution every ten years. John Dewey said that if we are truly educating children, the assumptions of one generation will be critically questioned by the next, and proper adjustments made. There can be no other mechanism for a democracy.

A true understanding of history results in just such empowerment. For example, the stereotypes American people hold of Africa are appalling. African Americans are ashamed of their motherland, and the rest are unaware that Africa is their motherland as well. Imagine how hard it would have been to enslave and murder millions of Africans if we knew without a doubt that these are our sisters and brothers, separated by a few short miles and a few short years in the span of human history. What would it do for an African American child to know that the civilizations of West Africa the first Portuguese slavers encountered in 1444 were immensely wealthy, thriving, highly refined civil societies, most often surpassing anything to be found in Europe at the time? No need to go back 5000 years to the Egyptians to inspire 'black pride.' And no need to go back to 'Eve' to see our common ancestry. African thought and African values have informed the rest of the world at every turn. There are countless examples, Much of the poor behavior exhibited by so many worldwide stems from people who have been cut off from a knowledge of their own history, and of our shared history.

I think the refusal of so many black and Native American children to learn in school is a healthy, if misguided, response to a racist system. The debate about 'Ebonics' a few years back is interesting in this regard. The question is not whether Black English is a coherent and expressive language, worthy of study in schools: it is. The issue is rather that the refusal to use the language of the oppressor, however understandable, renders black people powerless to move fluidly through the systems that keep them marginal. I tell kids that with the proper tools, one can become a 'spy' and dismantle racism 'from the inside', if they can talk the talk. It is truly outrageous to me that I feel compelled to point out to black students the hard hard road before them, but not to do so is to compromise my own integrity, to dent the truths I know. Whites can support blacks and Native Americans in their liberation struggle, but the stranglehold of white supremacy will not be lbroken significantly by white efforts at honest self-reflection, especially since so very few whites are willing to engage in it.

Continue: Education for Liberation - Pt II


Rootsie's Homepage | Articles | Online Forum

Silver Bar
Copyright © 2003

Amazon Books

Christianity Before Christ by John G. Jackson
Christianity Before Christ by John G. Jackson

Holy War by Karen Armstrong
Holy War by Karen Armstrong

The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal
The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal

Introduction to African Civilizations by John G. Jackson, Runoko Rashidi, John Henrik Clarke
Introduction to African Civilizations by John G. Jackson, Runoko Rashidi, John Henrik Clarke