Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Sermon [Knowledge & Education]

Hola mi Gente,
FYI, I will be speaking as a panelist at a conference tomorrow about the importance of education as a policy to address mass incarceration. Feel free to stop by starting at 5:30PM at SUNY Empire at 177 Livingston St., 6th floor:

On another note, I have three interviews/ meetings coming up this week. Wish me luck.

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Knowledge and Democracy

Thinking is an action; critical thinking is a subversive action.
-- bell hooks

Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

When I was in high school, an English teacher drafted me to be on the school’s debating team. I attended a high school that had over 3,000 students packed into a building that was originally built to hold half that number.

The school’s major claim to fame was that a student had been murdered there the year before I went to high school, in 1969. To walk through my school’s staircases and hallways was to navigate situations and dangers most adults, let alone children, would find hard to cope with. 

I was at the top of the Dean’s List, but I had to, by necessity, forge some form of alliance with those hallways and staircases, as well as the streets. And though I was an honor student, I might have known the individual who had taken your lunch money or sold you reefer.

Still, I was tagged as one of the few who would succeed. I was part of a citywide program that was specially funded for gifted inner city students. It was called the “College-Bound” program. And while my extorting and drug-selling friends attended classes packed with 40 or more students, I attended classes composed of the brightest students and, if there were fifteen students in the class, it was a lot. The best teachers, politically committed and passionate young people, became our mentors. Sometimes they were the last obstacle between us and the horrors that lurked just outside our classrooms. Some of the greatest teachers I have ever known were a part of that group.

They believed in the liberal notion that a good and free education was the key to a viable democracy. I began to learn some of the basic tools of intellectual craftsmanship under the tutelage of these men and women. They stressed to us that one of the primary elements of a true, functioning, representative democratic republic was that its citizens be well informed.

The vast majority of my classmates, most of whom were my childhood friends, went on to college and would become professionals. Several went on to become lawyers, a few more ended up on Wall St., and more than a few became teachers themselves.

I enjoyed debating. I saw debate as a gladiatorial arena in which the inequities of injustice could be hashed out. I was informed, passionate, and known for showing no mercy. I saw debate as a blood sport (still do LOL) and I was especially merciless when I came up against students from who had the privilege of attending schools located in wealthier neighborhoods -- schools that received twice the funding my school received. I remember visiting a school once that actually had a small stage in their “performance arts” classroom.

Even in the College Bound program, I was once taught algebra sitting on the bleachers by my school’s swimming pool, with the heat turned up to 90 degrees and people splashing and running around. Yes, I took great pleasure in dismantling the premises of my better off opponents mostly because it was easy to see the inequality behind it all.

Funding for the “College Bound” program was gutted shortly after my high school years. White flight to the suburbs followed by the arrival of conservative political power (which succeeded by pandering to white fear), gutted most social programs and education was the first victim. This first wave of the conservative onslaught against public education was followed by a sustained attack, this time by “Third Way” democratic neoliberals that funded then popular “tough on crime” initiatives that emphasized punishment and prison building at the expense of education.

As a result of these short-sighted and wrong-headed social policies, studies consistently show today that about 14 percent of adults in the U.S. are illiterate, meaning that 32 million people lack the skills to handle many everyday tasks. Some 21 percent of the population, possess “below basic” skills in reading and writing, meaning their reading ability is so limited, they have difficulty making sense of a simple pamphlet, for example. Another 44 percent of the population, have intermediary skills, meaning they can perform moderately challenging activities.

While these figures are certainly concerning, as with most things, there are two Americas when it comes to education. I am sure that we have all come across those articles that compares to the US to other comparatively wealthy democracies, showing how far we lag behind. However, that’s only half the story. The real take away from these studies and what the majority of the articles reporting these findings fail to mention is that public schools from middle class or wealthier communities in the US fare as well or better than schools in other countries. Schools situated in poorer communities, communities beset with lead poisoning, poverty, and addiction for example, don’t fare as well. 

For too long, there has been a two-pronged strategy to this manufactured educational “crisis.” The first has been to accede to the conservative ideal of the market as a solution. Most often, the Trojan Horse of charter schools, a system that uses a combination of padded cells, corruption, lousy instruction and worse results, are used to siphon off already scarce funds from public schools. The second prong has been an endless series of dismantling social safety nets that has resulted in increases in child poverty and child hunger. The rhetoric has been that the school system is too broke to fix. In a way, conservatives correct: the educational system is broken, but it is mostly the result of their social policies. One example in a long list of examples is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which cost states more in property taxes and other taxes than they got out of it.

The solution is not to go in and bulldoze the schools. The answer is not to privatize the schools. The answer lies not in destruction, but in creating the collective will to change and support the way we teach. I doubt I’ll find much disagreement that our schools are melting down. However, too many of the adults reading this are much too quick to blame the children. Don’t be fuckin’ stupid. If our children are failing, then that means we as a society are failing our children. If you’re one of these people, then you’re just a dumb motherfucker. Period.

Others want to blame the parents. While it is true that parental involvement is an important factor in educational achievement, it doesn’t matter how much a parent engages if the schools we entrust our children are in disrepair, offer no access to technology, or teach children in retrofitted bathrooms. Good parenting in a well-funded suburban school equals a good student. On the other hand, good parenting in a poorly funded and demoralized inner city school doesn’t equal a good student.

The answer lies in how we view education. Education (like health care) isn’t a business, it’s an investment. For every dollar spent on education, the economy gains nine dollars. Educational investment results in healthier children who are less likely to end up in the special-education-to-criminal-justice-system pipeline, and are more likely to go to college.

Conservatives, however, seem hell-bent in pursuing an agenda that has resulted in a de facto caste system. They are channeling people who believed we should have a literate ruling class and a working class that should know just enough to make change when they buy something.

We are there.

They have done their best to destroy public education. The undermine teachers unions and starve schools. In other words, they set public education to fail and when it does, they point fingers and yell, “See! Government doesn’t work!”

Historically, we have understood education as an essential, organic part of our democracy and considered access to higher education -- regardless of income or criminal justice status -- to be, using neoliberal terms, one of the keys to building a strong middle class, a strong economy, and a strong, united nation.

Conservatives, however, see education as another commodity, like shoes or X-Boxes. Because they see it as a commodity, they operate under the false assumption that it’s easy to measure. Standardized tests lead only to standardized minds. Standardized tests do not and cannot measure if our kids know the difference between the worldviews of Thomas Paine versus Edmund Burke or the differences in the vision of democracy between Robbespierre and Jefferson. Standardized minds don’t result in critical thinking skills and the ability to think “outside the box” -- skills essential to a democracy. 

If you want to know the consequences of 40 years of conservative educational policies, you have to look no further than the current election season. One study shows that Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner for their presidential nominee, speaks at a fourth-grade level and the chattering class then feigns surprise. Considering our expressed values regarding the importance of education, why should we be surprised? In any other country, the way we treat our children would be considered child abuse.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization… 

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