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Philosophical Meanderings

Education as Colonization and Commodification Processes

You and I may use the same language and media for communicating and yet still not understand one another. This concept was driven home last year when I reconnected with a gentleman I graduated from law school with twenty years earlier. Why I contacted him is not as important as my letting you know that both of us agreed that he and I were never “supposed” to have attended law school.

When students enter the fifth grade, they have certainly figured a few things out on their own, and notwithstanding the information they previously received know something is awry. Some will “adjust” and perform with the excellence adults wish for them. Most will make their education passage in modest silence and eventually exit the hallowed doors to enter the dreaded Real World. A few will rebelliously act out.

We should beware the acculturation processes we are involved in for culture involves behaviors and ideas that are learned, shared, patterned, adaptive and symbolic within a society of human beings and involves social class, the hierarchical arrangement of social groups which is typically based on wealth, occupation or other economic criteria. All identifiable cultural groups have views supported by interlocking and mutually supporting beliefs, forming an ideology difficult to assail and which has the potential to act as a “social control” which receives support due to people’s tendency to see the status quo as “the way things should be”.

I think all of us here at the Coöp are similar and dissimilar at the same time. We likely perceive something is out of phase, yet are firmly individualistic as to the “who, when, where, why and how” we perceive that something. I may see something large and amorphous while you see something tangible and discrete – or perhaps it is the other way around.

Each one of us became, and most “students” will become, familiar with two American “social truths” during early school years:

     All men are created equal.

     Individualism determines whether one will rise or fall.

If you cannot detect the contradiction between these “truths”, if you find yourself attempting to harmonize those statements, please take a deep breath and answer the following questions:

Do you live in a colony? Who are your neighbors, and what are they like? Are there “other” people who live elsewhere?

Where do your students live? Who are their neighbors and what are they like?

Did you “make the grade” and obtain various certificates and diplomas to demonstrate your value that entitled you to “get the job”? Which of your students will “make the grade” and obtain similar evidence of their value that will entitle them to “get the job”?

Why does academic performance, as measured by standardized tests, reflect “performance gaps” along class, color, sex and other lines? Were your students launched from different culture and class bases, to be acculturated in different ways such that they have significantly different trajectories?

For some, education is a door that opens to a life of wealth and ease. For others, education represents a barrier.

Same language. Same word.

Different backgrounds. Different meanings and different values.

“Teachers” are not at fault here.


About Brent Snavely

A construct of upbringing and society, holder of a BS and JD and most recently an MA, I have practiced law more than 20 years. It has been said "The Truth shall set you free" -- I believe it will, but only if it is Your Personal Truth. Parrhesia may be humankind's only hope (see,


6 thoughts on “Education as Colonization and Commodification Processes

  1. I ask my students (mostly immigrant, few are “legal”) to question “All men are created equal.” I ask, “What if it’s not self-evident? What if it’s not true? Question it.”

    The answers always astound me:

    What about women?
    What about my people, who you stole the land from?
    Why does it have to be ‘created?’ What if we just existed without a god?
    What about my family? We still can’t get papers?
    What about my ancestors that worked your fields, Mr. Jefferson? Why weren’t they included?

    The questions continue on our Google Doc. When the students take it to a creative expression, it becomes even more powerful.

    But then . . .

    I never completely know where to go with all of it. I come from the power culture. Equal has always meant a guy like me gets more just by accident of geography and genetics.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | September 17, 2011, 7:24 pm
    • John,

      It is clear your students know their own Truths. It is also clear you know your own. I know how I would handle the situation, but I can get away with a large amount of “otherness” due to my phenotype and personal experiences.

      I appreciate your quandry.

      I can only suggest that you and your students discuss your respective Truths. This is a risky proposition, and in a public school system, your personal risk may outweigh the benefit of such a discussion no matter how much it might help students understand the complexities of American society and government.

      At a minimum, you might tell your students that the “Founding Fathers” merely acted in conformace with what they learned early in their lives, and that they were fallable human beings long before they played a role in U.S. history. Since they already know life is not fair, they might benefit from confirmation that you, a teacher, also knows about that fact. You might tell them you do not have all the answers, that you can only let them know what worked for you in your life, and that you are willing to work with them as they find their own paths to follow.

      If you are interested in the utility of parrhesia (speaking truths), you might take a quick look at a copy of my MA thesis that I uploaded in the backchannel area. I feel quite strongly about this topic — perhaps to the extent of being obnoxious about it…

      Posted by Brent Snavely | September 17, 2011, 11:29 pm
  2. Sometimes I think the traditional “teacher” and “student” roles are the tribes with which we have to stop identifying if we’re going to find truth and make meaning of it together. Too much of that hierarchical, establishment relationship is built on inequality. Community members at school could complete more “work” of lasting value together as co-learners.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | September 18, 2011, 8:16 pm
    • Chad,

      I like your perspective, and I especially like your reference to community.

      Role inversion, or at least some shifting back and forth between tribes and roles might often be appropriate. While family matters are only loosely analogous to “schooling”, I note with some dismay that I learned much more from my stepsons than I was able to “teach” them. Upon reflection, perhaps the proper order of life and learning is for adults to learn from children — they are a heck of a lot more intelligent than we are typically willing to acknowledge.

      Posted by Brent Snavely | September 18, 2011, 9:22 pm
  3. When did it start to become socially acceptable again to use the male pronoun for all people? As a 1970s and 80s feminist, I had hopes that this era was over forever.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 20, 2011, 9:40 am

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