My father was a first generation college student. Raised in rural Massachusetts on public assistance, he comes from a large group of siblings, and one of the only Black families in the area. Excelling in school from an early age, he was identified by several of his teachers as gifted, and my grandmother in particular understood that an academic future might be his ticket away from poverty in a small, postindustrial town. My father went on to receive scholarships to a private high school, college, and finally a Ph.D. program, a feat which required herculean efforts on both his and his family’s part. Meanwhile, many of his siblings who struggled in school, battled drug addiction and found themselves in destructive relationships, did not receive the same kind of attention and support, having never been marked by any of their teachers as “worthy of escape.” While they were encouraged to pursue the vocations for which they had been typecast, my father left home in the 10th grade, never to live there again. In my generation, the family is split along class lines, with those who attended college leading middle-class lives in various locations around the country, and those who didn’t residing in the small town in which my father was raised, still wrestling with many of the issues they faced as young people.
I was recently watching an installment of Skip Gates’ America Beyond the Color Line–a project I take issue with for a number of reasons. This particular chapter of the film was dedicated to issues of urban plight. At the moment that I flipped to the broadcasting channel, Gates was sitting with an all Black group of high school students in a classroom on Chicago’s south side. After listening to stories of the students’ struggles and setbacks as members of an impoverished community, Gates asked, “Would it mean something to you all if more wealthy Black folks came back to this neighborhood and said, ‘Look, I made it out, here’s how you can, too’?” Most of the students nodded, and a few shouted their affirmative responses. The episode closed with a predictable monologue about education being the key to success, the primary weapon with which to fight poverty and unlock a brighter future for the Black community–replete with doctor, lawyer and engineer dreams for all Black youth. While formal education, admittedly, has long been mythologized as source of saving grace for the supposedly downtrodden, it is only in recent decades that teaching the oppressed has come to be seen as activist work, something inherently selfless and good, and which helps restore justice to those who have been perennially denied it.
Many in my current student generation are being drawn towards careers in education in larger numbers than ever before. This has to do with a host of social, political and economic shifts–each worth its own individual interrogation–including recession, the availability of jobs in certain sectors, and the urgent need to pay off loans as the price of “higher learning” continues to skyrocket. Yet for the sake of this discussion, the phenomenon I would like to focus on is the relatively recent development of the rhetoric of education as social justice work. Young idealists who seek to involve themselves in making a positive change are moving more and more away from protest, away from grassroots and community organizing, away from militant efforts which seek to challenge oppressive systems, and more and more into joining with the systems themselves, particularly through the means of becoming teachers, principals and policy makers. We as students and young people are not merely encouraged in this direction, but are actively recruited by our learning institutions, the nonprofit sector, and a myriad of private organizations, all of them siphoning resources and rights away from oppressed communities even as they rely on the rhetoric of social justice to appeal to aspiring change makers. The result of this rhetoric’s production, and our belief in it as a generation of young educators, is a sterilized and barren notion of social justice, one which reinvests faith into the exact institutions which structure and perpetuate an inequitable social order.
My father is now a college administrator at his alma mater, and plays a large role in overseeing one of the very institutions which holds such a problematic place in his family’s history. What could easily be read as a narrative of personal triumph for my father as an individual, when placed in a larger context, is one of a family’s being rent apart, and an oppressed community being dismantled, not uplifted. Why do we seldom ask: How is it that so many of our present notions of social justice depend on the individuals who have been largely successful within the order teaching whole communities who have been oppressed by it to work diligently inside of it in the hopes of individual betterment? When did social justice become solely about teaching, talking and testing? How did we all become sold on working within current educational and political models instead of challenging them at their bases, preferably with militant and community-based means of action?
In response to the question, ‘Are teachers activists?’ my answer is: No. Not inherently. Teaching brown kids math, helping recent immigrants master English, or even making an occupational commitment to public education, are none of them inherently radical acts, though they are often characterized as such. This is not to say that choosing education as a profession is in dissonance with struggling for social justice. It is when we believe that it is enough–that simply being a teacher by trade is activism–that we enter into dangerous territory. For this belief is complicit with a plethora of assumptions detrimental to justice, including the notion that learning is inevitably about competition, class mobility and community escape. It leaves unchallenged an oppressive state’s ability to define “the public good,” the power of private bodies to determine curriculum, the bonds between school and the prison industrial complex, and the colonial concept that the oppressed should model themselves after their oppressors in order to be “successful.” Our cooperation with these systems of thought and action results in the perpetuation of the most abhorrent and inequitable structures in global history, and works to destroy the very communities we have naively taken it upon ourselves to “save.”
A true commitment to social justice must be about something deeper and more potent than deigning to work with oppressed people, preparing them for proper immersion into the social orders which have forever defined themselves through their disenfranchisement. Our work as educators cannot simply be around developing the curriculum which has been handed to us and spooning it to our students, hoping to sneak in a few progressive tidbits in the form of readings and discussion questions. A real struggle for justice requires that we fight systems of oppression both in and outside of the classroom, pose real threats to their ability to function, and be brave enough to take the risks required to resist the conservative goals of traditional education, rather than apologetically working along with them.