As a Social Studies teacher, it is almost sacrosanct that the Friday before the long weekend in January is dedicated to teaching about the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. As well it should be. King is arguably along with Benjamin Franklin among one of the most famous and influential, if not important, non-President figures in American History. For my Fourth and Fifth Graders especially he is one of the few figures they can name without firing off too many synapses; which puts Dr. King in the lonely and odd historical company of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama. King’s historic speech at The March on Washington, an eleven minute long receipt delivered to the American society about a debt it had yet to pay to the descendants of slaves in terms of equality, for my students is often diluted into the four words of the title: I Have A Dream. While many of my students can’t really verbalize what that dream was they know it has something to do with people being equal…and they assume that they are. The unfortunate truth is that while great strides towards equality have been made since Dr. King made his speech, we have many miles to go before we rest; and the issues of equality have become for more pervasive in the public eye than sharing restrooms and water fountains.
Today’s fight for equality often throws class in with race and focuses as much on societal institutions and the efficacy of the supposed leveling mechanisms as much as equal legal justice and economic opportunity; some argue they are all one and the same with good reason. In the past decade-and-change the major focus of top-down efforts to “level the playing field” of opportunity and access is the public education system. So-called reformers have contributed special interests funds at such quickly rising levels as to make one think of the biblical flood. All the while they have adopted the word “reform” down to its etymological pieces–to create all over–without giving any lip service to the destruction that levies this new paradigm. Whether the proposition is to create a national set of standards, to use big data to assess the skills students have learned, creating more rigorous assessment standards for teachers, or dismantling the public school systems across the country these hedge fund led attacks on the greatest social service in the country has been rife with Orwellian Doublespeak and outright untruths.
No Child Left Behind has created a climate where indeed many students are taking high stakes tests that hinder their ability to graduate and grow in realistic ways; the statistics of big data are easily manipulated and corrupted by invalid data and poor statistical mindsets; more rigorous evaluations have led to a business minded quota on firing dedicated teachers rather than developing them; and dismantling public schools and installing private charters will invariably lead to Dickensian parochial models and a return to segregated systems along socioeconomic lines. The Race to the Top has brought all students to the bottom and will obliterate any dream of realizing educational equity. While many states and governors, such as New York’s thoroughly owned Andrew Cuomo, have done more than their fair share of eroding and destroying the institution of locally controlled public education, the Federal Government’s interloping and intersessions into this realm was the catalyst to this tragic turn of events. Frighteningly, recent announcements from President Obama have offered hints that the Federal Government isn’t satisfied in ruining primary and secondary education; they have set their sights on destroying colleges as well.
The Orwellian Doublespeak continues as the President announced that he wants to make the first two years of college free for students who are willing to “work for it”. Of course “working for it” has been defined as maintaining a 2.5 grade point average, which in accessible terms is a “C” average. While “gentleman’s C’s” may be permissible when you’re a well-to-do Ivy League legacy, it is hardly setting the bar high for college students and isn’t very rigorous (to use the language of reform against the interlopers). While funding for every student–even when split between the Feds and the States–is probably code for tax hikes it isn’t impossible to accomplish the question is: at what cost? The Race to the Top money had lead to the adoption of the poorly implemented and categorically vague Common Core Standards, we can only wonder what the ramifications of this Federal takeover would have on Higher Education. In fact, it brings to mind what a former professor and colleague of mine at the College where I teach said to me “I’m very interested in these Common Core Standards because whatever happens in public schools invariably is visited upon us in Higher Education, sooner or later”. It appears to be sooner.
Worse yet, this current push for all students to go to college enforces a very wrongheaded notion that “all students have to go to college”. The College Lie has without a doubt in my mind contributed ballooning student loan debt in general, but also among college drop outs because of this Herculean pressure placed upon students whose economic, personal, and intellectual destinies would not have otherwise brought them to the academic climates of University. This is not to say that College is not worthwhile for all people but it certainly isn’t necessary…and was never meant to be. We have this notion in our heads that intelligence, critical thinking, and academics should be all bundled together as the sole measure of education and success when this is hardly the case. Academics are not the only venue for intelligence, nor are they the only way to measure skills. As our country continually sheds it’s manufacturing and production jobs in favor of desk jobs and human services one has to question how we ever got by before–especially considering the parallel attack on the professions of Social Work, Teaching, Medicine and the over-regulation of any service from Carpentry to Exterminating–without them. While we complain about outsourcing, we do nothing to engender a boom of production in this country and our educational mindset doesn’t help anyone but the companies managing our student loan debts. As a nation we are doing very little to grow our children into a self-aware, inspired, motivated, and capable workforce; instead what we are doing is forcing a canon of facts that are socially acceptable, economically superfluous. In short we are inundating our children with trivia rather than useful skills and knowledge because the generation in charge had a great time in their dorm rooms.
College is not the education vehicle to equity, great preparation and development of the self is the vehicle to equity. To quote Dr. King “The function of education is teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education”. We have misappropriated critical thinking to mean having a deep conversation about Dostoevski rather than looking for innovative solutions to problems presented. We do little to instill practical application in teaching and learning sciences and the arts…we leave most concepts to abstraction and don’t allow for generalized experiences for students to know why they are learning theory. The goal should be creating a population of children originating in all economic contexts, deriving heritage from all ethnicities and races, that grow into satisfied, skilled, self-aware adults with a sense of purpose in the world, capable of meeting economic mobility without any roadblocks but their ability to limit them. Instilling a great love for their interests and inherent talents–academic, vocational, and otherwise–while allowing for deep knowledge of one’s capabilities is the ultimate goal of education; the quality of knowing what you can do, knowing what you will do, and doing it.
As I look at current educational initiatives, perhaps cynically, all I see are more routes to control, imprison in debt, and limit choices–all while labeling those motions as the exact opposite. Dr. King’s Dream of equality is currently being sweetly realized and bitterly fought for on multiple fronts, but the most important theater has been and always will be education. From the illegalities of slave literacy to Brown versus Board of Education, it is evident that learning is the avenue to equality. We must strive to individualize the experience rather than standardizing it. We must realize that multiple learning styles comes with multiple learning goals and that intelligence and academics are not one in the same. Certainly students from any background or context should have the opportunity to go to College for Higher Education if that’s what they want, but just as we should fight for these students to be able to pursue any avenue of learning and eventually working so should we fight to redefine our definition of education and success to include well-to-do students feeling comfortable in choosing a route where they can work with their hands. Jobs done well are not menial, jobs at desks are not always fulfilling, stimulating, or economically mobile. Students must know their own content and know their own dreams so they can aptly be judged on it, lest Dr. King’s dream be lost forever to the nightmare of an education system that manufactures unhappy cogs rather than inspiriting and inspiring creators.
Dr. King’s dream must be realized in education if it is ever to be realized at all.