Archives for category: Racism

Wornie Reed explains why Martin Luther King, Jr., is beloved today, despite the fact that he was reviled during his lifetime. He was a provocateur and a “rabble rouser” when he was alive, but over time the radicalism of his message was washed away (“whitewashed). Wornie Reed is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.

Professor Reed writes:

Two decades after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., was highly regarded. His favorability rating was 76 percent among white Americans. By then, of course, we had the national holiday established in his name, quite a change from 1966, two years before his death, when his favorability rating among white Americans was only 28 percent.  We should remember that while he lived and worked, the majority of white America reviled Martin Luther King.

Whites framed their malice toward King as something other than racism. They did not oppose MLK because he struggled for black freedom and equality. Rather they detested him—they said—because he was a rabble-rouser, a Communist, and a lawbreaker. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, called him the most dangerous man in America, and there was rejoicing at his death.

Millions of white Americans hated Martin Luther King. All over the country, many celebrated his death.

Young whites, absorbing the hatred of their parents, also celebrated. Archives in the library at the University of Memphis tell the story of a Memphis-area high school class. The teacher asked his students to write about their responses to King’s assassination. Most of the students responded with satisfaction or jubilation. One student described his immediate reaction to King’s murder: “I thought it was one of the greatest feats of Americanism I have ever heard of.” Another explained that because of King’s death, the country would be “better off in the long run.”

Here at Virginia Tech, where I currently teach, some students were saddened by King’s assassination, while others were not. There was a demonstration against lowering the American flag “for a nigger.”

 Now they love him. What happened? What caused the change of heart among whites? One thing, of course, was his death. Although there was a significant amount of celebration at his assassination, with him no longer around, there was less hatred toward him, but not enough for a positive favorability rating.

 Undoubtedly the whitewashing of Martin Luther King did the trick. King, the rabble-rouser, who got arrested 30 times, has been scrubbed clean. Now he is depicted as a dreamer, something opposite of the activist he was. He is widely viewed as a person who mildly promoted peace – no activism, no strife, no confrontations, no defying unjust laws.

So what? You may ask. What difference does it make that now whites love MLK where previously they hated him. It matters a lot. They love the person they made him, in death—a peace-loving dreamer. If we follow this person, we do nothing. We hope for better relations. We dream of a better day, thinking that time will erase the oppression. That is what we did for decades. For some 40 years—from the mid-1970s to the mid-2010s–there was no national black movement. During this time, racial progress came to a grinding halt, possibly going backward.

It is way past time to bring back our deceased icon, the real Martin Luther King, the man who was leading the Poor People’s Campaign when he was struck down, the man who vowed to close down the Nation’s Capitol if the government did not heed our demand to eliminate poverty and hunger in this wealthy nation, the man who continued this effort in the face of death. If we bring back the memory of this MLK, we may be inspired to do what he asked us to do when he would no longer be with us, “Continue this movement. Do this work.”

Alan Singer posts here a brilliant speech that he delivered about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. the civil rights movement, and Dr. King’s continuing legacy today. He reminds us that the issues that Dr. King addressed are still unresolved: racism, poverty, war, violence. He points out that when Dr.King was assassinated, he was helping low-wage sanitation workers in Memphis to organize a union to improve their wages, working conditions, and lives. The next time you hear a billionaire or right-winger claim that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time,” ask him or her (or yourself) whether they are also fighting as Dr. King did to end racism, poverty, war, and violence.

Speaking recently at the Uniondale, New York, public library, Singer said (and this is an excerpt),

The traditional myth about the Civil Rights Movement, the one that is taught in schools and promoted by politicians and the national media, is that Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King stood up, and somehow the whole world changed. But the real story is that the Civil Rights Movement was a mass democratic movement to expand human equality and guarantee citizenship rights for Black Americans. It was definitely not a smooth climb to progress. Between roughly 1955 and 1968 it had peaks that enervated people and valleys that were demoralizing. Part of the genius of Dr. King was his ability to help people “keep on keeping on” when hope for the future seemed its bleakest.

While some individual activists clearly stood out during the Civil Rights Movement, it involved hundreds of thousands of people, including many White people, who could not abide the U.S. history of racial oppression dating back to slavery days. It is worth noting that a disproportionate number of whites involved in the Civil Rights movement were Jews, many with ties to Long Island. In the 1960s, the Great Neck Committee for Human Rights sponsored an anti-discrimination pledge signed by over 1,000 people who promised not to discriminate against any racial or ethnic groups if they rented or sold their homes. They also picketed local landlords accused of racial bias. The Human Rights Committee and Great Neck synagogues hosted Dr. King as a speaker and raised funds for his campaigns on multiple occasions.

King and Parks played crucial and symbolic roles in the Civil Rights Movement, but so did Thurgood Marshall, Myles Horton, Fanny Lou Hammer, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Walther Reuther, Medger Evers, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Pete Seeger, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, as well as activists who were critics of racial integration and non-violent civil disobedience such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers.

The stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have been sanitized to rob them of their radicalism and power. Rosa Parks was not a little old lady who sat down in the White only section of a bus because she was tired. She was only 42 when she refused to change her seat and made history. In addition, Parks was a trained organizer, a graduate of the Highlander School where she studied civil disobedience and social movements, and a leader of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP. Rosa Parks made a conscious choice to break an unjust law in order to provoke a response and promote a movement for social change. 

Martin Luther King challenged the war in Vietnam, U.S. imperialism, and laws that victimized working people and the poor, not just racial discrimination. When he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, he was helping organize a sanitation workers union. If Dr. King had not be assassinated, but had lived to become an old radical activist who constantly questioned American policy, I suspect he would never have become so venerated. It is better for a country to have heroes who are dead, because they cannot make embarrassing statements opposing continuing injustice and unnecessary wars.

The African American Civil Rights Movement probably ended with the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968 and the abandonment of Great Society social programs by the Democratic Party, but social inequality continues. What kind of country is it when young Black men are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than in college, inner city youth unemployment at the best of times hovers in the high double-digits, and children who already have internet access at home are the ones most likely to have it in school? What kind of country is it when families seeking refuge from war, crime, and climate disruption are barred entry to the United States or put in holding pens at the border? These are among the reasons I am recruiting everyone to a movement for social justice. These are the things that would have infuriated Martin Luther King.

I promised I would share excerpts from four of Dr. King’s speeches. Everyone has the phrases and speeches that they remember best. Most Americans are familiar with the 1963 “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and the 1968 “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis just before he died. These are four other speeches that still resonate with me the most today.

The first speech I reference is one for local Uniondale, Long Island, and Hofstra pride. In 1965, Dr. King was honored and spoke at the Hofstra University graduation. It was less than one year after he received the Nobel Peace Prize and three years before his assassination. In the speech Dr. King argued “mankind’s survival is dependent on man’s ability to solve the problems of racial injustice, poverty and war” and that the “solution of these problems is . . . dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony.” I have no doubt that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, demands for gun control, climate activism, and calls for the impeachment of Donald Trump. 

In his Hofstra speech, Dr. King told graduates, families, and faculty, “we have built machines that think, and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. We have built gigantic bridges to span the seas, and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies . . . We have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains . . . Yet in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, something basic is missing. That is a sort of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish. But we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

Read the rest of this powerful speech by Professor Singer about Dr. King’s relevance for us today.

 

 

Domingo Morel is a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has studied school takeovers across the nation. He is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. 

In this post, he describes the proposed state takeover of the Houston Independent School District as a hoax. 

It is a manufactured crisis. It is a theft of political power, and it is based on race.

If the state of Texas had its way, the state would be in the process of taking overthe Houston Independent School District.

But a judge temporarily blocked the takeover on Jan. 8, with the issue now set to be decided at a trial in June.

The ruling temporarily spares Houston’s public school system from joining a list of over 100 school districts in the nation that have experienced similar state takeovers during the past 30 years.

The list includes New York City, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, Oakland and Newark. Houston is the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the U.S.

While the state of Texas claims the planned takeover is about school improvement, my research on state takeovers of school districts suggests that the Houston takeover, like others, is influenced by racism and political power.

States fail to deliver

State governments have used takeovers since the late 1980s to intervene in school districts they have identified as in need of improvement. While state administrations promise that takeovers will improve school systems, 30 years of evidence shows that state takeovers do not meet the states’ promised expectations. For instance, a recent report called Michigan’s 15-year management of the Detroit schools a “costly mistake” because the takeover was not able to address the school system’s major challenges, which included adequately funding the school district.

But while the takeovers don’t deliver promised results, as I show in my book, they do have significant negative political and economic consequences for communities, which overwhelmingly are communities of color. These negative consequences often include the removal of locally elected school boards. They also involve decreases in teachers and staff and the loss of local control of schools.

Despite the highly problematic history of state takeovers, states have justified the takeovers on the grounds that the entire school district is in need of improvement. However, this is not the case for the Houston takeover because by the state’s own standards, the Houston school system is not failing.

By the state’s own standards, the Houston Independent School District is not failing!

Although the state has given the Houston Independent School District a B rating, it plans to take over the Houston schools because one school, Wheatley High School, has not met state standards for seven years. According to state law, the state can take over a school district or close a school if it fails to meet standards for five years.

The Houston Independent School District has 280 schools. The district serves over 200,000 students. It employs roughly 12,000 teachers. Wheatley High School serves roughly 800 students and has roughly 50 teachers.

So why would a state take over a school district that has earned a B rating from the state? And why base the takeover on the performance of one school that represents fewer than 1% of the district’s student and teaching population?

The takeover is nothing more or less than a bald-faced attempt to strip political power from black and Hispanic communities.

No one believes that software developer Mike Morath (the current state commissioner) has a single idea about how to improve Wheatley or any other school. He has never been a teacher, a principal, or a superintendent. He is there to carry out the rightwing agenda of Governor Gregg Abbott.

Count on it. This is a bald-faced power grab.

Fred Klonsky writes with amazement that Mayor Pete Buttigieg just realized that there are segregated schools in his hometown of South Bend.

He acknowledges that he was slow to come to this realization.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg told Reverend William Barber that he didn’t notice South Bend’s public schools were segregated.

Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend.

“I have to confess that I was slow to realize — I worked for years under the illusion that our schools in my city were integrated… But what I slowly realized… if you looked at the county, almost all of the diversity of our youths was in a single school district,” Buttigieg said in an interview with Rev. William Barber III.

Yes. “All the diversity of our youths was in a single school district,” is a weird formulation.

But that he didn’t realize that integration was an illusion in his city?

Buttigieg is either a liar or suffers from too common a white blindspot.

In Indiana, more than 70 percent of black students attend a non-white majority school,

In 2015, several South Bend schools showed concentrated black enrollment, inconsistent with county racial realities.

The problem of racial segregation is a statewide problem in Indiana. There is much that is wrong in the Hoosier state, and the legislature doesn’t care.

Indiana doesn’t have a plan to combat segregation but it has a robust school choice program of charters and vouchers.

 

The Boston Globe published this opinion piece questioning the validity of concepts like grit and resilience. 

Author Alissa Quart interviews Christine White, a woman who grew up in extreme poverty yet managed to build a successful career helping people who struggled as she did. But not by coaching them to have more “grit” and “resilience.”

Christine White, writes Quart, has written

a number of posts on on her nonprofit’s blog questioning this resilience refrain. She believes that when “we are obsessing about resilience it obscures the fundamental issues that people have, like a lack of privilege or a history of trauma.” When “resilience” is applied to at-risk kids, says White, it implies “the solutions reside within an individual and not their context: ‘resilience’ skews conversations away from equity.” The assumption is that having “character” will help traumatized people flourish — and if they don’t flourish, there is an implied lack of character.

“Ninety percent of resilience conversations would be better if the focus was, instead, on racial and economic inequities,” she wrote in correspondence with me.

But “resilience” and “grittiness” have become ubiquitous honorifics — likely to come out of the mouths of not only teachers but also therapists, urban planners, businessmen, and policymakers, all praising individual pluck.

Thanks to Angela Duckworth’s bestseller of the same name, “grit” is now a part of American school life: In New Hampshire, for instance, some grammar school students are taught “grit skills” by teachers who follow a “grit curriculum.” One grit lesson includes interviewing a neighbor, for example, who has shown grit and creating that person’s “perseverance walk,” outlining how they achieved their goals.

The terms have even spawned an industry of books, apps, and gurus:

There is a now even a grit and resilience industry.

“Resilience is knowing that you are the only one that has the power and responsibility to pick yourself up,” says Mary Holloway, a “resilience coach” and the creator of the “Boom Bounce Wow Resilience Method.” There are also dozens of self-help books promising to make you more resilient or more gritty, including one that promises to create resilience with the subtitle “How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness.” One of the biggest resilience bestsellers is “Option B” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Apps have also gotten into the resilience and positive psychology game, with names such as ResilientMe and Happify. And there is even a “resilience planner” bearing the legend “Stay Resilient 2019,” which is currently sold out…

There’s also a growing — though much smaller — academic backlash to the term “resilience.” Critics note the focus on “resilience” can ignore the structural gaps of our economy, for example. Should we really be building personal capacities to triumph over, say, the “adversity” that is the current scarcity of public funding for education?

Call grit and resilience what they are: a substitute for the structural and financial changes that give people genuine opportunity to get ahead.

These terms are an effort to substitute “the power of positive thinking” for equity.

 

 

This is an important speech by Sasha Baron Cohen to a conference of the Anti-Defamation League.

I posted early this morning about this speech but only linked to the written version.

Watch Sasha Baron Cohen give the speech.

It is powerful.

School closings in Oakland are accelerating. These closures disproportionately affect the lives and well-being of black and brown students. They need stability, not disruption and constant churn. Black communities across the nation have suffered disinvestment in their communities because of school closings.


Reply-To:
“Kwesi Chappin, Color Of Change” <info@colorofchange.org>

Tell Acting School Board President Jody London to stop Oakland’s school closures today  

Black students in Oakland classroom

Black kids deserve stability in education.

TAKE ACTION

 

Last Wednesday, under Acting Oakland Unified School Board President Jody London’s watch, parents were physically barred from participating in a school board discussion that has the potential to completely change the trajectories of their children’s futures.1 In spite of escalating protests from teachers and parents, Oakland Unified School District is moving along plans to close up to 24 schools over the next three years.2 The vast majority of these schools, many of which are known for developing culturally competent curriculum and tight-knit relationships with the communities they serve, are located in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods in East and West Oakland.

The fight to protect our schools is the fight to protect our communities.

When schools leave our communities, the vital resources they provide our students and their families leave with them. The underinvestment in Black students’ education that Oakland’s school closures represent has been mirrored in nearly every major city in the country. If we do not take action now, the complete disregard Black students are being shown in California will undoubtedly continue to go unchecked across the nation. This is why we are demanding that Acting School Board President Jody London place a moratorium on all school closures in the Oakland Unified School District today.

Will you sign the petition and forward this email to make sure your voice is heard? Add your name here.

From Chicago to D.C. to Philadelphia, the rate of school closures in predominantly Black neighborhoods, especially those with rising rates of gentrification, has jumped dramatically in the past ten years3. Studies show that these closures hit Black students the hardest. While white students are “significantly more likely to transfer to high performing schools,” Black students who get displaced rarely benefit academically or otherwise from their new placements4, widening the achievement gap that the historic Brown v. Education decision to end racial segregation in education once sought to close. For so many of our communities, schools are one of the only institutions that still provide consistent support and resources to both Black children and their families5. Once those schools shut down, Black students get left behind, with no real plan in place to ensure that the new schools they attend have the appropriate resources to guarantee their success or their safety. What happens in the fight for both equity and equality in education in Oakland will set the stage for what’s possible for our communities across the country for years to come. We have to make it our business to support all Black students’ right to a stable education today.

Black kids deserve stability in education. Take action to demand Acting President Jody London place a moratorium on all school closures in the district NOW.  

Systems built without our input will not meet the needs of our communities. Our children should not have to be shuffled out of their own communities for the false promise of a quality education – our fight is for a deeper investment in the schools that they already attend. While the Oakland Unified School District continues to spend well over 6 million dollars a year on hiring police officers at schools who criminalize, traumatize, and harshly punish our children, they refuse to meaningfully invest in the teachers, counselors, and nurses who have been proven to support their growth and potential 6. That isn’t right! Take action today to let President Jody London know that she has a responsibility to invest in the solutions her constituents want, not to ignore their concerns and lock them out of this process. Sign now to demand that Acting President London and the board of directors put a moratorium on all school closures immediately.

Sign now to let Acting President Jody London know we want a moratorium placed on Oakland school closures now. 

Until justice is real,
—Kwesi, Arisha, Shannon, Chad, Dominique, Daniel, Corina, Imani, Quiana, Sadie, Ariana, and the rest of the Color Of Change team

References:

  1. “Oakland school board may close meeting to public after protests,” East Bay Times,November 12, 2019, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/195290?t=11&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB
  2. “Oakland school board’s vote to close schools draws ire from parents, teachers,” Mercury News, September 12, 2019, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/163219?t=13&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB
  3. “School Closings Are Shutting The Doors On Black And Hispanic Students,” ThinkProgress, May 14, 2014, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/163220?t=15&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB
  4. “School Closures Tend to Displace Black, Poor Students With Few Positive Outcomes,” Kinder Institute for Research, August 2, 2016, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/163220?t=17&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB
  5. “Gentrification, School Closings, and Displacement in Chicago,” The American Prospect, March 14, 2019, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/163220?t=19&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB
  6. “From Report Card to Criminal Record,” The Black Organizing Project, Public Counsel, and the ACLU Northern California, August 2013, https://act.colorofchange.org/go/163220?t=21&akid=39141%2E2472185%2EEuJQKB


Color Of Change is building a movement to elevate the voices of Black folks and our allies, and win real social and political change. Help keep our movement strong.

 

Today in the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow wrote a scathing critique of Bloomberg, based on his “stop and frisk” policy.

He wrote:

Let me plant the stake now: No black person — or Hispanic person or ally of people of color — should ever even consider voting for Michael Bloomberg in the primary. His expansion of the notoriously racist stop-and-frisk program in New York, which swept up millions of innocent New Yorkers, primarily young black and Hispanic men, is a complete and nonnegotiable deal killer.

Stop-and-frisk, pushed as a way to get guns and other contraband off the streets, became nothing short of a massive, enduring, city-sanctioned system of racial terror…

In 2002, the first year Bloomberg was mayor, 97,296 of these stops were recorded. They surged during Bloomberg’s tenure to a peak of 685,724 stops in 2011, near the end of his third term. Nearly 90 percent of the people who were stopped and frisked were innocent of any wrongdoing.

A New York Times analysis of stops on “eight odd blocks” in the overwhelmingly black neighborhood of Brownsville in Brooklyn found close to 52,000 stops over four years, which averaged out to “nearly one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 residents of these blocks.”

In 2009, there were more than 580,000 stop-and-frisks, a record at the time. Of those stopped, 55 percent were black, 32 percent Hispanic and only 10 percent white. Most were young, and almost all were male. Eighty-eight percent were innocent. For reference, according to the Census Bureau, there were about 300,000 black men between the ages of 13 and 34 living in the city that year.

Not only that, but those who were stopped had their names entered into a comprehensive police database, even if they were never accused of committing a crime. As Donna Lieberman, then the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in 2010, the database became a place “where millions of completely innocent, predominantly black and Latinos have been turned into permanent police suspects.”

The state outlawed the keeping of these electronic records on the innocent, over the strong objections of Bloomberg and his police chief…

Bloomberg’s crime argument was dubious. The Columbia Law School professor Jeffrey Fagan produced a report that became part of a class-action lawsuit against the city in 2010. It found that: “[s]eizures of weapons or contraband are extremely rare. Overall, guns are seized in less than 1 percent of all stops: 0.15 percent … Contraband, which may include weapons but also includes drugs or stolen property, is seized in 1.75 percent of all stops.”

As Fagan wrote, “The N.Y.P.D. stop-and-frisk tactics produce rates of seizures of guns or other contraband that are no greater than would be produced simply by chance…”

A federal judge ruled in 2013 that New York’s stop-and-frisk tactics violated the constitutional rights of racial minorities, calling it a “policy of indirect racial profiling.”

Yet, a little over a month before that ruling, Bloomberg said on a radio show, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” 

Steven Wilson, founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based Ascend Charter Schools, was fired by the board of directors after a petition on Change.org, apparently started by students at one of the charter schools, complained that an essay he had written was racist and exemplifed “white supremacy.”

Two charter-school advocates, one employed by the Walton Family Foundation, the other from the IDEA charter chain, defended Wilson and demanded that the board reinstate him. Their letter to the board was published in the rightwing EdNext.

The essay is a lengthy complaint about American public schools, asserting that they are deeply anti-intellectual and that children have been deprived of “intellectual joy” since the very inception of public education.

He argues that all children without exception should participate in “intellectual joy,” which would seem to me to be an unassailable position.

However, the critics of his essay say that it is an assertion of “white supremacy.” The board fired Wilson.

Now about that essay.

As a historian, I find much that is troubling in his depiction of the history of public education. It is true that public schools were not temples of academic learning in the 19th century. Most children left school when they were old enough to work. It was a mark of accomplishment to finish the eighth grade. Parents wanted their children to have just enough education to do what was necessary in daily life. The McGuffey’s Readers were almost universal. The McGuffey Readers contained excerpts of essays and poems that most students probably didn’t understand but memorized for recitation. The typical stuff of grades 1-8 was not deeply intellectual, that’s for sure. Most teachers were barely high school graduates. College attendance was still rare, limited only to the children of wealthy families, and they did not become teachers, which was a position of low esteem and low pay. High schools were rare until late in the 19th century, and they too leaned heavily on memorization and recitation. Most taught Latin and Greek, which no doubt gladdens Wilson’s heart. History textbooks were mainly recitations of wars, battles, and big events in the life of the U.S. or Europe. There was little about other nations or cultures. Private schools were not great temples of academic joy either.

It is fair to say that Steven Wilson would have been disappointed in the intellectual quality of most schools in the 19th century, whether public or private.

In the 20th century, the big urban centers of the nation were swamped with one of the biggest migrations of history, the transit of Europeans to the U.S. Most were illiterate or didn’t speak English or both. The big city classrooms typically had a poorly educated teacher trying her best to school some 80-100 children in her classroom, usually sitting two at the same desk. Not too much intellectual joy there.

I wrote a book about anti-intellectualism in American education. It is called Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform.

I tried to disentangle the strands of the progressive movement. Some progressives were concerned about the health and well-being of children and worked together with settlement house workers to better the lives of poor urban children. Some were interested in political activism and wanted the school to be the instrument to remake society (a hopeless endeavor). Some wanted the schools to be child-centered and to focus on the needs and interests of children. Others, including some of the child-centered progressives, were openly disdainful of the academic curriculum. Be it noted that there was good reason to be disdainful of the academic curriculum as it was then construed. Students spent endless hours memorizing words from textbooks or readers, then reciting them to the satisfaction of their teachers. Memorization played a big role–too big a role in the academic program. Even the Committee of Ten, the illustrious education leaders who called for a revamping of the academic curriculum in 1893, urged the use of active learning and projects to enliven instruction in history. Given the low standards and rock-bottom salaries for teachers, it was hard to imagine that the typical public school would ever be a beacon of intellectual enlightenment.

I was hyper-critical of anti-intellectualism, but unlike Wilson, I never smeared all of public education as an intellectual desert, openly hostile to ideas and determined to belittle the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. If you don’t see schooling in its historical and cultural context, it is easy to dismiss them as scornful of academic learning.

I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. My public schools were typical of the 1950s. What mattered most was sports, clothes, pop music (Elvis!), pop culture (James Dean!), and popularity. San Jacinto High School had good teachers and mediocre teachers. I had abysmal instruction in U.S. history, but a stellar teacher of English and American literature who left her classes longing for more, and whose door at “sign-up time” always had a long line of students eager to learn from her. No gifted classes, no AP courses, no test prep. Yet somehow I managed to get admitted to Wellesley College, one of the nation’s best colleges. And somehow I managed to hold my own in a class where at least half the students had gone to the nation’s best private schools. And all I had was a public school education!

Wilson’s jeremiad about public schools is insulting to public schools and their dedicated teachers, for sure. What’s more, he blames John Dewey for the dissolution of the curriculum, repudiating liberal education, and denigrating academic teaching. But anyone who read the first-hand accounts of the Dewey School at the University of Chicago would know that Wilson is dealing in second-hand stereotypes. I wrote about it in Left Back:

Teachers at the Dewey School created projects and activities to enliven the studies that were taught by rote in more traditional schools. They wanted to show that the traditional subjects, so often taught without any imagination, could be turned into exciting learning experiences. Far from being hostile to subject matter, they continually experimented with different ways of involving their young students in learning about primitive life in the Bronze Age; Phoenician civilization; early Greek civilization; the voyages and adventures of Marco Polo, Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers; English village life in the tenth century, the story of William the Conqueror and his conquest of England, and the Crusades; American colonial history; the European background of the colonies; Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, even Latin. (Left Back, p. 171).

If there were a Dewey School today, the curriculum would be multicultural and would reflect the cultures and interests of the students, it would explore the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, but one thing is certain: it was NOT anti-intellectual. In fact, it would be accurate to say that the teachers at the Dewey School were trying to find ways to ignite the love of learning and to connect history to their students’ lives and interests.

Wilson was also in error in setting the “Life Adjustment Movement” in the 1920s. It was a post-World War II craze.

Wilson defends the Common Core and asserts that it demands “intellectual performance” of a high quality. I find this bizarre, since the Common Core is lacking in any curricular coherence; even E.D. Hirsch Jr. has abandoned it because of its vacuousness. “Regrettably,” Wilson writes, “in many states, governors capitulated to anti-testing forces and retreated from the Core.” There is more that is wrong with the Core than the testing—with its absurd passing marks—that accompanies it.

But the students (or teachers) who wrote the petition against his essay were insulted for other reasons. They thought his essay was racist. They accused him of “equating a liberal education to whiteness,” thereby displaying a sense of “white supremacy.”

The petition says:

The underlying message here is that a liberal education is whiteness, whiteness is therefore intellectual, and any challenge to a liberal education is a challenge to whiteness, so any challenge to whiteness is anti-intellectual. The article later reinforces the importance of this liberal education by stating such an education “empowers them to escape poverty and dependency.”

Perhaps it was these sentences that troubled them:

“Just as schools are organizing to overcome these challenges [e.g, overtesting], they face a new threat to intellectual engagement. As schools strive to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive and to ensure cultural responsive teaching, there is the growing risk that these imperatives will be shamefully exploited to justify reduced intellectual expectations of students. One document widely used in diversity workshops, including in the training of all New York City administrators and principals identifies 13 ‘damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.’ One is ‘objectivity,’ which is manifested as ‘the belief that there is such a thing as being objective’ and ‘requiring people to think in a linear way.” Anti-intellectualism often takes the position that there are only subjective perspectives. Another is the ‘worship of the written word,” where ‘those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued’…But how tragic it would be if any child was taught that a reverence for the written word was a white characteristic. What would they make of Frederic [sic] Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook’ in The Fire Next Time? As writers, they were deeply learned and dazzling stylists. Their words explode on the page, inspiring millions in the urgent work of racial justice. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive message to teachers and their students. This too will surely come to be seen as another wrong turn on the way to equal educational opportunity.”

He then goes on to discuss a closed door conversation in which he refers to the word intellectual, and someone in the group says that the word “has a connotation. Intellectual speaks to colonized and oppressed.” The group prefers the word rigor.

But, he says, when the session is over, the members of the group tell him to ignore the discussion.

Clearly the students (if they were students) who reacted strongly to his paper did not ignore it. They thought his paper was patronizing and racist and that it reeks of white supremacy.

They see his crusade for intellectualism as elitist and condescending.

His defenders from the charter sector accused the board of succumbing to “racialist bullying.”

Clearly there is a failure to communicate.

On all sides.

Since I am a historian by training, not a teacher, I can’t weigh in on how to teach “intellectual joy.” I know that being an intellectual won’t make one a good teacher; I have seen very well educated people give up as teachers because they were unable to connect to their students. Clearly something in Steven’s tone sent a message that he did not intend. The critics of the essay had antennae that he did not understand.

I asked my friend Anthony Cody, who is an experienced teacher who taught science in the Oakland public schools, about engaging students’ love of learning, and he offered this advice:

When I think of how we go about igniting passion for learning in students, it has more to do with connecting to their experiences and building on them — stretching them to consider new approaches that still relate to their realities. The conception of “intellect” in this essay seems to me a rather abstract one, which would struggle to inspire most of the teachers I have worked with over the past decade. 
For me, one of the most valuable things we could do for students would be to get their teachers actively engaged in a lively intellectual process of questioning what, why and how they are teaching. When that lively process is taking place within a school, it will infect every classroom and provide students with a variety of models of inquiry, experimentation and reflection, all of which are the basic processes of intellectual growth. That is why packaged curriculum and prescriptive standards and timelines are the death of real thought in our schools.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you live anywhere near Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, I hope you will join me to hear Eve Ewing speak on October 17 at Jewett Arts Center at 7:30 pm.

She is speaking in an annual lecture series that I established a few years ago to bring some of the most important voices in education today to the campus.

Eve Ewing is one of them.

Ewing is an amazing woman who wrote a fabulous book called Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.

I reviewed the book here.

She was teaching in one of the 49 schools that Rahm Emanuel closed on a single day, an incredibly cruel, arrogant, and heartless act.

She then went on to earn her doctorate and is now a college professor.

The media writes about “failing schools” in Chicago, but Ewing understands that schools are part of a community’s historic identity. Her writing captures the pain that people feel when their identity is torn away from them by  politicians and faceless bureaucrats.

If you can read The New York Times online, you will enjoy this article about Ewing. 

Some excerpts:

Dr. Ewing, 32, can be a hard woman to slow down, keep track of, or sum up. To keep it simple, you could just say she’s a sociologist at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration…

But that would leave out the seemingly million other things she is doing.

In the past year, she has also published an acclaimed book of poetry; collaborated on a play about the poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and co-hosted the Chicago Poetry Block Party, a community festival she helped create. She also sold a middle-grade novel, coming in 2020; signed up as a consulting producer on W. Kamau Bell’s CNN series, “United Shades of America”; and began hosting a new podcast, “Bughouse Square,” inspired by the archives of another Chicago gadfly, Studs Terkel.

And then there’s her gig with Marvel Comics. In August, Dr. Ewing caused minor pandemonium on the internet when she announced that she had been hired to write “Ironheart,” the first solo title featuring its character Riri Williams, black girl genius from Chicago.

It’s tempting to see Dr. Ewing, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, as a real-life, grown-up version of Riri, a prodigy who builds her own Iron Man suit in her M.I.T. dorm room, without the benefit of Tony Stark’s millions….

Her poetry collection, “Electric Arches,” an Afro-futurist exploration of black girlhood, unfolds against the real and fantastical geography of Chicago, and includes plenty of homespun superpower technology. There are flying bikes, freedom-fighting space invaders, and,“The Device,” a machine created by “a hive mind of black nerds” that allows communication with the ancestors. (Publishers Weekly called it “a stunning debut.”)

In “Ghosts in the Schoolyard,” published by the University of Chicago Press, Dr. Ewing uses the more staid tools of social science to dive deep into one of the most contentious episodes in the city’s recent history: the 2013 school closure plan that ultimately resulted in the shuttering of 49 public schools, most of them in African-American neighborhoods.

It’s a scholarly book, and also an unabashedly personal one. It focuses on Bronzeville, the storied African-American neighborhood on the South Side, where Dr. Ewing, as she notes in an impassioned introduction, taught middle school for three years after graduating from the University of Chicago.

She looks at the history of discriminatory housing and education policies that gave rise to intensely segregated, unequal, often overcrowded schools, which then suffered steeply declining enrollments after the public housing towers that once dominated the neighborhood were demolished.

I am excited to meet Eve Ewing. She is one of the heroes of the Resistance in my new book Slaying Goliath.  Because of her book, Rahm Emanuel will be remembered not as a “reformer” but as a disrupter who cruelly destroyed schools, communities, and the lives of children and families. Eve Ewing gets the last word.

Come to Wellesley on October 17 to hear her speak.

You will be glad you did.