There are a few things that the school system wont tell us, one thing is how to liberate the poor. In theory we are taught that education is the path to liberation but, the method of delivering information is fundamentally flawed. The rich don't work for income, children in the inner city are groomed in the narrative that we go to school to get a education to get to college to get a job to pay back the loans taken out necessary to go to school.
This track naturally drifts children away from their purpose by making them worker bees in a colony of mechanical movements. In a one size fit all model of learning many children are left without their uniqueness intact, they become morphed into something that is expected of them within a institutional design. What should be discussed in school is business, one should not have to go to business school at a institution of higher learning to receive this insight. Business encompasses every aspect of life especially within the school environment. Whoever cannot see this is hypnotized by a dominant culture into believing that a pension plan was designed to uplift the individual to the American Dream. This couldn't be further from the truth and we are not being educated to challenge what is not the truth and I believe this is what school is producing. The by product of a public education is a student who doesn't question authority or challenge tradition.
Growing up in Oakland, California my family always emphasized the importance of getting the best education possible. Both my parents had benefited from their own successful careers and consequently encouraged us to see school as a crucial investment in our futures. But because most of the local schools in our community offered inferior learning environments and lacked the necessary resources to support true intellectual and emotional growth, my parents were inclined to enroll my siblings and I into schools outside of the neighborhood. For my parents it was less important that we attend schools with other Afro American students from the neighborhood, as was their aspirations that we receive a high quality education. This meant that everyday for six years I traveled uphill to a predominantly white community of Montclair, to enjoy the benefits of a school more highly regarded and better funded than those in my immediate community. Considering that Montclair’s elementary school offered enhanced learning conditions than what was present in my neighborhood, it is easy to understand my family’s decision. Even now,knowing the life difficulties faced by many of my peers that remained in the neighborhood for school, I can appreciate the positive impacts that Montclair has had in my life. Yet, leaving my east Oakland community every day to go to school in the Montclair hills was also an unsettling experience for me and would be my first real taste of the entrenched inequalities that exist within many of America’s institutions.
The natural consequence of my parents’ decision to send us to a predominately white community to attend a “better school”was the harnessing of a general uneasiness within myself about the clear separation between the advantaged and disadvantaged in society—a distinction that often falls conspicuously along color lines. Similar in effect to what WEB Dubious once termed as double consciousness, my educational experience forced me to acknowledge the contradictory realities of a public system that benefits one group while at the same time clearly failing another. In an era when more Americans are attending higher education than ever, men of color are almost ten times more likely to be incarcerated than graduate college (Children’s Defense Fund 2007). Making sense of this contradiction, and my own advantages, struggles and disadvantages within the institution of education has been an issue that I have long thought about.
Prevailing philosophies on education today understand the learning process that occurs within schools as a type of economic transaction. Sometimes described as human capital theory, this perspective views education as a literal investment into an individual’s future capabilities and earning potential. While individuals begin life with varying levels of skills and genetic endowment, education is the key way in which society can add value to one’s knowledge base—their human capital—and consequently their relative standing in the economy.Though a bit simplistic this economic perspective sheds some light into aspects of my experience at Montclair. It is perhaps not surprising, for instance, that low income neighborhoods are associated with low quality schools which in turn, give low income students an education associated with low incomes.The physical deterioration often seen in many school buildings in the inner city likely signal the low investments society has been willing to make a group’s future potential and in turn the low expectation it has of them.
Consequently, my parents had the human capital, and opportunity, to transfer us out of a low-investment situation within our community to a school like Montclair where children experience far more investments and educational enhancements. Schools like Montclair not only have superior physical environments, but teachers in better funded communities tend to be better paid, have more experience and teach smaller classes. From my experience it was also clear that the Montclair school offered a number of extra curricular activities that helped students tap into their creative potential through art and music. Montclair also had the resources to take students on field trips to museums, hikes in the national forest, and in general expose us to the different cultural assets of the bay area. These enhanced investments in Montclair’s school both magnified, but also reflected, the greater social and economic resources of the community itself.
Important to making Montclair an exceptional school was the fact that it had a strong support system of organized parents willing to make it their business to advance the quality of the school through PTA meetings and fund raising campaigns. Similarly, the middle class parents of Montclair tended to be more involved in their children’s education, in part because they themselves knew the benefits that education can have in one’s earning potential. Perhaps this is the reason that sociologist often find that middle class parents encourage their children to be active learners in the classroom that seek information from the teacher rather than passively following instructions. In this respect I was very blessed to come from a family that had benefited from their own educational investments and were consequently motivated that the next generation have similar success. My father who received his B.A. in Sociology and later a Master’s in Education made sure that academics was a top priority in our house. It is no coincidence that during my elementary years I was enrolled in additional reading, mathematics and writing classes during the weekend. Similarly, television was not allowed during school days because according to him, free time should be used to study or reading books. My mother also played a vital role in creating a home environment that maximized our success in school. Growing up I was exposed to a vibrant and enriching black culture and my mother always made sure I was aware of prominent Afro American inventors and intellects that did not exist in the curriculum presented in my elementary school.
This accumulation of investments, both at home and at the school that my parents had chosen for me, have lead to great advantages in my life. My increased human capital is reflected in the fact that I believe I have strong writing and communication skills. These investments also made me a more active learner who is always seeking alternative viewpoints and perspectives. Montclair exposed me to different cultural institutions and groups of people I would have otherwise not experienced in my local school. The fact that I am an Afro American college student nearing completion of a BA in Sociology can be easily seen as the result of the extra investments that I experienced. But while a human capital perspective sheds some light on the advantages that I enjoyed, the theory is limited in how it understands schooling as simply an economic transaction. In my opinion education is also a cultural process inextricably linked to broader social forces. The content that we learn in school is rarely value-free but is instead always implicated in the dominant beliefs of a society. More critical perspectives on education remind us that all knowledge have an ideological basis, underpinned by particular material interests. Indeed African in America social psychologist Amos Wilson once argued that educational institutions often perpetuate a set of ideologies and practices meant to reproduce social inequality rather than ameliorate it.
Though Montclair certainly increased my human capital in some ways, it also exposed me to a set of cultural messages that were somewhat inconsistent with my goals. For instance, the curriculum presented to me in elementary school did not inspire me to see myself as much more than a member of a subordinate group in America; a group that was at one point enslaved and has since that era been struggling to receive and maintain equal rights and opportunity. While every year we had the entire month of February dedicated to “Black History” it was rare to hear about the contributions of Afro Americans beyond the context of enslavement and subjugation. The exclusive focus on our ancestors’ slavery and oppression, and in particular the heinous acts that they at times faced, always left me in a sense of animated anxiety. While I’m sure that some students enjoyed being able to learn of the adversity that our ancestors have overcome, it nonetheless felt strange to spend some much time on the victimization aspect of the Afro American experience. The substantial contributions that Afro Americans have made not only in the United States, but also in previous thriving civilizations, were rarely mentioned or discussed. Moreover, after the month of February our classes would every year return to a traditional curriculum that focused on the success of one group in the United States while ignoring all others.
From my perspective, this conventional curriculum has an implicit cultural message about who has been successful and dominant in American and why.Consequently, rather than being a validating experience, the process of learning can actually be alienating and de-motivating for students of color. Such cultural messages in particular shape the expectations that Afro American students have of themselves, as well as negatively impact how teachers perceive and interact with these students in the classroom. Sociologists have for instance coined the term “self-fulfilling prophecies”to describe how teachers’implicit expectations subtly shape the educational experience of certain students, and in turn their negative performances on standardized tests. During my time in Montclair I often felt that the “deviant” label was being projected onto me, along with a few of my other comrades from the inner city. To be sure we sometimes acted out in class, doing everything but paying attention during lectures. But lessons also failed to reach us intellectually I remember often feeling unmotivated to learn and generally disconnected from the classroom environment overall. This outcast status may have been an artifact of a self-fulfilling prophecy that teachers had about my intellect and behavior, partly informed by the ideological basis of the curriculum that they taught.
For instance, on the occasions when I was engaged with lessons my attempts to participate with the teacher (asking questions, sharing my thoughts) were often misinterpreted as efforts to disrupt the class. I was not seen as a smart student, so my desire to be involved often violated an unspoken expectation that the best I could ever do was to I sit in my seat and remain quiet. Consequently, my bold attitude, curiosity and free spirit got me into a good share of teacher/parent conferences during my time at Montclair. The possibility that I might have a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder was even discussed at one time. I believe it is safe to say that I was often misunderstood in Montclair despite my strong desire to learn. Luckily during my six years at Montclair elementary I did have one teacher who seemed to understand the delicate circumstances I was placed in and took the time to try to understand my behavior instead of labeling it. Still to this day I am in contact with this teacher and enjoy family dinners between our families when time permits.
My central point is that while good teachers are few and deviant behavior are plenty in many public schools, I believe it is a mistake to think about these problems solely from an economic perspective of human capital, investments and lacking resources. Also important are the cultural messages implicit within the conventional curriculum taught in many schools. In my opinion, schools today continue to promote a one-dimensional perspective of American culture that ignore the heterogeneous, multicultural, society that we face today.Schools are not well equipped with different styles of learning, as well as different viewpoints on knowledge. This cultural inadequacy of our primary schools will continue to de-motivate, dis-engage and de-validate the genuine attempts of Afro American students to excel and do better for themselves. Until we confront the underlying cultural disadvantages that certain students experience in school, and the cultural privilege that others enjoy, education will continue to reproduce the broader inequalities that have shaped its inception. Instead, I believe education should be a process of evolution, growth and self-discovery for everyone involved. While I don’t regret my enrollment in Montclair Elementary, it is certainly has caused me to question the cultural inadequacy of conventional schooling.
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