Kareem Rashad, the Soldier

Unless They Don’t Want To Give Kids an Education [This Means War]

Jose 9 Comments

Kareem Rashad with Mother

A few months ago, I was privy to a conversation my fellow colleagues were having about the state of education, and how the government doesn’t evenly distribute funds to ensure a proper, equitable education for all. One of the colleagues then reasons, “Well, they may not really want to give certain kids an education. Someone has to fight wars, clean dishes, and do the dirty work in this country, and they may figure that it has to be them … If they really cared, then they’d invest more in the kids.” The room hung their heads. My eyes lit up because I finally found someone in my building who thought exactly what I did. I didn’t reply, though. I needed time to process the meaning.

Now, I got it.

Imagine if we made science and social studies the foci of our curricula instead of English / Language Arts and math. That would mean we’d create more inventors and engaged citizens than automatons who have the basics. In great schools, every subject has approximately the same value, and staff constantly challenge students to make connections between what they’ve learned in other classes and engage in critical dialogue about their prior knowledges. By constantly stressing English and math, we perpetuate an underlying principle for kids: “that’s all you need to know, and the other subjects are “extra credit” in the grand scheme of things.” If students know a certain amount of these two subjects, they can get by as an American citizen, but they’re more likely to work “lower-rung” jobs.

I hate to put this on our current education deformers because it’s a system perpetuated farther back than I’ve been alive. It just makes me think that the more I study education policy, the more I see that “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” doesn’t just apply to homophobia in the Armed Forces. We don’t teach students to question the right things. I love a quiet classroom as much as the next person, but if it’s quiet because people are afraid to question the material they’re learning, then I can’t stand by that. In my classroom, I ask kids to ask intelligent questions, having less to do with the number of problems on a test and more with what the content means. I believe that’s not true in most of our schools.

Then again, if the kids ask questions, then that means people will have to find answers. If they start wondering why their father’s been gone for years, why things keep blowing up on the news, why their drinking water’s brown, why there isn’t enough space for them to run inside their own house, why the bills get higher in their house but nothing’s getting fixed, why the men with the suits and smiles only drop by their neighborhood once every four years, or how Christopher Columbus couldn’t have discovered America when people already lived there, then the balances get tipped slightly towards them. A well-informed and focused populace is dangerous to the status quo.

The work we do inevitably triggers thought.

On this Memorial Day, where tons of people have died needlessly at a time when the world needs stronger family structures, I ask for peace. I ask for health. I ask for the troops to come home. I ask for the wisdom to contribute positively to the lives of my children in the classroom. Most importantly, I ask that they learn to ask, and if they don’t get an answer, demand it intelligently. By any means necessary.

Jose, who has always been somewhere between war and peace …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonUnless They Don’t Want To Give Kids an Education [This Means War]

Comments 9

  1. bivey

    It’s hard to teach kids to “Question Authority” when you’re theoretically the authority. I don’t mean just getting over the emotional hurdles necessary to start the process, which most of us, let’s be honest, can’t do when push comes to shove. I don’t even mean trying to find the best way to respect the widely ranging political beliefs different kids and their families may have, including the very notion of whether or not questioning authority is a legitimate action.

    I mean finding the right balance between acknowledging the power you and others have (e.g. at the end of the road, you still get to write the progress reports that go in their permanent record), figuring out how far you can go in sharing that power, helping kids decide which battles are worth fighting, helping kids decide how best to fight those battles, helping kids learn the difference between having your say and getting your way, and helping kids learn how to judge when it might make sense to push beyond merely having their say until they actually get their way.

    But here’s the deal. If you don’t engage in that struggle to find the proper balance, you’ve got a bunch of students who feel powerless and that they have no voice. That is simply unacceptable – the reality even more so than the feeling.

    I remember on one of my discussion boards, one of the members found an article about a legislator who said, essentially, “Whatever. We need people to do menial, mindless tasks anyway. They don’t really need an education.” The article turned out to be satire, but a number of us believed it to be reality. Our collective lack of skepticism that someone would really say that would certainly speak in further support of what your colleague believes. I can’t help but think that, were Martin Luther King, Jr. alive today, he’d be feeling and speaking out about “the fierce urgency of now” perhaps even more so than back in the 60’s. From what I hear in many schools, we’re raising a generation of kids many of whom not only don’t know how to ask questions but also don’t even believe asking questions is something they should be doing. How scary is that?

  2. NYC Educator

    You make a good point, and I’d take it even further. With all their posturing about charters, charters on the whole don’t outperform public schools. With all the advantages of charters, 100% proactive parents, the ability to require things public schools can’t, the ability to “counsel out” troubled kids, the ability to dismiss entire grades that don’t work out, and in the case of Geoff Canada’s schools, the ability to involve ourselves with the parenting of prospective students–public schools and public school teachers would kick their asses. The notion that these folks could deal with 100% of city kids is laughable, as is the notion that these hedge fund folks give a golly goshdarn about the welfare of the kids real teachers serve.

    If they could, they’d dismantle the entire system as a drain on Steve Forbes’ tax bill, and set the school kids to wander the streets like they did in “Salaam Bombay.” They are pernicious and evil influences, vilifying teachers so as to undermine union, pretty much the sole hope for teachers, or working people. And as most of our kids will grow up to be working people, standing up to the demagogues is indeed standing up for our students.

  3. Chris Lehmann

    Yep.

    Or as I like to say… it’s the difference between education and training. We’re real interested in training the students in the bottom half of the socio-economic spectrum, but I’ve never been sure that we’re really that interested in educating those students.

    That’s the problem with teaching kids to think… they just might do just that. And if you’re coming out of the South Bronx, and you learn a lot of critical thinking skills… and you are taught economics and sociology and history… you may come to some conclusions that other people don’t like.

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  6. Carrie Kamm

    HI Jose,
    I am late to responding to this. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about advocacy and agency. The ways in which as teachers we need to serve as advocates for our students and families, but also the ways in which we need to support them in being their own change agents. It is all too easy for advocacy to become charity, unless we push our students to use their voices to pose the questions that, yes, may actually make us uncomfortable. And if we are not a bit uncomfortable in our work, I question if our work has much value at all.

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    Jose

    Carrie, thanks for dropping by. Late or otherwise! Trust me, it’s appreciated.

    You’re right about advocacy and agency. And still, I don’t believe we have enough of either. I don’t know if it’s because of the hiring system or society as a whole, but being vocal isn’t trendy, to put it loosely. We do need to learn how to empower children early and often in as many places as possible.

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