December 17, 2014

The #BlackLivesMatter Movement and a New Paradigm for Schools

In the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, protests are happening all over the country.  Everyone is looking for solutions and the conversation inevitably turns to education.  Recently, Reverend Alex Gee took a listening tour through high schools in Wisconsin to "find the cultural and academic pulse of young black males."  Here is one thing Rev. Gee found:

"The young men stated that too many teachers and administrators underestimate their ability, worth and potential.  They mentioned feeling unwelcome and expendable."

The conclusion that we hear in the media often is that we need better teachers, more funding, accountability and a raft of stricter regulations.  However, these will not solve the problem and many freedom movements throughout history have known this.  In fact, many freedom movements have thrown out the "Western" system of schooling and re-invented education.  From Mississippi Freedom Summer to Gandhi in India to Paulo Freire in Brazil and more, all re-invented education.  Why?  

Under oppressive governments, it became clear to each of them that an education system implemented by the government would only serve to support the needs of the government.  The American system of education is no different.  Our system is based upon obedience and conformity.  If you do what you are told, you are rewarded.  If you do not do what you are told, you are punished.  Wear uniforms, walk in straight lines, don't talk, raise your hand, compete against your classmates to see who can be most obedient to the teacher, get a pass to use the bathroom, get good grades.  This is not a system that encourages independent thinking or critical reasoning.  It is not a system that develops the individual.  It is a system designed to oppress and break the individual.  It is a system that conquerers have used for centuries to homogenize a population.

Among many examples, the United States used it in establishing Native American boarding schools in the late 1800's.  U.S. Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first Indian boarding school called the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.  In 1892, he described his philosophy in a speech, saying:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one.  I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.  Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”          
What were the horrible, oppressive methods of this school designed to kill the Native American culture?  Wear uniforms, walk in straight lines, don't talk, raise your hand, compete against your classmates to see who can be most obedient to the teacher, get a pass to use the bathroom, get good grades.  Add to that, students were only allowed to speak English, just the same as when California banned bi-lingual education in 1998.  Or when Russia banned the Crimean language in schools after invading Crimea in 2014.

So, when young African-American males say that schools underestimate their worth and they feel expendable, that is the result of a "schooling" system designed to dehumanize the individual in favor of obedience to authority.  The solution is not better teachers.  The solution is a different system.  We need a system that values and develops each individual and says YES! to who they are, their ideas and their passions.  We can say YES! to their individuality, their decisions, their successes and mistakes.  We can say YES! to the content of their character knowing that they are on a path to fulfilling their own dreams and desires.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. told us:

"I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be."

Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964 did not have grades, uniforms or tests.  It was a free-form, multi-age learning experience where people learned to question and think critically.  According to a memo to Freedom School teachers:

"The purpose of the Freedom schools is to provide an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately, new directions for action." 

The goal was valuing and empowering each individual, not breaking them.  Freedom Schools wanted students to become active, engaged citizens.  They knew that the traditional "Western" school system was oppressive.  Why fight to maintain it?  They started over.

Gandhi started over too.  He founded the Nai Talim or "New Education" system in India.  He dumped the British system of education in favor of empowering schools in the native language that recognized each individual as "mind, body and spirit."  He said in 1917, "All education must aim at building character."  Gandhi wanted schools that validated the individual spirit, embraced local culture and valued the efforts of young people to benefit their community.

In Brazil in the 1950's Paulo Freire launched adult literacy programs leading him to write the landmark book, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed."  Literacy was a requirement for presidential voting in Brazil, so the illiterate poor had no political influence until Freire came along.  He called "Western" education the "Banking Concept of Education."

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.  Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.  The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.”

Instead, he suggests:

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

He says teachers and students should be in an egalitarian, respectful relationship where students have voice rather than being coerced into a "culture of silence."  A culture of silence only perpetuates the submissiveness of the oppressed.  Instead, Freire argued, knowledge should be co-constructed without the authoritarian power structures of traditional education.  This evolution of the classroom begins by valuing and giving voice to the life experience of the students before they even enter the classroom.

This is just a sample of how freedom movements have cast off the traditional system of schooling and re-invented education.  Today, America is going through another social upheaval.  Our system of policing is broken.  We need to start over and re-imagine it.  It is the same with education.  We need to start-over and re-imagine it.  Freedom struggles from around the world are speaking loudly to us now about education and we should listen.  They don't teach these lessons in school. 

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