to listen to Tolu with Mark
“In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they
had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two
heads for that.”
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987, p. 198.
“Junior high school dropout, teachers never cared/
They was paid just to show up and leave, no one succeeds/”
“The public school system is invested in ignorance…”
activist once declared that “the educational system was structured
to carry out a political agenda,” and, judging by recent history,
it sure seems so. The statistics are unapproachable. Grimier,
is the reality that encloses them. No one with a functioning conscience
can deny it: Black children have been violated by the school system.
They are being victimized in every way imaginable. And let it
be clearly understood that those statistics are not a delineator
of their incompetence, but rather, an indictment of a system that
is, in its very nature, incapable of educating them adequately
and appropriately. The school system has made clear its mission,
and it goes without saying that this mission never considered
(still doesn’t) the future of Black children as attention-worthy.
What we have in return, is a neo-colonizing of the educational
process, where the dreams and aspirations of Black children are
bought and sold on the auction block of standardized testing.
To a considerate degree, this scheme has found success.
underperformance of Black students on state-sponsored tests is
championed, by many, as emblematic of intellectual deficiency.
Black children: dumb, White children: smart. In essence, the bell
curve is validated in perpetuity. But, behind this veil lies the
truth - a sobering one: Those tests were never meant to assess
academic proficiency. No. They were constructed to separate the
wheat from the chaff. And in this instance, Black students are
being sifted away from their futures by a racist straining device
- the school system. Unless we begin challenging those dogmas
that sustain this device, the violence will continue unabated.
black child, walking into a classroom at the early age of five,
soon comes to realize the truth about his/her function in the
educational system. At Kindergarten, this function is actualized.
The child notices a difference shared with the other children
of lighter complexion. They - the White ones - are more advanced,
and have already found their niche in the classroom. But the Black
child is still lost in this unknown universe. This strange environment.
Naturally (and logically), the narrative of inferiority becomes
personalized - even at such young an age. The Black child is unable
to piece together this puzzle, but doesn’t fail to notice how
out of sync from the rhythm of education he/she is. What the Black
child knows, however, is that his/her peers were introduced to
a form of education that pre-dates their enrollment in Kindergarten.
prior engagement could be the demarcating line between success
and failure, for many Black children. Because universal crèche
programs are still a non-reality, Black children are largely left
out, at the start of the race, but still expected to catch-up,
somehow. The lack of Preschool education becomes their first introduction
to a world dictated by privilege and prowess. This is victimization,
and nothing else.
make a great difference in early childhood education. What should
result as a transition, is usually first confrontation, for Black
children. This setback is vastly overlooked by educators, as though
it matters not. A Black child is the blind man whose sight is
cured, but, at risk of reversal, forced to become familiar, within
24 hours, with the vast volume of space that stares back at him.
Most would agree that his plight shouldn’t count against him,
but the same conscionable observers fail to see the parallel in
Black public education. Black children are the victims, not the
violators. It is criminal, as Malcolm might have put it, to request
of them something they were never equipped to produce. If the
gap is to be bridged, and equitable education for all children
is to realize itself, critical steps must be taken to ensure universal
pre-kindergarten access for ALL children.
a time when the young Black generation’s future is hung on a tight
rope, administrators couldn’t appear less concerned. To save money
and cut costs, unfathomable practices are being employed by school
board members. Quality educational resources are presented as
luxuries (consequently, falling victim to the accountant’s sword),
but security apparatuses always find refuge in the budget. They
don’t mind that a complaint of short change inevitably leads to
the short-changing of their students - predominantly Black and
Brown. The school system shares no unease that these schemes to
make financial ends meet, end up with more and more children left
behind. Resources might be hard to come by, in these economic
times, but many bureaucratic-minded superintendents have found
comfort in that excuse, to fire teachers, replace principals,
cut programs, reduce benefits, enforce regimental practices, and
dismantle the vision of public schooling.
who lack the skill, patience, cultural awareness, and spiritual
determination to imbue greatness into students, especially the
Black ones, are filling up classrooms, across the country. Unable
to effectively communicate with their students, many White teachers
resort to tactics learned by watching such Television shows such
as COPS. Their Black students are transformed into criminals
- in need of prosecution and reformation. The fact that these
practices, in the words of 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo
Emerson, “sacrifice the genius” of students, unsuccessfully permeate
the conscience of frustrated White instructors. These pedagogical
models, Emerson explained, obliterates “[their] unknown possibilities.”
the lesson drawn from these experiences is that Black children
are unfit to learn, and drastic action must be taken to make right
their inherent wrongness. To simplify it, Black children
need discipline, and whatever “measure” can instill this value
must be instituted, at once! The urgency of discipline, as they
see it, overrides the potential hazards those “measures” might
cause. Many of these teachers, administrators, and superintendents
have sought out militarization as a worthy “measure,” for the
institution of order and structure in inner-city
public schools. In the last 8 years, a huge chunk of Chicago’s public schools have met such fate.
of the current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, inner-city
public schools in the windy city underwent a radical overhaul
- for worse. Whilst CEO of Chicago’s public schools, Arne Duncan
and his army of corporate solicitors successfully invaded these
facilities. Duncan’s battalion spent millions, creating a brigade-like
environment within the schools. Thus,
in 2009, we’re compelled to ask the question Emerson posed two
centuries ago: “[Y]ou grow departmental, routinary, military almost
with your discipline and college police. But what doth
such a school to form a great and heroic character [among students]?”
He instructed that the “function of opening and feeding the human
mind is not to be fulfilled by any mechanical or military method,”
but Duncan, as
always, wasn’t listening.
children are not stupid, or reckless, or dangerous, or criminal-minded.
They are simply, in Nina Simone’s words, misunderstood.
The wrongful diagnosis of excitement as hyper-activity, hence,
Ritalin-worthy or discipline-deserving, has committed grave
injustices in Black homes, for decades. By rendering Black students,
at first contact, intellectually-challenged, and subjecting them
to Special-Ed classes, or holding them back, an assault on their
integrity is struck. This practice of classifying Black students
as “other,” or “unfit,” or “challenged,” or “troublesome,” or
“dangerous,” or “erratic,” has created a pattern many teachers
now follow thoughtlessly. After all, it is less tiring to dismiss
a student as nonchalant, than to question the Eurocentric educational
models most instructors are taught - and forced - to adhere to.
his lectures on Education, Emerson poignantly outlined the fundamental
qualities of genuine, student-centered pedagogy:
I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret
of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to
choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and
foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By
your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be
hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child.
respect the child, one must first know the child - Emerson
understood that. And most teachers don’t - care to - know Black
children. They would rather rely on stereotypes than engage their
students critically. For decades now, Black children have suffered
the brutal violence of a tyrannical system, and the possibility
of recovery can only come through the efforts of progressive educators,
activists, parents, community-members, theologians, ethicists,
and concerned citizens.
Of such is Cristin Noesen, an educator living in Indiana.
Ms. Noesen teaches College freshman English Composition Art, at
a penitentiary in New
Castle, Indiana. With text ranging from Tupac to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lauryn
Hill to Zora Neale Hurston, Kanye West to Langston Hughes, Nikki
Giovanni to Gwendolyn Brooks, Nas to Jay-z, John Legend to Earth
Wind & Fire, she is able to connect on a deeper level with
her students - the same ones cast in society as criminals or lost-causes.
Noesen’s principle focus is to teach her students how to “think
critically.” With the variety of texts she wields in the classroom,
her students, young as 18 and old as 50, are addressed individually.
Opting for a non-traditional pedagogical approach was easy, she
explains, as the poems and songs incorporated in the classroom
help facilitate strong messages of “friendship and honesty,” better
than the “classical canon” can. Her African-American dominated
class, Noesen understands, is best “hooked” with material they
are “familiar with.” But even familiarity can be limiting. Knowing
this, she also fuses “non-familiar” text that is “juxtaposed”
with the indigenous. Critical thinking, in the school system,
can only work with material Black students can “relate to,” she
adds. Doing so informs students that the instructor “validates”
their existence enough to “acknowledge the issues they are facing
who use this excuse to perpetuate notions of skin-defined inferiority
are simply fraudulent in their ambitions, Noesen contends. Black
children are not deficient, she insists, they simply draw strength
from a “different cultural knowledge.”
If Black students respond more favorably to texts that engage
them on a cultural parallel, why aren’t good-natured educators
following suit? Noesen explains that it requires “will, determination
and energy,” to bring these non-canonized “literature into the
classroom.” She adds that there is a system in place which is
not readily responsive to those requests.
Paulo Freire’s doctrine of empowering students through love immediately
caught Noesen’s attention. Unfortunately, this concept is largely
perceived as “radical,” within school circles. To create an avenue
where ideas like that presented by Paulo Freire are accepted,
principals, administrators, and school board members must be pushed,
she advises. In addition, they should be “shown research” conducted
by Afrocentric scholars, who present non-conformist views for
the education of Black children.
Noesen longs for the day when “education [becomes] much more fluid.”
For that to happen, it has to change “from the didactic,” to a
format where students are the drivers of their own intellectual
vehicles. Teachers must shift the emphasis from memorization of
“certain facts,” and do away with the “scripts” with which they
are told to instruct students. The obsession with standardized
tests must also cease, Noesen adds. As she sees it, “real education”
is achieved when students are provided with the “knowledge to
critique” their surrounding, and can better relate with the world
outside their reach. Teachers, if they are to effectively reach
Black children, must value the conscience of their students above
the intimidation that usually follows any progressive shift in
pedagogical practice, Noesen believes. In place of a “war on drugs,”
she prescribes a “war on ignorance.” In her words, there has to
be a “full-front attack” on illiteracy.
addition to working toward a day when that vision becomes a reality,
she is also focused on getting her Master’s degree in education.
Because of educators like Cristin Noesen, Black children have
a future worth counting on.
the number of those fighting on the other side far outweighs that
on our side. Their arsenal is larger, and their drive, judging
by recent history, blows ours to smithereens. But our history
has no shortage of David and Goliath folktales, and once again,
David will conquer Goliath - if we have the fortitude and determination
to win the battle.
This is Part 1 of a three-part series titled, “Education
and the Future of Black Children.” Click here
to read any of the commentaries in this series.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Tolu Olorunda, is an activist/writer and a Nigerian
immigrant. Click here
to reach Mr. Olorunda.
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