“Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”
by Frederick Douglass
When I was young my mind was filled with probing, lofty questions such as “When was the moment that Han Solo knew that Chewy was the one?” and “Just what exactly would I do for a Klondike bar?” One of the most pressing queries in my prepubescent brain was “What in the world is a Culture Club and how can I join?” Admittedly, I wasn’t setting the world on fire with my synaptic activity but I was very curious about the world I lived in and not merely with how, but why it worked the way it did. To this end, my years in the public school system were both a blessing and a curse to this youthful state of wonder. As an adult I have formed not just an appreciation of those formative years but a consciousness of the precariousness of the ledge that public education (and all it entails) finds itself perched upon like a cat on a hot, tar roof. It is the classrooms rather than the war zones where the real battle for the hearts and minds of the American people are taking place and its outcome will decide the fortunes of our nation for this generation and the ones to come. Here is the essence of the struggle being faced in America, for the Hopis tried to tell us long ago, “The one who tells the stories rules the world.” Right now, its Pearson, a multinational company based in London, and their like that are reading fables to our children in schools across the land.
The English word “education” is a derivation of the Latin verb educes, which means “to draw forth from within.” The noble reformers at the education gates, the Walton and the Gates Foundation, believe that more testing and accountability are the answer. Its a cynical ploy when both the Gates and the Walton families know full well that learning has always been about capturing the genie in the bottle. The magic of learning happens when a Kindergartener reads their first sentence or when middle school students discover that the Earth does not revolve around them. I still remember doing a research paper in high school on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and thinking to myself, “Self, this guy has balls. He’s saying what most of us are afraid to even think.” My three literary heroes were Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean and Samwise Gamgee in that exact order. Learning is a process of discovery and awakening that can never be captured by a standardized test. What the results of these tests tell the test makers and test overseers is which students have a high statistical probability of ending up in prison, college, military or Wal-Mart. Those whose faculties for critical thinking are sufficient to read between the lines of the test results are also able to discriminate which students are bright enough to read between the lines of the tests and which ones might one day grow up to turn on the task masters and say something like, I’m just spitballing here, “I have a dream…”
A key component to education that is often misunderstood or glossed over is the role of language in learning relative to culture. Language is the vehicle for allowing or denying others access to the kingdom. Language also gives away the speaker, words reveal the intentions and desires of our hearts. It is no accident that every profession has its own terminology and specialized vocabulary encoded in their communications with others who speak their language. The legal arena, in particular, and its impenetrable lexicon is the scepter that the ruling class uses to rule the unwashed masses. It is also not a coincidence that the dominant culture presents the acquisition of language as an “either-or” predicament. By stripping a minority culture of their language they become vulnerable to the treaties and resolutions of the ruling class who control the narrative from the first chapter to the last and who always benefit from the final draft. Teachers, who are under a coordinated and well funded siege in America, are the gatekeepers of language and thus hold the keys to decoding the hidden messages of the ruling class. As any elementary teacher can tell you, context is a prerequisite for comprehension. Some educators realize this and some don’t but they are learning the hard way that when they came for the teachers there was no one left to speak for them because the steel workers and miners and migrant workers and every other labor group in the country had already been sold out by the captains of capitalism.
I do believe that education reform is needed but the ideas that bounce around my postpubescent brain seem to run countercurrent to the shifts taking place presently in public education. An acceptance of education as an agency of redemptive change and liberation is fundamental to understanding the motives for why human beings are willing to learn in the first place. They search for answers to mysteries and reach for what they do not grasp and in doing so, they are transformed from an existence of mundane trudging along side the beasts of the field to one that soars. The apprentice becomes the master craftsman, the soldier becomes the general, the student arrives and the teacher appears. Life is worth living because it does not stay the same, and books are worth opening because they do not leave us the same. Humans are social beings but they are also inquisitive entities who seek to know more than they have known and to rise above the fray unless they have waved the white flag to their captors and said, “You must think for me. It is too tiring for me.” The path of least resistance is one that the architects of austerity and princes of privatization are counting on us to follow. But somewhere out there is a child reading about why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird or how a crisis of identity led a convicted felon on a path of redemption or what happens when a diminutive hobbit with a big heart goes on an epic journey and that same child is looking at the world with new eyes.