Let my people read

Emancipation Monument, Beterverwagting, ECD

Emancipation Monument, Beterverwagting, ECD (Photo credit: arichards63)

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.

Boston - Boston Common: Parkman Plaza - Learning

Boston – Boston Common: Parkman Plaza – Learning (Photo credit: wallyg)

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…”

Language of the Birds San Francisco

Language of the Birds San Francisco (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

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.


Education (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

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.

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15 Responses to Let my people read

  1. This is a great post! You have a good eye for singling in on the bottom line, and that’s the place to look when it comes to education. I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know – thanks!
    I just wanted to add that education is THE single most crucial issue determining whether the US will continue its relentless war on a huge African-American underclass, which is finally too outnumbered and wounded to defend itself – after 450 years. We can’t focus on the schools alone. It will take a deep comittment to comprehensive social equity, to families, imprisoned fathers, and entire neighborhoods (including all housing and infrastructure) and if we don’t do it, I swear this nation will pay with its soul.
    We have now imprisoned as many Black men as were enslaved at the beginning of the Civil War: 850,000!


  2. Sherry says:

    I agree with most of what you have said. I believe that our educational system is in a frightful state. We are taught what we need to be good compliant citizens. As a retired lawyer, I find that what is sorely lacking in the public at large is the ability to critically read and think about what they have read. We all too easily fall for what sounds good and plays to our self interest rather than judge critically what we read and hear for it’s actual authenticity as fact. Education should be about honing the skills of critical thinking. All the rest can be largely self taught with a friendly mentor from time to time.


  3. OMG!! This is an amazing piece of literature. And I love the first comment from Ms Claire!!! Being both African American and born and raised in Detroit, MI (where the public schools are failing at a heart aching rate) here is my two cents:

    Cent 1: Education reform has been mandatory for years now. I attended public schools but because of my great test taking abilities I was granted a magnet school middle school education and graduated with a high school diploma in Chemical Biological Science from Cass Technical High School (one of the top HS’s in Detroit and one that you have to test to get in as well as maintain a certain GPA to stay in) Despite all of that I am a dreamer and by my junior year I stopped caring so much about the education the schools were offering not fully comprehending what it had to do with teaching me to live life after school. I went to college for a year and a half and was broken to discover that college or a higher education was not the answer to life questions like why am I here, what is my purpose. Recent I discovered this book that I love by Peter McWilliams called the Portable Life 101 The first lesson is “That our educational system is not designed to teach us the “secrets of life” is no secret. In school, we learn how to do everything-except how to live.” Furthermore, “At college age, you can tell who is best at taking tests and going to school, but you can’t tell who the best people are. That worries the hell out of me.” -Barnaby C. Keeney Starting from scratch may be our best bet outside of watching our children to see how they learn to better create an education system that caters to their needs. My sister is one who slipped through the cracks. She went from being a failing student at the same magnet middle school I attended to a 4.0 student attending a charter school. I never once got a 4.0 and wondered how in the hell… Come to find out they weren’t teaching her, they were passing her along, some of her teachers were even known to blow a blunt with her.

    Cent 2: The African American Community needs help. We suffer from mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and financial lack. Love can conquer a lot of this but unfortunately so many in our community don’t know what love is nor how to receive or give it. I work in a Jewish “old money” community at the local public library. I have only begun to see the vast difference in the children’s upbringing here versus the upbringing I had and witnessed growing up in Detroit. I also work as a parent/youth mentor and for the first time I clearly see the bondage that is still to this day keeping us enslaved. The cycle has to be broken but so much has to be in place for that to successfully happen. A person has to recognize there is a problem (the MAIN problem). We have been doing things the same way for so long that the lies have been sold and the truth and it is a losing battle to try to make the horse drink though the water is right in front of him. Also we have to want help. The AA community has the hardest time asking for help but have been trapped into accepting handouts. There is no accountability nor honor in doing so. We have come to believe it is what we are owed and become lazy to no means. Then if we get over ourselves enough to see the problem and ask for help we have to create new habits. Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into but hard to get out of. Most in our community don’t like hard work because “so many of us have worked so hard for so long” mentalities passed down through generation after generation. Then you have others that work so hard for others that they never do the hard work necessary for themselves.

    This is getting really long but I thank you Jeff & Claire!!! This was super thought provoking and inspiring. I am the change I want to see in those that look like me, this is only aiding my fight, strength, and faith!! I know I can be the difference! I am, and I will continue to be!! ♥ Peace & Blessings


    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I was in New Orleans recently where the public schools were unilaterally shut down and teachers dismissed following Hurricane Katrina. NCLB/RTTT was decades in the planning before being rolled out to the public sphere. Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report is an outstanding voice in the African American community for many of the issues you have discussed. I appreciate your thoughtful and provocative comments. It is time for others outside of the community to speak up for the disenfranchised and broken in our society. You cannot fight this battle alone and shouldn’t have to. Thank you for sharing your voice with me.


      • Thank you for listening!!! Being afforded the gift of insight and wisdom I plan to do all I can to help those that cannot see!! I thank you for caring!!! It means a lot!!! So many don’t see let alone care!! ♥


  4. Pingback: Let my people read « urban horror

  5. Pingback: African-American Education: The Comment That Turned Into A Post | Love Junkey

  6. mhasegawa says:

    You might be interested in a book by Colin Greer “The Great School Legend”. It may be out of print, but you can probably find it used.


  7. Dear Jeff,

    Thank you so much for your encouragement regarding my blog posts.

    The following are some of my thoughts regarding the Palestinian Israeli conflict. I’m certainly am not an expert on the subject and would like to learn more. I really enjoyed reading what your blog had to say.

    Unfortunately, the heart wrenching pleas for peace from both the Israelis and the Palestinians living in Israel don’t get a lot of media attention. Audiences like dissension, violence and suspense focusing on heroes and victims, tyrants and martyrs, buffoons and sages, and winners and losers.

    Regarding the Palestinian Israeli conflict, I believe the only way to achieve peace in this tiny part of world, the size of NJ, is for concerned people from both sides the dispute to seek out independent media coverage. Peaceful coexistence with dignity for all involved, that will be mutually profitable, will require concessions and above all forgiveness. Because of all the violence and mayhem, I know it won’t be easy, but forgiveness on the part of both the Palestinians and the Israelis will be essential to accomplish peace through compromise. There will be those whose own people will see anyone demanding peace as a traitor. Let us remain loyal to all those who refuse to remain silent regardless of the risk.




  8. mightwar says:

    I found it fascinating to discover that education is derived from “to draw forth from within”. This suggests that learning answers something within us and that a variety of methods is needed to draw it out because people learn in a variety of ways. The UK is currently experiencing major education reform and in England, the Government want to return all secondary examinations taken at age 16 and 18 to written exams only – rather than the mix of modular and written structure that we have now. This worries me as not everyone is good at memorising information to be regurgitated at a particular point; and because I don’t believe that a passed test necessarily reflects that the sitter has actually learnt the information – just that they can provide it when asked.

    Because of my parents’ approach to education, I grew up believing that the process of learning in and of itself is as vital as what was learnt. Therefore it is important for our educational structures to reflect the process as a whole.

    I love the Frederick Douglass quote and wonder how impactful it would be on learners if every classroom had it posted up on their walls.


  9. lovejunky803 – Oh, dear – listen, you are blaming the wrong people! This is a white crime planned and carried out with ruthless forethought. Please email me at claireobrien23@gmail.com – I know you don’t want to give an old lady a heart attack!


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