Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Required Reading For The Day II

Everyone on this planet who cares about our future as a human race has to read Jonathan Kozol's Letters To A Young Teacher. Period.

Some samples of his writings to Francesca:

"The ugly little secret," as you put it, is that there is almost no diversity at all in most of the schools in which diversity curricula are generally used. The word, you said, has come to be a cover-up for situations to which it can't possibly apply.

As you've noticed, this is right in keeping with the way the word is used in education journals and the media. There is a seemingly agreed-upon convention, in the written press especially, never to use a plain, unvarnished term like "racial segregation" - not, at least, in reference to the city where the newspaper is published - if there's any way the term can be avoided. This is the case even in a narrative description of a segregated school, where journalists have learned to do semantic somersaults in order not to use a word that may do injury to civic pride. High schools that enroll as few as six or seven white or Asian students in a total population of as many as 3,000, and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic, are commonly referred to, in the parlance of reporters, as "diverse."

School systems employ this euphemism, too. In a school I visited last fall in Kansas City, for example, I was provided with a document that said the school's curriculum "addresses the needs of children from diverse backgrounds." but as I went from class to class I didn't see a single child who was white or Asian - or Hispanic, for that matter. The principal, when I pressed her on the demographics of the school, said that 99.6 percent of students there were black.

I think you were being very honest when you said you feel as if you're lying to your children if you leave these false impressions uncorrected and allow the class, essentially, to swallow the idea that segregation is a shameful piece of distant history for which our nation has absolved itself, rather than an ever-present aspect of the lives they lead and education they receive today.

"Here we are in a public school with not a single white child in our class and only three white children in the school's entire population. Hooray for Ruby Bridges and for Linda Brown and all the other brave black children of the South for having left us with a legacy of social justice in our public schools, even if this legacy has been completely, and intentionally, ripped apart and shredded and abandoned in the years since all the kids we teach today were born!"

Many black educators have expressed the same frustration you did when you spoke about the uses of the past as something like a piece of "meaningful but old and tattered cloth" that we have placed upon a shelf within a cupboard that we briefly open and then carefully lock up again. I'd like to introduce you someday to an African-American teacher in New York who told me once, during the time when I was working on my book Amazing Grace, that he'd gotten to the point where he confessed he couldn't "stand to hear about the bridge at Selma, Alabama anymore" and refused to give his kids a set of lesson plans he'd been assigned for what he called "The Famous March Curriculum." Instead, he said he'd posted on his classroom walls all the stuff he could find about the racist education system in which he was working now.

"You see," he said, "to the very poor black children that I teach..., it doesn't matter much what bridge you might have stood on thirty years ago. They want to know what bridge you stand on now."

I'm taking pictures of more schools, as you can see. The stuff I talked about way back in March still applies. I'm ashamed at what we have all done, in little ways and big ways, to contribute to the physical ruin of these buildings all over the city and to the public education environments that could have had a chance within them if we'd only been strong enough and brave enough to stay the course with regards to the ideal of having our children develop their wonder for the world and their inquisitive natures into avenues for real change in everyone's lives, regardless of their race, color, or creed.

Education is seen as a commodity now more than anything else.

And too few of us are questioning that.

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