Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Who is my neighbor?" Education remix

I have written at other times very hard fast rules and statements about charter schools and private schools, about those who choose to homeschool.  And I have also spoken to heart-broken mothers who agonize over how to educate their special needs children, or their various children with different personalities.  I also have struggled with the best fit for my children, who are each very different and have various learning and sensory issues.  

Eventually, I am in danger of falling in with the company of the people who decide how many children each family should have based on a mixture of theological beliefs and population statistics.  I, like the rest of us, am in danger of become pharisaical and legalistic, even as I criticize the people I grew up with who I deemed to be the same.  Pots and kettles, one and all.

Each generation grapples with how to best educate their children.  In many cultures, families create a metaphorical shrine to the education of the child.  Many people base their decision about how many children to have with regards to how much it costs to educate a child.  Most real estate decisions in the middle class are based on which schools the property is associated with.  

In evangelical circles, the education of the child is intertwined with the vocation of converting a child to the Christian faith.   In Catholic families, the duty to educate the child in the Catholic tradition is paramount.  All of these ideologies revolve around the idea that the education of the child is the most important legacy of the parent, and is even a sacred task.  People invoke the “train up the child” mantra and any choice is legitimate. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, this ideology fits nicely with the principles of capitalism, survival of the fittest, and competition.  In fact, the evidence of this philosophy is not hard to find in the U.S. as both Republican and Democratic politicians and education reformers push for the privatization of schools, either in the form of charter schools or vouchers for private education.  This rhetoric appeals to the masses of people who believe that the U.S. is in danger of falling in its rank as a global superpower, or who have fears of the changing demographics of the country.  

This rhetoric also appeals to people living in poverty and working class folks who see the gap between wealthy and impoverished school districts and wish to provide a better opportunity for their children.  It should be noted, that none of these impulses are fundamentally wrong in the sense that parents instinctively want to provide the best opportunities for their children. 

The other strand that runs through the history of U.S. education is persistent impulse towards democracy and free, universal public education.  That these concepts are ideologically opposed to meritocracy, a principle that undergirds capitalism and the enacted system of education, and only arbitrarily and sporadically enforced does not seem to make most patriotic Americans lose any sleep at night.  In fact, it is only with the past fifty years that the U.S. has applied the principles of democracy to public education with any fidelity, and this was mostly due to external pressures.  In order to appear consistent with the “war on communism” to the rest of the Western world, the U.S. had to at least give the appearance of upholding democratic ideals, namely by racially integrating schools (Feagin, 2006). 

The impact of the Civil Rights movement on education was far-reaching, and eventually included legislation that currently protects students of color, students with disabilities, and students who speak a language other than English.  For the first time in our history, there are laws to enforce the ideal of free appropriate public education (FAPE) specifically for students with disabilities (Arne & Ali, 2010).  This sets the precedent, unintentionally or otherwise, to guarantee public education for all citizens, and even potentially for students who are undocumented immigrants.

The principle of free, public education as the foundation for a democracy is simple, but unfortunately not something that is widely understood.  

The difference between a republic and a democracy has, not surprisingly, come to the public’s attention most recently with the election of Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote but will most likely win through the Electoral College.  The competing ideals of democracy and the republic have coexisted since the beginning of the U.S. and would, in theory, balance each other out were it not for the deep-seated racism and sexism upon which the government foundation.  People of color and women were never intended to participate in the republic, let alone a democracy.  

And so, as a nation, we have spent the past century grappling with the sins of our founding fathers primarily around two major issues: who should be educated and who should be allowed to vote.  These two issues are inextricably linked, mostly for the fact that an educated populace will be better equipped to vote.  However, it has also shown up in more insidious ways, such as literacy tests that have been required before a person was allowed to vote. 

The great contradiction of the United States has always been the espousal of democratic principles to the world and outright oppression of indigenous people, Black people, Latinos, Asian people, and women.  Particularly from WWII onward, "democracy" became part of the national discourse.  We were exporting “democracy” to other countries, whether they wanted it or not.  And yet the U.S. has never truly enacted democracy.

Growing up, democracy was presented to me as the ultimate good in the media, school, and church.  And yet the Christianity that was modeled for me was more in line with free-market capitalism.  Our family chose our neighborhood, schools, and even church based on the principles of individuality and competition.  Our choice was always superior to that of others.  In this conception of the world, democracy is reduced to the individual and the immediate community. 

As I was growing up, I was presented with the idea of a “Christian education” as involving either private school or homeschool, but always including Bible class.  However, as I have grown older I have come to question this concept of education, not because I disagree with religious education altogether; after all, I take my children to church on Sunday. However, I question the social repercussions and ethical implications of opting out of public education altogether. 

In educational philosophy, John Dewey attempted to bring together the Greek concepts of democracy (Dewey, 1997).  The idea of a progressive and democratic education has more recently come en vogue in schools with substantial resources.  However, the majority of schools are still governed by a similar philosophy that marked the Cold War era, that of utilitarian education for the purposes of winning a global competition of sorts.  

Dewey’s concept of democracy as enacted in education holds the individual as inextricably linked to the society in which he or she resides.  And conversely, society is not stronger than the culmination of the investment in individual students.  I do not pretend to espouse all of Dewey’s philosophy, but I do want to point out that these are the ideals of education in our society, although they are not enacted. 

While Christian principles and democracy are not one and the same, particularly “democracy” as has been forcibly exported by the U.S. government, there are certain corollaries.  Christianity is principally concerned with the eventual salvation of all of society through Jesus Christ.  The work of Jesus Christ is seen as being worked out by the individuals who make up the church, who are meant to carry God’s blessing to the rest of society.  

Within this framework, each individual is meant to represent God’s image, whether man or woman, abled or disabled, Black or White, immigrant or natural-born citizen.  Therefore, each individual is deserving of dignity as God’s image bearer. Within this theoretical framework, Christian education seems like it would include attention to every individual with a larger view towards all of society, or rather the interaction of individual student with the larger society. 

There can be many interpretations of this, obviously.  For example, the private education argument might include the idea that children will best bring God’s blessing to society if they are first sufficiently educated in the Bible and Christianity, which necessitates a sheltered, and therefore private, education.  The homeschooling argument further emphasizes this idea .  

Within the sphere of private schools more recently there has been increased attention to values of “equity” and “diversity,” a carry-over from the legal mandates I mentioned before.  Private schools now attempt to maintain a racially diverse population, which is many times achieved through the use of scholarships.  For schools with a Christian emphasis, this also fulfills their conception of being a blessing to society in that underprivileged students are supplied with a “quality” education. They do not attempt to maintain a diverse student population in terms of ability, however, which is a larger issue I should address at a later time.  

I have attempted a different route with my children, with mixed results.  Admittedly, all the results are not in, as my kids are none of them over the age of seven.  I have taken the ideals of public education seriously.  This view accepts the idea that government plays a necessary role in our society, one of which is to educate its citizens.  It admittedly takes a small role, given the minuscule amount of money spent on public education compared to other spheres.  

In any case, I understood that money follows my children wherever they attend school.  In order to benefit society, I decided to send my children to the public schools closest to them.  I should also add that we had also moved into an area that has been labeled as “transitional,” which alternately means it is actively being neglected or gentrified, depending on the block. This meant that the schools to which we are linked are also struggling due to the lack of revenue from property taxes. 

This “experiment” was also accompanied with the conviction that sending my children to a school with mostly affluent, and by extension White, children would harm them as much or more than sending them to a school that was unaccredited or struggling.  As a White mother of two White boys and one White girl, I determined that in order to best be a blessing to society, I should endeavor to raise anti-racist individuals (Tatum, 2003).  

I also imagined that with our presence, we might be able to support the teachers and administrators in ways that also benefited the rest of the children.  I have a background in education, as well as connections to people with resources, so when we become aware of a need in the school we are able to draw on our social network in order to meet the need.  This was also my philosophy for teaching in a provisionally accredited high school.  

I did not imagine that I would “save” anyone, but rather I believed I could contribute my limited resources in a school with the most need.

This whole experiment is admittedly more complicated that I have just described.  Schools with few resources are difficult, and often unhappy, places to work and learn.  Further, it is not, as I once imagined, the only way to enact Christian principles in the realm of education.  I can see value in many different ways of educating children.  After all, individuals are diverse, with distinct needs and aspirations.  And in end, in the current educational climate, with magnet schools and charter schools, it is almost impossible to engage in neighborhood schools in a traditional way.  The system has already been converted to a free-market of sorts. 

Nonetheless, I am still disturbed about my own reactions when I encounter broken schools and systems.  When things go badly, my initial instinct is to revert to concerning myself only with my children.  I fight the urge to not care about children living in poverty—after all, how can I change poverty all by myself?  I suddenly realize I don’t care that much about diversity—is it only my fault that our society is racially segregated? In other words, deep down I really don’t care about children in poverty, Black children, immigrants, refugees, or children with disabilities.  And this is what frightens me.  

Could this be the impulse that actually governs most of society, despite our lip service to equity and diversity? 

Luke 10:25-29 One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: "Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus replied, "What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?"
The man answered, "'You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.' And, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
"Right!" Jesus told him. "Do this and you will live!"
The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (NLT)

This where I fear many Christians have stopped in their educational philosophy. We understand that we must love God, and teach our children to love God. But when it comes to loving our neighbor—which is not a subordinate law, as the book of James tells us, since it is the way in which we show how much we love God—we have become stuck in the semantics of who exactly we are meant to care for.  

After all, we can choose our neighborhoods if we have resources.  We can choose our schools, either with magnet, charter, private, or homeschooling.  After all is said and done, if we care for our neighbor, but we have chosen our neighbor, how well have we fulfilled this commandment?  The clear impact of this philosophy in our society has resulted in the re-segregation of our schools, both racially and socioeconomically.  This is not a blessing to society, but rather the curse of our original sins as a nation that have persisted and never fully been addressed. 

I do not pretend to tell other people how to educate their children.  That would be quite un-American of me to do.  But as a Christian, I do urge others to ask if they have really contemplated the question: “Who my neighbor?”  And not in a self-justifying way, but in a truly repentant and critical examination of our own motives and actions. 

“Who is my neighbor?” Education remix.  

References 

Arne, D., & Ali, R. (2010, August). Free Appropriate Public Education under Section 504 [Pamphlets]. Retrieved December 17, 2016, from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/edlite-FAPE504.html

Dewey, J. (1997). Democracy And education. New York: Free Press.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.