A while back I made up a really bad joke that goes like this:
Question: How many academics does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: One-they stand on the chair holding the light bulb and wait for the world to revolve around them.
I made this joke up after I had become an academic, a professor of education, myself. Me, like other academics (if we are rigorously honest with ourselves) have to concede that this is true, at least in part, some of the time. We work in an environment where we receive accolades for telling others that our theory, our ideas, our latest book, holds the “truth;” we teach others that we have the knowledge, that we are “right.” Sometimes….
It’s also more true that many of us are dedicated to something bigger than ourselves, something that overshadows the ego feeding realm of higher education. That something is social justice.
There is no one definition of what social justice means, and there are many varied ways to get there, and we often disagree amongst ourselves about these processes and terminologies. But what we share is a common goal to get there, to work toward a world that is more sustainable, peaceful, and equitable than the one we have right now.
Yesterday at work someone was pointing out to me (with some concern-whether it be for me, or for trouble I may cause in my workplace, I am not sure), but they pointed out that it seemed to them that recently I have grown more “political,” more outspoken; saying (without saying it) that I seemed more … radical.
And the proverbial light bulb in my bad joke went off over my head. I realized something I hadn’t before. Before yesterday, I kept thinking that it was me that was moving in a certain direction. Yes, my need to speak out publicly, and to take real (and public) actions have increased … and I have experienced some real growing pains in the process. But in the midst of yesterdays conversation I realized, and said out loud, “Nothing about what I believe or what I teach has really changed. Ten years ago when NCLB was the reform du jour I spoke out to my students against that. Ten years ago I railed in my classrooms against high stakes testing. I assigned readings by Paulo Freire and told my students that teaching and learning ought be revolutionary acts that change the world.” So what’s so different now?
I haven’t changed. My commitment to social justice in education hasn’t changed. But the world around me has. In over twenty years in education I have bore witness to the cyclical nature of education trends in policy and practice. Teachers perhaps are not worried enough about what’s happening in public education with recent “reform” efforts because they tell me they’ll just wait for the “pendulum to swing back again.” Sorry folks. This time it’s different. The pendulum will not be swinging back. The bastion of current reforms is setting dangerous and historic precedents. This isn’t problem-based learning versus an interdisciplinary approach, or “real” math versus “touch” math. Education reform now is part of a much larger agenda.
This is the beginning of the end of public education.
Those of us fighting for social justice have been standing firm, holding the rope to the ship of public education for a long time now, and the tides of privatization are now unmooring it from its dock. The forces of corporate power and interest are greater now than ever before in our history. Waves of economic, political, social, ecological, religious and cultural interests that serve the rich and privileged are pulling like a sick rip tide, tearing at the foundations of our country.
And we will not be moved.
Is it really us who have become more radical? Or, is it maybe that the rest of the country around us is shifting away from fighting for our own rights and our own freedoms without even noticing? I suggest that the climate around us become more oppressive, more fear-driven, more destructive, and more insidious. We see our democracy floating out to sea while everyone about us is over at the ice cream truck buying treats from Bill Gates, Wall Street, the banking industry, Eli Broad, the Koch Brothers, and investment brokers.
You know what I mean if you’re not moving either. We have become radicals without having moved an inch. Here’s a quick test: Do you have friends that avoid talking about education with you in polite conversation because they’re afraid you’ll start frothing at the mouth? You might be a radical. Do people at work avoid your gaze and shrink in their seats when you raise your hand at meetings to say something? You might be a radical. Do your work superiors ask you to remain silent.. “or else”… about these issues of which you are knowledgeable, when they themselves lack any real understanding whatsoever about what’s really going on? You might be a radical. Is your career in jeopardy for speaking the truth and fighting for the rights of educators and children? You might be a radical. Do other parents and teachers dread seeing you enter the room at PTA meetings and other education functions for fear you’ll say something that makes everyone uncomfortable? You might be a radical.
It can feel isolating some days. Some days my mind is reeling with fears and anger, with new ideas for hope and change, all of which I keep to myself because I know that not everyone standing in front of me in the grocery store line is going to give a shit about what I am thinking or feeling. They just want to get through the check out and move on with their day.
I call my “sisters in arms” daily just to ask the question “Are we crazy?” because some days I wonder. But then I remember. We will not be moved. We will not negotiate. We will not be pulled under by the rip tides of injustice. I haven’t changed. But I am fighting harder because I have to– because the stakes are higher than ever, and because the long lasting and far-reaching repercussions of our submission to the will of those who want own our rights to public education are unthinkable.
I stand with the others who will not be moved: Vincent Precht, Barbara Madeloni , the teachers and educators in New York facing off with Pearson field testing this week , the New York principals , the superintendents in Texas , teachers in Wisconsin , those calling to Dump Duncan , the Ethnic Studies program in Tucson, AZ , and all the others (too many to mention but you know who you are :)) risking their personal and professional lives NOT to be moved.
There is a lot wrong with public education now, and historically. I do not advocate rolling back the clock of romanticism to some other era (which never existed unless you white and middle class anyway). The federal, state and local governments, the unions, the school board, the teachers, the administrators, the parents- all of us must take honest stock of our own roles in creating, perpetuating, or silently being complicit in the problems with public education.
To move forward with a genuine transformation of public education, we have to first own where we have gone wrong and identify what we must do differently. And we must preserve its strengths. A lot of folks are saying public education is a disaster-just get rid of it. I disagree.
I think our democratic processes in this country are a big giant mess too. But I would no more advocate for simply just eliminating the Democratic Experiment any more than I would its central tenet: the possibility of a free, accessible, open, and equitable quality education for all children; One that helps create a more socially just and sustainable future. We are the democratic process and we are the public. We have lost sight of that. I recognize that often times our rights have simply been stripped from us, or denied to us from the very start, by powerful corporate interests and the wealth of the 1%. But education must remain a fundamental piece of our democratic principles as a publicly owned, publicly run, publicly funded and publicly attended institution.
I want to take the democratic rights of citizens and the right to public education back. They belong to me. They belong to you. They belong to us. But we must fight for them. And we must have the capacity to imagine what possibilities still lie ahead for a better future for public education. Don’t give up on it. Fight for it. And then, we use our collective passions and imaginations to fulfill its greatest potential- to which it has never before been able to fully achieve. Reformers claim public education has failed, yet we never fully realized its full potential to begin with. We know there are those with money, wealth, and power (now and in the past) who set it up for failure. But we can change that … We, will not be moved.