Taking Heed from the Frontlines…

This guest post is by Kathleen Rand Reed. She is “an African American anthropologist who has not only been in the trenches of higher education as an activist over a number of years, but a trench digger during my “older-woman returns-to-graduate-school” experience at the University of Maryland, College Park.”

I have read the Academe article on the cohort of children under No Child Left Behind reaching college and their deficiencies in critical thinking, and have heard the heartfelt pain of its author, Ken Bernstein. However, it was deep into the article before he gave us the punch line, that is:

“Ultimately, it was to little avail (his activism), because the drivers of the policies that are changing our schools—and thus increasingly presenting you with students ever less prepared for postsecondary academic work—are the wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage.”

Not only is Bernstein on to something, but he’s dead right.  And there are reasons – some economic, some racial – then again, many actions that are racial, in light of the new U.S. demography, ARE economic.   See, the ultimate aim in today’s education, is to reinstate a corporate but colonial model.  The basis of this internal and external colonial model has its underpinning as similar templates found in Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 book, The Mis-Education of the Negro.[1]  Wikipedia offers a clear explanation of Woodson’s thesis:

…African-Americans of his (Woodson’s) day were being culturally indoctrinated, rather than taught, in American schools. This conditioning, he claims, causes African-Americans to become dependent and to seek out inferior places in the greater society of which they are a part. He challenges his readers to become autodidacts and to “do for themselves”, regardless of what they were taught….[2]

Woodson states:

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” [3]

Today, given Ken Bernstein’s premise and the changes in elementary, secondary and even higher education, Woodson’s title and the increasing levels of socioeconomic inequality for  – people of color AND working class whites – begins to yield the title of a new thesis – The Mis-Education of the American OR American as NegroAmerican as Negro comes straight from Jerry Farber’s 1965 essay, Student as Nigger, when he taught at California State Los Angeles [4]

The educational landscape has changed and has shifted toward avoiding and eliminating critical thinking.  Critical thinking shapes the ability for citizens to hone their in-depth understanding of major issues.   Critical thinking shapes thought processes and the ability to dissect ideologies.  While Americans, as a whole, are more “educated” than any time in U.S. history through the sheer time spent IN school, our inability to develop and tease out an argument in statements is rife.  Almost no child in the U.S. can explain logic concepts of modus ponens or argument validity.

One of the most confusing aspects of these phenomena is that low-earning and non-elite Americans are, by nature, innately innovative – witness Lewis Latimer (light bulb – 1881) and Thomas Jennings (dry cleaning process – 1821).  Even in 18th century Massachusetts, Onesimus, a slave to Cotton Mather taught Mather the art of inoculation. Yet, Mather taught physician, Zabdiel Boylston what he learnt from Onesimus.  Boylston, eager for eminence, in 1725, traveled to London, presented the idea as his, and was elected to the Royal Society. Onesimus, alas, remained a slave.

These and many more innovations through time often have not yielded benefits for the inventors, per se, due to their inability to bring their own ideas to market.  Rather, the training for most Americans today is to work, keep your head down, and “take it” when your idea is ripped off by greedy and wealthier players.   We live in a time where the popular culture has devolved into brusque, brutal and barbarous lifestyles.  The celebrities include hedge fund operators and bankers with a Gekkoian credo of “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” [5]

Bernstein’s short essay truly points up the most frightening aspects of this educational shift.  He taught U.S. Government and Politics. He observed the consequences of “texting as communication,” that is, the lack of proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure – all hallmarks of cogent thought.   Diagramming a sentence has gone the way of the dodo bird, yet cogent and critical arguments and writing dictate that some sort of analysis scaffolding need be present.   He points out that many schools have no libraries and thus no readily available backdrop for content development.  Further, Bernstein carves no exception for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes and students.

Recently, a conservative majority of the Texas Board of Education, who say textbook changes are long-overdue, have begun to emphasize religion and eliminate liberal views.  Their impetus is to underscore to what degree the Founding Fathers were driven by Christian principles. [6]

“Among the changes: Students would be required to learn about the “unintended consequences” of Title IX, affirmative action, and the Great Society, and would need to study conservative icons like Phyllis Schlafly, the Heritage Foundation, and the Moral Majority.”   Further, the most egregious move is The Slave Trade would be renamed the “Atlantic Triangular Trade”; American “imperialism” would be changed to “expansionism,” and “free enterprise” would replace all references to “capitalism.”

As we continue to recede into the abyss of backwards thinking, the only persuasion left is to add to the attempts at disassembling the gains of the Civil Rights Era revelations and the gender, disability, sexual preference, language and race.  Part of the corporate colonial model is to begin to have the next generation of American children believe that slave ships were akin to Carnival cruise ships.

[1] Woodson, Carter Godwin (1990). The Mis-Education of the Negro, Trenton, N.J: Africa World Press World Press Inc Ed edition (July 1, 2006). ISBN 0-86543-171-X [Paperback]

[3] ibid. pp 84-85

[5] Gordon Gekko (Character) in Wall Street (1987) http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0012282/quotes

[6] “Texas Textbook War: ‘Slavery’ or ‘Atlantic Triangular Trade’?”


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