The critique that I’ve most often heard about schooling is that it conditions children for Industrial Age-working conditions. The assertion is not necessarily untrue: bells, buzzers, and other alarming mechanisms that signal a shift in location or activity; the inability to freely address one’s own bodily functions (e.g., regulated lunchtimes and bathroom breaks); the expectation of an eight-hour (or more) day of work; the general assumption that (school)work is supposed to happen indoors, and the ones doing the work have no say about when work should start or finish, and so on. This connection between schooling and work will be further discussed later.
I have also heard SDE naysayers assert that one of externally-controlled schooling’s primary benefits is that it prepares young people for lives of doing things that they don’t want to do. I understand our having to tell ourselves this, even if we don’t really believe it or if we wished the world were different for our children, deep down. I know that I briefly tried to convince myself of the overall benefits of schooling when my children were young, even when it wrenched my heart to see them step onto the school bus in the mornings. After a while, I didn’t even try to convince myself anymore: though I did not think schooling was the best option for my children, I believed that my financial situation did not yet allow me to pull them out of school, and I had no community that could help me, as a single-parent, navigate the SDE journey. While perhaps a crude way of putting it, I knew that I needed inexpensive care for my children while I worked, and though I did not think that school was the best for them, I did not think our local school was doing irreparable damage, either. (Today, I’m not so sure about the total lack of damage, though I do think that healing is happening.)
Though it was a decade ago that I struggled with the fact that I had to send my children to school even though I did not want to, my internal struggle had more to do with just the fact I and my children had to succumb to the emotionally-, mentally-, and physically-exhausting requirements of a forty-hour work week. I also struggled because I was succumbing my Black children to the emotionally-, mentally-, and physically-exhausting requirements of a forty-hour work week within a wider social, economic, and political system that would never recognize or value their full humanity because the system’s foundation is inherently anti-Black. Put more bluntly: as we live in the United States – a settler colony premised upon (1.) White supremacy, (2.) Indigenous erasure, and (3.) Black enslavement/fungibility – the institutions that shore up and are shored up by this colony must be colonialist in nature (Hartman, 1997; Hartman, 2006; Smith, 2010). These institutions must consequently reinforce White supremacy, Indigenous erasure, and Black enslavement/fungibility in their own ways, not because the people who work in these institutions are evil, but because the ontological foundation of this colony – and everything sprung from it – must take for granted that Whiteness is dominant, that Indigeneity has ceased to exist, and that Blackness is only acceptable in the ways that it benefits Whiteness.
We can see this in myriad ways in our society. So while we can, for example, rightly point to the disproportionate numbers of Black people in prisons, the deleterious effects of the overpolicing of Black communities, and the ways that the history of Black enslavement relates to the existence of police forces, vagrancy laws and the present-day enslavement loophole within the 13th amendment, many non-Indigenous people don’t know that Indigenous Americans are just as likely – if not more likely – to be killed by police than Black Americans nationally, relative to their population. At the time of the last census, Indigenous Americans were the most overrepresented racial/ethnic group in nineteen states’ prison populations. Native peoples experience double the amount of violent crimes than non-Natives do, including Black Americans. And the terrifyingly high number of murdered and missing Indigenous North American women belies the appalling lack of media, academic, and legal attention to this crisis.
We can find reflections of Indigenous erasure and Black enslavement/fungibility across this White supremacist settler colony’s institutions, whether institutions regulate our financial/economic, legal, or health and environmental management systems: Black Americans tend to fare poorly, with Indigenous Americans faring the same or worse when their plight is even considered. The pattern does not change when it comes to this colony’s educational management system, or schooling. While I do not intend to do a survey of the racist history of schooling in the United States, I list a few examples that point to this pattern:
- Since the beginnings of European encroachment on these lands, schools were one of the primary tools used to influence and control members of the already-present Indigenous nations. Though peoples within Indigenous nations had their own education systems and practices (the importance and necessity of which will be discussed in later posts), settler colonists who understood Indigenous peoples as savage, ignorant or deficient began to use Western-based schooling practices as “civilizing” tools at the same time that they were assuming control over the surrounding lands and resources. In U.S. context, this imposition of schooling happened at the same time that European-descended colonists were using physical, economic, and legal violence against Indigenous peoples in order to lay claim to their lands.
- While under the auspices of the Western religious institutions that established themselves on these lands (with broader colonialist governments’ approvals) from the 1500s to the late 1700s, the schooling of Indigenous children in the United States settler colony eventually came under the purview of the federal government from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. During this time, thousands of Indigenous children were taken or sent from their homes and placed in boarding schools meant to, in the words of Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Pratt, “kill the Indian and save the man.” These boarding schools were often hundreds of miles away from the students’ homes, sometimes rendering home and family visits virtually impossible. At the schools, Indigenous students were taught to forsake their own national languages, religions, scientific and economic practices, and instead take on White values and ways of life.
- At the same time that Indigenous peoples were first pushed, then forced, to subject themselves to Western schooling, Black people on these lands were often excluded from it. Throughout the era of enslavement, millions of enslaved Blacks were not only prohibited from attending school in any form, but generally could not learn to read through individual tutoring or self-directed practices without fear of violent reprisal. This exclusion from schooling – and particularly the exclusion from becoming literate – reduced written language to an enigmatic code through which the fates of millions of people were regularly discussed and determined without their knowledge. Until the mid-1800s, then, an enslaved woman could be doing business for her owner in a nearby town, inadvertently walk past her owner’s posted advertisement of her own auctioning off – or the auctioning of her children – and be none the wiser.
- When the era of enslavement ended in the mid-1800s, newly-freed Blacks, both young and old, rushed to schooling with a fervor never before seen in these lands. They knew they needed to access the information so long kept from them. At the same time, however, and contrary to the dominant narrative, these freed people often preferred learning from and working with their own people rather than the oft-hailed White schoolteachers and bureaucrats who flocked South to educate these unschooled masses, and wisely so: notwithstanding the five hundred years of lessons about White supremacy that compelled Black people to form self-sufficient communities outside of White control, Blacks also worked to establish educational centers that would continue even after outside (read: White) assistance dried up and disappeared, which it often did. While schools funded by governments or White philanthropists are frequently mentioned in discussions about this era, Black-run “native schools,” Saturday or Sunday schools (which extended beyond religious teaching and into literacy and other academic subjects), and other educational institutions funded by wealthier Black communities were just as important.
- Around the same time that Black enslavement was coming to an end and the forced boarding of Indigenous children was escalating, the beginnings of public schools – initially called common schools – emerged in the northeastern corner of the colony. While Horace Mann tends to be the first name mentioned when it comes to this subject, Catharine Beecher is also of particular note here, as I believe their intentions behind this work greatly influence how we understand public schools today.As the settler colony’s first board of education secretary in Massachusetts, Mann established a state public school system that, in addition to being imitated by other states, existed primarily to inculcate impoverished/working class, primarily European immigrant and European-descended colonial children with Western European-descended owning-class values and sensibilities, while offering only the limited amount of academic knowledge needed to prepare them for a life politically and economically subject to the owning class. The common school project, then, was every bit of a civilizing-through-school project as had been seen in other parts of the continent, but with White children. Within Mann’s lifetime, Massachusetts would be the first state to pass a compulsory education law.
At the same time that Mann was working on his school system, Catharine Beecher worked to convince the men running it that women were, in fact, better qualified to teach this newly burgeoning school population, primarily due to their supposedly-natural caretaking qualities. As a growing number of states had never seen so many (mostly White) children going to school, there was a new demand for teachers and Beecher, part of a White upper class that typically shunned their women working outside of the home, saw teaching as a way to liberate White women from these patriarchal chains. Mann and others liked the ideas of White women teachers, but for a different reason: they were cheaper to employ than White men. As the overall wages for teachers were then driven down, teaching jobs were often filled by those to whom society left few non-menial work options: primarily White women across class, and often impoverished or working class White women. As implanting values for a compliant work force superseded the importance of intellectual health, exploration, and inquiry, teaching was also made accessible to White women who had relatively little schooling and was a strong alternative to working in fields, factories, or homes.
Thus, while schooling or tutoring had previously been the domain of the moneyed classes, the low pay of teaching positions, the new civilizing mission of public schools, and the lower class-status of the new student bodies solidified public schools as a place of training primarily European-descended masses in service to the settler colony’s European-descended owning classes. In these schools, children not only learned reading, writing, and arithmetic (if they learned that), but received subtle and not-so-subtle training of the “right way” to be a settler colonist, from whose intellectual traditions should be prioritized, to whose history should be believed, to who has no history or traditions at all, to whose ways of life and seeing the world should be accepted. In public schools, this training still continues today, and with a primarily White, middle- to working-class female teaching force.
In just these above extended examples, we see the continuation of the aforementioned settler colonial premise of White supremacy, Indigenous erasure and Black enslavement/fungibility evinced though schooling practices in the United States. The Indigenous erasure that is the foundation of this settler colony has also been the foundation of how Indigenous children were schooled throughout the time of European settlement here: the primary (and, I would argue, sole) purpose of Western schooling of Indigenous children is for their absorption (and the absorption of their lands and resources) into the dominant White system, if not these children’s absorption into Whiteness itself. From the beginnings of Indigenous introductions to Western forms of schooling on these lands, Indigenous practices, thought, and ways of life were ignored and denigrated in the classroom, while Europeans ways were taught – even when those ways were discordant or unrelated to life on this side of the ocean. These contradictions continue now, with Indigenous peoples’ having to fight to have their languages and histories, not to mention their sciences and religious practices, taught in local public schools, even when the entire school population is Indigenous.
Black children experience similar erasure in schools, combined with the criminalization of their bodies while in the schooling environment. There has been much discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline, which includes the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of Black children, the overrepresentation of law enforcement in Black-majority schools, as well as the hyper-prevalence of surveillance and detection measures in these schools. This occurs as schools tend not to offer Black children any intense and extended focus on Black-Diasporic literary, scientific, or historical thought, and often simultaneously highlight the ways Black children’s bodies can be made of use for wider public enjoyment, whether in sports, music, or fashion/pop culture.
And all of this occurs in a schooling system that, from its start, served as a tool for the colonialist training of White children who, not necessarily educated in the ways that could have best served their individual or local needs, were instead educated toward the lie of White supremacy – both in order to shore up the power of the White owning classes and despite the high likelihood that they would never be part of the owning classes themselves. In other words, though White children were and still are part of the dominant group of a racist, colonialist system – and this group membership undoubtedly has given them advantages over their non-White counterparts – the public school was not created in their best interests, either.
While schools in this colony teach Indigenous children that they do not exist and teach Black children that they exist solely for/under the observation/consumption of others, the very foundations of U.S. public schooling show us that the institution was never established for the health, wholeness, or safety of any children, even White children – just as this colony was not established for the health, wholeness, or safety of any people, even White people.[i]
In the current settler colonial context, then, I do not believe that there is a way to “fix” schools in order to make them the best environment for children, particularly non-White children. Of course it is possible for non-White children to have positive experiences in schools. Of course it’s possible for them to find positive role models there, to have exposure to information that reflects their experiences, and to be exposed to things they’ve never known before. Schools can be excellent community centers and hold important memories for us.
While I do not deny that those things can happen in schools, I want to add an important caveat: we did those things, we made them happen. In the same way that marginalized communities are able to forge positivity and light in the darkest of situations that we experience here, we are able to make work for us the very things that should not. For example, I believe that Black Americans were instrumental in establishing public schooling in the South (not just for themselves, might I add, but for impoverished Whites, who also did not have access to public education because the owner class was afraid of losing its Black and White agricultural workforce) not because they loved the priorities of the institution, but because they understood how they could make that colonialist tool work for them. They lived over two centuries of being barred from the very knowledge that this colony required in order to better access resources and safety, and when they were no longer threatened (as consistently) with violence or death when trying to attain this knowledge, they didn’t hesitate to procure it using schooling, the dominant vehicle for such knowledge at the time.
I assert, however, that it is important for those of us in historically marginalized groups to fall in love with our tenacity and creativity, not the institutions through which we had to express this tenacity and creativity in the past. I come from a line of people that prioritize schools and schooling, and that prioritization makes sense: until very recently, the institution of schooling was a primary way to access the work of people who have engaged in dominant intellectual exercise; the best way to access dominant knowledges; and the primary route by which those interested in study, research, and thought could best continue that work, all while attaining the qualifications necessary to better insulate themselves against the most deleterious effects of work life in this settler colonialist society. Because of this, I come from Black people that respect schooling. I know other Black people who respect schooling, who themselves come from Black people that respect schooling.
But times have changed.
While many of us value schools and schooling, I suggest that we what we really value is what we’ve been able to do with/through schooling. We often believe that, through schooling, we were able to find a window into a wider world when all other doors were closed to us, but I do not think that schools did that. People in schools did that. People who cared about us did that. Our caring about ourselves did that. Indeed, I assume there are just as many that have had windows and doors shut through schooling as have had them opened, so when we marginalized people cling to the idea of all that schools have done for us, I urge us to consider our historic practices of making things work for us that otherwise should not have worked. I urge us to fall in love with ourselves and our brilliance, not the thing that was never for us in the first place, and certainly not the thing that was never meant for our good, even on its best day.
And as we began loving ourselves, our own brilliance, our own tenacity, let us also consider what life can look like when we recognize that we are no longer limited to the institution that forced us to compartmentalize and stifle the most beautiful things about us, the institution that we quite justifiably had to use in order to help us survive in a colony that doesn’t mind our elimination (or even requires it). While I think the following questions could be directed across marginalized groups this settler colony, I, as a Black person, will direct them specifically to my fellow Black people. Anyone else that identifies as marginalized but not Black is welcomed to consider them as well, of course:
What would life be for us if we refused to use schooling as a sieve for the fullness of our brilliance, beauty, and humanity? What would our depth and our height be if we did not intentionally or inadvertently use white supremacist, colonialist notions as our measuring stick? How much more space and time would we have to know and love ourselves, and to gain even clearer understandings of what being a free people really means? How much more of ourselves could we have? How much more of our communities could we have?
How much more of our more-ness could we be?
[i] A group cannot maintain its own supremacy while simultaneously maintaining true health or safety, after all. Establishing and maintaining the idea of your own supremacy is sickening work. One cannot do it and remain completely healthy and whole. One cannot school children toward White supremacy and expect any of those children to remain completely healthy and whole. But they – but we – can heal from it.
(While not an exhaustive list, these are texts to which I often refer when it comes to this topic.)
Anderson, J.D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Anchor Books.
Grande, S. (2015). “Mapping the terrain of Struggle: From genocide, colonization, and resistance to Red Power and Red Pedagogy.” In S. Grande (Ed.), Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, Tenth Anniversary Edition (pp. 15-34). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Grinde, D.A. (2004). “Taking the Indian out of the Indian: U.S. policies of ethnocide through education.” Wicazo Sa Review 19(2), Colonization/Decolonization, I, 25-32.
Harman, S. (1997). Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hartman, S. (2006). Lose your mother. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
King, J. and S. Wynter. (2005). “Race and our biocentric Belief system: An interview with Sylvia Wynter.” In J. King (Ed.), Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century (pp. 361-366). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lee, T.S. (2007). “‘If they want Navajo to be learned, then they should require it in all schools’: Navajo teenagers’ experiences, choices, and demands regarding Navajo language.” Wicazo Sa Review 22(1), 7-33.
Smith, A. (2010). Indigeneity, settler Colonialism, White supremacy. Global Dialogue 12(2). http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=488.
Sullivan, S. and N. Tuana, Eds. (2007). Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. New York: State University of New York Press.
Woods, C. (1998). Development arrested: The Blues and plantation power in the Mississippi Delta. London: Verso
Wynter, S. (2003). Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation — An argument. The New Centennial Review 3(3), 257-337.