Living in New Orleans, I constantly marvel at the many “small world” moments the city offers. Today, an interesting article was sent to me, written by noted education reformer Dr. Andre Perry. In typical NOLA fashion, I had recently met Dr. Perry at an event here in town. As two men in the education space committed to improving educational outcomes for children, particularly those that come from poor and minority communities, we have much in common.
In his article, which can be read in its entirety here, Dr. Perry urges us to “create a system rooted in the people who need change the most. Let’s adopt a philosophy centered on black and brown people.” Dr. Perry’s assertion that we need a new type of system is grounded in his belief that the “bedrock of our education system is white supremacy and patriarchy.” While certainly provocative and thought provoking as a concept, I think it misses the real issue: the operative motivation behind the creation of our education system was largely an economic one.
Years of scholarship have accurately identified that our education system was designed to support and reinforce capitalism. Those who owned the capital (wealthy people) wanted to ensure a steady stream of appropriately educated labor (poor people), whom they could employ to earn the maximum return on their capital. Put more bluntly, our education system was designed to facilitate the exploitation of poor people by wealthy owners of capital.
Non-whites and women weren’t even part of the original equation. They were excluded from the system, and as such, the “system” wasn’t about them. Years later when they were added to the system, they were subject to the same constraints and challenges as the poor, white males who were the intended recipients of this education.
This isn’t to say that non-whites and women have benefited under the current system; in fact, they have not. However, the reason has less to do with the system being created to support and promote white supremacy and patriarchy and more to do with the fact that unless you are wealthy, the way our education system has evolved means it will fail you. “White supremacy and patriarchy” are highly charged words and steer the conversation towards race and gender, when the conversation should be about economic empowerment…which, if done right, solves many of the issues around race and gender.
The article does not put forth a real alternative to our current education system, which is frustrating. Dr. Perry simply says that if you can build a system for white males you should be able to build a system for black people based on Afrocentric philosophies – an alternative that black people can define. What does this mean? Who builds this system? What IS this system? How is it different from the current system? What are Afrocentric philosophies, and how do they differ from Eurocentric philosophies? Do we have any examples of such a system? As with many critiques of the education system, no viable alternative is outlined or proposed.
Dr. Perry also referenced a well known quote by Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” While true in one sense, an alternative construct could be: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, but they can be used to build a different house.”
This is the root of my perspective on the world. I am not so much interested in burning down the master’s house as I am interested in learning how he acquired his wealth, and building a house of my own. Much easier said than done of course, but inherently optimistic. It’s my opinion that the master’s knowledge can be learned, replicated, and put to my own use.
I believe in choice. I believe in public education. I also believe that the most unjust aspect of our current education system is in how it is funded – locally, by the tax dollars of the people who live in the community in which the school exists, which means that poor people will always have inferior schools. This is a constitutional mandate, and much like the 2nd amendment, I don’t think it is going to change anytime soon. Until it does, I believe we need to continually tweak the system that we have, to make it better, to make it more equitable and to make it more likely that brown and black people get an opportunity to sit at the economic table and earn a decent living.
I am not interested in dismantling capitalism. I believe in capitalism. I am okay with an education system that explicitly supports and perpetuates capitalism. I am primarily interested in ensuring that women and brown and black people get their fair share of the spoils.
That is why I do what I do. I believe that if we reform teacher preparation and training, along with a host of other things (teacher pay, school funding, hiring, testing/standards) we can prepare more young girls, and black and brown students, to graduate from high school, prepared to go to college or directly enter a 21st century workforce.
If we can do this in my lifetime, I will consider our system to be vastly improved.