Monday, November 15, 2010

Education & Inequalities

The last three weeks have been difficult ones for me as an educator. I am now in my fourteenth year of teaching. A rough estimate of the number of students I have interacted with in my classes totals somewhere in the 2500’s. I do not consider myself, therefore, naïve to the struggles concerning education. However, all fourteen of my years have been confined to Colorado schools along the Front Range; furthermore, of the six institutions I have taught in, four of them are institutions of higher education; one is a small K-12 private school; and the last one is a public charter school. While I knew inequalities in education existed, that knowledge was always abstract. I now realize my abstract idea of the inequalities between institutions of education in America was sorely inaccurate. What I have not yet come to terms with is why those inequalities exist to the degree that they apparently do. This intellectual hurdle then, will serve as the “new fact” by which I attempt to support or negate the “old ideas” of Marx, Weber and Mills.

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and C.Wright Mills
“There is, even today, a ‘hidden’ population living more miserably than Americans are able to appreciate . . . . Behind the work of Marx was the driving animus of a desire to comprehend the inhumanity of people toward other people” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 270).

This is how Cuzzort and King choose to open their section on Marx, and it seems particularly fitting to borrow. Let’s begin with the examination of Marx’s idea concerning the separation of surplus wealth as it pertains to the discussion of the current state of our schools. At the state level, there is a per pupil distribution of surplus wealth. In addition to this distribution, there is also the additional taxation of property within districts. Taxation is a form of “legal force” to obtain the necessary monetary needs of a school district. And yet, it is also an optional application of legal forceful procedure in that members of a community may vote on that taxation. The higher the property taxes of a given area, the more surplus wealth the community will have to collect. This provides an intellectual reason for why inequalities may exist. Highly-populated affluent areas will have more to give than do sparsely and/or low-economic areas.

As Cuzzort and King suggest, this intellectual reasoning is without moral judgment. It is rather a working explanation of how the current inequities may have come into being. Now let’s complicate the matter with Weber’s ideas concerning bureaucracy. Some education theorists suggest that bureaucracy within the education system itself is partly to blame for the disproportionate distribution of wealth and resources between schools. Weber might say that school officials make a habit of siding with “the interests of the bureaucracy rather than the interests either of the individual or of the broader moral issues” (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg.251). Teacher unions might be characterized as just such a bureaucracy. It is obvious to see why teacher unions came to be and to what purpose they were meant to serve. However, they have evolved into an operating body which too often makes decisions that favor the idealized structure of the educational organization with little or no contemplation of individual factors or the larger moral implications of its actions. It is difficult to fire bad tenured teachers. Nearly impossible, in fact. When teacher unions back all tenured teachers regardless of individual performance they unjustly, and even immorally, jeopardize the schools as a whole. Inequalities between schools have to do with more than just facilities and resources—but with teachers as well. Well-funded districts attract a competitive workforce. Poorly-funded districts often have the misfortune of inheriting the non-competitive leftovers.

And finally, we must come to the contemplation of Mills theory of “status panic.” Given that we have the public educational structure we do, community members are well aware of which schools have the best reputations, and therefore, carry with them the highest prestige as we decorate our bumpers with slogans such as: My student is an Honor Student at Such-And-Such High. Of course, we all know that achieving honor-roll status at “Such-And-Such High” is much more desirable than achieving honor-roll status at say “So-And-So High.” Members of a community may inherit their “prestige from the capacity to identify” their neighborhood school as one “that does, in fact, have recognition,” thereby achieving a kind of status glow “from the real or imagined associations of [the] white-collar workers” whose children dominate the school (Cuzzort and King, 2002, pg. 370). And there we have it. Society itself reinforces the need for the inequalities so that we can satisfy our own misguided “status panic,” because elimination of those inequalities may just result in a kind of “profound disillusionment” whereby we would no longer be capable of discerning the value of our work against that of the blue-collar workers whose children are resigned to their own neighborhood schools.

Granted this refection is ending in a tone of anger not unlike that of Mills; however, I do not believe we can end there. Acknowledgment of the how’s and why’s ought to become the necessary means for synthesis, leading to a new state, using Marx’s theory of the dialectic. Thesis is the current state—creating its own antithesis (a growing population of concerned citizens who see the current state of educational affairs as unjust). We can only hope.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Child’s Passage into Adulthood

Should trigger fireworks in the night sky—
one splash of color for the way she jumped
and squealed in the contraband sprinkler
at that hole we rented down in Bessemer--
to memorialize the way she diaper-danced bass,
seeping in from lowriders parked out front—

There ought to be an expectant blast of light
and magic competing against a full moon.
At least one skyrocket for the soiled arms
and thinning back of the green hand-me-down sofa,
to make real the left behind impressions
of her constant to-and-fro climbs.

This transition merits Black Cat
volume. We should feel la vibraciones
in the cores of our chest cavities—
reactions físico
ought resonate.

So that, when we lie down
at night, we won't smart from
the silence this devastatingly,
thinking we missed the shower storm.

All those sparks
which fade
before our eyes
have time to adjust.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence in the Context of Interdependence

Most Americans will be watching the sky this evening. Multi-colored explosions will be set off in every state of our country today to commemorate our symbol of unity and our belief in the value of freedom. For some fortunate Americans this symbolism rings true, but it is still a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it? Unity for freedom? In order for us to stand up for our inalienable right to freedom, we must come together as a unit--we must co-mingle; we must stand as individuals comprising a group. Once an essential mass is reached, we are formidable.

But, as anyone who has tried living with others will tell you, the uniting part is difficult. The co-mingling transgression from independent individuals to co-dependent unit brings with it its own array of complexities.

So, who might the commemorative symbolism of freedom in its purest use of the term ring true for? Perhaps someone who is young, healthy, wealthy, single, and who has very little family--and the family he or she has must also be wealthy and mentally stable. So, like I said, this sense of the term 'freedom' will apply to only a few.

For the rest of us, we are commemorating freedom from a structure of government--because we have chosen a co-dependent way of government over a government with one symbolic leader who dictates our way of living. And by that, what is really meant by "way of living" is "our means to attaining education, wealth, and property and means to exercising religious faith." That's not so bad. In fact, for most of us, it is the best possible option--and so, we watch the skies tonight. We will barbecue and bring together our family members--we will stand next to possibly a thousand or more other individuals, crowding ourselves onto thick green patches of lawn so we can bend our heads upward and feel a a sense of awe.

And though I hate to put a damper on such a patriotic image, I must contemplate this co-dependency for a minute. Why young, healthy, wealthy and single with little family? Each layer of those identity markers symbolizes its own little orb of freedom . . . but, if you are older, you find yourself exercising fewer freedoms; unhealthy, well that's self-explanatory; poverty-stricken . . . you get the picture.

Let us again, on this day meant to commemorate not just our freedom from tyranny but the symbolic values of our county, think about the message inscribed on the base of our Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these — the homeless, tempest-tossed — to me;
I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.

This is no longer the true message of our country, is it? Is this a symbolic belief we still hold dear? No.

The huddled masses that will cram themselves alongside one another this evening will look around them and will judge many of the people present there alongside them as foreigners. They may have been born here--their parents may have been born here, but to their fellow-man standing there it makes little difference if they too are "yearning to breathe free" because our country has become a land too full. We are no longer a Golden Door. We believe the homeless should seek refuge elsewhere . . . and if they have come to this country "tempest-tossed," they had better be carrying the proper documentation along with them.

But this is not only a statement of nationality. It is also a reflection about our nation's new-found inability to value individuality. It's true. It is sad, and it is true. We have states enacting laws requiring authorities to hunt out illegals. We have a candidate for governor openly telling people that if they want to live in his state, they need to speak his language. And now we are even attempting to enact laws that would send American-born citizens the message that if they are born here, but their parents do not have legal US citizenry-status then we will DENY them their own birthright citizenship.

And so, we return to the context of inter-dependence. The United States of America is supposed to stand for its name--a nation made up of states that are united in their commitment to the value of individual freedoms. In order to remain a united nation, a formidable unit, we must force ourselves to look up tonight and re-evaluate our commitment to the symbolism of the explosions within our own hearts. Do we still have it in us to look up and feel the sense of awe we are at liberty to feel?