September 25 — 11:33 am, 2002

Our children need an education that affirms who they are

Adapted from a speech to the School District’s “Renewing Our Commitment to Diversity” conference, May 4, 2002.

I never thought I would live in times like these.

These are times when the things which we have always taken for granted as part of our common wealth are under attack, being diminished and erased. These are times when one of the most basic aspects of our common wealth – the collective responsibility to act as a civil society to care for the future of our children – this most sacred of charges – is being sold to the lowest bidder.

These are times when our youth, who recognize injustice and have the heart and conviction to fight for themselves and their brothers and sisters, are forbidden to protest, are held silent under threat of injunctions, lawsuits and $50,000 fines.

These are times that require us to find heart, to stand with our children and recognize that a commitment requires risk, sacrifice, and courage.

At a time of ever increasing inequity, we need to understand clearly that one size does not fit all. Our children – the children of the dispossessed, the children who are “othered” – need a different kind of education. One that affirms them for who they are. An education that teaches about social justice and about liberation. An education that gives them the knowledge they need to change the world.

An educational system built on high-stakes standardized tests will never give children what they need to think critically. An educational system built on inequity in funding, which bases all decisions on test scores, is cruel. It is an increasingly transparent agenda designed to strip our curriculum of diversity and critical thought and replace it with endless test preparation while simultaneously ignoring the question of funding inequity by pretending that funding doesn’t matter. We need to be clear – the current agenda is deliberate and diabolical.

Right now, the goal of education is not to learn, to be more fully human. The goal is not liberation. The goal is to get a job, to earn money, and then to spend that money. To become consumers of things we don’t need. The goal is to sustain mindless consumption so we can consume the resources of the rest of the world without thought of the cost to our humanity and to our environment.

We are teaching our children to consume quantity, not quality. To raise hyper-individualism above all else. To forget collective responsibility. And we are modeling this in our acquiescence to inequity and to the moral disgrace in what our government has given to our children in this, the richest country in the world.

If we continue to envision education as nothing more than preparation for an economy structured and based on an inequitable society, education will forever be meaningless for the children of our city. But if we view education as an arena for learning liberation, for changing the structures that oppress us, for envisioning and then working for a world that is more equitable and just, then we stand a chance for engaging our young people in recreating their worlds.

Sometimes, we are so immersed in our day-to-day struggles that we have a hard time seeing the bigger picture, the pattern, the master plan. But if we step back for a moment, we can realize that there is now an increasing push to dispossess the people of the cities.

We create gated communities. We invest in tourists, commuters and downtown cores that support professionals who either have no children or can afford private schooling. Our city has spent some $2 billion in these few years on just two projects – stadiums and a glitzy art center. And this is just money for the facilities, not the maintenance and administration. Meanwhile, we in education are told we will get a real uplift this yearr – 40 schools are getting paint. We need to be clear – the fight for our schools is a fight for the future of our city.

What does it mean to renew our commitment to diversity? What does a commitment require? Gandhi and King both left us tremendous legacies of commitment. Of standing up in the face of injustice and saying, “No more.” Of reaching deep inside to find the courage to resist.

We also cannot be apologists. We need to say clearly that our schools have failed the children. We need to call out bad practice and settle for nothing less than the best we have to give to all our children.

Our children need us now more than ever. They need us to set the example, to provide moral leadership and courage. To break the silence and say that the inequity which they are being offered is absolutely unacceptable. To say as adults that we will no longer allow them to bear the brunt of this charade while their fundamental human right to a decent education is denied. To say as professionals that we will not turn our backs on the type of educational experience we know will create compassionate, creative and critical thinkers in the name of performance on high-stakes tests.

Only then can we say we are renewing our commitment to diversity and to our children.

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