We Can, and We Must

I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert)

Pamela Cantor offers her medical perspective to the education reform debate that tends to focus on high-poverty schools disproportionately serving  black and brown children:

The argument that says we can’t fix education until we fix poverty is a false one [1]. We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives, but we can “fix” the impact of stress on the developing brain. In fact, we have to. We can and must teach schools and teachers how to do this now.

Lurking beneath the good intentions of this charge, however, is the false dichotomy of fatalism that is common among a wide range of education reformers.

For children living in poverty—a stressful and toxic life of unjust scarcity—this “we” has chosen simultaneously to concede that “we” can do nothing about poverty, racism, and inequity, but those impoverished children have been sentenced to both their lives of poverty and then formal education that replicates the stress of the lives (which “we” demand they set aside somehow just by walking through the doors of schools) through mantras of “no excuses,” manufactured lessons in “grit,” and race- and class-biased high-stakes testing that doubles down on stress and anxiety.

The false dichotomy of fatalism has built a world in which privileged adults with the power to tolerate this world or to change this world are afforded excuses (“We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives”), but powerless and impoverished children are dehumanized with the demand of “no excuses.”

“I have always rejected fatalism,” writes Paulo Freire:

I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing. The recently proclaimed death of history, which symbolizes the death of utopia, of our right to dream, reinforces without doubt the claims that imprison our freedom. This makes the struggle for the restoration of utopia all the more necessary. Educational practice itself, as an experience in humanization, must be impregnated with this ideal.

Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger confesses and embraces human resignation, the fatalism that the world happens to us, that a world in which we are alive or dead is no different, that a world of freedom or prison is simply something “we” get used to.

Margaret Atwood offers a more detailed and darkly disturbing vision in The Handmaid’s Tale and Offred/June, who has been shaped a different woman in her lives before and after the fall of the world “we” know and the brave new world of Gilead.

The world “we” have created is neither existential fiction nor speculative dystopian fiction; the world “we” have created is far more terrible.

“Why exactly was I sad?” asks Ta-Nehisi Coates in Letter to My Son, as he confronts a “failed” guest appearance on a news show:

I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

July 5, 2015, is in too many ways ample evidence not of celebration but disappointment, one grounded in the exact document of declaration that prompts annual flag waving each July in the United States of America.

As “we” rebelled from the British crown, “we” pronounced to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—excluding black humans shackled by slavery and those second-class humans, women.

Thomas Jefferson had faced slavery in the original draft of this declaration, but due to the pressure of Southern heritage and the Invisible Hand of the all-mighty market, “we” included only some men, despite the rhetoric otherwise.

More than 100 years passed before the rhetoric of law approached the apparent original intent of declaring independence, but the clock continues to tick as “we” throw up our hands when “we” don’t have them covering our eyes.

Coates above quotes James Baldwin because Coates recognizes in his own life as well as the life of his son that as Baldwin declared:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first part of the problem is how to control the rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.

“Indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country” is the fatalism “we” embody each time “we” claim nothing can be done about poverty, racism, or inequity—each time “we” ask more of children, the poor, the marginalized and dehumanized than of ourselves.

“We,” I regret, have chosen a resignation and paralysis that benefits the “we” “who believe that they are white,” as Coates channels Baldwin.

Freire believed, however, “we” can transform into we by “reject[ing] fatalism.”

We can, and we must.

[1] While I believe this first comment is a straw man argument (since many are calling for both equity-based reform of society and schools, and this smacks of implying some are using poverty as an excuse), Cantor should consider that Martin Luther King Jr. asserted: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

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