How We Arrived Here: “We, the people, must redeem”

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

There is a clear but disturbing reason that those in power in the U.S. offer and speak to the rugged individualism myth, stirring antagonism toward “government” and “unions,” for example.

The collective is always more powerful than the individual—when the individuals realize it, when the individuals commit to the collaborative power of that collective.

Competition devours while collaboration lifts.

For public education (paralleling the criminal justice system and most public institutions), there is a long and entrenched history that is indistinguishable from here, now.

How we arrived here?

Fatalism.

Neutrality.

Compromise.

Objectivity.

These are the tools of the status quo of inequity.

In education, then, students, parents, communities, and educators have been victims of all four, but have also relinquished to them.

In education, as well, the very organizations (collectives) that could have saved us—unions; professional organizations; local, state, and federal government—instead embraced fatalism, neutrality, compromise, and objectivity.

Fatalism: “We can’t change this so let’s deal with it the best we can.”

Neutrality: “We are taking no position but will provide any support we can.”

Compromise: “Both sides must have a seat at the table.”

Objectivity: “Numbers don’t lie.”

Let us recognize:

Neutrality in times of great harm perpetuates great harm.

Compromise between inequity and equity is inequity.

Langston Hughes implores: “Let America be America again,” continuing:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

This is from 1935, but rings all too true today, 80 years later, as Hughes confronts: “O, let America be America again—/The land that never has been yet”—building to a final plea we have yet to heed:

We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

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