Unsweet Tea: On Tokenism, Whiteness, and the Promise of Culturally Relevant Teaching

I stood as I have many times in front of the two tea dispensers at a chain sub sandwich shop. But this time, I was suddenly struck with the choice I always make—the “unsweet tea.”

Medium Freshly-Brewed Iced Tea Unsweetened

I was born, raised, and have lived my entire life in the Deep South. My mother made tea that would rival pancake syrup and trained my sister and me in the meticulous ritual of steeping tea bags and then pouring the hot tea over a huge mound of processed sugar.

The tea pot was dedicated only to steeping tea, and the tea jar and the giant plastic sugar spoon were sacred as well.

Once I left home, my mother flirted with sun tea, but the syrup-sweet tea of my childhood later became my defining feature of what could rightfully call itself The South. When ordering tea, The South hands you sweetened ice tea; hot tea or tea without sugar are not even mentioned, or considered.

So with a great deal of shame, I must admit that only a week or so ago I was truck with the absurdity that is “unsweet tea,” which of course is just tea.

The “unsweet” is a necessity only because “sweet tea” in South Carolina is the norm, the default, what has been rendered invisible and simultaneously right.

All across the U.S., then, “unsweet tea” in The South is a less controversial entry point into how whiteness works as the norm, the invisible, and the right.

Whiteness as the normal and as the invisible drives the greatest bulk of privilege in the U.S., but once that whiteness and privilege are exposed, confronted, white fragility is the response, as Robin DiAngelo (2011) details:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

White fragility as a response to naming and confronting privilege as well as racism is extremely powerful because that response is clinging to an entrenched norm with incredibly long and anchored roots.

Despite claims that formal public education works to change students and thus reform society, schools most often reflect and perpetuate privilege and all sorts of inequities and norms. Thus, education—teachers/teaching, curriculum, testing, discipline, dress codes, etc.—tends to work in the service of whiteness.

Just as whiteness must be exposed and confronted in society, education that is liberatory and life- as well as society-changing must be willing to commit, as Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, to culturally relevant teaching:

A hallmark for me of a culturally relevant teacher is someone who understands that we’re operating in a fundamentally inequitable system [emphasis added] — they take that as a given. And that the teacher’s role is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?

Instead, Ladson-Billings laments:

I find that teachers often shy away from critical consciousness because they’re afraid that it’s too political [emphasis added]. A perfect example for me is some years ago when Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, that district in Ferguson sent out a directive that teachers not talk about this. This is exactly what kids are talking about every single day, because at night when they go home and turn on the news, their streets are flooded with protesters, and they need an adult to help make sense of this. But the school has said, “No, you can’t talk about this.”

One result of teachers and schools self-regulating in the service of whiteness, privilege, and inequity is tokenism—viewing culturally relevant teaching through a deficit lens isolated on Black and Brown students or students living in poverty; and selecting curriculum, materials (texts, programs, etc.), and events that highlight diversity and multiculturalism,

but [as Ladson-Billings explains] what research has found is just changing the content is never going to be enough, if you are pedagogically doing the very same things: Read the chapter, answer the questions at the back of the book, come take the test. You really haven’t attended to the deep cultural concerns. What happens is school districts want you to do just that — teach exactly the way you’ve been teaching, just change the information [emphasis added]. That does little or nothing to increase engagement, and it certainly doesn’t help kids feel any more empowered about what they’re learning.

Whiteness, like sweet tea in The South, is ubiquitous in the U.S.—but whiteness desires to remain invisible as it drives privilege for some and further entrenches inequity for others. White fragility is the only consequence of rendering whiteness visible so that it can be eradicated.

This confrontation of whiteness is the duty of white people, and that must not be dulled by tokenism and self-regulation.

Recognizing that “unsweet tea” is just tea serves as a powerful example of the importance of naming as a first step to exposing in a journey to eradicating whiteness and privilege.

Genuine and robust culturally relevant teaching does offer a promise to move beyond whiteness and to quell white fragility, as Ladson-Billings argues:

When we do this work, there are certain baselines that people have to have. Number one, they have to believe that racism is real, and number two, they have to believe that they may be acting on it….

The most segregated group of kids in the country are white kids. We never refer to their schools as segregated. We refer to black and brown kids as going to segregated schools.

So, integration in which kids of different races and ethnicities have an opportunity to fully participate in the life of the school is what I would hope to see.

De-centering whiteness proves to be a bitter drink for white people who are too often compelled to respond with white fragility or tokenism.

Now, whiteness must seek ways to work against itself, making whiteness visible, centering it one last time in order to recenter our society and schools in ways that are equitable.


See Also

The female price of male pleasure

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.

Educational Accountability and the Science of Scapegoating the Powerless

Several years ago when I submitted an Op-Ed to the largest newspaper in my home state of South Carolina, the editor rejected the historical timeline I was using for state standards and testing, specifically arguing that accountability had begun in the late 1990s and not in the early 1980s as I noted.

Here’s the interesting part.

I began teaching in South Carolina in the fall of 1984, the first year of major education reform under then-governor Richard Riley. That reform included a significant teacher pay raise, extended days of working for teachers, and the standards-testing regime that would become normal for all public education across the U.S.

In fact, SC’s accountability legislation dates back to the late 1970s (I sent her links to all this).

As a beginning teacher, the only public schooling I ever knew was teaching to standards and high-stakes tests by identifying standards on my lesson plans and implementing benchmark assessments throughout the academic year to document I was teaching what was mandated as a bulwark against low student tests scores. State testing, including punitive exit exams, pervaded everything about being an English teacher.

Yet, an editor, herself a career journalist, was quick to assume my expertise as a classroom practitioner and then college professor of education was mistaken.

This is a snapshot of how mainstream media interact with education as a topic and educators as professionals.

I am reminded of that experience over and over in fact as I read media coverage of education. Take for example this from Education Week, Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How, which has the thesis:

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

Two key elements of this article stand out: The new scapegoat in proclaiming education a failure is teacher education and the go-to failure is always about a lack of “science” in teacher education.

This article on motivation is following a media template well worn recently about students in the U.S. can’t read because teachers are not taught the “science of reading,” you guessed it, in their teacher education programs.

As I detailed in a Twitter thread, scapegoating teacher education has many flaws, and my experience and expertise as a teacher educator for almost two decades, following almost two decades as a classroom teacher, inform my understanding of how finding scapegoats for educational failure during the accountability era is fool’s gold.

How has the accountability era gone in terms of where the accountability and locus of power lie, then?

In the 1980s and 1990s, the accountability mechanisms focused on holding students accountable (think exit exams) and schools accountable (student test scores often translated into school rankings or grades, designating schools as “failing,” for example).

Keep in mind that students had no power in that process, and that schools were merely agents of the standards being implemented, again outside the power dynamics of those mandates being determined.

With No Child Left Behind spawned by the false claims of the Texas Miracle, the accountability era was greatly accelerated, including a creeping sense that the process wasn’t improving education but it was punishing students (lower graduation rates due to exit exams) and demonizing schools (most high-poverty and high-racial minority schools were labeled as “failing”).

By the administration of Barak Obama, with education policy under another false narrative (the Chicago Miracle) and false ambassador with no background in education other than appointments (Arne Duncan), the scapegoating took a turn—the problem, went the new message, was “bad” teachers and the solution was not holding students or schools accountable for test scores but those teachers (the era of value-added methods [VAM]).

As some have noted and documented, teacher bashing increased and then prompted a backlash (see magazine covers from Time for a great series of artifacts on this); it seems that VAM proved to be a false metric for accountability and that maybe teachers were not the problem after all.

With the scapegoat role now vacant, the media have discovered a new candidate, teacher education.

Let’s here recognize that once again the power context is way off in who is determining the accountability and who is being held accountable. For the most part, teachers and teacher educators are relatively powerless agents who are mandated to implement standards and assessments that they do not create and often do not endorse as valid.

Now consider another really important reason accountability in education is deeply flawed: The constant misguided scapegoating of powerless agents in formal teaching and learning is a distraction from the actual causal sources for educational challenges.

Fun fact: Decades of research from educators and education scholars have detailed that out-of-school factors overwhelmingly determine measurable student outcomes, some estimates as high as 80+% and most scholars agreeing on 60%. Teacher quality’s impact on measurable student achievement has been identified repeatedly as only about 10-15%.

Yet, the entire accountability era since the early 1980s has focused on in-school reforms only (scapegoating along the way), while tossing up hands and embracing harsh ideologies such as “no excuses” practices that argue teachers fail students with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and students fail because they lack “grit” or a growth mindset.

Many of us have doggedly argued for social context reform, addressing socio-economic reform first and then reforming education along equity (not accountability) lines next, or concurrently. Many of us have also demonstrated that “grit” and growth mindset have racist and classist groundings that are harmful.

For those positions, we have been demonized and marginalized for decades.

So imagine my surprise when, first, the tide shifted on teacher bashing (I have 34 posts on my blog discrediting VAM and dozens on misunderstanding teacher quality) and then these articles: Better Schools Won’t Fix America (The Atlantic), The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? (Education Week), and Unchartered territory: 2020 Democrats back away from charter schools (MSN).

My blog posts, however, on social context reform and poverty (157), “no excuses” reform (70), and the mirage of charter schools (80) have either mostly been ignored or are harshly (even angrily) rejected. Like my interaction with the editor discussed in the opening, my experience and expertise as an educator and education scholar have held almost no weight with those in power pr the media.

The media and journalists as generalists seem deeply resistant to learning a lesson they create over and over.

Take for a current example Karin Wulf’s examination of Naomi Wolff and Cokie Roberts; Wulf herself is a historian:

It’s been a tough few weeks for amateur history. First, journalist Naomi Wolf discovered on live radio that she had misinterpreted key historical terms in her new book, “Outrage,” leading her to draw the wrong conclusions. A week later, journalist Cokie Roberts, too, got a quick smackdown when she claimed on NPR that she couldn’t find any incidence of abortion advertised in 19th century newspapers, a claim quickly disproved by historians.

Wolf and Roberts fell victim to a myth widely shared with the American public: that anyone can do history. Whether it’s diving into genealogy or digging thorough the vast troves of digital archives now online, the public has an easy way into the world of the past. And why would they imagine it takes any special training? After all, the best-selling history books are almost always written by non-historians, from conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to journalists like Wolf and Roberts.

Wulf’s confronting “that anyone can do history” immediately prompted in me my experience when I first moved from teaching high school English (and adjuncting at several colleges, including being a lead instructor in a university-based summer institute of the National Writing Project) to higher education. My university was debating a curriculum change that included dropping traditional composition courses (popularly known as English 101 and English 102) for first-year seminars.

One of those first-year seminars was to be writing-intensive, and the argument being posed was that any professor could teach writing.

This change passed, and the English department and professors were relieved of sole responsibility for teaching writing.

Over the next eight years or so, the university learned a really disturbing lesson (one I could have shared in the beginning): “Any professor can teach writing” is false.

As Wulf argues about history, with writing and education, experience and expertise matter.

So here I sit again, writing over and over that the media are getting reading wrong, that scapegoating teacher education is missing the real problem.

How many years will it take until I see articles “discovering” these facts as if no one with experience and expertise ever raised the issue?

School Rankings as Racist, Classist Propaganda

On 20 May 2019, the Charleston Post and Courier offered this: Here’s what it takes for a SC school to be the No. 1 public high school in the US. And here is what is newsworthy:

The news was out before the sound of the school announcement system crackled through the halls: Academic Magnet High, long regarded as the top-performing high school in South Carolina, had climbed to No. 1 in a national ranking of public high schools.

Just three days later, The State (Columbia, SC) reported: Richland 1’s elite elementary school is also its whitest and least impoverished. This coverage explains:

Like all parents, Sara McBride just wanted her son to get the best possible education.

That’s why she tried to get her son into Richland 1’s highest-ranked school: Brockman Elementary. A school where class sizes are small and teachers’ advanced degrees and experience nets them a higher average salary.

The South Carolina Department of Education provides for 1270 public schools in the state a Poverty Index; for 2018, Academic Magnet High is the #1 least impoverished school in the entire state, and Brockman Elementary is #57, placing these two celebrated schools in the top 4.5% of all schools in the state in terms of extremely low poverty as well as disproportionate racial imbalances (Brockman is 75% white and AMH has only 3.5% black enrollment).

SC as a state ranks in the bottom ten of high-poverty states (about an 18% poverty rate) and has a relatively high percentage of black citizens (28%) as well as about 5-6% Hispanic/Latinx.

Across the U.S., there are some harsh facts about measurable student outcomes and demographics of students being served. Race, socioeconomic status, first language, and special needs are all highly correlated with those measurable outcomes.

High poverty, majority-minority schools with high percentages of ELL and special needs students have historically low test scores.

Therefore, these rankings and labels such as “elite” are gross misrepresentations of school quality.

Imagine if we had some hospitals that admitted only well patients and then ranked those against the hospitals serving curably sick patients as well as hospitals only admitting the terminally ill.

Can you guess how they would rank if we used health of the patients as the data for ranking?

This is more than just a problem of semantics, but to be blunt, these schools are not elite; they are selective—one overtly (AMHS) and one indirectly (BE).

These rankings and then the media coverage that perpetuates the rankings mask some powerful and essential facts that if confronted could help drive substantial social and educational reform that would serve students in SC much more directly.

First, public schools are primarily a reflection of the communities they serve; high-poverty communities have high-poverty schools, and both the communities and those schools suffer under enormous burdens related to a wide array of inequities linked to racism and poverty.

Second, schools almost never change the burdens of those communities. In fact, formal schooling has structures that tend to perpetuate and even intensify the inequities of high-poverty and racial minority communities—inequitable discipline policies, tracking, inequitable teacher assignment, inability to attract and retain experienced and certified teachers.

Magnet (AMHS) and choice (BE) mechanisms work to increase inequity because affluent and privileged students are over-served while poor students, racial minorities, ELL, and special needs students are systematically excluded through direct and invisible structures (choice, for example, often requires parents who can provide transportation and the time needed for transportation).

Conversely, poor students and racial minorities are over-identified as having special needs while also being under-identified in other sorting structures such as gifted and talented.

In-school inequities also include that wealthy and white student are more often served by experienced and certified teachers while sitting in classes with lower student/teacher ratios (typically correlated with being in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tracks). High-poverty students and racial minority students experience just the opposite—inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers and high student/teacher ratios as well as more remedial and test-prep courses.

Continuing to rank schools while also maintaining a disproportionate concern for narrow data (test scores) serves only to misrepresent how well students are learning, how well schools are serving their students, and how our policies and practices are in fact guaranteeing success and failure for children born into privilege or disadvantage through no effort or fault of their own.

The real news in the two articles above is that SC has a long history of political malfeasance—a lack of political will—and a compliant media that simply refuse to label racism and classism for what they are.

U.S. Education a Scam and a Rigged Game

iceberg on water

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

Many years ago while I was a high school English teacher, I began to advocate strongly against the influence of the SAT, and all standardized testing. One of the few sources for that criticism was work by Alfie Kohn, whose publications received pretty harsh resistance from the testing industry.

One of my best friends and colleagues while teaching high school left for higher education before I did, and as I would several years later, found himself teaching at a selective liberal arts college. He taught education foundations, where he included some of my work and Kohn’s confronting the failures of testing and the SAT specifically.

What my friend and former colleague discovered is that students at a selective liberal arts college did not receive well his message or the evidence about the inequity in high-stakes standardized testing and college admission exams.

As the recent college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, is gradually unmasking, people with privilege are powerfully invested in proving their merit—even if that veneer has to be manufactured at great expense.

I have been very successful at every level of formal education, attaining what is ominously called a “terminal degree.” Along that journey, I worked very hard, and simultaneously, the journey was nearly effortless because it required skills that I have mostly been quite adept at completing.

As well, I have been a professional educator for 35-plus years, at both the K-12 and higher education levels, including public and private schools.

In those experiences, I have been afforded incredible privilege because I am white and male. But I also have been often at arm’s length from that privilege in some ways because of my working-class background and my ideological alienation from my personal and professional communities.

Most difficult has been that despite my educational accomplishments and career as an educator, I have witnessed and then argued that while formal education is often framed as powerful in terms of how it shapes society and people (the “great equalizer” and “game changer” mantras), the reality of K-12 and higher education in the U.S. is that they mostly reflect and reinforce our inequities along racial, economic, and gender lines.

With the so-called college admissions scandal before us, I hope we can have larger discussions of what the purpose of education is and how access to education must be as sacred as what happens once students enter school.

The scandal exposes that education is not a game changer, but a marker for privilege. The wealthy are always branding, always seeking ways to be associated with the aura of quality.

Wealthy celebrities needed a daughter to attend USC for the prestige that attending Arizona State did not offer. This is no outlier, but an extreme example of how the wealthy perpetuate and are drawn to “elite” institutions, whether it be selective pre-schools, private K-12 academies, or the Ivey League.

Some experiences I have noticed throughout my teaching career include a misunderstanding of teaching and learning compounded at selective (mislabeled as “elite”) colleges by a wish among faculty to take credit for the existing so-called excellence in students admitted.

Let me explain with some historical context first.

The concept of universal public education in the U.S. is expressed very well as an ideal by the deeply flawed elitist Thomas Jefferson in the following passages:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

I… [proposed] three distinct grades of education, reaching all classes. 1. Elementary schools for all children generally, rich and poor. 2. Colleges for a middle degree of instruction, calculated for the common purposes of life and such as should be desirable for all who were in easy circumstances. And 3d. an ultimate grade for teaching the sciences generally and in their highest degree… The expenses of [the elementary] schools should be borne by the inhabitants of the county, every one in proportion to his general tax-rate. This would throw on wealth the education of the poor. (p. 791)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Door, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)

The recent college admissions scandal is but the tip of the iceberg of privilege that has already sunk the Titanic plan detailed above by Jefferson, himself an original elitist unable to make his ideal real.

So, since these lofty claims established formal education in the U.S., we have instead embraced a deficit ideology—framing students needing to learn as a flaw of the student and a burden on the teacher (misunderstanding teaching and learning)—and creating formal education as a mechanism of enculturation (institutions that either label and shame those deemed deficient or label and praise those deemed elite).

If we pull back from the scandal and how this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wealthy gaming everything along a spectrum from inequitable and unethical to outright criminal, we must also interrogate that we have failed the ideals of not only universal public education (K-16), but also the potential of education to revolutionize society and individuals.

Many students who need that ideal education the most are disenfranchised from or disillusioned by formal schooling while many privileged students are deeply invested in the game of formal schooling even as the education itself mostly washing over and by them.

In both cases, education is a scam and a rigged game.

While we are hand wringing over the college admissions scam, my home state of South Carolina has rejected provisions in a new education bill calling to lower some student/teacher ratios, claiming such mandates are too expensive.

However, in public schools across the state, mostly white and affluent students sit daily in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes with incredibly low student/teacher ratios, classes often next door to so-called regular classes at and above state maximums for student/teacher loads.

Inequity serving the wealthy and white and mis-serving everyone else—this is a feature of our systems and institutions, including schools, not a glitch—as some seem to suggest about the admissions scandal.

Today, in 2019, formal education in the U.S. is mostly a disturbing snapshot of how we are a people mostly using rhetoric to hide the power and momentum of privilege.

There is really nothing shocking about the admissions scandal, unless you want to pretend it is something other than the tip of a very old and very large iceberg of privilege that defines the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.