The Problem

Problem Overview

In short, students are hurting.

Our formal system of education has been relatively unchanged over the last 150 years. Therefore, we (as teachers) cannot envision how to improve our professional practices without first understanding how that history has shaped the modern-day purpose of education.

150 years ago, the landscape of the United States was radically shifting toward new ways of organizing the social order to institutionalize systems of power and wealth. Below are some of the key events that took place at the turn of the twentieth century to institutionalize social oppression:

    • The population of the U.S. was divided into two groups, white and non-white. Full citizenship was exclusive to whites, as was voting rights, the rights to sit on a jury, and the right to invoke the law for personal protection.
    • The industrial revolution and westward expansion forced poor whites and people of color to the most marginalized ranks in the capitalist ladder. This institutional system of economic oppression was enforced in classrooms where only students with social privilege (wealthy whites) were prepared for positions of leadership. Further, the capitalist economic model ensured that institutional leaders worked together toward a single shared goal: acquire more wealth and power.
  •  All people of color and poor white immigrants were forcibly assimilated into the “American way of life.”  In short, any person who hoped to defy capitalist oppression and improve their social position was forced to adopt and perform the social values of the white elite. In turn, students and workers were forced to reject, even condemn, their home cultures and practices upon entering the classroom, the workplace, or even the grocery store.

Over the last century, little has changed to challenge these systems of power that were strategically embedded into society from its modern-day conception. Below I offer three of the biggest problems in education today stemming from these systems of oppression institutionalized decades ago.

antique, classroom, desk
globe, world, earth
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classroom, school, education

As white women, we feel at home within the lifestyle and values of the “American way.” This is because our families were incorporated into positions of citizenship and protection very early in modern-day history. Our families were also best positioned to trade-in our variations on European ethnic traditions to benefit from the social security of assimilating the values of the white-supremacist elite.

Additionally, white women found comfort in assuming the role of the teacher. We found value in the praise we received for our abilities to bring students into our classrooms, educate them on what it means to be American, and then send them off to assume their appropriate position within the white-supremacist, capitalist, social order.

The trick is that for white women, this all feels “normal.” Over the last century, capitalist oppression has worked so effectively that white women now see scathing injustices across racial groups as the way education and society are meant to be. As we teach assimilation, we expect students to embrace the lessons (even if it assures their continued oppression), and when students falter in their success, it is easy for us to chuck it up to the student’s personal failures.

Our internal voice that privileges whiteness at the expense the lives, cultures, and well-being of our students of color is termed: implicit bias.

Implicit biases are subconcious expectations we hold regarding the behaviors of our students. Such belief systems that are informed by implicit biases include:

  • expectations of classroom behavior
  • perceptions of hostility and violence
  • assumptions of innocence and accountability
  • expectations of intelligence and academic performance

Below are some key points regarding implicit bias from scholars in the field:

Individual racism encompasses the explicit or implicit bias that plays out in interpersonal spheres. Though in the Trump era we see a burgeoning of overt racism, contemporary individual racism mostly manifests as implicit bias occurring when a person rejects stereotypes on conscious levels yet holds onto them on unconscious levels. Implicit bias is more insidious than explicit bias because it drives out behavior while we are completely unaware (Davis, 2019, p. 33).

We label the beliefs we have about social groups “stereotypes” and the attitudes we have about them “prejudice.” Whether bad or good, whether justified or unjustified, our beliefs and attitudes can become so strongly associated with the category that that are automatically triggered, affecting our behavior and decision-making (Eberhardt, 2019, p. 31).

Our findings show that what we perceive is influenced not only by the labels we are provided but by our own attitudes about the rigidity of categories. Although we tend to think about seeing an objective as straightforward, how and what we see can be heavily shaped by our own mind-set (Eberhardt, 2019, p. 28).

For students of color, the intense pressure to assimilate white-supremacist values is a form of systemic oppression. First, the capitalist social order is rigged to privilege those who are white and wealthy. And further, to maintain that privilege indefinitely. Therefore, poor whites and people of color have been forcibly trapped into their social positions as exploited labor living in poverty. As a result, school curriculum is not designed to uplift students but rather to indoctrinate them into their roles as docile, passive, and complacent workers. Further, the campaign led by whites to terrorize people of color into assimilation has been so violent and all consuming that many diverse communities have lost their cultural traditions. Or, for others, those traditions have been solely preserved through centuries of oral storytelling and artistry.

The cumulative harm committed against students of color through modern-day schooling is termed: subtractive schooling.

Below is formal definition for the term (as introduced by Valenzuela [1999] in her groundbreaking analysis of Mexican American student well-being):

Schools subtract resources from youth in two major ways. First, it dismisses their definition of education which is not only thoroughly grounded in Mexican culture, but also approximates the optimal definition of education advanced by caring theorists. Second, subtractive schooling encompasses subtractive assimilation policies and practices that are designed to divest Mexican students of their culture and language. A key consequence of these subtractive elements of schooling is the erosion of students’ cultural capital in the presence and absence of academically oriented networks among immigrant and U.S. born youth (Valenzuela, 1999, p. 2)

What is discipline? At the time of the industrial revolution, whites were required to adopt a new way of being. In factories of mass-production, the value of an individual was determined by their ability to conform to the function of their position. The term “discipline” came to be defined as a micro-physics of power in which the person in authority (the teacher) prioritizes the act of surveillance to control the efficient movements of a group of individuals (the students) for the purpose of optimal production. Students (or workers) who fail to adopt the discipline of optimal productivity are then harmed through the practice of punishment.

What is punishment? Punishment can be defined as “everything that is capable of humiliating [children], confusing them… a certain coldness, a certain indifference ( Foucault, 1977, p. 178). In other words, punishment serves as a micro-exiling or public shaming enacted by teachers to remind students that within the capitalist social order, love is conditional. As a daily practice, punishment can only be as effective as the fear produced within students before a disruption can take place. Therefore, systems of punishment has become a central function of the school system. As a result, students are relentlessly reminded of the punishments they must be prepared to endure should they disrupt school discipline.

What is the school-to-prison pipeline? For most white teachers, the history of education within the United States does not feel particularly harmful. After all, we benefited from citizenship and legal protection early in modern-day history. Once our former generations assimilated into the capitalist order, whites were quickly rewarded with a sense of safety and comfort. It is important to be aware: that feeling of comfort is a manifestation of white privilege. Alternatively, communities of color have been targeted with one of the most egregious forms of violence enacted in modern-day life; criminalization

Remember, people of color were not granted citizenship or protection under the law until well past whites. Further, when citizenship and protection were extended, it was never with an authentic concern to create a social order of greater equity. Rather, racist oppression can be traced throughout the history of the United States through  Jim-Crow, segregation, deportations, exclusive housing policies, mass-incarceration, and on, and on. It is important to note, that although people of color have been targeted with the worst police violence, for most of U.S. history the primary form of social oppression was not mass-incarceration. Therefore, the prison system remained relatively small compared to the mega prison industrial complex that exists today.

That change took plan in the 1980s with the white wealthy concoction of the “war on drugs.” This so-called war ballooned the prison population targeting almost exclusively black communities and other people of color. Researchers have well established that black and white communities engage in drug use at similar rates. However, the new wave of police surveillance, stop-and-frisk policies, and three-strikes sentencing orders were consistently targeted toward the black community. (It should be noted, the vast majority of criminal charges brought about by the war on drugs are related to drug possession. Drug possession is not a violent crime. Even further, the growing movement across states to legalize recreational marijuana has created a state where people of color remain in prison while wealthy whites continue to grow richer in the booming marijuana industry. )

The more appropriate war could have been a war on poverty. But alternatively, the war on drugs and the related uptick in systemic police surveillance and the resulting criminalization has been an institutionalized crisis of oppression in communities of color. The U.S. now has the largest prison population in the developed world.

The school-to-prison pipeline emerged in the 1990s as a response to whites increased discomfort with the social concerns of drug use, gangs, and the emergence school shootings. Again, a more appropriate social intervention could have been to address systems of poverty and oppressive racist beliefs. Alternatively, zero-tolerance policies enacted through systemic school discipline have ensured that disruptive students are swiftly suspended and/or expelled. Further, an ever growing police presence has become standard at public schools. Echoing the war on drugs, students of color continue to be unjustly targeted for harmful disciplinary action, suspensions, and expulsions. Further, students of color continue to be most immediately exposed to police and subsequently placed in direct contact with the criminal justice system and ultimately, the prison industrial complex.

Below are some key points regarding punitive discipline from scholars in the field:

In today’s climate of zero-tolerance, where there are few alternatives to punishing problematic student behavior, the prevailing school discipline strategy, with its heavy reliance on exclusionary practices- dismissal, suspension, or expulsion- becomes a predictable, cyclical, ghettoizing responses. (Morris, 2016, p. 38)

On an individual level, a punitive vengeful response harms us psychologically. It locks us into the past and tethers us to disabling definitions of ourselves and an overidentification with pain, mistaking it for who we truly are. This attachment to suffering blocks the path to healing, magnifies vengeance, and expands the pain. (Davis, 2019, p. 28)