We Are Responsible For Our Own Education

By Thomas Holt Russell

Don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians to do what’s right.

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and each other.

Paulo Freire — Pedagogy of the Oppressed

I no longer have faith in the American system. It is not as if I had a lot of confidence in the first place. It’s just that I thought Martin Luther King’s words were valid, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As African Americans, we have fought long and hard just to be treated as humans. It has been a very long and slow grind, and you will not have any trouble meeting people that feel this bending towards justice is too slow. Meanwhile, we’ve had laws and court decisions that helped the arc bend on its journey towards justice.

Since 2008, I have witnessed an evolutionary change in America that seems to be a bit unsettling. That is the year we elected a Black president, and that is about the time when America started to show parts of itself that I never thought that I would have seen. Racism in all forms is back in a big way. At least, that may be what a majority of the people think. I think racism, even at the level it is now, has never left us. One of our major political parties seems to be hell-bent on returning to the good old days. When they say the good old days, they are not considering what they want to return to. The vast majority of African Americans lacked fundamental rights such as jobs, housing, and healthcare. Oppressors do not consider the violence and degradation that African Americans endured during that time. It was a time when simply driving across the country was a risky decision. Yet, they seem to go back to a time when my parents and grandparents were not allowed to vote. They are reaching for a nostalgic, utopian America that does not represent reality very well. If American democracy is destroyed while they make their way back in time, well, that is the cost of staying in power.

Even with that bleak outlook, I don’t think democracy, as we know it, will be destroyed. But it is definitely in a really bloody fight. A considerable part of this battle takes place in education. This battle can be won. It will take the work of everyone who believes the truth is essential. Conservatives, or to be more clear, the far-right, think critical race theory is the beginning of the end of American society. Every time we put a number or phrase to our own social and political thought, the other side uses those words against us. Case in point: Defund the Police. As soon as I heard those words, I thought it was the dumbest slogan that an idiot could ever come up with. It is still being used as a weapon against liberals and the Democratic Party.

As Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the UCLA law professor who coined the term critical race theory, has said,

“It’s only prompted interest now that the conservative right-wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas,” Crenshaw also stated that news outlets covered CRT because the right-wingers had banded together and used their money and power to made it a focus. So, what the hell is critical race theory? According to the New York Times:

Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions.

We now have a huge problem that is just another topic that will have us killing each other, and it goes along the lines of issues like abortion, voting rights, and face masks. I will not get in the weeds by talking about the views of both sides of this issue. It is not very complicated. Suppose there was no philosophy called critical race theory. In that case, the people looking for topics that divide and country would have found something else to distort to their followers and continue to throw wood in the fire of racial strife.

In a local meeting with the school board in Colorado Springs, I stood up and said, let’s not call it critical race theory. Let’s call it American history. I went further by pointing out that American history consists of redlining, lynching, environmental rape, voter suppression, slavery, and I could go on, but I don’t need to. If those things that have actually happened and still are happening, does not match their views on what America is, that does not mean they should suppress it from being taught. On the one hand, they tell us that they had nothing to do with slavery; that was their ancestors. And on the other hand, they tell us that critical race theory makes them look bad.

This is a fight that may go on for a while. However, that does not mean we can’t take matters into our own hands and resist this march towards whitewashing history by taking out all of the bad parts the oppressive right-wing thinks are offensive to them. We have a responsibility to our children to make sure they know their history, not flooded in sentimentality and fake patriotism. And while we are looking under the hood of education, it has to be also pointed out that other issues were going on long before the pandemic and CRT, which must also be addressed.

We need to take each of our holidays more seriously. Holidays such as the 4th of July, Labor Day, Juneteenth, and veteran’s day should be a sad reminder of the work done and the work yet to be done as we continue our journey towards justice. The holidays are hidden behind barbeques, picnics, and online sales. It is not only crucial for me to believe positive change can be made; this belief has to be backed up by action. This belief is what motivates me. From this point on, I will work to ensure that holidays are not for leisurely activities but are also a solemn reminder of why we are celebrating in the first place. Community forums and activities should be organized around activities that promote history and awareness and should lead to action in any small or large form. Without the action behind these activities, there is no point or meaning to our celebrations.

Some may think that calling the Republican Party oppressors is too strong a term. But that term fits perfectly, especially when they are using everything in their power to suppress votes. When I think of an oppressor, I do not think of hate groups and white supremacists; instead, I think of the power structure. The MAGA crowd does not concern me. They may not think of it this way, but they are pawns in this struggle. The people in power are the ones that I am more concerned with. I am speaking about the people who make laws and legislation designed to keep a minority controlling the majority. The lawmakers, judicial system, and financial systems are unorganized groups, meaning they do not come together under a single cause but act individually in their reality. All of the work combined from these institutions play a vital role and are the primary cause of the angst America is experiencing.

It is imperative to remember that the world we live in is malleable. People can transform themselves and institutions. This is a necessary outlook for change. But again, it means nothing without action. The humanization of all people should be the goal of the oppressed. I was born with some of the markers that society says should make me fail; single-parent home, poor, Black, etc. However, at a certain point in my life, I am responsible for making my own path because, despite the obstacles placed before us, the ability to change through thought and action is as embedded in us as our consciousness and in the reality we experience through our consciousness.

When I say we should reimagine holidays for our survival and do this through education, I do not mean we should suddenly schedule a bunch of history classes on those days. We need to start a pedagogy that is based on conversation and inquiring. This will help stimulate creativity and reflection. We do not need to treat students as mere items to be filled with data. Both teachers and students need to be critical investigators. We need teachers that are simultaneously students, and we need students that are simultaneously teachers.

This is especially helpful for the younger generation, who are sometimes accused of being detached from the historical events that put them smack in the middle of the reality they presently occupy. That assessment is probably not entirely accurate and may be based on our older folks’ opinion, whose judgment on the younger generation is framed in disdain and disappointment and the overriding belief that they care little about their history.

If we don’t find a way to preserve our history, those in power will slowly change out facts with opinions about what happened and the meaning of those events. Their approach to education is inorganic and static. It is mechanical. We will counter that by valuing experience over memory. We will transform the inorganic to organic. As teachers (all of us are teachers in one way or another), our job is not to regulate the way the world enters students’ minds. Education is not only about depositing information into students; it is a peep into possibilities, a taste of love, and a thirst for creativity. Only by continuing the fight for the restoration of our own culture will we combat systemic education that the right is trying to put in place. We cannot waste time by waiting for the politicians to make things better. That is not their nature.