Saturday, October 4, 2008

Educating African Students: Historicity and the Present

Okay, this is what I've been writing today. Since I don't have the intellectual or physical capacity to generate a separate blog, here it is.

Educating African Students: Historicity and the Present

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education[1] evidenced a nearly two-hundred year debate about the efficacy of educating the African in the British colonies, and subsequently, the United States. Based on theories of inherent Western European supremacy and African inferiority, 19th century arguments concerning public education, no matter how progressive, continued to advocate and support an inferior education for the African relying on bogus scientific theories of biological evolution and cultural determinism that placed the Western European at the highest level in the hierarchy of being, with the African at the bottom.[2] Deemed intellectually inferior, the African, if educated at all, received an industrial arts or manual education that relegated the African’s participation in the capitalist economy solely as a laborer performing the most menial tasks, and as a consumer. This hegemonic attitude by educational policy makers, reformers, and progressives in the late 19th and 20th centuries have far-reaching implications that continue to shape attitudes and policies toward educating the African to the present day.

An industrial arts or manual education ensured African subjugation and is the type of education that was advocated and supported by the founder of Hampton Institute, Samuel C. Armstrong. Armstrong “firmly believed that blacks were fundamentally inferior to whites in almost every way, especially in their mental capacities.”[3] Likewise, Thomas Jesse Jones, a Welsh immigrant, reinforced Armstrong’s premise in his position as a chaplain and professor at Hampton Institute, and later as chair of the Committee on the Social Science of the National Education Association in 1912.[4] Jones’s fervent belief that Africans were ill-suited for a liberal arts education, incapable of academic rigor and critical thinking, and inherently intellectually inferior to Western Europeans would be just a ripple in the sea of discourses about education reform in the 19th century, if his premises did not have such negative implications.

However, battling Jones’s ideology and arguing diligently against the belief of the innate inferiority of the African was W.E.B. Du Bois, who advocated for a liberal arts education as an option for all Africans who desired it. While Du Bois did not exclude the plausibility of Africans receiving an education in the industrial or manual arts, he rejected the premise that the African was not intelligent enough to pursue an education that required abstract reasoning and critical thinking.[5] The battle that Du Bois waged against 19th and 20th century education reformers, who dubbed themselves progressive but advocated for a substandard education for Africans, continues in present pseudo-scientific studies and is evidenced by the proliferation of publications about race, education, and intelligence such as Allan David Bloom’s (1987) Closing of the American Mind, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s (1991) The Disuniting of America, Richard Herrenstein’s and Charles Murray’s (1994) The Bell Curve, and Frank Miele’s and A. R. Jensen’s (2002) Intelligence, Race, and Genetics.[6] This ongoing debate that is grounded in 19th century biological evolution and cultural determinism continues to influence educational policy in this country, teacher training at universities, and teacher’s attitudes toward African students at all levels of education. The community college and university are not immune to imbuing both their curricula and dispositions towards educating African students with an overt or subliminal belief that the African is inherently intellectually inferior.

By African, I am referring to all peoples who are racially and ethnically identified as African regardless of how long has been their removal from the continent. Inclusive in this definition are not only African immigrants who comprise a substantive population at the college, but also U.S. African students. Both groups have been the object of continuous economic and political subjugation through educational policies that ensure their ongoing domination by Europeans. In the U.S., the African disproportionately receives an education that prevents or precludes him from entering into the capitalist economy in a competitive manner that will guarantee an above-subsistence existence and entrĂ©e into the middle and upper classes. The African is overwhelmingly tracked for Special Education or the General Education high school diploma, reinforcing 19th century ideologies that the African’s sole participation in the capitalist economy will be as either laborer or servant, but neither as producer nor as part of the intelligentsia.

While some Africans do manage to circumvent the educational policies and practices, enter into universities and colleges, and obtain a liberal arts education that will prepare them to think critically, become part of the intelligentsia, and participate in the producer class, far too many Africans remain under-educated, poorly trained, and woefully unprepared for full participation in the capitalist economy. The prison industrial complex and other apparatus of the criminal justice system become the repository for those Africans who leave U.S. high schools and are unprepared to matriculate at college or university. Since this country is seeing the end of work in a post-industrial age when high-paying, blue collar jobs are almost non-existent, lack of preparedness almost ensures a downward, rather upward, economic mobility. In a high cost of living area like metro DC, graduating or departing high school without the educational background to matriculate in the college or university eliminates young people from entering into the work force and makes them particularly vulnerable to poverty, crime, and consistent underemployment. Even federal government jobs that relied on a merit system where one could graduate high school, secure federal employment, and work one’s way up the GS scale—based on sheer tenacity, commitment, and merit— are no longer an option for such young adults, since many entry-level positions and promotions are now based on having a four-year college degree. While I am advocating the African’s access to and success in a liberal arts education, I am still very cognizant of the Eurocentric and white supremacist tenets inherent in such an education that fail to acknowledge the contributions of Africans to the intellectual and cultural capital of the world.

In a true democracy, all citizens must have equal access to a high standard and culturally relevant educational system regardless of race or class. Failure to provide access to an education that ensures an individual’s participation in the capitalist economy as something other than a laborer or consumer is tantamount to political, economic, and physical genocide. Ignoring the need to establish educational policies and curricula reform that address and deconstruct the inherent belief of African intellectual inferiority, simply reinforces a policy of subordinating the African that dates back to the birth of public education in this country. It is imperative that frank and open conversations ensue that admit the hegemonic attitude toward educating the African before change can come about.

[1] The sole premise behind this Supreme Court decision, which was championed by proponents of integration, was that resources were woefully lacking in segregated schools. The integrationists aim was to desegregate the public schools thus enabling African children access to better resources; hence a better education. However, what was not addressed was the fundamental hegemonic attitude toward educating African children in the United States. So while African children were integrated into predominately European schools, they encountered physical, psychological, and educational violence as they were attacked and demeaned, and educated without any cultural relevancy to their experiences in the United States or the world. Further, integration resulted in a disproportionate number of Africans being tracked for special education, general education, and vocational diplomas. Quite alarming though are the numbers of Africans deemed to be learning or emotionally disabled, with far too many African boys labeled with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Carruthers contends that “[i]ntergration, which was advanced as the answer to the inferior education given African-Americans under the system of segregation, has managed to ensure an inferior education for African Americans.” See Carruthers, J. H. (1999), Intellectual Warfare, Chicago: Third World Press, 128-129.

[2] See Carruthers (1999), 67.

[3] Johnson, D. (2000). “W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Jesse Jones and the struggle for social education, 1900-1930.” Journal of Negro History, 85,79.

[4] Ibid, 88.

[5] Ibid, 83.

[6] Carruthers, 129, 133-139 and Asante, M. K. (1991, Spring). “The afrocentric idea in education.” The Journal of Negro Education, 60.2, 173.


E. said...

Wow Michele.

This hit so close to home for me. And I can show with personal evidence how CRITICAL an issue this is.

When we were in elementary school in ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN the "liberal" town, we were de facto segregated from our regular class into what was then called the DPLC. (the other kids called it the "dumb people's learning center") Most of the kids in the DPLC were black.

The only reason I didn't stay in the DPLC was because a white woman intervened on my behalf and forced the teacher to put me in the highest reading group, where I succeeded.

this is only one of many examples of how I was personally attacked.

And...when I was to graduate from high school I was told by my counselor to go and get a job because I was NOT college material.

So, I did just that and delayed everything in my life.

More importantly, I look at all the kids who were placed in the DPLC.

Most of them DID not finish high school and none of them went to college. One sits in federal prison right now now on non-violent drug trafficking charges, he's been there for a few years now, despite having kids.

Most of those kids have had troubles with money and bouts with drugs and violence. As recently as three weeks ago we had a young brother murdered, far before his time, apparently a drug deal gone bad.

This intellectual violence continues at the college level. And what's bugged out is that some black faculty buy into it as well. I wanted to hit this man in the mouth he was so condescending.

Beyond all of that...if you fight through all of that, you find yourself alone often with few people to reflect with. Most of my friends from elementary school have a tinge of apathy toward my presence, even when I'm kind to them.

If only a few of us can fight through the barbed wire of domination....and be more loathed than loved, what's the point?

E. said...

That was good reading though! Thank you.

M. L. Simms said...

E, you know our relationship began in an intellectual environment, the U of M, where I knew that you had the goods. But, more importantly, in the four years that I taught there, you were one of maybe three Black men to come into any of my classes. It was personally important to me that you not be lost in the shuffle, that you were able to achieve and function in the small space that I controlled at that large university, and that your aspirations were fulfilled. You and I both know the struggles in Ann Arbor for folks like us. Yes, that liberal city where all of us are encouraged to take a cell at Jackson State prison up the road. And yes, some of the faculty at U of M as well as other institutions are not about educating people like us, or even being fair, but creating hardship. But, you survived and thrived, and your future is still before you. You are more than college material, you are a scholar! I knew that when you first contributed to class discussion many years ago!

E. said...

Always encouraging.

I struggle on, forward, at all costs, hoping to be that beacon for somebody that you are.

peace 2 U.