I hear, and have been hearing, a lot about how we should model ourselves after the lessons found in Scandinavian countries, or sometimes East Asia. I even read an entire book, The Smartest Kids In The World, about these and other similar places and their educational outcomes, which compare favorably to ours. And it’s true, certainly, that our system is rife with injustice from the moment a child is born to a family outside of the dominant groups.
I once admired that book, and even tried to contact the author after I read it (really, I did). But in growing more comfortable expressing the true beliefs you’ve seen me write about here recently, I now understand that there is no way to import the system of other countries without reckoning with the uniquely brutal history of our nation.
I imagine us, with a different administration, deciding to model a new public school system off of that in Finland or the Netherlands or Denmark or Japan. And I imagine how spectacularly it would fail. Similarly, as much as I agree with and support a move towards a more socialist economic system, replacing our current practices with those of another country without a true reckoning of what America is will just lead to disappointment. (We should still do it, though.)
You see, lots of other countries have violence in their pasts (and present). We are hardly the only country guilty of imperialism or predatory capitalism.
But it’s really only us, only the United States, that founded itself on not just the backs of slaves, but upon the lie that Americans could achieve equality without considering the humans we refused to recognize as such. Genocide is not an American concept, nor is slavery, but we are a country that wouldn’t exist without the way we came to be, and any changes we attempt to make that refuse to confront our deep moral failings will be half-measures that won’t lead to anything truly transformative.
To put a pin on it, we can’t become a better country without seriously grappling with the white supremacy in our blood, and we can’t reform our schools without dismantling the white supremacy that they depend on.
For educators, there is no neutral. It’s not fair, I know, to ask us to do more than the hard work we already do, but you don’t go into education to be treated fairly or paid well. (Well, you shouldn’t.) Any educator who isn’t actively fighting inequity – my focus is racial but there are many other forms of marginalization – is just supporting the status quo. And the status quo is a deeply American form of marginalization.
We can’t absolve ourselves of something we can’t admit we did in the first place. I understand that it’s probably painful to grapple with the enormity of what has been visited upon people of color in this country, so, even as many of us stand in front of students who are living through this reality, we would rather pretend it doesn’t exist, or pretend that each incident of racism is just the behavior of a Big Bad Person rather than the result of a system that values one group over all others.
Guilt doesn’t really help us, though; it’s paralyzing. Yes, we’re guilty, to some extent, but what’s more important is that we’re responsible, and have been since we chose to become educators. Because of the way our country was built, because of how it has always been run, it is our responsibility as educators to confront our history with honesty and humility. Our students deserve this. Our country deserves this. And, in the end, we deserve this.