Thursday, January 15, 2015

How the Ghost of Booker T. Washington Haunts Today's Testing Advocates

When I read the statement from 19 Civil Rights organizations supporting universal testing in the nation's public schools,  I couldn't help but recall a time in American History when an African American eductor named Booker T Washington stepped forward with a plan to have character training and instruction in  skilled trades supplant liberal arts education in schools serving African Americans, and in so doing managed to neutralize opposition to Black Education in the South, while attracting the support of education philanthropists in the North.

Washington put forward his plan at a time, eerily akin to ours, when the rights of African Americans and working class Americans were under assault. In the South, white supremacists were moving forward with plans to put a final end to the voting rights of African Americans which had been secured during Reconstruction, while passing laws requiring segregation of Blacks and whites both public and private institutions. In the North, powerful industrialists were banding together to crush an emerging industrial labor movement, imposing devastating defeats on organizing efforts among steel workers in the Homestead Strike of 1892 and to efforts to build a national railroad union in the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Washington, one of the most astute political thinkers of his age, saw which way the wind was blowing and decided that to create any space for Black education,  he had to make an accomodation with both Southern segregationists and Northern industrialists. As a result, he put forward his plans to remake Black education as a narrow skill and character enterprise, while proclaiming his opposition to civil rights agitation, labor organizing and efforts by Blacks to seek political power.

Washington's program, by most standards, was an astonishing success. Not only were schools on his model allowed to survive in the south at time of fierce anti-black violence, and the imposition of the Jim Crow regime, he became the single most powerful Black man in America, single handedly controlling the flow of philanthropic dollars to Black educational institutions and Republican party patronage in the black community.

However, many Black intellectuals, led by the brilliant Fisk and Harvard trained social scientist, W.E.B.DuBois, felt that Washington had conceded too much. Not only did DuBois criticize Washington for arguing that Blacks could defer their quest for full citizenship rights, saying that such a position would actually invite white attacks, he bitterly attacked Washington for selling Black youth short by saying they didn't need poetry, didn't need literature, didn't need history, didn't need exposure the full range of subjects that in most advanced societies were seen as the essential background of those seeking political or cultural leadership.

And when I think about current Civil Rights leaders demanding a narrowly test based curriculum for young people growing up in poverty, and young peole of color, a curriculm that leaves little room for creative thinking, the arts, and the exploration of cultural traditions of the communities they come from, i think of what DuBois wrote in the "Souls of Black Folk" more than 100 years ago. Namely that every  child, no matter how poor, now matter how isolated, no matter how stigmatized the group they come from, should have the opportunity to become a poet, a writer, a scientist, a great political leader or orator, and should not be assumed to  be consigned to a future as a low wage worker maintaining a respectful silence while others lead.

And because of that, i think we need to have a proliferation of voices, modeled on that of Dr Dubois, who insist that ALL our children be given an education which allows them to dream, to create, to challenged received authority, and to make history,


David Greene said...

Each day I open links to articles about a growing movement to do away with Common Core, APPR, TFA, Standardized Testing and the privatizing of education. I know and have worked with so many of the groups and individuals pushing for the removal of top down corporate education reform, what I called Profit Led Fed Ed.

Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Anthony Cody, Mark Naison are but some of the individuals. The Badass Teachers (BATS) and its affiliates, Save Our Schools (SOS) and its affiliates, New York Collective of Radical Educators (NyCORE), United Opt Out, and its affiliates, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) and so many other groups have joined together to fight NCLB, RTTT, and their outcomes. One thing they have in common…progressive child and community centered education. Without going out a limb, I would feel safe to say many are Democrats or progressives.

However when I read about the political leaders are in this endeavor I am usually stunned. Rand Paul and Scott Walker have now joined the anti Common Core fight. They now join the likes of conservatives like Lindsay Graham, Charles Grassley, and Mark Rubio. The Republican National Committee, Glen Beck, and even the Heritage Foundation are all in this fight. The states who have dropped or propose dropping out of Common Core and testing like Oklahoma, South and North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana are all Republican and mostly conservative.

The state leading the Common Core APPR charge is New York; with its high profile Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo. The biggest “pusher” of the Common Core et al drugs is our federal Democratic DOE under the control of a “liberal” Democratic president.

When did this happen? When did progressive education become a reason to vote for a conservative Republican? What do progressive educators do when it is time to vote?

If they are one-issue voters do they vote for a Walker or Paul, or in NYS did they vote for conservative republican Astorino? Maybe they get lucky and have alternative candidates like Zephyr Teachout or Howie Hawkins and lose? If they have concerns about other progressive ideals like gun control and women’s rights do they turn their backs on education?

Obviously this is a very complex issue. I was determined to keep this comment short.

Free speech has become a corporate battle cry. States Rights now include education as well as anti voting rights procedures.

Red is Blue. Blue is Red. Have I gone down Wonderland’s Rabbit Hole? What a conundrum!

Vanessa Vaile said...

Right about the same time I that I read this, I also listened to a long public radio piece about MLK's last year. I was struck by how much the public disapproval he experienced parallels the Booker T Washington / W.E.B. DuBois divide.

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