A Word About The Work We Must Do – The Jose Vilson

About five years ago, the Teacher Activist Group in Boston, MA invited me to speak at their 7th annual Boston-Area Education for Social Justice Conference. I had already been there a few times for keynotes and bore witness to the significantly evolving teacher activism landscape over those years, including the ascension of teacher-activist Jessica Tang to the president of the Boston Teachers Union. Sometime after my speech, the organizers asked me to sign books, which I was more than happy to do. At the tail end was a Black woman teacher who spoke to me at length about the state of schools for Black children. One thing she said stuck out to me to this day:

“Back then, the value of a Black teacher wasn’t just diversity. It’s because we were invested in expanding our children’s minds. My teacher was showing us various ideas from around the world, including world history and socialism. So many ideas and, even when we didn’t agree with them, we were better for having learned what they were about.”

As a burgeoning sociologist, one of my personal goals is to make abstract theory into digestible bits. I get that we risk losing complexity by not going deeper, but we also gain time and application, too. Unfortunately, this also works for nefarious applications, too. Over the last 20 years, our education systems (including many private and charter schools) have been so driven by high-stakes testing and performance data that we lost out on critical engagement and the immersive, comprehensive spaces we needed to get there.

Part of how we get to a point in this country where a man can bastardize critical race theory for a major political party’s culture war is because we gave away notions of literacy to multiple-choice tests and “close” reads that don’t prompt readers to critique texts in a substantive way. The newer generation of conspiracy theorists waits for the Facebook suite of tools to pull them down the proverbial rabbit holes of the day rather than them chasing the grungy self-hosted websites of yesteryear. Our schools may have expanded and mandated more content and may have included more pedagogical strategies than 100 years ago, but somewhere we lost a guiding principle of educating for an informed democracy, including all the advances in civil rights.

That is, if that was ever a common principle across the board.

The work we must do now is more than telling people “we don’t teach critical race theory.” I’d love to hear more about elevating social studies as a critical part of PK-12 education, about culturally responsive and sustaining education for every child across the board, alternative assessments for children particularly at the high school level, a redefinition of literacy which includes 21st-century literacy, and better use of acceleration strategies in the STEM fields so we can talk less about leaving children behind and more about catching children up so they can become independent learners in whatever path they choose.

In other words, we can say “critical race theory has two tenets: 1) we have systems that depend on racial hierarchy and 2) we can do something about it.” We’ve been doing this work towards a better democracy for decades and can’t shy away from it by going on the defensive. We teach the truth without apology. We’re unafraid because we know our communities trust in us to do this work and we know history will look kindly on those who put justice, compassion, and the truth in front of young people who need it the most.

We can and must remember the stories because getting further requires us knowing from whence we came.

I don’t believe that education is the placebo everyone wants it to be, but our education systems are the only social safety net that can end this particular culture war and move towards cultural peace. Black people knew this during Reconstruction when they voted overwhelmingly to expand public schooling for their children. The legacy that those communities and so many others unnamed and remembered continues to this day. We know through this course of action, we can bring in and elevate even more stories and, by doing so, expand the base of people who feel seen by how we teach.

We can’t settle for what’s framed now as wins and losses. In this way, we learned what the root problems were and we didn’t wait to do something about it.

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