Expanding access to higher education has been in the news recently. First, the Obama administration announced a plan making state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants, arguing that education can play a role in facilitating post-release employment. Second, Hillary Clinton joined the other Democratic Party candidates in calling for substantial federal spending aimed at making college affordable, declaring that, “To raise wages, there is no better investment we can make than in education.”
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Ideally, a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds.” The devil, of course, is not so much as in the details as in the hands of those who have the power to shape institutions and enforce policies. In our far-from-ideal world, the follow-up sentence to the Association’s declaration probably should read something like this (my words): “In reality, most contemporary educational institutions and programs emphasize obedient classroom behavior, rote learning, standardized test-taking that validates only a narrow range of knowledge, self-blame for failure, and a few potentially marketable skills that will prepare future workers to contribute to the profits of private industry.”
The Boston-area criminalized women I have come to know have participated in myriad educational programs as school children and teenagers (where they entered the infamous school-to-prison pipeline) and as adults both inside and outside of prison (hardly an ideal setting for encouraging open-minded, critical thinking). Overwhelmingly, these educational programs share two aims: (1)To encourage the women to admit that they are flawed and diseased; (2)To push the women into the most low-paying job sectors.
We like to say that “knowledge is power,” but, unfortunately, the thrust of a great deal of contemporary American education has less to do with helping students understand who actually holds the political and economic power in our grossly unequal society, and more to do with drilling students in the notion that they personally are responsible for their own failure to take control of their lives, make the “right” contacts, excel at exams, land jobs, and stay out of jail. That kind of “knowledge” disempowers; it obscures who profits from the status quo; and it keeps individuals focused on their own failures rather than on the structural conditions of poverty, racism and gendered violence that sentence the majority of Americans to be “losers”.
As new educational opportunities may be opening up for criminalized and for low income students, and as teachers and professors (like myself) prepare to go back to school, it’s a good time for educators to give some serious thought to what we actually are teaching our students. Are we merely telling them that ‘knowledge is power’ or are we clarifying that much of the knowledge we are imparting has been accumulated and validated by sources of power with vested interests in maintaining that power? Are we encouraging them to speak truth to power: to discover the truths that shape their lives, to identify who really does (and does not) hold the power in our world, and to speak loudly so that those in power will listen? If we are not doing these things, we are allowing our educational programs to add propellant to school-to-prison pipelines.
The ideas for this post grew out of the Education session at the Free Her conference organized by Families for Justice as Healing.
I’d like to thank expert educator Vivian Troen for helping me think through these issues.