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.

Tonya, a Black woman in her mid-thirties recalls her education program in prison: “I felt that I couldn’t pass the GED so fuck it. I’m defective. I took it five times.” This sentiment is one that Tonya has repeated a number of times. For instance, a few years after I first met her she was thrilled to be accepted into a Culinary Arts training program arranged by a local homeless organization. But after a few weeks she complained, “I am not happy. We – the students – are just being used as cheap labor. We’re not learning anything. We spend the day chopping piles of meat and vegetables. They ‘pay’ us $8 an hour. We work 50 hours a week but they only pay us for 46 hours because it’s ‘education.’ The education part? We’re supposed to write a plan for a meal that we would cater. If I could cater a meal it would be soul food but the teacher wants us to make meals that white people like.” A few weeks after that conversation Tonya finished the program only to learn that in order to get a restaurant job she would need to pay $185 to obtain a “safe service” certificate.  She didn’t have the money. “I feel like a loser,” she said.
Tonya’s experience of being used as cheap labor in the guise of a training program is common. Other women I know have been “trained” by being handed a broom and sent off to clean offices or hotel rooms. Paid under minimum wage, they are let go when the “training” is over and replaced by other “trainees.” In many cases, these programs are required by drug court judges or by parole officers as proof of “rehabilitation.” As Tonya has learned the hard way, being sentenced to menial labor that does not pay a living wage is often the prelude or post-script to a prison sentence.

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.