After attending Harlem Stage’s Community Dialogue Series on Harlem, Cultural Capital and Naming the Future, I began to consider the complexities involved in the art of dialogue. How can we engage in a dialogue that effectively challenges each of us to consider alternative perspectives? Also, how can we engage in dialogues that promote activism?
The recurring theme of the evening was education, the failure of the system primarily as it relates to educating poor, urban youth of color. The underlying assumptions were that the problem lies within a) the education system and that it can be fixed and b) the youth of today who are damaged to some degree and that if we fix them in schools that are college bound — the future would be a brighter and better place. In attendance were a mix of educators, artists, young African Americans from Harlem, Whites, Latinos and other. By the dress and presentation of each individual, I’d gather that there were several members of the upper class, other members of the working class and again, some struggling to make ends meet. Not a bad group to try to engage in a discussion. Bill T. Jones tried to jump start the conversation by asking the panel members what their vision of the future was. And I agree that this was an interesting “exercise” as he put it, in one’s “imagination.” While many of the panelists made references to the Civil Rights movement and the 60’s, I couldn’t help think about John Lennon’s hit single, Imagine. I also couldn’t help feel tired and outdated with the conversation. Everyone was talking about the same things we have been talking about for generations. And yet, there was this sense, this “tension” that Omar Freilla exposed as being a generational disconnect and that “romanticizing” about past activism doesn’t help us much in critically looking at the present. And it is here in the present, he suggested, that activism takes place. Furthermore, he added, regardless of how we “spin” the story, most people, that is the average Joe in any community is busy living, putting bread on the table and engaging in life – one day at a time.
My sense was the following. First, there was that ominous pink elephant in the auditorium. While the youth group gave a compelling performance and suggested to all of us a sense of urgency and despair (and mostly asked for money for better “student centered” schools), there was the invisible “gentry” that while in attendance remained silent. Most of whom send their own children to private schools with tuitions in the range of $20,000 to $35,000 a year. Who would never have to publicly make a commitment to college or a “child centered” education because the wealthy can afford the luxury of abundant play as fundamental to their education. The talk for a call of more discipline was also ironic to me when increasing the school day or the school year has never had a direct correlation to academic performance and that in fact, private schools spend most of the “extended day” providing enrichment activities in the arts, music, theater and dance. According to a landmark study by the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College and the University of Maryland, data indicated that white students spend a comparable amount of time on academic subjects but tend to have longer school days that include enrichment and recess and the data “illustrate the racial and economic inequality in America’s schools” with poorer minority students deprived of the opportunities enjoyed by well-off white students. In running a relatively harmless and quick search through the missions of the top 8 private schools in New York City, the following description of what was important came up: to become a responsible member of society, challenging the mind, body and spirit, cooperative learning and student centered, freedom, non-linear and natural curiosity, awareness, diversity, abundant play, intimate teaching, artistic, athletic and community activities, academic excellence, imagination, creativity, passion for learning, joy, respect, integrity, self-confidence.
In the current climate when public schools are being privatized first through the charter and small school movement, and most educated folk who can afford to send their kids to private schools – I need to ask: Are people really concerned with fixing the public system? Who does this system currently serve? And finally, if historically the only consistent determining variable for student outcomes has been socio-economic status of the child – then we need to ask: How are wealthy kids being educated in this country and in whose best interest? Perhaps the problem is not about how much different students are learning and that Black students are learning less than White students; the problem is possibly what all students are learning and that all students are learning in ways that perpetuate oppressive ideologies (Kumashiro, 2008). Raising the “achievement gap” in the current education system is counterproductive if what is being taught is biased to begin with and the current system does not invite us to investigate into the nature of ideologies being taught to students who are considered “successful.”
Finally, while this was indirectly discussed during the dialogue, but not deliberate enough — I would like to add a word about the impact of the arts on learning and social development. Children involved in multiple arts activities take risks and chances in their learning community. There are various ways that arts affect climate. Children’s relationships with teachers and adults, for one, and more significantly, connections between arts learning and cognitive, social and personal development (Horowitz, Burton, Abeles, 2008). While arts, athletics, counseling and other “enrichment” style programming continues to be dismantled in public schools and replaced by “college prep” classes aimed primarily at increasing standardized test scores – in private schools and some small charter schools across the country – the arts and athletics continues to be part of the core curriculum, clad with state of the art facilities.
Reading and math test scores do not guarantee success in life. Neither do Saturday arts programs that provide a safe space for public school teens desperate for an alternative education. Our schools are more segregated than before Brown vs. Board of Education, by race and by class. We can’t even imagine anymore how the other half lives and breaths. There is a fundamental break in what used to be a democratic society that calls for a new kind of dialogue, a new kind of activism. It does have to do with understanding and knowing the history, but it mostly has to do with facing reality. What are we teaching about life, sustainability and living together? What are our priorities and what do we value as a society? Can you promise our youth that if they “do all the right things” that they will be guaranteed a piece of the pie? Does working harder and for more hours increase your wage? Does your salary equate intelligence or your position in a company? Who is calling the shots in this country and what did they score on their SAT’s? When will the poor be able to stop dancing for money and when will the rich open their door – not for charity, but for humanity?