Leaving social justice to the hands of higher education

Katie Holmes/Staff

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I was fortunate enough to attend the Educate the Bay Summit on Feb. 22, which was hosted by Emily Truax’s ASUC Senate office. I entered Dwinelle on a clear Saturday morning with an open mind yet with several preconceptions regarding the state of education in the Bay Area, keenly aware of its disparities as a Bay native. I was clearly out of my element, as I am neither an education major nor a public policy major, but I am concerned about the state of education as a citizen. The hundred or more in attendance trickled into the hall, and Senator Truax graciously introduced the first keynote speaker, Darrick Smith of USF.

Smith covered several issues in his sprawling remarks. A few of his comments stood out to me. When addressing the prospect of UC Berkeley students going out into the educational community as volunteers, he mentioned the seemingly arrogant approach outsiders take when helping communities in need. He admonished the attitude of “grac(ing) you with my presence” unconsciously carried by college students lending a hand. This slight condescension did not faze me much, as I continued to listen with rapt attention. He then argued for promoting a form of education that promotes “infiltration” versus “assimilation.” Lastly, he cogently illustrated what I perceived as the liberal white guilt that maintains a culture of failure in troubled schools. As an administrator, he witnessed teachers making excuses for kids on account of their strife at home (e.g. not eating or negligent parents). His invariable response was to remind teachers such situations will not change, and standards must be upheld. Similarly, he articulated his belief that suspension moratoriums are a sad admission that inconceivable behavior is a cultural trait of communities of color. He ultimately parlayed this perceived flaw in education into a clear call for educating students as “cultural beings.” Curricula, in his eyes, need a cultural focus in light of the plight of educational advancement in needy communities.

Given that the summit bore no clear or stated objective, I can understand its primary focus on social justice. Race was a consequence of its limited bandwidth — and yet there is so much more to discuss regarding education.

As a purported “person of color,” I am keenly aware of the value and meaning of establishing one’s identity and knowing one’s history. I am fortunate enough to have been imparted such history through my family and upbringing. The knowledge of the immigrant experience and struggle of my forebears is invaluable to my identity, but does it bear any importance relative to the larger context of public education? I do not intend to discount the marginalized voices of history, whose narratives deserve acknowledgement. Yet the divisive pedagogical approaches I saw on display at the summit leave a nagging fear that the disparities around the Bay and the nation will only increase if this view persists. It seems there is an overwhelming agitation to educate in order to complain about past ills versus rising above them in certain corners of the Bay. Other corners are instilling skills in students that will prepare them for the present — what some posit the “second machine age” of technical computing and advanced robotics.

The view of pedagogy I saw on display at the summit is of concern because it lacks proper context. Pure social justice may be the path to one individual’s liberation, yet reflexively pitting youth not directly party to any past social ills to join the struggle is irresponsible and disingenuous to less-privileged communities as more-privileged communities are instilled with skills pertinent to the present state of our economy.

The reform and augmentation of public education will be a perennial debate as long as we profess to maintain a free society. How much energy and resources should be dedicated to a conceptual proposition of purported liberation and social justice when the gap of attainment is tangibly widening, regardless of who is deserving of guilt?

As social citizens, it is clear that an effective education that teaches fundamental skills and critical thinking is imperative for all nascent contributing members of society. Let us leave the pursuit of social justice in the hands of the higher education magister and his or her already-formed citizen students. Lower education surely needs a re-examination, but this action should be undertaken in a wider communal context rather than in a narrow social-justice vacuum.

I look forward to another education summit that addresses more of the facets of education and that can hopefully represent the wider context of education.

Alexander Salazar is a UC Berkeley junior studying political science.

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