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The unmentionable oppression

On the sixth day of creation God empowered Eve and Adam with naming the animals. Hey, that flying thing, we’ll call that a bird. It’s an ancient lesson in the power of naming conventions, one political people and school reformers have learned […]

On the sixth day of creation God empowered Eve and Adam with naming the animals.

Hey, that flying thing, we’ll call that a bird.

It’s an ancient lesson in the power of naming conventions, one political people and school reformers have learned well. As people who fight over education and how to define the education world, we have names for things, and sometimes those names help us further an agenda even if they do not foster public understanding.

Here are examples:

When schools are developed to serve oppressed populations outside of educational bureaucracies or professional monopolies, some call that privatization.

When commentators or policy wonks suggest we must create robust systems for understanding whether or not instruction of oppressed populations in classrooms is resulting in a desired effect (e.g. students achieving a set standard of learning), some call that teacher bashing.

When wealthy people dedicate massive portions of their wealth to building laboratories tasked with solving educational conundrums that exile oppressed people from the mainstream economy, some call that plutocracy.

When technologists devise educational methodologies intended to increase the number of oppressed students who can read and decode text, demonstrate math proficiency, and graduate high school prepared for college coursework, some call that an attack on public education.

When teachers prepare oppressed students to meet objective educational standards devised to ensure schools produce capable people for a demanding democracy, some call that teaching to the test.

I suppose it is good to name things. It’s a useful strategy to develop a common vision within common people.

One point of suggestion, however, is to maintain sanity by calling things what they actually are rather than what we suppose them to be. The naming convention above, one I safely said comes from some people, is not mine.

Perhaps education commentators have learned what political communications specialists have known for years: the power to name conditions, situations, remedies, problems, and so forth, is the power to control the public mind, and subsequently, the actions of the people, and the outcomes of our society.

So, what about those things that go unnamed?

For instance, what do we call it when we recognize an institutional pattern within the United States education system that delivers lesser qualified workers to classrooms where children of color, and those in poverty, sit awaiting the tools needed to carve out a fair American life?

What do we call it when research suggests the workers in these classrooms stereotype our students, and that stereotyping has a predictable negative consequence on their school performance?

What do we call it when people focus on how truancy impacts student achievement, but ignore the fact that worker absences affects achievement too?

What do we call it when residents of poor communities are redlined into “public” schools known to be of inferior quality in every respect, and when proposals to guarantee them pathways to better schools arise these workers in inferior schools fight to trap students there rather than fight for their liberation from state failure factories?

What should we call it when people cover the failings of state-run schooling systems by shifting attention from the vast research supporting the power of great teaching, strong instruction, effective school leadership, orderly schools, appropriate funding, and accountable systems, to the perceived deficits of children and their families, including their often mentioned lack of money, college backgrounds, and whiteness?

What do we call it when all of these systemic issues (and the many more issues that could be listed) are ignored by the defenders of the system as it is, as it was, and as it shall not be changed; those workers who represent the single largest expenditure in the current system, and thus, the single largest interest group in public education; those who are mostly white, mostly college educated, mostly middle-class; those who send representatives to every state capital in the United States year after year to warn legislators against any fancy ideas or proposals to give families in crisis communities opportunities to attend schools outside of the faltering schools assigned only to the poor, the black, the brown, and those without representatives constantly in attendance at legislative hearings?

In sum, my friends, there is no name for it.

There is no clever little way to package that for a public addicted more to intellectual candy than metabolic brain food. It’s the unmentionable. It’s the thing we shall not speak of as we try to be good progressives, or some other form of evolved people; colorblind, post-racial, and in solidarity with the workers of the world even if those workers are descendants of our oppressors, agents of a state that has failed to become just, and lords of a plastic middle class that speaks a good game about uplifting the poor while blocking pathways way out of poverty.

Oh, and about that middle class, that group with the most to lose if their educational hoarding were to be broken up with choice or erasing of borders; or if the jobs associated with ghetto schools were remade into some competent occupation, what’s the name for that problem?

What shall we call a middle class basting in self-righteous designer ideologies that suppose themselves to be defenders of the common good, while many of them lead petty consumerist lifestyles funded by commodifying the needs of the poor, and translating those needs into either public occupations preoccupied mainly with perpetuating public occupations, or into nonprofit grant requests to be traded on the philanthropy market?

I admit that’s wordy. There’s a lot to unpack there. It will be hard to name all that so it can easily roll off the tongue and capture the imagination of a society that thinks microwave foods take too long to cook.

Let’s keep it simple and classic. Why don’t we call it oppression.

And, I’ll remind you, God does not like it.

Citizen Stewart

Evangelical. Husband. Father. Education Activist.

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1 Comment
  • October 2, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    So much truth here; apropos of “What do we call it when research suggests the workers in these classrooms stereotype our students, and that stereotyping has a predictable negative consequence on their school performance?”, check out the part in this story about resistance to improvement efforts in one district because of discipline issues.


    “Some PSJA teachers are organizing a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, citing concerns about school discipline, along with not having enough uninterrupted preparation time, or freedom to speak out when they have concerns. The discipline criticism suggests a point where classroom realities may clash with King’s broad goal of keeping every student in school. PSJA refers far fewer students to disciplinary programs than nearby districts do, which is generally a good thing for students. But teachers vying for leadership spots in the union have said the policy undercuts their authority with students, and leaves them stuck with kids who shouldn’t be in class. King says his staff has been meeting with teachers about it, but that the district’s policy is sound, if not perfectly implemented at every school.”