Is our educators learning?

“How are we going to redefine education so that 30 to 50 percent of inner-city children do not drop out of school, thus ensuring that large numbers will end up in prison?” —Grace Boggs


Some years ago, I had a car stolen from a parking lot at Wayne State University. “Did they break the window?” the guard asked me.

“Don’t know,” I mumbled.

“Do you think they punched out the lock?” he went on.

Exasperated, I finally said “How would I know? All I know is it’s gone!”

He was, in other words, asking the wrong person the wrong question, which is exactly where this nation is when it comes to education. The system is breaking down, collapsing, and has been for years, especially among the poor, and especially in communities where most people are black.

Detroit is a train wreck of special tragedy, of course, and has been a monumental failure for a long time. When we pay attention to this, which is fairly seldom, it is mostly to squabble over who is to blame.

Partisans of the current “reform board” blame mistakes of the past; partisans of the old elected board blame the new one. Detroiters blame white racists, suburbanites blame what they see as black incompetence.

That’s just as true nationally; Bill Cosby got his head handed to him this spring by many of his fellow African-Americans for saying the obvious about the plight of his people.

Cosby reportedly decried the 50 percent dropout rate in schools, that 50 percent to 70 percent of incarcerated African-Americans are illiterate, adding sensibly that African-Americans must take back their neighborhoods.

That doesn’t mean public education is working in most lily-white communities. I have met thousands of white kids who are the failed flotsam of a broken and out-of-date system. Yet the situation is worse in Detroit, where the public education establishment, from the CEO’s office to the newest kindergarten classes, is virtually all African-American.

Historically, It is beyond sad. Though largely forgotten now, the desire for a decent education was the driving force of the modern civil rights movement.

But this weekend, an amazing event is happening that will both commemorate a fascinating event of the civil rights era, and strive to find some meaning that can be applied to the future.

“Free Our Schools For Learning” is designed to commemorate the Freedom Schools that flourished across Mississippi in the heroic summer of 1964. We were in a real war with homeland terrorists then — the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils — and black Mississippians were hostages.

Three college students were tortured and murdered in that state that summer, but in the face of real threat to their lives, others founded 41 Freedom Schools across the state. The curriculum was largely about citizenship.

According to Liz Fusco, a statewide coordinator for the Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964, they were really all about exploring “What does the majority culture have that we want and we don’t want? And what do we have that we want to keep?”

How well they succeeded in educating their students during the brief summer in which they flourished, I don’t pretend to know. But I do know they got students enthusiastic about learning and voting. Far, far too few of the students I see at universities today are very much interested in either.

We had better find a way to get our students enthusiastic about both, or we might as well hand the keys to the kingdom over to Osama bin Laden.

“Free Our Schools” begins Friday night at 7:30 at the Detroit Summer Youth Space at 3611 Cass Ave. and continues throughout the day Saturday, and segues into the annual kickoff of this year’s Detroit Summer program Sunday.

Ruby Dee, the famous actress, and Bill Ayers, the famous radical, are taking part. And if you suspected that the legendary Grace Boggs was somewhere behind the whole idea, you know Detroit.

Relentless and questioning as ever, she has turned her attention to education in recent years, devouring the works of the fascinating and irreverent education guru Neil Postman, and casting about for solutions.

The goal this weekend is to “bring the community together to envision schools that ignite the desire to learn,” she told me in her living room one morning last week, right after her daily aerobic swim. (You need to keep well-toned when you are trying to start revolutions at age 89.)

“You know, Ruby Dee says today’s children’s ‘minds have been sucked out through their eyeballs,’” Boggs said, delighting in the image.

“This is a generation that has grown up watching thousands of hours of television. We cannot restore their minds by trying to restore the kinds of classrooms that were an outgrowth of the print culture.”

What she likes about those long-ago Mississippi Freedom Schools is that they emboldened kids to make changes in their communities — thereby giving them a stake in those same communities, which “emboldens them politically and gives meaning to their lives in the present.”

Sadly, I have my doubts whether that concept will work today — but the goal is worthy, and the idea certainly worth exploring. Freedom schools may not in themselves fully substitute for a failed education system.

I am no expert on education theory. However, I do teach young people, and we need some way of getting them interested in acquiring the basic “intellectual furniture” we should all share; stuff like what amphibians are and when the Civil War was, and how many planets go around the sun, and why Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens were each important. Today I have college students who know little or none of that, and seem not to care. And anything that might change that is richly worth a try.

For more about the Free Our Schools events, call 313-923-0797 or e-mail [email protected]. See you next week, with more merriment.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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