When our nation was founded there was no national compulsory education system, in fact, most of the founders came from countries that didn’t have real education systems in the sense I mean. Napoleon was the first to suggest and set up a system of compulsory education, in part to serve what looks to us like nationalistic aims (and there were plenty of other places, China, the Aztec that had a system for the same aims, so I say that without judgment). Prior to that, education in Europe was in the purview of the upper classes, people who had acquired their positions, with exceptions, through birth. This system is not a product of the time or of people’s natural tendency to set things up that way, throughout history I can name, off hand and outside my area of expertise, several times where the elite was chosen through a more meritocratic system than what Europe had at that moment in time (including many of the ancient near east civilizations, Rome, Greece, China, all over both North and South America), this was instead a system built from the legacy of Feudalism.
When the English came here they came to what appeared to them to be an “empty” country. What it was, we now know, was a country emptied by disease, and a people who were just as advanced as them were reeling from the destruction of disease. The English who came here were essentially protesting the system I described above and for good reasons, when a system is designed to reward by birth and not by merit what you get are a lot of excesses and cruelty. But they were still the sons and daughters of that system. As Europe itself began resisting that system and as the English (and French and Spanish) began to encounter groups that, yes, had been decimated, but also had hung unto their culture as a people are wont to do, they began to see a world that looked different than the one they had left. The end result is our Constitution. But they could not shake off the culture they had left behind and because their system, as exemplified by slavery, indentured servitude, and the Missions (really just forms of forced labor for the poor and oppressed, something Europe had been doing to its own people for quite some time), built an economic system that they personally benefitted from and that was also familiar to them, and they codified it. With this system in place, the poor whites who came here came into contact with other people that were enslaved and in most cases were enslaved themselves. To keep these people in line and to also justify the mass slaughter, genocide and enslavement of the people they met, racism and the long standing classism of Europe combined to create a highly destructive, irrational and oppressive system. This is our legacy. We are living in the shadows of this everyday. My family, like the families of our working classes, is paying for this to this day. There are different places on the spectrum but the spectrum itself was built by this system.
As such, slavery and eventually Jim Crow, the genocide and forced removal, and the feudalistic (is there a better way to describe it, they’ve been treating their poor whites like this for centuries), was codified into law. But not without resistance. So throughout our history has been the dueling impulse between what was good and beautiful in the people that came over here and the people who were already here, and what is bad and evil in us. Resistance is taking a very long time. Jim Crow only began to be dismantled in the 1950s, still within the living memory of the oldest members of my family and the living memory of the oldest members of all poor and oppressed people’s families. And with each moment of resistance has come a counter movement of people, who true to the words of Voltaire (a resister of the system), held onto their power because absolute power corrupts absolutely and no one gives up their power willingly. We saw this in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s as white people resisted desegregation. Wealthy whites resisted the handing over of a privilege they had designed to maintain a social order and poor whites resisted it, because co-opted by wealthy whites, they hung on to what little relative social status they had (although throughout our history there have always been poor whites fighting alongside other groups to combat racism). The logic being, we may be oppressed but at least we aren’t this group that is more oppressed, and if we behave in the way that they say we have to maybe we will get to be one of them too. It has been a system that has worked by allowing a few tokens, like me and also the founder of Stanford, access to wealth in what appears to be a meritocratic system. And it has been incredibly successful, I found this out personally as I soon realized that I was in the minority of my working class peers in seeing what was happening and also resisting it, but this has also been true throughout our history.
As racism, the system that is easier to see, began to be dismantled after the hard work and the lives lost of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the people at the top were faced with a very difficult dilemma, but also with an opportunity. It corrected the most obvious form of oppression, now instead of a few wealthy Germans and Irish and people who became white begrudgingly being “allowed” in, they would admit a few tokens of the other races too, and in this way they could point to racism and our inherent structural inequalities and say they were solved. We see this most clearly today when my classmates said the election of Barrack Obama meant we were post-racial, as if his election to office negated the schools I went to and the boys we have buried. What they meant is: “hey we’ve let in a few tokens, so now you can stop complaining and we don’t have to give anything up!” This was their hope.
As this happened, beginning in the 50s but throughout this second half of the century, the discussions about the schools changed. Parents fought for decades to integrate schools that only one generation later were dismantled again. Some schools only integrated in the 80s and in places that were lower profile, or had fewer black people but also oppressed the black people and the poor they did have, never integrated at all. Parents in the 1970s voted for laws like Proposition 13, which started in California and spread out to the West. They happened to coincide with the Supreme Court ruling that while schools had to be integrated racially, they didn’t have to be integrated socio-economically and didn’t have to be equitably funded. Some folks in California tried to correct that ruling by forcing District 9 (the historically MOST liberal court in the country) to say that the state, if not the federal government, had to equalize funding. In response, the rich wrote laws to lower their taxes on their homes, pulled their kids out of district schools and put them into private schools, redrew district lines so poor kids were stuck in one district, and then donated more money to their kids schools. Meanwhile, parents, like my mom and the moms of most of my friends, were resisting too. They broke laws to get their kids in the other districts. They told us our own history. They fought with administrators as they kept us out of the good schools and then when administrators couldn’t do that out of the good classes. I am only 25, my little sister is 18 and I have personally seen all this happening. As far as I know, this is continuing to happen, and it is widespread and systematic. I know because there is a very carefully orchestrated reason that schools like Menlo Atherton high school have both the racial violence that they have and also have the tracking programs they have. Schools that had integration injunctions built carefully designed tracks, tracks that they could use, in conjunction with national tests that seemed to be something only poor kids would fail, to keep the poor children and nonwhite children out of the higher classes, ie. the College classes.
As this continued, some people tried to get around it by using charters. But these too, became places where our legacy was reflected in the way kids were treated, in what access they got and in where they were located (for more on that you can look through my archives). The national tests, again designed to be failed and to show the “failure” of a very specific kids, were then used to avoid integration and equitable access to resources and to close down the only institution left in this community. Like their forebears, people were happy to profit off of the poor. What we are seeing now in the schools, with the computer based programs, the punishing zero tolerance policies, the tracking, the closing down of schools, the selling off of our kids and schools to private corporations are thus one more wave in the attempt to keep in place a system that was oppressive in 1200 AD.
But as I said, other people built other systems. Other people resisted that system in Europe, which still has a long way to go but is far more equitable than our system. If other people did it, so can we. If this is a social construction, and it is, it can be torn down. Studying history teaches us time and time again that what was built by people can be torn down by people. And I intend to join the long tradition of being part of the demolition crew.