They need to know how the game is rigged, how the game can be played, and how the game can be changed.
Every time we tell kids in poverty that the key to success is hard work and good behaviour we are asking them to buy into a myth. That myth is called a meritocracy, the idea that in a society merit and effort define outcomes, and education (the ‘great equaliser’) levels the playing field. Many of us concerned with inequity know that this meritocracy is a myth, we recognise unequal outcomes in schools and society and yet we keep asking our kids to believe in the systems that produce those outcomes.
We see what we call low-expectations in our students, which can manifest as self-doubt in their ability to succeed, and the instinct is to do whatever it takes to make them believe in themselves, to make them believe that they can be winners. But rather than teaching them to believe in themselves, we often end up teaching them to believe in the system, in the game, in the myth. Conditioning them to buy into a false narrative that tells us that we all get what we deserve.
The truth is that the system was never designed for kids in poverty to be winners, or for kids who are oppressed and marginalised to find liberation. We associate education with ideals of equality and opportunity but in reality schooling functions as a mechanism of hegemony, reflecting and reproducing social hierarchies, conditioning kids to accept their place while normalising inequality. And so when we ask kids to buy into that system, when we ask them to believe in the myth of meritocracy, we are asking them to buy into a game that has been rigged against them.
Even when we recognise inequity as a problem, the myth can still distort how we educate and how we approach reform. When we assume that the game was designed to be fair, and that the original intent of our schooling systems was just and equitable, then the logical reaction to inequitable outcomes is that either the system has become broken and needs to be fixed or maybe our kids are broken and need to be fixed – or perhaps both. Then the question of achieving equity becomes focused only on effectiveness and efficiency, how to ensure that schools and students are meeting the standards of the system, the standards of the game. But in the process we neglect to examine the game itself, we neglect to question its purpose, it’s intent. We neglect to consider that perhaps the system isn’t broken; maybe it’s doing exactly what it was supposed to do. Once we understand the purpose of the game, and the role of school within it, we can start to understand whom it was designed to serve and whom it was designed to exclude. We can see how that purpose is embedded in systems, in spaces, in values, in culture, in narratives, in standards, in us.
Despite our good intentions, if we try to fix a system without understanding the oppressive purpose embedded within its design we can end up making it more effective and efficient at oppressing our kids. For example, in a system that values rote memorisation of prescribed knowledge over critical thinking and inquiry; silent, unquestioning students, in orderly classrooms, regurgitating prescribed content may feel like the goal. In a system where compliance to authority is the condition of access, teaching unquestioning conformity to the demands of authority may feel like an effective strategy. In a curriculum that only privileges the culture, knowledge and narratives of the dominant social group, the identity and narratives of your students and their communities may feel irrelevant, or perhaps a source of unhelpful dissonance, distracting from the process of assimilating children into the cultural norms of the game.
Anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, said that ‘the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. When we consider the norms and standards of our schooling systems within the frame of Biko’s words what do we see? How might teaching blind compliance condition the oppressed mind to accept rather than question their reality? How might the norm of conforming to authority within school condition the mind to conform to the dynamics of power within society? How might the exclusion of your students culture, knowledge and narratives from the classroom indoctrinate kids into hegemonic cultural hierarchies, reward assimilation, and destroy their sense of self worth? And then you have to ask yourself, who does this serve?
To answer that question we have to consider the origins of schooling. For example, how was public education is the US shaped by the philosophy of Johann Fichte, who 200 years ago wrote that ‘education should aim at destroying free will’, or the work of Ellwood Cubberley, who believed schools should be ‘factories’ where children are ‘shaped into products’. What does it tell us about the original purpose of schooling when compulsory education in the US was initially introduced to ensure that children of poor immigrants were ‘civilised’, or that 150 years ago Native children, as young as four, were being taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools designed to ‘kill the Indian to save the man’. What does it mean today when after hundreds of years of being systematically denied access to education many African American children are still being denied access due to zero tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately criminalise children of colour, creating a fast track pipe line from school to prison.
When we look across the world, especially in countries with a history of colonisation we see oppression built into the DNA of schooling. And so if oppression is built into the very purpose and design of the systems in which we work then how should we respond? Do we choose complicity in that system or do we choose to disrupt and transform?
A critical part of disrupting oppression and transforming our reality is to develop a critical consciousness in our students. It’s not enough for us to just teach kids to play the game when the game is rigged against them. They need to know how the game is rigged, how the game can be played, and how the game can be changed. Don’t get me wrong, ensuring that our students know how to play the game, and can access opportunities that have been historically denied is a key part of our mission but teaching kids to do so blindly is a deception and an injustice. It does not prepare children for the true nature of the challenge, or provide them with the self-love, consciousness and critical hope necessary to succeed on their terms.
The prejudices of racial and economic hegemony are built into the DNA of our current reality and the systems on which that reality is constructed, and unless we are helping our students to interrogate, reveal, disrupt, dismantle and ultimately transform that reality, we remain complicit in its preservation.