Today I write because we have failed. While we always knew that the American education system was extremely flawed, the past few days have exemplified this problem to a point where it is no longer deniable. I readily admit that we could probably argue until the end of time what exactly went wrong a few days ago; however, I suggest that there are three fundamental problems with how our education system is to blame. I promise this will not be ideologically unbalanced.
1. White children were not taught about white privilege, but rather, they were made to feel white guilt. This had huge implications.
I know, I know, you are tired of hearing about this, but it is foolish to pretend that the best thing to do for our children is to ignore the atrocities of our past. German students learn all about Nazism and the holocaust, not as a means of inflicting shame, but as a guide to how one should handle fear in times of despair. I am not arguing that American students are purposely uneducated about the history of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement; In fact, I challenge you to find one social studies or American history textbook that makes no mention of these uncomfortable truths. The difference is that we are taught these sins belong to some forgone generation that no longer has any effect on our modern world. We are not taught how these events came to pass; instead we are taught to take pride in the fact that they do not happen anymore. American pride has always been predicated on an admittedly flawed American history that has been taught as the “best case scenario” in a very ancient, different and archaic world. To put it simply, “Yes, our nation committed crimes against humanity, but our crimes either did not compare to those committed by others, or even worse, they were necessary to prevent even further savagery and human suffering in the name of modernizing uncivilized peoples.“ The “we had to fight fire with fire” strategy, if you will. This has led us to believe that these types of things CAN NOT happen anymore, because our now modern world will no longer allow it; nothing could be further from the truth.
American history is not taught as a guide for the future; it is taught as a reminder of how glorious the present is, comparatively speaking. This is problematic for two reasons. The first is reasonably explained by the sentences above: it creates a sense of social complacency. The second is a little more complex. By taking the blame away from ourselves, and by teaching the uncomfortable aspects of American history as unpunishable crimes lost in time, we never addressed the effects that were still present in the very classrooms where we were trying to address the problem. A multi-generational statute of limitations was provided as the excuse as to why no kind of formal restitution could ever be made to those people damaged by official government race-based policies. This created two very different types of mindsets between two very different American identities. As European-American children were told how great they were simply for living in a post civil-rights, integrated society, they were never taught how to maintain this with respect to how the past actively shapes the present. Yes, I am talking about white privilege, but do not stop reading just yet, I am going to explain its effect in a completely different way that does not scold you to “check your privilege” (in case I have already offended you).
As much as white privilege is damaging to ethnic and cultural minorities, it also inflicts damage to the psyche of Caucasian-American children as well. By erroneously teaching both majority and minority youth that the current state of social affairs has already been made fair by pioneering trailblazers from the past, we failed to recognize the persisting imbalance created by undeniably unjust policies. I am sure you are tired of hearing how this affected minority populations, so I will refrain from repeating the academic scholarship that our public obviously has no respect for at this anti-elitist moment in history. Instead, I contend that this taught Caucasian-American children that the privileged lifestyle they were growing up with, and accustomed to, was the result of their parents’ hard work and exceptionalism, instead of the dwindling benefits of white supremacist policies. Children growing up in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s believed they were living in a post racial society due to integration. What they did not realize was that official policies from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, respectively, were providing their high school educated, unskilled parents with an income and benefits that were no longer conducive to a rapidly evolving employment market. Post racial American society meant that everybody legally had equal access to an economy that was historically constructed around the purchase of labor. As even the most entry-level high school economics student can understand, this influx of unskilled labor created a huge supply in the face of a rapidly decreasing demand, and the value of the human resource plummeted. The unstable job market created an environment of fear and nurtured a self-preservationist culture, making it even harder to organize around labor unions and justify the kind of individual sacrifices that would be needed to support such kinds of populist movements. The situation was too dire; there was no time to think about anyone else.
So what did we learn? Well, we saw the vintage newsreels of police dogs and water hoses being used on people. We saw postcards featuring lynched bodies and images of how the human back would scar after what seemed to be an infinite number of lashings. We saw a reality that was so scary and so far from what we wanted for ourselves, that we externalized everything about the problem and expressed our sympathies to the victims of the past. In other words, we instilled white guilt. What we did not learn about were the ways in which people were still being victimized, and how the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow and the emerging prison industrial complex were maintaining the old order. The fatal flaw was that we were simultaneously being told that we were exceptional people for doing nothing more than being ourselves. For all of the warm fuzziness it provided, American exceptionalism lulled us into a false sense of security about the future, especially for those people who could see how well their parents were doing, despite how unexceptional they honestly knew them to be. To put it bluntly, we handicapped a generation of European-American children by not only teaching them they were special for no reason at all, but by providing them with race-based, post WWII windfalls to reinforce that false truth with tangible evidence. Nobody told them these benefits were eventually going to go away, because no one had the heart to tell the entire room that they even existed in the first place. It was an act of cowardice and convenience with compounding consequences. At this point, I would like to remind you of the only American population that systematically escaped this well-intentioned hindrance: immigrants.
2. Students have not been properly prepared to be competitive in a service based, technology driven economy.
Lets address the first part of this statement, the “being competitive” element of this section. You have to appreciate the irony in the fact that the party of personal responsibility has just elected a savior figure – someone to come and rescue them from their situation. I freely admit that Hillary would also not have been able to save them; the problem is, nobody wanted to do anything to save themselves. In the past few years, American schools have moved away from teaching students the value of handling adversity. The importance of feelings and self-esteem has been prioritized over instruction and academic discipline. I know that all of the liberals meant well when they created football teams and cheerleading squads where every interested person could join no matter how talented they were (sometimes requiring more sideline space than available). But this did not teach anyone anything of value in preparation for the real world. I could be wrong, but is education not meant to be preparation for real life? Grading methods that did not allow for any kind of constructive criticisms of poor or subpar work also contributed to the problem. We created too many safety bubbles and denied our children the experience of learning from failure. Nobody learned how to get better or how to work harder for improved results. Instead, we created a generation of people who have learned that it is okay to be exactly the way they are, no matter how flawed their logic, reasoning or even facts, may be. I do not doubt that this did wonders for our self-esteem. In fact, we are consistently rated as the most overly confident country in the world when comparing our abilities to our perceptions of them. However, this has crippled an entire generation of Americans. We did not continue the tradition of teaching the next generation what it takes to be great. Instead, we told ourselves that we were great for doing nothing more than existing on top of a magical land.
The entitlement outlined in the first section of this OpEd was dangerous enough. A double dose of incompetence was the lighting of the fuse. The first dose was the inability to handle adversity outlined above. The second was the lack of any skills that would be meaningful to the changing economy. The automobile and post industrial revolution manufacturing sectors were amazing, but there was never any reason to believe they would be eternal. Human civilization managed to exist before the impacts of these economic booms, and it will continue to exist when they have completely disappeared. I will now tell you of two times my education did not fail me, as I suggest it has done for so many others.
In third grade, I remember the very first economics lesson of my life. Our teacher, Mrs. D, explained to us that our country was moving away from a product-based economy towards a service-based economy. Of course, we were too young to understand what she was saying, so she did a little exercise to help us realize the point. She told us to raise our hands if our parents or grandparents made something for a living. Our bewildered looks turned to comprehension when she provided us with examples like cars, airplanes and electronics, and the majority of us slowly raised our hands. She told us right then and there, most of you WILL NOT be this way. We learned that day that most of us were going to provide services to the economy in exchange for our living wage, unlike the generations before us. For some reason, I never forgot that. I do not know why, but it resonated with me. As I went from elementary, to middle and then to high school I began to notice a very obvious truth about providing services to people in exchange for money. People will only pay you to do things that they either can not do, or that they do not want to do: it is infinitely better to provide services that belong in the “can not do” column.
Along with the value of my limited services, I also noticed something else happening in the time span I just outlined. In elementary school we used TI computers with monochromatic screens that could play Oregon Trail. In middle school we started learning DOS and then moved to Windows. Half way through high school, we were on the Internet. In a very short amount of time, I saw technology increasing at a rate that was both fascinating and intimidating. As scary as computers seemed during my childhood, there was no way to escape their impact on our lives, and intelligent people began to say things like, “you better start learning about these computers if you want a job in the future.” What used to look like an impossibility was suddenly being presented as a liability, and I did not resist. Keyboarding replaced typing, html replaced C+; software suddenly became capable of emulating hardware. The end of the second industrial age was over and we were in the middle of a full on overhaul of our economy, based on the digital and information ages. No, I did not come out of this unscathed, and the transition has been challenging, but I have not been wasting any time looking for work in the manufacturing, auto or aerospace industries, no matter how glorious they were in my childhood. The writing was on the wall; it is just that nobody wanted to read it. Remember teasing that “computer nerd” back in the ‘90s? I do. Ours was named J**** ****. I bet he is having the last laugh now; or at the very least, that he does not care about the results of the election with regard to his ability to procure financial stability.
In a service based, technology oriented economy; two things were going to be very important. First, we needed to learn how to behave and treat each other. I will just let you stop and try to think how well we did on that front. Second, we needed to teach people to be less rigid and how to adapt and evolve with new ideas. The age of technology depended on it. How did we respond? No Child Left Behind. Lets review something really fast, and come back to this point.
3. Both of these situations contributed to an environment where students were never taught how to perform critical analysis.
There is a responsibility the people of the rust belt, rural America and the working class have forgotten. I know that the people who live there do not believe that they organically arose from the fields that surrounded the production plants of Detroit, Cleveland and other manufacturing based cities of the like. They know (and often take pride in) the story of how some distant relative of theirs immigrated to the region to take advantage of a rapidly expanding auto industry. Sometimes they even like to tell you how bad things were for that relative before they reached the shores of such a serene place. So what part of the story did they miss?
My ancestors either immigrated to America from Mexico, or became American when parts of Texas transitioned between sovereignty, and ultimately, American statehood. Do not worry; I am not trying to claim I deserve anything, even citizenship, because of the accuracy of this history. What I want to express is the fact that I realize that I come from people who were willing to leave one nation for another, despite the racist tendencies that may have awaited them, if it meant they could escape a more oppressive state. I do not know how true they were, but I remember hearing stories about the atrocities committed during the revolution and the climate of fear created by leaders like Pancho Villa. To put it simply, my family did not come here because they could not wait to take up careers as field hands in the farming industry. They came to America to escape oppression, and ultimately, to experience a better life. The idea of coming here to gain employment in a factory and to own a house on a decent sized piece of land would have been beyond their wildest dreams, but that outlandish fantasy just happens to be the reality for the European immigrants who provided the much needed labor to the booming auto industry.
Now, when the aerospace and auto industries that provided the backbone of blue-collar, middle-class opportunity for the people of my Dallas/Ft. Worth childhood began to disappear in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I already knew that I probably would not earn a living like my parents. When the people who tried to make a career in those fields failed, I knew that I would not base ANY decisions on the viability of two industries I had personally watched disappear. To be honest, I thought I would be a professional athlete, until I met people who were much more passionate about the dedication it would take to make that happen. Then I thought I wanted to be a dentist, and once again, I met people who were much more dedicated to achieve such a title. Being allowed to fail was good for me. It taught me how to identify and prioritize whatever passions I thought may serve me better. My true passion was in audio engineering, but much like the auto industry, this career disappeared as improvements in technology made it possible for any person with $1000 and a spare room to build a reasonable home studio. Just like Photoshop, Pro Tools became more of a bullet on a resume, as opposed to the bulk of the entire document. Basically, I have had to constantly reevaluate how to achieve my worth in a very volatile employment market. Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to claim that I am special or even smart. I have just always been willing to be aware of what was going on around me; I was always willing to adapt. Yes, I am accruing a reasonable amount of debt as I complete my terminal degree, but I have not allowed myself to be in a situation where voting for an authoritarian savior figure seemed like my only hope.
When I moved to New York City after I completed my undergraduate degrees, I can be honest in the fact that I was partially romanticizing an idealized adventure. However, I can also be honest when I say that I did not feel there was really much reason or opportunity to keep me in DFW. Things were not looking good in my hometown, and as hard as I tried, my personality was not compatible with the few jobs left in the metroplex that could actually provide a decent lifestyle. I moved to New York for several reasons, but ultimately, I was looking for a better life. New York was far from paradise, and I will readily admit that my first job was nothing more than heavy lifting for hardly any pay. Finding work in New York may be the hardest thing for a new college graduate to undertake. I will never tell anyone it was easy. So, did locals who had used their familial connections to get the leg-up on competition surround me? No. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would safely say that 80-90% of the people that I met while living there were from the rust belt region suddenly thrust to the top of our fascination (I understand the anecdotal nature of this data, but lets just pretend for a second that yard signs mean more than polls). They had a tendency to be Caucasian, but they came in all colors and cultures. They would usually have some kind of college education, and they all spoke very fondly of their hometowns and the countryside that surrounded them. However, they also shared one very similar reality. That is, they usually told me that their move to New York was not so much about adventure and chasing dreams, but as a means of survival since there was not much for them to do back in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or wherever they came from. I do not know the number of times I heard stories like this, but I do know that these transplants were the bulk of people I met while I was in the city. They realized what my ancestors and their ancestors had a long time ago. They knew that they had to move to a place that would provide an opportunity to escape the destitute state of places that misguidedly went “all in” on obsolete industries. In the past 20 years, long haul truck driving has been the most common job capable of lifting high school educated people into the middle class, especially from the regions that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. I know the election was riveting and next to impossible to turn away from, but am I the only one who noticed that self-driving vehicles are about to hit the market? Do you remember who travel agents were and what they did (to earn a decent living) back in the ‘80s? Does that sentence even make sense to you?
The one thing I have not heard mentioned throughout all of this post election analysis is the fact that this is our first electorate that was dramatically impacted by the consequences of No Child Left Behind. I know these people personally; they are my students. I will not waste any more of your time going into the details on why standardized testing is problematic with regards to education. I am sure you already have strong opinions about this topic. If this election has taught us anything, it should be that the wide range of diversity in the opinions and attitudes that exist between urban and rural life confirms that our “one size fits all” approach to education has been a failure. No matter how you feel about curriculum, it is obvious that we have a generation of Americans who were not taught how to think critically. The ability to prepare for a test does nothing to nurture the mind; it does not teach the kind of adaptability required to be successful in a technological era experiencing exponential growth. I wonder what those tests look like. I am sure everyone in American schools learned about Adolf Hitler, but did anyone take the time to explain the process by which he came to power? I know, I know, people are going to say that language is hyperbolic in the absence of action from our president-elect, but I challenge you to read the New York Times article describing the anti-Semitism espoused by a pre-Holocaust fuhrer as nothing more than political nonsense with no REAL action behind the zeal. Let us not repeat that same naïve hopefulness of people who had no idea what was truly coming their way, or worse, those people who simply could not accept such a horrific reality.
So there it is liberals and conservatives: both of your influence contributed to this situation in very different ways. I told you I would not blame one side, and I kept my word. We know that Trump is trouble. Most of the people who voted for Trump probably know this as well. At this moment, what we probably should know is the true nature of America. The Jamestown colony of Virginia was the first attempt at creating some sense of this nation we now call home. We all know what happened there. Recently, archeologists and researchers were able to determine that the colony members actually succumbed to eating the flesh of their peers before meeting their ultimate and untimely fates. Be wary, America. From the very beginning of this idea we call our country, people have turned to cannibalism when things get scary.
Christopher L. Diaz
PhD Candidate, UC Riverside