I have taught in the wealthiest community in America as well as among the least privileged. My hardest time as a teacher came in 1999, while teaching American government to a group of fifteen inmates in a North Carolina correctional facility. I had taught significantly older inmates in several prisons already, but was unprepared for these students’ near total lack of preparedness for even a watered-down introductory college course. I guess I had been lucky before. Halfway through the semester, I think it was clear to all of us that no one would pass, but we were all too afraid to confess it aloud to one another – we just kept plugging away. At semester’s end, I couldn’t bear to give them all F’s, so I withdrew everyone from the class. I didn’t consult my students or supervisors about this course of action. Looking back today, I think I could’ve done better by those guys, but I don’t want all the blame.
I believe society owes its children more than it gives most of them – and I don’t just mean better teachers. It’s been argued by others smarter than me that the privileged can too easily ignore the relationship between their gains and others’ losses. No doubt we must make those relationships transparent to get at them. But genuine commitment to social change means persuading a privileged class fully aware of the unfairness of modern education and willing to opt for it anyway because: 1) they like the benefits – there are certainly Americans who recognize their benefits come solely on the backs of others’ sacrifice and accept them anyway, or, 2) on an individual basis, they cannot see how giving up their benefits will make a significant difference to society – it will simply move them, individually, from the Haves column to the Have Nots column without creating any real fundamental changes for society. Real change will only come on the heels of a compelling argument for why equality, or at least significantly greater equality, makes sense. I think the inherent justice or value of fairness or of preventing suffering has already proven itself to be persuasively insufficient.
I believe we need a new argument that owns up the codependent relationship between privilege and suffering, will be persuasive enough to change the minds of enough privileged Americans to overcome the futility objection, and show some clear and widespread benefits of equality and justice. I’m not sure what that argument looks like, but history makes me increasingly certain that without that compelling argument, and the resultant willing support of privileged Americans, fundamental change is unlikely.
I’m a better teacher now and am confident I would serve that group of fifteen young men better today, but serving them better as their teacher wouldn’t do anything to redress the public education that failed them so thoroughly before I met them.
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