Wednesday, July 04, 2007

My Educational Journey So Far

Disclaimer: While this particular post has been been tossing back and forth in my head for the last week or so, the core sentiments are lifelong companions. its the product of me spending four years at a school that I never felt completely comfortable in but also can never extract from who I am and who I will be from this point on. In my overly optimistic naivety, I believed graduation serve as a great rationalizer; the moment of clarity that would bring order to my previous travels. Just another spatio-temporal changing turn of the earth's axis, the day came and passed without epiphany or catharsis. Before I knew it, I was in a different state (country, really) waking up under a new sun with the same ghosts.

All of that to say, this is me trying measuring where I am: part active step of self-defining, part reflection on how I got here.

I have trouble telling my educational story--at least honestly telling it--without explicitly engaging my class background. I have had a lot of advantages in my education over the years because my family is relatively well off. While the private Montessori school I attended in the Ghent section of Norfolk, VA didn't have the Exeter price tag, the cost certainly kept its enrollment numbers relatively low. During my time there, I was always the only black kid in my grade. In fact, My sister and I were probably half of the school's black population during our years there.

The weirdest thing about it was that during my time there, race was almost a non-factor. In retrospect, I can think of specific instances where people treated me differently because I was black, but in my pre-adolescent eyes my motley crew of friends were just one big happy United Colors of Benetton ad. If anything, I was the rich kid before I was the black kid.

This color-blindness instilled a warped sense of America's racial dynamics, but it also gave me this radically humanist ideal for education. In Montessori, I was free to explore the things that interested me. That mostly consisted of ring-tailed lemurs, manta rays and the Amazon rainforest. There were specific objectives at times, but all of the learning took place in one large room with two floors. There was some semblance of separation by grade, but for the most part people worked with similar skill levels. Rarely was time a major factor in completing an assignment. Certainly, there were times when the teachers had to firmly establish guidelines or demand that an assignment be completed by the end of the day. Like any school, it had structure of discipline and regiment to make sure that it prepared its students for less free-form institutions they would inevitably attend in the future. Still, the Montessori method hinges on graying the boundary between work and play. Montessori managed to make the learning process fun.

Ward Schaefer's paper on free schools made me rethink my own early educational experience, especially on how schools have the opportunity to create a student-centered environment that facilitates enjoyable learning. While researching his paper, I came across an article in The Washington Post titled "Montessori, Now 100, Goes Mainstream". Besides solidifying my childhood as hip and pre-tipping point, the article touched on a lot of the issues of class and race that I think about a lot these days. Looking at a handful of Montessori schools in Prince George County Maryland, the article looks at the school's history of predominately serving middle-class white families and seeing how the schools fare in the mostly African-American DC suburb. The article doesn't provide a great deal of evidence for its claims, it states that public schools in PG County are increasingly using the Montessori method in Kindergarten and early elementary school. It also explains that the black middle-class has increasingly turned towards private Montessori schools in suburbs outside DC.

Implicit in the Post article, and something that I have run into over and over in my own experience, is the tension between education and class mobility. Conversations of "good" schools and "bad" schools are inherently about what type of economic status the school endows the student upon matriculation. A "good" school will give its students the requisite skills to be socioeconomically well-adjusted citizens. Bad schools, on the other hand, are often, at worst, accused of perpetuating cycles of poverty. At best, they are considered ill-equipped to remedy the economic and social conditions that exist outside of their doors. For the black middle class-- and the aspiring black middle class--the questions of class mobility are omnipresent. For my parents and their peers there was a lot of pressure to take advantage of Brown. v. Board of Education, The Civil Rights Act, and the plethora of other opportunities (real and imagined) that were opened up in the post-civil rights era. This pressure has been passed on to my generation with visceral consequences in education. One, the black community has been irreconcilably split along the lines of class. By and large, the black professional class has abandoned the predominately black urban public schools and either left the cities for higher performing suburban school districts or decided to send their kids to private schools (like Montessori).

The narrative of the failing inner city school is well known. I'm concerned, however, with the other side of this dialectic. The ill antithesis that stays haunting me, is the possibility of education not simply being a tool for economic advancement. My Montessorian roots say that learning can be for its own sake. In a pursuit that resembles child-like play, we learn to better understand ourselves; to unlock unimaginable potential; to become, for lack of a more appropriate term, free. What I fear, and know is more than likely true, is that these goals might be inextricably tied to class status. Education that pursues the loftiest of ideals, whether it be progressive student-centered elementary school or a prestigious liberal arts college in the Berkshires, comes with a hefty price tag. With the high cost, its mission inherently changes. It becomes exclusive, it has to ensure the status quo, it has perpetuate its own brand name.

For better or for worse, this is the upside of the post-civil rights era. Freedom for some. Until, proven otherwise, there's no other way to play this American dream.

1 comment:

Brother Spotless said...

In many ways, ours is the 1st truly free generation of black folks (even if said freedom only avails itself to some). This piece does a great job of illustrating some specifics of enjoying that freedom through education. Having graduated from a Quaker boarding school, I can relate to the weird sensation of open-mindedness as in many instances I was able to study anything I wanted. Tallness chose manta rays and the rain forest, I chose brine collections at the bottom of the deepest point in the ocean.