From Thu Feb 24 08:21:56 2000
Date: Wed, 23 Feb 2000 19:31:25 -0500
From: Duane Campbell <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Freedom to Learn
Precedence: bulk

Freedom to Learn

By Dr. Forrest Davis & Dr. Duane E. Campbell <>, February 2000

Black History Month provides a specific opportunity for analysis from a historical perspective of the struggle of African Americans for social and economic equality. African Americans, in various phases of the struggle, have maintained and continuously expressed their desire for freedom.

Our ancestors developed a knowledge base, and concealed this knowledge base as a survival trait. Both acquiring and concealing this cultural centered knowledge base was recognized as necessary to gain freedom. This knowledge strengthened our people as they planned for a time of liberation, and persevered under the worst conditions of slavery, the Jim Crow caste system, and the violence of the Civil Rights era.

Currently many young people are skeptical, confused, and disillusioned about the prospects of making it to the Promised Land.

W.E. B. Du Bois offered some valuable counsel to these young people when he wrote:

Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.... The freedom to learn... has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe; not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said. We must insist upon this to give our children the fairness of a start which will equip them with such an array of facts and such an attitude toward truth that they can have a real chance to judge what the world is and what its greater minds have thought it might be.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Freedom to Learn ([1949] 1970b, pp. 230-231)

Black History Month serves as a historical framework for all people who have a desire to pursue the goal of social justice and economic equality. To achieve these goals we need to recognize the transition from a system characterized by brutal physical oppression and ethnic dominance by Whites, to a system based upon social manipulation, coercion, and economic inequality. African Americans must join with other subordinated groups and shift the struggle from ethnic encapsulation to a broad based multi ethnic force of resistance. Only this board based multi-ethnic force can create voting majorities in this society.

Dr. King’s own vision of the Promised Land clearly reflected this multicultural coalition of forces. We must remember that it was this shift in Dr. King’s own vision and work, the shift to the Poor People’s Campaign, and the support for striking Garbage Workers, which led to his assassination.

How do we protect and extend King’s vision, and Dubois’s the Freedom to Learn in the year 2000? One way is to engage in the struggle for quality public schools.

In most of our major urban centers, except Seattle, a new majority of students have emerged—one composed of diverse people of color; African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders, multi-racial kids, and many more. In the face of this dramatic shift, the population of teachers remains over 78% European American.

This division would not be so much a cause of concern except that at the same time nationally over 50% of Black and Latino children score below basic in Reading levels in 4th. Grade, and 47% (Black) and 46% (Latino) scored below basic reading in the 8th. Grade, according to the 1998 Reading Report Card of the National Center for Educational Statistics. Discrepancies in math scores are similarly stark.

That is to say, we do not have a general education crisis in the nation, we have a crisis for Black, Latino, Asian and poor white kids. We are not providing the children of the new majorities with, a fairness of a start which will equip them with such an array of facts and such an attitude toward truth that they can a real chance to judge what the world is and what its greater minds have thought it might be.

The Black Civil Rights leadership, along with labor, has historically provided the leadership in struggles for social justice, and in the struggle to demand that the public schools provide an equal opportunity to the sons and daughters of working people.

Currently, our educational institutions work for some students and do not work for others. As Berliner and Biddle well demonstrated in The Manufactured Crisis (1995), schools for middle class Black, Latino and European American children fundamentally fulfill their purposes. But the schools for poor African American, Latino and European American children fail. And while this failure effects all children, it disproportionately impacts the children of African Americans and Latinos. Fully half of all their children are in failing schools. Not 10%, not 20%, but over 50% of these children are being failed.

The important issue is to measure the number, and percentage of children in poverty, and then track these children to their schools. You will find these schools under performing at a colossal rate. Raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and other measures pushed by politicians to avoid having to pay for school improvement, have done little to improve these schools.

Many large states have turned to an increased emphasis on testing to improve scores. In California, it’s the API (Academic Performance Index) in Texas, the AEIS (Academic Excellence Indicator system) and in Illinois, the Illinois Standards Assessment Systems. What you will find when looking at these scores in each of these systems is -surprise- schools with high concentrations of student in poverty have very low academic performance rankings. We are spending millions of dollars to find out what we already know rather than to improve the schools.

The differences in income and poverty levels by race are not accidental. They are the direct result of our economic, social, and educational systems. Extreme poverty is the direct result of lack of employment skills and employment history, School failure and lack of employment in one generation leads directly to poverty and school crisis in the next generation.

Low quality education and job segregation in prior generations led to a concentration of African American and Latino workers in low skilled industrial labor. Today, in the emergent new economy, these jobs have been transferred to other countries leaving increased poverty in inner city neighborhoods.

The problem is not race. There is no intellectually defensible evidence of differences in learning abilities by race. The problem is racism. Racism is the developed and strengthened in the continuation of radically unequal learning conditions.

The careful research of Gary Orfield and his colleagues reveal that, contrary to common assumptions, schools in most urban centers in the North are more segregated today, than they were in the 1960’s. The segregation is no longer Black/White, now it is Black/White/ Latino/Asian, particularly in California and the South West.

A closer look at the defacto segregated schools serving minorities reveals, for example, that we have the greatest number of non credentialed teachers in our lowest performing schools. We have teachers with degrees in Social Studies and art teaching math. Guess what, the students don’t learn as much math as they should. In some urban areas, teaching out of field approaches 40% of the total.

Now, we would not dream of allowing a doctor or a nurse to practice without a license, but we regularly send poor children to classrooms where the teacher has not met minimum preparation requirements. And we do this in schools serving Black and Brown kids, not in the middle class suburbs. Racism does it greatest damage in our institutions, like schools, where often well meaning people preserve a seldom examined social structure which benefits some people while harming others.

Schools teach ideas. The ideas they choose to teach are selected by text book writers, state authorities, and teachers. Teachers and textbooks promote either an ideology of racism or pluralism, an ideology of either equality or of inequality. The current schools promote continuing the society as it is, stratified and unequal. The campaigns such as California’s Prop. 209, led by Ward Connerly, to eliminate affirmative action set back efforts to create a more diverse teaching force. And to bring the wisdom of the cultural centered knowledge to serve our children.

We now have significant evidence from New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and many of the major city school districts that we can have an African American superintendent, and staff, or a Latino superintendent, spend 3-5 years on new programs, and leave the district having made little substantive difference in students test scores.

We need to invest in urban schools, provide equal educational opportunities in these schools, and recruit a well prepared teaching force that begins to reflect the student populations in these schools. We must insist on equal opportunity to learn, no compromise.

When we do these things, we will begin to protect the Freedom to Learn for our children and our grandchildren, and to build a more just and democratic society.