Education Will Be Critical in the Fight for Democracy and Anti-Racism

What is the role of education in creating a critically-minded public that is unafraid to resist lies and deceptions perpetuated by anti-democratic forces? How do we best address the assumption that economically oppressed children can’t learn? In what way does internalized racism impact students of color and how must this be addressed? In what ways should we rethink the aims of education beyond careerism?

To address these and other important questions, Truthout spoke with Pedro A. Noguera, who is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the Rossier School of Education and a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Southern California (USC). Prior to joining USC, Noguera served as a tenured professor and holder of endowed chairs at the University of California, Los Angeles; New York University; Harvard University; and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, co-author and editor of 15 books. His most recent books are Common Schooling: Conversations About the Tough Questions and Complex Issues Confronting K-12 Education in the United States Today (Teachers College Press) with Rick Hess and City Schools and the American Dream: Still Pursuing the Dream (Teachers College Press) with Esa Syeed.

George Yancy: As someone who has done so much to rethink what is possible within the context of classrooms — in terms of issues related to educational equality, the education gap, race and education, policy issues that do or do not promote educational success — I want to begin by asking a question about how you understand education within the context of democracy. Educational reformer John Dewey was clear about how important critical intelligence is to a thriving democratic citizenry. Define how you understand education and its role against anti-democratic forces. I’m thinking here how bell hooks argues that education should be a practice of freedom.

Pedro A. Noguera: George, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of education in promoting and safeguarding democracy during the Trump years. The four years of his presidency have been characterized by a full-blown assault on facts and information, science, reasoned debate, a hyper-partisanship. We’ve also seen a rise in right-wing violence and extremism. Fortunately, he was denied a second term, but his election exposed how vulnerable we are to right-wing authoritarianism in this country.

Numerous scholars have described education as the foundation of democracy and we now understand clearly why that is the case. Without a grounding in history, civics and an ability to think critically, people can be easily manipulated, especially by social media, and authoritarian leaders can use that to their advantage. We must keep in mind that Trump was barely defeated in the national election, which means almost half the [voting] population was ready to sign up for four more years. Now we must figure out how to address the fear, misinformation and conspiracy theories that are being used to frighten people into seeing the COVID-19 vaccine as a tool of mass extermination. It’s quite scary.

As I think about how to address this problem, I agree with bell hooks that education must be a practice in freedom. It’s not enough to put information out for people to consume. To prepare kids to participate in democracy, they must learn to think critically about their role in society. For this to happen, schools must engage their students in democratic practice in the classroom and beyond. Students must learn through experience what democracy is and what it can do to advance justice and freedom. As a former social studies teacher myself, I used debate and simulations as a way to create powerful learning experiences to reinforce a student’s understanding of history and politics. For example, I once invited a friend from college to come to my class dressed as Thomas Jefferson. Prior to the visit, I had my students learn about Jefferson’s life, his presidency and his personal contradictions. When my friend showed up in his Jefferson disguise, he was pummeled with questions about slavery, his relationship with Sally Hemmings (and how old she was when it began), and the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence in a society founded on slavery.

I believe that creating these kinds of learning experiences is essential for preparing students to participate in democracy. When students understand their rights, when they can comprehend the contradictions in our history, and when they know how to defend their beliefs with facts and evidence, they will be better prepared to confront the contradictions and injustices that are pervasive today. My hope is that such learning experiences will make it possible for them to see that they must be actively involved in addressing problems like environmental racism, racial inequality, police violence, etc. Fatalism is our enemy and education can counter it if educational experiences are visceral and illuminating.

Many scholars who critique neoliberalism vis-à-vis education have argued that education is in the grips of an economic-philosophical orientation that is wedded to marketization, commodification and the production of economic value, where investment is made in the capacities of students to generate economic value for themselves, the companies for which they work and the state. Such assumptions and pedagogical practices seem inconsistent with a robust sense of education as a site that generates what philosopher Cornel West calls non-market values. What might educators do to counter this way of imprisoning the meaning and practice of education within the context of such a narrow economic ethos?

It’s hardly surprising that the logic of neoliberalism has been embraced by policy makers, as well as some foundations and think tanks, as a way of reforming education. After all, that logic has found its way into almost every aspect of public life in recent years, most notably health care. Human needs and the social purposes of education not only receive less attention; in many cases, they aren’t being considered at all. It’s important to recognize that this is a bipartisan issue: Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced neoliberal logic when they advocate for reform.

The good news is that their prescriptions for change — high-stakes standardized testing, school “choice” through the proliferation of charter schools and vouchers, and closing schools deemed to be “failing” — hasn’t worked. They’ve had over 20 years since the enactment of No Child Left Behind to try implement their ideas and they haven’t delivered the kind of improvement they promised. Even in cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and states like Florida and Arizona, where choice has been used as the policy driver, there is scant evidence that it has resulted in better schools for the poorest children.

However, I think it’s not good enough to criticize these ideas. We must offer an alternative vision that addresses the challenge of delivering a high-quality education to communities mired in poverty. This is the crux of the issue: Wherever poor children of color are concentrated, the schools that serve them are struggling. I would like to say let’s focus on ending poverty, but as we know, that won’t happen any time soon. We can’t simply tell parents to wait until we reform capitalism. Parents want answers for their kids now, and as a parent, I agree with them. Additionally, it’s important to recognize that as debilitating as the effects of poverty may be, it doesn’t mean that kids who are poor can’t learn. The question we must ask is: How do we mitigate the effects of poverty, address the unequal allocation of resources to schools, and provide educators with the support required to meet the needs of their students? I believe that if we can focus the policy discussions in this way, we can make more progress than we have.

The problem of race and schooling is a huge, continuous and difficult problem. To address failing schools, as these failures are tracked along the axis of race and racism, requires a broad, coalitional form of agency and a mode of analysis that is multipronged. It seems to me that we can’t isolate the question of the educational performance of a Black student from the failure of teachers to believe that such a student is a living possibility, or from the ways that learning is impacted by the prison-like structures of schools. Speak to this issue of organicity.

Race as we know is central to America’s educational dilemma. Structural racism is real and it is embedded in our society’s policies, institutions and beliefs. There are schools that have shown that when Black, Latino and Native American children are educated under conditions where their culture and personhood are valued and affirmed, where expectations and academic standards are high, and parents are engaged as respected partners, excellent results are possible. In several publications I have identified such schools because they serve as proof that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with the children. This might seem obvious to those who don’t work in education, but I would argue that there are still many in this country who continue to subscribe to racist beliefs about genetics and intellectual ability.

I also know that it’s easy to be distracted by what we might call “silver bullets”: the notion that all we have to do is hire more teachers of color, or implement an anti-racist or ethnic studies curriculum, and the problems will fade away. Educational issues are more complicated than that, and on matters related to race, the complexity is important.

Schools that counter the effects of racism and capitalism do so by enacting several strategies simultaneously. They empower teachers with a clear understanding of how to meet the academic and social needs of their students. They build partnerships rooted in respect for parents. They have strong, visionary leaders who work with their community to create a culture characterized by caring, collaboration and accountability. They cultivate the curiosity in children, teach them to utilize their higher-order thinking skills, and provide opportunities for them to develop their voice and to use their education to address the problems facing their school, community, society and the world.

I believe racial integration is a goal worth pursuing because we live in an interracial society and children must be prepared to live with others from different backgrounds. However, I don’t think we have to wait for our schools to be integrated to deliver a better education to them. In fact, I have found that it is often easier to create the kinds of conditions I have described in schools that are racially homogenous or where no white children are present, if we have the will, resources and support needed to do so. I don’t want to make this sound easy but I do believe it can be done.

After Barack Obama became president, I recall many (across racial lines) who argued that racism no longer existed, which meant that if Black children and children of color fail in school, they do so because of their own lack of effort. This view, sadly, overlooked systemic forms of racism, its history and its current manifestations. How does systemic racism continue to negatively impact Black and Brown children in North America when it comes to educational equity?

George, I believe I addressed this in my response to the previous question. The only thing I should add is that in addition to addressing structural, ideological and interpersonal racism, education must also address internalized racism.

Yes! Excellent.

This is in many ways the most insidious effect of living in a racist society. As Black people, we not only internalized racist beliefs about ourselves, we also developed them toward other people of color. Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, Paulo Freire and many others have written about why addressing this is so important to human liberation. The only way we can demonstrate agency in acting on our collective interests is by rejecting the dehumanizing beliefs that serve as the basis of our subjugation.

My own understanding of this process — which we might describe as an awakening to self-love, and a collective consciousness that rejects white supremacy — has been helped from learning about how the Maori have approached decolonization in New Zealand. Increasingly, they have come to understand that they can only reject white supremacy and the legacy of English colonialism by critically asserting what it means to be Maori today. This means not romanticizing the past but drawing from the best and most useful elements of language and culture to begin constructing a new sense of self.

Schools can play a role in facilitating this awakening by providing children with an education that affirms their identity without reinforcing narrow parochialism. This is not merely a matter of being exposed to the right content. Children must have powerful learning experiences that teach them the utility of core values (e.g., respect, character, etc.) and cultural concepts (e.g., unity, social responsibility, etc.) so that they will be prepared for life as adults. Such an education is the only effective way to counter the sense of inferiority that is cultivated among people of color, especially Black people, in America.

As a Black man who engages important questions that deal with race and education, how do your experiences shape your approach regarding how young Black males can be affirmed in K-12 educational spaces? I say this with the understanding that there are proportionally more white female teachers than teachers of color.

I have argued on several occasions and in writing that what young men of color, especially Black men, need is the chance to grow and develop without being limited by what we now call toxic masculinity. Like race, the social construction of gender is deeply embedded in the fabric of society and is reinforced through hegemonic structures that cause gender roles to appear “natural.” Males of color do best academically and socially when they are in environments where they are challenged, supported, encouraged to dream, exposed to new opportunities and allowed to be themselves without being limited by the stereotypes related to race and gender that are prevalent in society. Without a concerted effort to create conditions like these, the stereotypes more often than not will determine how young men see themselves and are seen by others. As a Black man, I know from experience how hard it is to do this. However, I know enough Black men who have managed to overcome these obstacles to know that it can be done.

How do you envision education as a possible force and source of creating a world in which we as human beings collectively flourish or are able to heal from so many forces that divide us?

Education must do more than prepare children for college or jobs. It must equip them with the mindset needed to address the many challenges facing this country and the world. Right now, we’re coping with the pandemic, a severe economic crisis and the growing reality that climate change will totally alter the future in ways we can barely imagine. Educational issues are rarely seen as a priority in national politics. That may be a good thing since most politicians know very little about the complex issues facing our schools. However, anyone who is at all worried about the future has to see that education is our best, and perhaps our only, resource for tackling the problems we will face.

Our schools reflect the best, and sometimes the worst, of our society. I believe that if we’re going to make progress in addressing the issues that divide and undermine the progress of this nation — poverty, racism, inequality, etc. — education will have to play a central role. However, this is asking a lot of our schools and the educators who work in them. This occurred during the summer when many kids were not in school. Imagine what would have happened if kids had been in school at the time of George Floyd’s murder, a murder captured on video and seen by millions of people, including children. Would teachers have known how to respond? As protests erupted, and looting ensued in some cities, would educators have been able to turn this into a “teachable moment,” and if so, what would they have taught?

Education is the best tool we have for creating a more just and equitable society, but our schools have significant limitations. We hire ordinary people to become teachers and principals but expect them to do extraordinary things. Among other things, we expect them to stimulate and challenge kids, to encourage and ensure evidence of learning from those who are unmotivated, to support those with significant social and emotional needs, and to keep all kids safe while they are in school. Now, on top of all of that, we are expecting schools to deliver meaningful instruction to kids virtually when they had almost no time to prepare for this moment.

It’s hardly surprising that so many schools fail given how much they’ve been asked to do. This is why I have described myself as a critical supporter of schools, especially public schools, because no other institution is charged with meeting such a broad array of challenges. Many of our schools are often set up to fail because they lack the resources to address the complex issues they face.

Despite their flaws and limitations, we have to support public schools. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, they are a vital part of the social safety net where kids can receive support. But they must do more. They must prepare kids to engage the world around them, and not merely accept things as they are. Education must show kids how to apply what they learn to confront the problems facing the world. It must cultivate their agency and ability to think critically so that they will refuse to accept or adapt to injustice, and refuse to see racism as simply an unfortunate aspect of life. Education must empower students and provide them with the capacity to approach our collective problems with courage, resourcefulness and creativity.

George, I believe in the power of education, and this is why I have made it my vocation and avocation for over 30 years.

Now that we have moved beyond what many view as Trump’s harmful educational policies, I have one additional question. Speak more concretely to the importance of providing schools with the resources (including financial) that are needed to make the ideas that you cover a realized truth. Do you see the Biden administration helping in this regard?

Biden recently announced an effort to provide cash supplements for poor families with children. This is already done in several Western countries like Canada. If this happens it will signify a major step toward improving the lives of millions of children and families. Poverty is an educational issue. In states such as California, 25 percent of all children come from families at or below the poverty level. Children in poverty suffer from a variety of hardships, from food insecurity to housing instability and unmet health needs. When schools can focus exclusively on teaching and learning, outcomes for children are more likely to improve. I’m hopeful that this will happen and we will begin to move in a new and better direction.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.