While spending time with old friends, we began discussing the fact that our retirements are looming closer – or have already happened. It certainly doesn't look anything like what we expected, and we’re all putting it off into the future, hoping we’ll be able to keep up the pace! We even find ourselves wondering - with so little progress, what was the point of it all?
We were all agreed that there’s a passing of the torch, that whereas earlier we were in the thick of things, younger colleagues nowadays are the ones in the front lines! There has to be a changing of the guard, but are we ready for that? Evidently not!
First, the point was always to play our part, to put in the effort, to show up and do whatever it takes to keep our little piece of civilization intact. Human beings rely on each other constantly, in a million different ways. We've seen what happens at the worst of times, yet we continue to strive for the best of times, all of our lives. No society will ever be totally safe, but we've seen how combating poverty and seeking to provide decent nutrition, healthcare, and schools can give hope for a better time to come, despite setbacks.
Second, I think about the long history of dedication that people have poured into the world around them. The obvious ones, such as Bayard Rustin and J. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker, come to mind – but especially in education, there are heroes toiling away at the frontlines whose names are less familiar. One such example is Dr Jean Anyon, a sociologist, writer and educator who I've only recently discovered as a result of her death notice in the NYTimes! ( http://nyti.ms/1iePnSw ). (http://www.jeananyon.org/). Dr Anyon worked in the Newark schools in which I've recently been engaged through Children's Literacy Initiative (http://www.cli.org/) in an eerily similar project to turn around the instruction in failing inner city schools. Because she was a Professor at Columbia Teachers College and at Rutgers, and conducted extensive research into the history and sociology of Newark, the picture she draws (in “Ghetto Schooling – A Political Economy of Urban Education Reform”, 1997, http://amzn.to/Lu3cRD and “Radical Possibilities”, 2005, http://amzn.to/1dbGTGs), is comprehensive, fascinating and finally heart-breaking. The ubiquitous corruption and political anarchy of NJ politics which she describes in damning historical detail have their modern day counterparts in Trenton today, apparently! Like so many other enlightened educators, she concludes that while poverty and the lack of meaningful employment continue, (and as they currently worsen), the capacity of education alone to effect change is doomed. While conducting staff development, she describes scenes in a fictionalized school, 'Marcy Avenue', which exactly parallel what I've seen 18 years later. But some things are radically improved – all the schools I went into recently were well maintained or better – warm, bright, with excellent materials and supplies, books everywhere, shining floors and colorful carpets, even A/C – definitely huge progress! What hasn't changed in Newark is the lack of availability of a variety of well paid jobs; little or no replacement of the skilled factory work and craftsman careers that were moved to the suburbs or overseas long since, leaving behind the hulking wrecks of gutted factories scarring the Newark landscape. Some of the students will move on to work in education, business, and the medical field, but the decent union wages-and-benefits jobs will not be coming back without radical political activism and a change of the perception of worker protections.
There is a great divide between those who see education as the preparation of suitable employees for a small number of say, hi-tech industries, various entrepreneurial and growth sectors as yet undetermined, and a fiercely competitive world where maybe an undergraduate degree will put you at the front of the line for a job at IHOP or 711, or as an entry level civil servant. Or the alternative, which values education for its intrinsic ability to create access to all of the sciences and humanities with a view to the informed citizenry of our Founding Fathers. Where we don’t throw out every subject that doesn't have an obvious connection to an employable skill (we don't even know what that will look like, in a time of such massive change), but value creativity, curiosity, competence and knowledge purely for their own sake. If we could just take each child where he or she is right now, and give them the tools and access to meaningful connections with this amazing world, we wouldn't have to worry about whether they would be employable, and I suspect we wouldn't be asking the question “What was the point?” as they near the end of it!