PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"From Inclusion to Transformation: The Education Vision,"

by S. M. Miller May/June 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

The last 25 years saddened but did not surprise me. The unexamined belief at the beginning of the Second Reconstruction of the 1960’s was largely that no one would suffer as Blacks, the oppressed, the discriminated against, improved their positions in American society. True, there were and would be resisters to the democratization of the United States, but the majority of Americans accepted the necessity of racial changes during a Cold War era in which the United States presented itself as a moral champion as well as a would-be economic and military dominator.

The underlying belief was that this country could be transformed “on the cheap,” that there would not be great prices to pay as it moved from a state of discrimination to one of more authentic equality. The economic and social cost would be small in an economy that could afford to give outsiders a larger slice of an ever-expanding pie. Everyone’s economic fortunes would improve while those marginalized gained at a faster rate. The magic of a 3 or 4 percent growth rate would make everyone happy. But when economic difficulties worsened, the reaction deepened against accommodation to change.

A second belief operated at a deeper level. It provided assurance that desegregation and integration would follow a not very stressful path. The expectation was that transformation only involved the simple inclusion of the economically, socially and politically excluded in an unchanged America. Where some had not been, now they would be. (The French use the word “insertion” of the marginalized to convey a similar idea of a process of inclusion.) The United States would not have to change in deep ways in order to lessen discrimination, overcome poverty, achieve equality of opportunity (let alone equality of conditions) and practice social equality in everyday interactions. This dream of an easy transition to a less discriminatory and more egalitarian society proved disturbing to many when it became evident that transformation involved profound mutations, including giving up or making over traditional practices.

Although we know that transformation is comprised of the death of many well-worn practices and the initiation of new ways and qualities of thinking and acting, the realization of these truths distressed many. Moving beyond racial (and gender) discrimination required more than minor tinkering with what many regarded as a basically sound and commendable American society.

Even before our growing and disturbing involvement in Vietnam, this rosy view of the superpower was challenged by what was involved in eliminating racism and racial disparities. The obstacles to a simple transformation to a less racist society are both instrumental and normative. Instrumentally, the notion was that the ways of employers, educators and politicians would not have to change, that traditional arrangements would facilitate the rise of the marginalized. But in the world as it is, to make deep changes in employment required affirmative action, questioning the appropriateness of employment tests, new upgrading processes, the open posting of jobs and a host of other new demands — plus, of course, an economy with expanding job opportunities available to all. Improving schooling required attention to English as a second language, enhancing teacher capability, early education, health and nutrition programs, attention to cultural patterns and interests, and to the economic situation of households. Politicians could no longer designate white candidates in black areas or choose who would be the black spokespersons for their communities. Nor would African-American leaders patiently “wait their turn” for attention to their communities. The “white power structure” would have to change if black leaders and their communities were to advance.

The greater difficulty was normative, though it involved instrumental actions. Whenever an excluded group is to be given some of what has been denied them, questions arise about the worth of that what. Is inclusion in American society as it has been sufficient? Shouldn’t the United States change from its excessive materialism, commercialism, individualism, international arrogance and sense of superiority? Does not the gap between (once) public American values of caring and decency and American practices of exclusion and prejudice border on hypocrisy and social blindness? Slogans like “black is beautiful” are not only an effort to build black self-images but an indictment of how American society thinks of beauty and life. James Baldwin wrote three decades ago that racial integration in the United States was like moving into a burning house. In short, the “what” of America was and is challenged by efforts to undermine, overcome or overwhelm racism. A more equitable economic distribution, even if it is much preferable to what exists, does not deal with the character of American life.

The issue, then, is not so much what is “racism,” but what is needed to make the United States a non-racist society. That certainly cannot be done “on the cheap” or without questioning the way this country functions. Disagreements about what is racism often arise because of disagreements about what is necessary to overcome racial barriers. An optimistic or uncaring attitude sees that little is needed and might be termed “racist” by those who realize that much has been done (and probably should have been done even if racial or gender barriers were not a crucial issue).
If transformation is basic to the elimination of racism, then we need a positive vision of what the transformed society should be like. That is a big order. I sketch the educational part of that vision.

The Education Vision

We need to move beyond our pseudo-meritocracy (or, if we want to be charitable, quasi-meritocracy) to one where there is public responsibility to invest in all, so that they discover, develop and realize their potential. The underlying theme would be that, under facilitating conditions, what people have done educationally and occupationally at age l6, 30, 40 or later does not definitely demarcate their possibilities. The change is from the misleading metaphor of a race in which we all jump off from the same starting line to an on-going concern with the lifetime development of all.

This radical shift requires, among other steps, building an accessible, effective learning and training system that is available throughout one’s lifetime. In France, this way of thinking is termed “permanent education”, and was once called “recurrent education” here. In the French public system workers have had paid time off from the job to pursue education-training studies. In the United States, the United Steelworkers of America had contracts that enabled workers to have periodic paid “sabbaticals” of several months duration. What exists now in the United States is an unconnected, limited, under-financed and shakily financed non-system of training initiatives with high staff turnover, often dubious quality, wide local variation in availability, and lacking a continuous concern for past and present students.

A new “Third Tier” is needed in education and training (Third Tier, because it is beyond the two tiers of public and private education systems for children and youth). It would supplant the present hodgepodge of programs. It would not depend on what employers are willing to do in training their employees. With unstable work situations and careers, employers are reluctant to invest in upgrading employees, especially low-skilled workers. If education is the new hope of American economic competitiveness, then it should be a national responsibility to provide all people with real chances of development.

The narrow vocationalizing of education and training should be transcended. Citizenship education, including enhanced literacy, information about our society and the larger world, the deepening of capacities to reason and analyze, should be part of the new Third Tier. At a time when our worlds are changing rapidly, why should “education” in this broader sense be restricted to the young and vocational training be the main possibility for older persons?

The charge, then, is not only to move the “educationally excluded,” those children whom present-day schools undereducate, into somewhat improved schools, but to recast education as a lifetime development experience. The Third Tier would improve education and job possibilities for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and probably a sizable majority of whites. That won’t happen by simply modifying current school situations. Transformation is needed.

S. M. Miller is member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List