Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Today's Word: Anachronism, or History -2.0

Betsy De Vos.  It would be nice if we could laugh at her foibles without anvils falling on our toes.  But alas, we cannot.  Yesterday, she gave a wonderful example of an ANACHRONISM when, at a White House luncheon with leaders of  historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), she showed an amazing lack of historical understanding and a gaudy lack of empathy.
Betsy DeVos,  image from
In that meeting, and in a statement published on the US Department of Education's website, she claimed that HBCUs are "real pioneers when it comes to school choice."  Here is a screen shot of the paragraph from the website...never know when it will be taken down:

Usually, anachronism occurs when we recognize language or ideas that are "old fashioned" in contemporary discourse or situations.  In DeVos's case, however, the poles have been switched.  She applied a contemporary idea to the past in a way that only highlights her amazing lack of qualification for her position.  Yes, HBCUs have been very effective educational institutions for African-Americans...better than other institutions who are not historically black.

The Educational Trust, a Washington D.C. non-profit organization that advocates for education issues, published a report today, entitled "A Look at Black Student Success: Identifying Top- and Bottom-Performing Institutions."  The authors note that while graduation rates at HBCUs vary and are low enough for concern (reflecting concerns of non-HBCU schools), they are better at serving the needs of black students from low-income families, graduating 37.8% of these students compared to 32% at other institutions (p. 7).  Over all African-American and Native-American students have the lowest graduation rates of each of the racial categories used by the US Department of education at 40.9% and 41% respectively (p. 1).

So, the two racial and ethnic groups in the United States who have endured the most violence and degradation, or maybe the most programmatic violence and degradation might be a bit more accurate, have the lowest graduation rates.  Coincidence?  Probably not.

If we think of this historically, it makes better sense.  For African slaves and the generations that followed them, their "place" was the lowest possible place on the proverbial ladder--in some cases, Southern plantation owners openly valued their horses over their slaves.  Native Americans were on the same level, by the way.  Once slavery was outlawed, African Americans (particularly in the South) had to figure out a new place for themselves economically and socially.  Legally, they were no longer property and were given a small degree of agency in their own lives and the lives of their families.  They knew the value of reading and writing--it is very worth the time to look at Frederick Douglass's account of how he learned to read and write--but, of course, white schools, colleges, and universities were almost universally closed to people of color (even up to the 1960s).  This lack of systemic educational opportunities kept them at the very margins of society, kept them from productively participating in the the social and economic system they had been born into.  So what did African Americans have to do?  Found their own schools, colleges, and universities...the HBCUs.  For African-Americans, creating their own schools was NOT a matter of CHOICE, but a matter of ADAPTATION and SURVIVAL.  (Native Americans had schools funded by public money, but their whole purpose was to drive the "native" out of them...another rather dismal story.)

A class at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia, image from Wikimedia Commons
Coming back to Betsy DeVos's statement, to equate HBCUs with school choice is ludicrous.  Few African and Native Americans had any choice at all.  For many years, a smart articulate African-American young woman in the Washington D.C. area could not ask herself, "Should I go to Georgetown or Howard?"  Georgetown was simply not an option, so, if she was to more fully participate in economic and social relationships, she had to go to Howard--which is a well-respected HBCU.  The school choice movement (problematic as it is) holds that parents should be able to choose among several educational options for their children, but for most of our nation's history the idea of choice for African and Native Americans has been an insanely cruel "useful myth" for white men and women to maintain their sense of power and privilege.  Even today, "choice" for African and Native Americans is a far more complicated issue than it is for white middle-class Americans.

DeVos's statement betrays a PROFOUND LACK of understanding, both of history and of education.  She showed, again, just how unqualified she is to lead the Department of Education.  To her credit, the day after she made this ridiculous claim, in response to severe criticism she has backpedaled a bit.  The point is, though, she should not have pedaled there in the first place.

NOTE: This is a shorter version than the original post.  Cleaned up clutter and a half-developed direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment