Affirmative Action may be uncomfortable, and that’s okay (for some people)

Last year, Vanderbilt University brought Sheryll Cashin to discuss her book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. I attended, as did several of my colleagues and friends. And for those of us that were trying to work towards a more equitable and justice-oriented campus, it was…interesting, to say the least. Overall, I found it somewhat narrow and felt that it missed the point. I was deeply troubled for a while, especially as the audience consisted mostly of white members of the community who, more often than not, were in a place of power. What were they taking away from this talk, and how much harder was it going to make my job?

In discussing her opposition to affirmative action, she said one simple, powerful phrase that brought the crowd to its feet, notably without myself and my colleagues: “I was raised to care about other people’s children.”

In a lot of ways, I think this sentiment in opposition to affirmative action, that those in the dominant majority are being slighted in a zero-sum game of college admission, is very unhelpful. It was deeply troubling to me for a while, and only made me even more cynical about our ability as a community to enact real justice for those who are underserved in higher education or, more broadly, the world.

That said, I’ve thought about it a lot. And while I still think that it’s a huge problem that this was announced to a crowd of white people who overwhelmingly endorsed this point of view, I sympathize with where Dr. Cashin in coming from, in certain ways. Before anyone either (a) decides to dismiss everything I’m about to say as anti-justice or (b) use what I’m saying as a part of their anti-affirmative action platform, let me say up front: I support affirmative action, and I generally disagree with most opposition that those in the dominant majority have against affirmative action. What has changed in my thinking is that overall, I think it’s okay for black people to be uncomfortable when thinking about it.

Obviously (or maybe not, for some people), it’s not okay when someone assumes that a black person got into college because of affirmative action. I’ve gotten these comments before, anywhere from “It would be great to be black so I could get into college more easily” to “Well it’s good for you that you got affirmative action to be here.” I’m not going to spend time explaining why these statements are deeply offensive and hurtful, because it should be clear, but there’s a second reaction that I think we don’t think about a lot.

At least for me, when I was in college, I didn’t really understand how college admissions worked. Frankly, I’m still only fuzzy on the details. The secondary, but longer-lasting issue for me when it came to those offensive comments was that they’d dig their way into my subconscious and gradually start to feel true. Did I only get in because of my race? Do I not measure up to other people here because I didn’t get here on my own merit? I’m not saying that they’re healthy thoughts, but I think that if other black students were also feeling this way, I’m okay with that acknowledgement.

I think it’s okay for black people to feel uncomfortable about affirmative action as it relates to our own personal lives. I think that overall, that’s where Dr. Cashin was coming from (though it’s still thoughtless to not consider your audience). It’s for the same reason that, for a good portion of my young adult life, I was also against affirmative action. In a lot of ways, it’s not great to feel like you might be getting special treatment in spite of your merit.

All that said, I don’t think it’s valid for this to be a talking point for white people on this topic. It’s not up to white people to decide, in my opinion, whether or not my discomfort works for or against their own policy opinions. I’m not sure, now being pro-affirmative action, what exactly you do about the discomfort. It’s definitely hard to reconcile with broader senses of policy justice. These feelings, I think, are exacerbated by a life of feeling like my stereotype was lesser (in academic words, stereotype threat) and living in constant doubt because of it. Even with my updated understanding of the policy, knowing that I’m not actually taking the place of someone more “qualified,” it’s still a slight nag I have in the back of my mind.

I’d rather acknowledge it than pretend it’s not there. It’s the main reason why I don’t think affirmative action is necessarily a perfect situation, but it’s easier when I recognize that I feel this way, and then can work that into my more complete perspective on the policy. It’s not all about me, but in some respects, my thoughts about me are a part of it. Frankly, I’m okay with that.

Including student voices in education

This post is a modified version of an earlier commentary I had made on a previous blog, which I have since deleted.

From discussions about student government to policies that give children responsibilities in managing their classroom experiences, common justifications for these practices include (a) that kids will be more invested in their education if they are a part of shaping it and (b) that it gives children good experience in participating in democracy.

I’ve never been a fan of either of those reasonings for including youth voices in the formation of the education vision. I get that both of those things are probably true, but they feel patronizing to me. Basically, we’re asking kids what they think just so they feel included, which we’re doing so they’re “better” at doing what we want them to do. This has never felt like a sufficient reason to include people in democratic processes, as if we’re doing them a favor.

I think that at the root of it, the more compelling reason is that the voices of young people have value in the visioning of education. Yes, of course, we were all children once, but education changes every day, and so do we. I think the value of including the voices of youth is that they are the ones most directly affected by the decisions we make in education, and at least in the short term, they can provide the best insight into how things are working on the ground and what can be done better, what should be better and how they, in the short-term, are being disserviced or benefited.

In the long-term, I think it’s a more complicated question, one to which I honestly haven’t ironed out my answer that well just yet. What does the uniquely youth perspective add to the discussion of the wider economic and social benefits and consequences of education practice and policy? In my estimation, not that much. This isn’t to say that youth don’t have value in that discussion. I’m just saying that I think that what youth can say there, generally, is more muddy in terms of its potential to really make that conversation more comprehensive. Overall, I think that the primary value of including them from a long-term perspective isn’t that it benefits the conversation.

As such, I think that the inclusion of young people in long-term, larger discussions of education vision comes from a different motivation. They’re the people who will be living in the society we’re creating. I think it’s the right thing to do, then, to include them in these discussions. This isn’t an empirical position, since I can’t speak much to whether current structures of student input are actually working, but a moral argument that students need to be in these discussions from a justice point of view. Not only that, but we’ve seen some brilliant ideas come from young people. It’d be a shame to miss out on them because we think they’re “too young.”

So overall, I think the discussion about youth voice needs to be less about how it’ll help students as individuals, but more about what youth bring to the table and the right of students to be there, which I feel like is kind of the point of youth voice.

Defining “public” education

I figured I’d start my posting here with something I think about probably more than is healthy.

I often push back when people push to “keep public education public,” as noted in a Twitter post of mine, but I think people often misinterpret that as a position for or against public education. This makes sense, given how tense this discussion has been throughout history, but I should clarify that what I’m really trying to do is understand people’s positions to get people on the same page about what exactly our disagreements are.

I don’t think there’s anything novel about posing the question about what “public” education means, but my question here is less about what a “public” is or what a “public good” is, but more about the different parts of what makes education that can be varyingly public or private. For all of the same lack of clarity I feel in school choice and charter school advocacy, I do think there’s one point that these advocates tend to get right: There’s a difference between public funding of education and public management.

This comment, however, only touches on two of several different facets of education that are more or less public. I think there is a set of similar questions that we need to be able to understand in order to have more coherent policy positions. While I began this post by addressing the “keep public education public” crowd, I think the same need to answer these questions can be applied to those from most education policy positions, including those involved with charter school and school choice debates.

I do not attempt here to answer these questions, but rather to pose them as a set of thoughts to which I think people should have responses in order to have clearer and more comprehensive visions for public education. I also posit that the more important questions for designing a vision are not whether the system is currently working as people believe it should, but rather defining what people believe in the first place. As such, all questions posed below are “should” questions. I also don’t claim to be the first to put these questions together. I’m just writing them down as they are on my mind, in terms that make the most sense to me. I also fully admit that the particular way I approach these questions is informed by my own positions on some of them, so forgive me in advance if any of these questions seem more leading than I perceive them to be as I write them.

I think many of these questions have been thoroughly traversed in conceptual and philosophical questions about education policy, but at least in my travels (which are admittedly limited), popular discourse rarely draws all of these questions together into a cohesive argument.

  1. I think this is less of a decision that we can make in education policy and more a mix of social questions across disciplines from economics to sociology, but there is significant debate about whether education is a public good. I define this question here to be about public benefit. Should the benefits accrued to individuals that participate in the education system translate to benefits for the larger society? (I pose this question from the position that it is possible to intentionally design a society and an education system that is more or less publicly beneficial, but I understand that others may feel differently.)
  2. The question of public governance is fairly complicated, but also, I probably see it as complicated because I tend to think about it a lot (and I also have a tendency to overcomplicate things). By “public” governance, I am referring specifically to systems of education governance that are, though whatever mechanism, directly and substantively acting in the interest of the public. This most traditionally has concerned local and state boards of education, but could also arguably include congressional education committees, elected education mayors, and even the appointed federal Secretary of Education. Some might disagree and say that any appointed governance body or person is not directly acting in the interest of the public. I think that’s fair, and I think the capacity of elected versus appointed (by elected officials) governance structures to enact successful democracy is up for debate. The broader question, though, is whether private interests that are not in the position to represent the public should be a part of education governance.
  3. Along with public governance, there’s some question of whether education should be publicly funded. At this point, we’ve extended past the point of being able to operate from organically-developed collectives and entered the realm of specific organizations of education (tied to financial capital, which tends to be an organizing force in our society). I think the place to see this conflict in current education policy is when considering education philanthropy. Large organizations ranging from the Walton Family Foundation to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have contributed millions of dollars to education over the years, and before more recent history, many of these dollars were allocated to fairly non-specific items such that essentially, these organizations were bolstering the funding of existing public schools. In some ways, especially for many of the most struggling schools, it’s not out of the question that we could consider those schools to be somewhat privately funded, while still being publicly governed (for the most part).
  4. I think it is important to separate the idea of public management from public governance. The most clear example of this, which prompted my thoughts around this post, is the charter school movement. Whether charter schools are truly “public” is a question that is highly contested, and I think the essential question is whether a service for the public needs to be implemented by employees of the public. Is it possible to have a private organization that is accountable to the public? If you ask charter advocates, I think many would say yes. I think this question is one of the most critical questions for current education debates: Does a “public” school need to be managed by a public entity, or does it only need to be governed and/or funded by a public entity to be considered “public”?
  5. The last question I pose, while certainly not the end of similar questions you could ask like these, is whether education should be publicly accessible. This includes a whole set of additional questions, including what exactly people have access to (schools, or schools of a certain caliber?). In addition, what does “publicly accessible” look like? Are private schools, who often have certain admissions requirements, technically publicly accessible since all people could apply?

One overriding comment on all of these questions is that I think people tend to act as if their opinions on these various items are not tied to their opinions about the organization of a productive and/or just society, i.e., government in general. I’m not saying that there aren’t some people that have opinions independent about these ideologies, but at least in my experience, if you strip down people’s opinions about “public” education, the essential conflicts often come down to questions of faith in and vision for public government.

My last comment is that of course, the question notably absent from all of these questions is the extent to which the visions people have for these different items are compatible with current forms of society, including current disparities in wealth distribution and power. The way society is structured has developed from a mix of pro- and anti-government sentiments, and public education is not exempt. Are there certain visions for education that are incompatible with who we are as a society? For example, is it possible for education to truly operate as a public good in an arguably capitalist society? I’m not saying that this should dissuade people from advocating for a more truly public education system, but I just pose this as a thought for considering the levers of public society that people would need to push in order to achieve a vision for public education. People often disregard commentaries on capitalism as too theoretical or idealistic for any practical use, but I think that people’s considerations of capitalism are often at the core of problems in education policy, and I think ignoring them leads to the kinds of circular reforms that make education policy seem like it’s going nowhere.