Public education serves as a negative force in many communities. This has not always been the case. For generations, public education held the promise of a life and a nation better than the previous generation. Never perfect, public education functioned as a tool of social uplift in part because the people saw it as such. In recent years, as the needs of our society have shifted, the role and function of public education has shifted as well.
At the end of the Civil War, the American people faced an unprecedented challenge. Those who of necessity, conscience or politics were moved to address the situation instituted a revolutionary structure known historically as Reconstruction. Under Reconstruction, the recently defeated Southern states were forced, often at the barrel of the Army of the United States of America, to enfranchise the newly freed population of Black Americans. New constitutional conventions were held; Blacks were elected in record numbers and, at the hands of newly freed slaves a system of public education was instituted in the south for Black and white Americans. This was the first system of public education in the history of the south and newly freed slaves whose desire for freedom was transferred to a desire for social uplift brought it into being.
The gains of Reconstruction were forcibly setback at the hands of the Jim Crow counterrevolution. African Americans and the Freedom Struggle returned to the schoolhouse door in the 1940s and 50s (only 60 years after the overthrow of Reconstruction) demanding an end to the separate and unequal funding, support, and development of segregated schools. These demands went beyond access, and struck directly at the unfulfilled promise of America. The Civil Rights movement (referred by Civil Rights luminary Jack O’Dell as the Second Reconstruction) sought to overturn both the practice of segregation and the use of public education as a tool of social and political enslavement through which students of color were taught to be inferior inside an already inferior system. The movement sought mainstream solutions (Brown v Board of Education being the most famous) but also created a system of Freedom Schools across the South to begin the process of emancipation from the system at the very same time they sought to change the system itself.
60 years later we arrive a time of profound crisis in public education. Students of color fail at record numbers; schools are underfunded, under attack and de-developed as tools of learning, community and social cohesion. Furthermore, in many communities the public school system functions simply as a pipeline to prison or to and unimagined life of being left out, locked out and harmed. Let us not be confused: this happens in spite of good people, it happens at the hands of good people and it happens because the American people do not demand of their system of schools the kind of yearning for freedom of previous generations. Education itself is not a revolutionary tool. The history of the struggle for education has always been tied to the struggle to make America better.
The landscape, too, has changed. Where there used to be jobs there are not. Where there used to be homes there are not. Where there used to be opportunity these is despair. Where there used to be factories there are vacant lots. Yet there is more stuff than ever. Our country produces nearly 600% more goods than 50 years ago but with exponentially less industrial and commercial jobs in our own country. The American People, rich and poor, are called on to consume not produce. Consumerism is the outgrowth of a lack of hope. Consumerism plays upon our desire for comfort, to fit in, to tide us over. Consumerism does not require and educated population. In this regard, public education, always and in every era a reflection of the society in which it is situated, is called upon to do nothing more than produce consumers. We need not despair. The tide is reversible. We have stood and faced worse enemies of the people. We can wrest public education back into the hands of the people. This is the challenge of every generation. We, too, like those who have come before, can leave the world better than when we found it.