Cornel West, MLK, democracy, and teaching

Cornel West published an interesting op-ed in the NY Times called, “Dr. King weeps from his grave,” provoked by the memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., which was originally scheduled to be dedicated today on the National Mall (now postponed due to Hurricane Irene). West argues that, although the election of Barack Obama is a significant culminating event in the struggle that King embodied, our country is so far from the dream King really fought for that he would surely weep if he could see us now.

Well worth the read, West outlines the four ills that King feared would send our country “to hell:” racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. He posits that for the last 30 years, our country has become increasingly entangled in these ills. West suggests that we have taken King’s dream far too lightly, celebrating only that which we find convenient. He concludes:

King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

When I read these sentences, I can’t help thinking about our public education system. Decisions are made and change is enacted in a top-down manner. Our hierarchical system holds policymakers, textbook and testing companies, and wealthy philanthropists at the highest level. Down the ladder we have school leaders, then teachers…and finally students are on the lowest rung, where they have the least voice and control over their education.

I’d like to see this flipped on its head. The most important and valuable transactions of our education system happen for students in the classroom, under the leadership of teachers, and in partnership with parents. The individuals directly involved in these transactions should be envisioned at the top of the chart—representing the big idea of education. Supporting these moments daily are school leaders. Further removed from the big idea are district, state, and national policymakers and other interested characters who play limited supporting roles in the education of children.

My point is not to dismiss non-teachers who care about education. But I am saying that the people we currently hold at the ground level—students, teachers, and by association, parents—are the ones who matter most. And our democracy depends on their ability to engage, think for themselves, and thrive. Actually listening to these individuals and allowing them some decision-making power, however, is probably nothing short of revolutionary.

Even flattenning or flipping power dynamics at the classroom level is simpler to talk about than do. Giving students decision-making power in their learning is something I’m very interested in and have been working on a long time but it goes against the grain of much that we traditionally hold dear in education.

Consider these daily actions of the teacher:

  • setting objectives
  • setting the agenda
  • creating materials
  • deciding on assessment criteria
  • deciding on the assessment format
  • deciding how much time tasks should take
  • deciding who can speak and when
  • deciding what is fair and wielding rewards and consequences

These actions are generally considered sound teaching practices (although I’m against most rewards and punishments). However, if we want to change the power dynamics in classrooms and the experiences students have in their schooling, we have to consider transferring some of our power (which is mostly decision-making power) to students. Some teachers do this but I think the majority of teachers feel a mix of skepticism and fear about it.

Education policymakers and other players that are removed from the classroom probably feel the same skepticism and fear when they think of granting teachers real decision-making power. It’s time to examine these fears and consider the results of the hierarchical structures in education and throughout our country. We have a democracy where the public is so disengaged that at least 50% of citizens don’t even bother to exercise their one obvious tool of power: their vote. Close to the same number drop out of high school.

Much is going wrong in our great country, and King called it decades ago. Cornel West says we will need to put our lives on the line to turn the ship around. Is there anything else that could lead to the dramatic change we need? And could anyone agree on anything long enough to actually see a “battle” through?