There to Hear It


Strife in the Schools: Education Dept. Logs Record Number of Discrimination Complaints (New York Times via

2023 marks one hundred years since Upton Sinclair published his exposé on American colleges and universities, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education. It’s a book that I’ve been revisiting lately in my research, and while it may not be as well-known or as consequential as some of Sinclair’s other works, it’s still worth reading today. Although some parts of the book haven’t aged so well (such as its prefatory outrage that some professors of that era were — shock of shocks — forced to wash their own laundry), The Goose-Step is still a valuable chronicle of what higher education in America looked like a century ago. Some things have certainly changed, such as the fact that it was only a hundred years ago that the president of the University of California at Berkeley (yes, that Berkeley) was calling for the summary execution of all Bolsheviks. The main thrust of Sinclair’s book, however — that American education was being run by big business, for big business — remains the same.

To the extent that schools existed for people of color a hundred years ago, what they provided for their students was often just an education in how everyone else was out to get them. In areas where only white children were allowed in schools (predominantly, but not exclusively, in the south), big business interests, particularly those who rose to prominence on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, would occasionally offer to build schools in unserved communities. The business interests got the good publicity that made traders on Wall Street happy, but the veneer of philanthropy covered what were some horribly bad deals. For one thing, the business interests wouldn’t donate money, but only match money that the communities themselves raised for the schools. Keep in mind that not only were these communities already extremely poor, but that these were people who were already paying education taxes; the tax money they were forced to pay just went to educate white children, and not their own, so these communities were now being forced to pay twice for the privilege of just having a school.

The other thorn in this deal was that the schools that were built had a very narrow focus of training students for entry-level jobs at the factories of the companies. This “education” was never intended to be a gateway to the new managerial jobs that were expanding America’s middle class; the schools were barely more than factory job-training facilities, foisted on communities that had no way of knowing better. The donors got the good press that boosted their bottom lines, and the people of color in these communities had something that was called a school, but the arrangement was just another example of an open hand purporting to be equality just slapping down the disadvantaged even further. (For more about this chapter of America’s history, Noliwe Rooks’ Cutting School is an excellent start.)

Decades later, the popular story goes, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education finally rid America of the blight of racism in its public schools. That’s a tidy little story that makes a bunch of willfully-ignorant people “proud to be an American,” but the reality is that not only did it take another decade, and two more Supreme Court cases, to put any real enforcement behind the Brown decision, but even then it was hardly a salve to the decades of injustice that preceded it, and was often easily defeated by the most mundane of measures. Perpetually-poor communities never had the tax base with which to fund a reasonable school system, and with every attempt to redress this issue repelled left and right, communities with large majorities of people of color have never had anything resembling a fair opportunity to give their children the kind of education that even working-class white communities in America take for granted. (Justin Driver’s The Schoolhouse Gate is a good place to learn about how the realities of Brown differ from the fantasies that most of us were taught back in the day.)

That’s always been the plan, though, because it’s been tactic number one of the right-wing for pretty much my entire life: Destroy something, then say its failure to work proves that it was never any good. “School desegregation was never going to work,” they say, and in to fill the gap comes the new wave of business-based alternatives to public schooling, preying on parents of color to get their kids away from the “obviously failing” public school system, and into their version of the so-called schools of a hundred years ago. Instead of filling the factory jobs that keep disappearing from this country, though, the young people shuffled through these institutions are more likely to fill out the growing prison profit centres being built by American businesses today.

Sometimes the stories of school decay capture the public interest for a moment, like when those photos of Detroit’s public schools went viral six years ago, but it’s hard to believe something similar happening here in 2023. The reality is that hundreds of schools across the nation were already experiencing similar problems back in 2016, and the problems have only gotten worse since then. It’s simply not news any longer when an American public school looks like it could crumble in on itself at any moment; it’s just life in America for an ever-increasing number of communities. It’s like the old bit about a frog in a pot of slowly-heating water, only too many people are distracted, or choosing not to notice, the stench of thousands of dead frogs in the air.

Again, though, this is just held up as proof that “big government” doesn’t work. School districts are blamed for “learning loss” because they didn’t want their teachers and students to die in the middle of a global pandemic. Teachers are blamed for not raising standardized test scores at a time when many of their students don’t even have a safe place to sleep, or three meals a day. Everything from rap music to video games is pointed to, just to divert attention from the fact that these schools were never given the chance to survive, let alone succeed, and the funding problems just keep getting worse and worse as those in charge just keep turning the temperature up and up on that pot of water.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Department of Education fielded a record number of discrimination claims this year, but I was surprised that I didn’t hear about it sooner. When attention has been paid to schools in the media these past couple of years, it’s been about complaints, but it’s been the complaints of those who want to pretend that America “solved its racism problem” long ago, and racism doesn’t exist, and kids shouldn’t learn about racism or the Holocaust or anything other than America being the by-gum best country ever on the planet, from sea to shining sea. There was a point where I wouldn’t use that kind of language here because of its hyperbolic nature, but these days, it’s not that far removed from what we really are dealing with when it comes to the forces trying to shape America’s schools. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon, especially after the new congresspeople get sworn in tomorrow.

Racism in America is still alive and kicking, and its pernicious effects on our education system began long before Upton Sinclair wrote The Goose-Step. I hold no delusions of somehow being able to eradicate hateful thoughts from this planet, but I’d like to think that we can at least do more to listen to the people who have been shouting for over a hundred years now about the systemic forces that have denied them the same rights as other people in this country, education-related or otherwise. The first thing we need to do is to elevate those voices, and tune out the big-business prattle masquerading as news which reinforces all those old lies about “opportunity” and “equality” in America and its schools. The longer we wait to do that, the longer that the most disadvantaged children of our country will continue to suffer.

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