Any conference that doesn't send you away with a million ideas and questions swirling probably was a waste of time. This is my first time at the Comparative International and Educational Studies Conference, hosted this year by Teacher's College of Columbia University, and I'll be back. I was honored to present on the role I feel hip hop can play in peace education. This conference has confirmed the suspicion I've been harboring that teachers have in fact been at the forefront of any lasting social change. It didn't begin with Freire, I think it began with Socrates and one could no doubt identify examples prior to him.
I had the pleasure of breaking bread last night, after the Monday sessions, with a senior official of a Ministry of Education. He is a deep believer in the role of education in bringing about progressive social change. In fact, he argued that education itself is a political act. There is, he said, no neutral. This is a critical truth to my mind. It is not "neutral" that so many U.S. schools graduate students who have studied the American Revolution, the Civil War and mostly likely WWII as the sum of history. (Maybe some of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution was in there too.) Where is Vietnam? Rwanda? Iraq? What about the hopeful, disturbing, exciting election season we're in right now? Of course I don't argue that more contemporary or even controversial issues are not addressed in history, social studies, government and language arts classrooms in public high schools. But the culture of standardized testing (when there are no standard kids or for that matter teachers) greatly restricts and actively discourages this kind of inquiry, I think. Several presentations thus far have reminded me of the need to actively study peace just as we study war. What has enabled peace? What stands in its way? Too often, our very assumptions about education themselves do.
It is also not neutral, as this gentleman and I discussed, that so many school systems track some kids off to college and some off to "vocational" skills. The underlying belief about who those kids are and what they can be must first be made explicit and then repudiated. To be crystal clear, there is not a thing wrong with being, for example, a taxi driver or a plumber or whatever. There is something morally very wrong with an education that offers critical and creative problem solving to one group of (already privileged) kids and "basic skills" and little but worksheets to other kids who are already dropping out in droves.