"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bill Moyers and the New Core Curriculum

Our national truth teller speaks. Here are a couple of clips:

America 101

Bill Moyers

November 01, 2006

Bill Moyers is president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy and a veteran journalist. He delivered these remarks in San Diego on October 27 to the Council of Great City Schools , an organization of the nation’s largest urban public school systems.

Let’s be honest about what we mean by “urban education.” We are talking about the poorest and most vulnerable children in America – kids for whom “at risk” has come to describe their fate and not simply their circumstances.

Their education should be the centerpiece of a great and diverse America made stronger by equality and shared prosperity. It has instead become the epitome of public neglect, perpetuated by a class divide so permeated by race that it mocks the bedrock principles of the American Promise.

It has been said that the mark of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics. If so, America’s governing class should be knocked off their feet by the fact that more than 70 percent of black children are now attending schools that are overwhelmingly non-white. In 1980 that figure was 63 percent. Latino students are even more isolated. Brown v. Board’ s “all deliberate” speed of 1954 has become slow motion in reverse. In Richard Kahlenberg’s words, “With the law in retreat, geography takes command.”

Not just the kids suffer. A nation that devalues poor children also demeans their teachers. For the life of me I cannot fathom why we expect so much from teachers and provide them so little in return. In 1940, the average pay of a male teacher was actually 3.6 percent more than what other college-educated men earned. Today it is 60 percent lower. Women teachers now earn 16 percent less than other college-educated women. This bewilders me. Children aren’t born lawyers, corporate executives, engineers and doctors. Their achievements bear the imprint of their teachers. There was no Plato without Socrates, and no John Coltrane without Miles Davis. Is there anyone here whose path was not marked by the inspiration of some teacher? Mary Sullivan, Bessie Bryant, Miss White, the Brotze sisters, Inez Hughes – I cannot imagine my life without them. Their classrooms were my world, and each one of them kept enlarging it.

Yet teachers now are expected to staff the permanent emergency rooms of our country’s dysfunctional social order. They are expected to compensate for what families, communities, and culture fail to do. Like our soldiers in Iraq, they are sent into urban combat zones, on impossible missions, under inhospitable conditions, and then abandoned by politicians and policy makers who have already cut and run, leaving teachers on their own.

. . . .

The neglect of urban education – a capital moral offense in its own right – is but a symptom of what is happening in America. We are retreating from our social compact all down the line.

. . . .

So I have a practical suggestion for those of you who are principals, superintendents, school board members, and teachers: Go home from here and revise your core curriculum. Yes, teach the three Rs; teach the ABCs; make sure your kids learn algebra, biology, and calculus. But teach them about the American Revolution – that it isn’t just about white men in powdered wigs carrying muskets in a time long gone. It’s about slaves who rose up and women who wouldn’t be denied and unwelcome immigrants and exploited workers who against great odds claimed the revolution as their own and breathed life into it.

Teach your kids they don’t have to accept what they have been handed. Teach them they are not only equal citizens under the law, but equal sons and daughters – heirs, everyone – of that revolution, and that it is their right to claim it as their own. Teach them to shake the torpor that has been prescribed for them by calculating elders and ideologues. Teach them there is only one force strong enough to counter the power of organized money today, and that is the power of organized people. They are waiting for this message; the kids in your schools have been made to feel as victims, powerless, ashamed, inferior, and disenfranchised. Tell them it’s a great big lie – despite their poverty, circumstance, and the long odds they’ve been handed, they have the power to make the world over again, in their image.

I was at the Presidio in San Francisco yesterday. That former military enclave beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is now a marvelous and beautiful center of vital commerce and civic purpose – saved from exploitation and despoliation by citizens who rose up on its behalf. On the wall of one of the main buildings I came upon a painting of an enormous deep blue wave with white caps against an equally blue sky. The artist’s inscription beneath the painting reads: “This human wave expresses the concept of people at the bottom rungs of society waking up to using their united strength to claim their universal rights to economic, social, and environmental justice.”

Put that in your core curriculum. It’s America 101.

Bill Moyers is grateful to Lew Daly, Senior Fellow of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, for his contributions to this speech.

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