Op-ed: Make Reform the Norm–Higher Education’s Responsibility to Rectify American Education

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A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” -Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”

Cultural resistance to disempowering tradition was not alien to Thomas Paine. His pamphlet “Common Sense,” challenged the leadership of his time, calling his audience to destabilize generally-accepted ideologies that existed solely because they were customary, even if they were illogical or oppressive.

Today, “Common Sense” is still read in classrooms across the United States and celebrated for its revolutionary ideas. Breaking customs in pursuit of excellence is the narrative of American nationalism- or patriotism, and Thomas Paine’s groundbreaking ideas set the precedent. To the extent that we continue to read and idolize his culturally subversive ideas nearly two and a half centuries later.

And yet, nearly two and a half centuries later, despite our idolization of Paine’s sentiment and the American ideals of ingenuity and the betrayal of tradition introduced by “Common Sense,” American discourse finds itself guilty of the very thing it condemns.

In contemporary America, where we celebrate unchaining ourselves from outdated, traditional thought, we find ourselves unwilling to abandon our own customary beliefs because doing so would be uncomfortable. 

The uncomfortable truth is that America– its history, its structures and its people, is fundamentally embroiled in systemic racism. America was built on racism, upheld by racism and continues to serve as a vehicle for and product of racism.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that minorities in America are disproportionately marginalized by American structures of legislation, education, opportunity, health care, representation and the list goes on. This is not an opinion. It is factual and empirically supported, an uncomfortable truth.

But if America prides itself on pursuing justice, equality and freedom– even if those ideas are traditional, why does America refuse to confront and correct the reality of its existence as a systemically racist society that perpetuates racial inequality?

My answer: comfort derived from custom.

Teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become the latest battleground. CRT brings attention to racist practices that have become embedded in society, forcing people to acknowledge the ways in which societal structures, such as schools, courts and governments, participate in upholding racialized inequality.

By recognizing their implicit, and often unconscious, participation in systemic racism, students of CRT are armed to recognize and resist the ideological weapons of racism around them. 

Who, then, should learn about CRT? As this topic has become increasingly prevalent and polarized, the answer to that question has become the focus of a lot of debates. For too long, CRT has been quietly contained to certain academic circles, lacking representation outside of humanities departments and liberal arts educations. 

The most immediate need for learning about CRT exists in collegiate education, specifically for individuals who intend on pursuing careers as teachers. Teachers are vehicles for education across the nation, but too often that education is subject to discriminatory practices.

Suddenly, the classroom is no longer a space intended to inspire students in their pursuit of knowledge. It morphs into an unjust environment of perpetuating racism, privileging some while further oppressing those already victimized.

Arming aspiring educators with knowledge about the inner workings and devastating impacts of systemic racism prepares a generation of educators ready to push back against administrative actions and traditions that discriminate against certain students. 

Currently, Rowan University does not require its students in the Department of Education to study CRT, although Rowan is vocal about its commitment to diversifying the teaching workforce. Some students might encounter the subject in various electives or other courses, but failing to include CRT-based requirements and curricula enables the systemic racism upheld by educational institutions to continue.

Rowan University, and universities across the nation, need to modify their requirements and curricula to include CRT-focused courses, in order to best prepare their students to enter their careers armed with the necessary knowledge and ability to resist racial inequality historically perpetuated by teachers, administrators and educational institutions at large.

Acknowledging the harsh reality of education’s participation in systemic racism is uncomfortable, and changing traditional collegiate education modules to provide antiracist instruction is no easy task, but the racist tradition of American education is one that needs to be broken.

Comfort may be found in inaction, tradition and customs, but comfort is not the aim of our pursuit. Our pursuit of equity, justice and reparation of a broken system might be uncomfortable, but sometimes, discomfort is a sign of pursuing that which is right.

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