Once upon a time there were these white guys that came together to hash out the structures of government for a new nation. They were pretty smart. In fact, they actually really had a fear of ignorant and just plain stupid people. They also were afraid of tyrants—especially religious ones. But that’s irrelevant for this story right now.
This bunch really liked democracy, thought it was a nice idea, believed in rights and stuff. But they were smart enough to realize that in a democracy, if the majority of citizens are just plain idiots, that doesn’t really make for a very functional, beneficial government
. So instead, they turned to the idea of a republic. This republic was supposed to act as a buffer against tyranny by the stupid mob.
But, said these men, if citizens of this new country are going to vote—even for representatives—they had better be at least somewhat educated so that they can make proper decisions when voting. It is, after all, a social contract, in which each person gives up some freedom to ensure that the liberties of everyone are protected by the sovereign entity to which all subscribe.
Unfortunately, all the buffers that those genius old men put up over 200 years ago have snapped under the weight of the complex nation that arose from those thirteen initial colonies. Since then, we’ve gone through events that have contorted the pretty American picture painted by the Founders’ idealism. We’ve been participated in genocide of Native Americans, Civil War, slavery, eugenics, imperialism, terrorist attacks, secret operations to exploit others, a Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, the “war on drugs,” anti-immigration policies, corporate takeover, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of being an “informed” polity, Americans overdose on stupefying reports by the media. Yes, stupefying. Because the way the media (and even our classroom textbooks) report what’s going on in the world—domestic and abroad, past and present—literally makes those who read it unconscious to reality.
There is no simplified version of reality, and yet everything we are taught is served to us on a silver platter comprising out-of-context clips and quotes and a deluge of facts without anyone to critically analyze or question them.
Let’s think about how we got to this place. For centuries—indeed, since before the founding of this nation—white colonists and later Americans have been denying access to the marketplace of ideas to specific groups: women, any person of color, any non-land-owning white person, immigrants, etc. Denying access means that these groups have been denied the ability to contribute to the production of mainstream public opinion, sentimentality, ideology, and culture.
In other words, we have a long history of unquestioningly accepting whatever the “authorities” say. There have been only brief periods in our history in which people have really challenged authority, but this is not one of those eras.
Today, among hippy college kids, being outside of the “mainstream” is “cool.” But face the fact that mainstream America holds the power because of their numbers and their political clout. So if you’re under the impression that you’re cool because you think mainstream is uncool, you should realign your values: You should give a shit that mainstream tends to mean unconscious to reality. You should give a shit that being “mainstream” means being part of the majority that just floats along the political and social brook of ignorance.
Whether you sit along the edge of the river or you’re floating along in it, it’s going to continue to erode the foundations of that democratic republic those beloved old men created. And then we’re all just shit out of luck, because when everything’s flooded only those at the top will be fine. Even more, they’ll be the ones that throw you the lifeboat…or not.
The students that stood on that stage in front of the rest of the graduating class, indeed, would be top students during their four-year college careers. We were the ones that would go on to become doctors, engineers, architects, educators, law school students, and dentists, to name a few. Our schooling experience had been specifically designed to put us ahead of everyone else. It had set us up to be leaders and to be far more successful than the average student.
For the fractional top percent of students in high schools around the country, the tracking system can be a saving grace. But, meanwhile, the vast majority of students that are not on the highest academic track are being denied critical educational opportunities. They are asked to meet a standard that falls far short of excellence.
This is not to say that students on lower academic tracks cannot succeed academically in college or in their careers. They absolutely can—and do. But these are exceptional cases. The question is this: Why do we let some faceless bureaucratic institution decide which children are worthy of high investment and which ones are not?
Think like a parent: You have a child that you love and adore with all your heart. He is, after all, a part of you. You have placed him in what you know to be a good public school just outside your neighborhood. You know that your Johnny is a smart, smart boy. He asks questions, he is articulate, and he always says he wants to be a pilot (Johnny has an obsession with airplanes). But Johnny has real difficulty sitting still and focusing on one task, let alone taking long, standardized tests. He also gets into trouble in class pretty often because he’s a talker. He’s probably not the best reader, you know that, but you also know he’s smart enough to become
an excellent reader. His best subject is math, but because he’s not great at taking long tests, he often scores poorly on his math tests. But you know
he understands the material. He just needs practice with his work ethic and focus.
When presented with the option of whether you’d like to place your son on the lower or higher academic track, what do you choose? Do you choose to lower the standards so that he does well with ease? Or do you choose to raise the standards so that he is challenged and forced to learn more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t your choice. And most likely, Johnny will be placed on a lower academic track. For those persistent parents that do know how the system works, there may be a chance that they have more of a say. But ultimately the decision that will dictate your child’s future is made by that faceless bureaucratic institution. The fact of the matter is that “there is overwhelming research evidence that tracking students by ability has no educational benefit for students and in fact is deleterious to academic achievement, extracurricular participation, self-concept, peer relationships, career aspirations and motivation”
(Black Students and School Failure
, Irvine, p. 10
Despite all the evidence against its benefit, tracking still functions as a means of differentiating education in our public schools. There is no doubt, and empirical evidence proves, that all people are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses. The tracking system, however, does not differentiate on this basis. If this were the case, schools would group students by these strengths and weaknesses so that they were in classes that catered to them.
Instead of differentiating the means and methods of educating students based on their strengths and weaknesses, schools differentiate based on the standards applied to those students. The end result is that the graduating class comprises students on the stage, who are starting college with a college-level educational background; and students on the floor, who barely made it through high school or just breezed by, and lack critical skills they’ll need if
they even go to college. And that’s not to mention those students—about 100 out of my initial class of around 800—that drop out entirely and never graduate.
I can’t help but think that our education system in America is built to perpetuate and worsen the widening gap between rich and poor, white and people of color.
This is the reality—that the increasing achievement gaps in education reflect the growing disparity in our nation as a whole. The statistics, the data, the evidence are all there, but absolutely nothing that addresses the root of the issue is being done.
I’m convinced there is a lack of action for a reason.