Getting a great education is not about smartness.
I picked the brown, leather high tops with the fluorescent green laces. Shoes make an impression on the first day of school. My son, Robeson, picked a Cars inspired backpack and a Planes lunchbox – school shopping. The small traditions that comprise the first-day build-up almost brought me to tears (not because of the prices). Parents’ expectations of their children’s schooling surface consciously or unconsciously. It’s only pre-K3, but listing my expectations ebbed my tears and helped concretize what I hope and want Roby to learn from going to school.
These are my 10 learning objectives for my son’s schooling (from Pre-K to infinity). These are not list in order of importance or priority. These objectives will probably change over time:
- To have fun learning. Going to school is fun. With that said, compulsory education will feel … compulsory. Nevertheless, educational spaces shouldn’t feel like going to the bank or dentist. Schools certainly provide a service. But I hope his schools don’t provide intellectual exchanges as if they were bank transactions. I want Roby’s schools have him chasing new questions like playing tag in the playground.
- To not shame women. Sexism is so pervasive that we should assume it must be unlearned. I do want him trained in anti-biased curriculums, but I need a particular focus to be placed on masculinity and sexism. Most importantly, Roby needs to see his father unlearning sexist behaviors. Still, I don’t want his schools ushering him into chauvinism.
- To attack ideas and not people. While viewing one of my favorite cable news shows, Roby asked, “Why are they fighting?” I then began calculating how many fights I exposed Roby to by watching news. After his question, I realized that Robeson recognizes the difference between the passion for pursing truth and diatribes clothed in debate. He also recognizes how people latch on to name-callers. The bullies on television may have practiced their craft in school. I don’t want my son to be popular because he’s mean. I want his good ideas to build up community. I want his schooling to encourage the latter.
- Know the difference between needs and wants. By three, most kids understand in principle the difference between a need and a want evidenced by manipulation. “I need that truck” can be heard throughout the grocery store. However, I do need Roby to understand the privileges he has and his responsibilities to help others who struggle to attain food, housing, employment, safety as well as access to quality healthcare and education. Good schooling shouldn’t enable entitlement.
- Write to transgress. At every level, I want schooling to develop Roby’s writing skills. I do expect Roby to use the written word to challenge the kind of conventional thinking that supports conventional oppression. Whether poetry, non-fiction and/or speech writing, I expect his schools to develop his writing acumen.
- Advance technology rather than being used by it. Technology is certainly temporal. Roby will constantly need to update his technological skills. From the cotton gin to coding, blacks have primarily been burdened by technological shifts. In the least, I expect Roby to learn technology well enough not to be controlled by it. At best, he advances technology to make it more inclusive.
- Create harmony through the arts. I want Robeson’s schools to provide access to musical training for the purpose of learning harmony. Within a musical frame, harmony is the simultaneous playing of notes and chords, which are coordinated by a set of musical principles. I literally want Roby to create harmonies so he can better understand how to achieve harmony amidst social discord. Roby is a “NOLA Baby.” Therefore the teachings of Louis Armstrong can certainly offer culturally responsive lessons to achieve both musical and sociological harmonies.
- Self-awareness. “How does it feel to be a problem?” W.E.B. Du Bois courageously gave words to the painful realities of living as a black person in America in his magnum opus, “The Souls of Black Folk.” It was the “what do I tell my son” of his day, but it still provides a guide for the type of curriculum needed for schools and students who look like Trayvon, Mike Brown and Renesha McBride. The educational goal of self-awareness can get lost in an accountability era in which a limited set of test scores define growth. Being aware of one’s sociopolitical standing goes well beyond traditional measures of smartness. Trayvon’s death proved that a quality education is about knowing how to respond acutely as well as longitudinally to individuals and systems that carry perilous views of one’s humanity.
- To know “we are all in this together.” Education philosopher Kenneth Strike said, a “good education is more likely to occur when we approach teaching and learning with a sense that we are all in this together.” I expect his schools to build bridges to their larger communities so they form cohesive, caring, and connected places of learning.
- To understand his name and legacy. I named my Robeson after the great Paul Robeson for a reason. I do want Robeson to be a renaissance man. More importantly, I want my son and others to know he’s connected to a legacy of struggle, overcoming, triumph and dignity.
I hope Robeson’s schools help him reach these expectations. He will have the support of his family. I just need his schools to assist. I believe in schools like congregants believe in church. The power of schools can have students self-actualize or sent to prison. By laying down my expectations, his teachers and principals will know what I want to see in his backpack.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).