The debate around education policy in our urban schools has been dominated by various institutional stakeholders — by foundations and politicians, charter school organizations and unions. Student voices are too often curated and carved into research papers and feature articles without full and fair attention to the student’s original concerns and ideas. After all, we know better — we are the experts.
In these pages, several student voices were recently given space, through a partnership between The Hechinger Report and Bard Early College in New Orleans. BECNO – a tuition-free, satellite campus of Bard College serving New Orleans’ public high schoolers – offered a course on Race and the History of Urban Education. Students in that course drafted editorials on school reform in New Orleans and submitted their ideas to Hechinger.
We are deeply proud of their work because it generated a rich and thoughtful debate about education reform while demonstrating the very outcomes that a rigorous liberal arts education can produce. Encouraging young people to make their voices heard, to engage in civic life with nuance, depth, and curiosity, is at the heart of the liberal arts tradition.
On the day that I visited the class, Professor Walter Stern was reading a letter written in 1917 by the educator F.P. Ricard in response to white residents who were protesting against the first public high school for African-Americans in New Orleans. From the BECNO classroom, Professor Stern pointed out the window to the spot where the school once stood.
While parking lots and government offices long ago displaced the black residents who lived near that school, the legacy of segregation is present and immediate in New Orleans. After studying the history of education in our city and country, it is therefore no surprise that some of our students are suspicious of transactional education models, which present college largely as a form of advanced job training.
In their minds, it is no coincidence that the value of a college diploma has declined as schools have welcomed students they once barred from admission. They — quite rightly — suspect that the real party might be taking place elsewhere and that they are not invited.
The debate between job training models that promise immediate economic rewards and the liberal arts is rooted in history that still resonates today. W.E.B. Dubois, whose work our Race and Education students read, wrote in 1903 that “we daily hear that an education that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest ideals and seeks as an end culture and character rather than bread-winning, is the privilege of white men and the danger and delusion of black.”
New Orleans perspectives
This essay is part of a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and high school students at Bard’s Early College in New Orleans. The teenagers wrote opinion pieces on whether all students should be encouraged to attend college, the value of alternative teacher preparation programs such as Teach For America, the importance of desegregation, or the best approach to school discipline.
As Paul Tough points out in his recent New York Times article, “Rich kids graduate; poor and working class kids don’t” the graduation rates for students from underrepresented communities are significantly higher at small liberal arts institutions, where students are encouraged to question the dominant discourse and develop their own policy perspectives.
Students today have every right to be deeply suspicious of American educational institutions, and although the legacy of segregation is all around us, I urge my students to consider the role of class and capital in the American educational enterprise. As students learned in the course, our educational system has both restricted and facilitated class mobility and we should be wary of the proliferation of educational models rooted in a business ethos.
And finally — and this is most important — I want my students to know how proud I am and suggest that, perhaps, their writing is evidence of the power of the education they suspect they have been denied.
Alexios Moore is the Academic Director of Bard Early College in New Orleans