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Is Education the Great Equalizer?

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    When the slave ships first brought the first Africans to this country, these African slaves were denied access to books and refused the opportunity for an education in fear that they would eventually cause a revolt against their slave owners. A century later during the Civil Rights Movement in the Untied States, African Americans risked their lives to fight for equality within this country. A breakthrough came with the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown vs. The Board of Education, which granted all minorities the opportunities to go to the same schools and receive the same education as White people.

    In the present-day United States, where schools are not segregated and primary school is mandatory for all children, education is understood to be the “great equalizer” between races…but is it? Is education the catalyst for equality, regardless of race or class? In many cases, education alone cannot erase decades of stereotypes and notions made about other races. In excerpts from their articles, authors Peggy McIntosh and Beverly Tatum, offer the perspectives from different races showcasing the flaws in the American education system. Education is proven to make the divisions present in today’s society painfully clear.

    The standards and expectations of academic achievement are very different depending on class and race. In lower class school districts, the expectations are significantly low. The majorities of parents encourage, but don’t push their kids to strive for a complete education. Instead of given the push by the teachers to challenge themselves, many students are just “pushed through” the system and given passing grades to graduate. However, for those who fall into the category of middle class and above, achievement academically is an automatic expectation.

    Generations of Whites have been able to complete every level of schooling; from elementary to obtaining a Master’s degree or Doctorate, therefore it is expected for their children to achieve the same level of education or better. This privilege for achievement has only been given to minorities for less than sixty years. For minorities who have been able to achieve the same academic accolades as most Caucasian people, the expectations for their children to obtain a complete education are high as well.

    However, even in mixed, upper-class districts, the leveling systems placed in many schools display how different the expectations are between different between minorities and Caucasians. Even in most diverse school districts, “…Black children are much more likely to be in the lower track than the honors track. ” (Tatum, 363). Though they may be strongly encouraged by their parents, the leveling systems widen the achievement gap between races and discourage minorities to strive to be in higher-level courses.

    For those minorities that do gain entry into honors classes, the achievement gap is visually evident. In an interview, Tatum is witness to how large the achievement gap is when a student states, “…here I am in a school that’s 35 percent black…and I’m the only black in my classes. ” (Tatum, 363). Sadly, honors classes are filled with White children and average less than ten students of color. Expectations and encouragement in school set the foundation for better self-esteem, and in turn, better performance from any student in an academic setting.

    Because these are not the same for everyone, the academic divide only widens between race and class in the education system. Not only is the standard of academic achievement apparent between different races and classes, it is also apparent within the communities of the same race and class. Expectations of colored families and White families differ. It is without question that a White child will go to college and at least obtain a Bachelor’s degree, but in most minority and lower class communities, a college degree is not a necessity and is seen as a great achievement if it is actually obtained.

    As previously stated, the parents and elders of minorities who have encountered hardships due to their lack of education push for academic success. However, amongst many peers of color, it is seen as a negative to be intelligent. As Tatum writes, “academic success is more often associated with being White. ” (Tatum, 367). Unlike White students, when students of color pursue academic greatness, they are often times outcasts within their racial groups.

    McIntosh reiterates this point when sharing that “[she] can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes…without having people attribute these choices to…poverty or the literacy of [her] race,” (McIntosh, 353). Because it may be a student’s preference to not only do well in school, but to speak properly and dress in a certain way, they are said to be “acting White” by other children in their racial communities. Even for lower class white students, striving for academic success is see in the same way as a minority student striving for success in a lower class neighborhood.

    These white students are seen as the minority in these schools and in the same ways as Black students want to fit in with their peers, instead of being seen as “snotty” and “stuck up”. For all students, regardless of race or class, middle and high school is the time period when they are trying to relate to the people around them while they are on the journey to find themselves. Tatum writes, “…students…[know] that to be indentified as ‘brainiac’ would result in peer rejection. ” (Tatum, 367).

    This results in many students downplaying their intelligence or talents to better “fit in” with their groups. It also causes self-doubt and lowered self-esteem, which discourages many students to pursue goals in and outside of school. The stereotypical imaging in the American education system also helps to preserve racial divisions. It is typically found that the people in power in this country are predominately White. McIntosh even admits, “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race,” (McIntosh, 354).

    If education is the “great equalizer” shouldn’t the ethnicities of the people in power at academic institutions be diverse? Unfortunately, Tatum finds that“…the models of success – the teachers, administrators, and curricular heroes – are almost always White,” (Tatum, 368), solidifying White dominance and preference, even in education. Beyond education, when asked the assumed ethnicity of highly respected professions, more often than not, the person is not a person of color. CEOs of companies, politicians, and esteemed medical professionals are assumed to be white males the majority of the time.

    The minorities who are seen as powerful are those in the textbooks; “…Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Frederick Douglas – the same three men [that are] heard about year after year, from kindergarten to high school graduation,” (Tatum, 369). All the aforementioned men in the black community were advocates for equality within this country for all races, but ironically, they are mainly learned about on special occasions, including Black History Month. To make matters worse, there are even less mentions of Hispanics, Asians, or other minorities in textbooks.

    However there is no “history month” in White culture, and as McIntosh effectively states, “[Caucasians] can be sure that [their] children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race,” (McIntosh, 353). Young people, regardless of race or class, want to identify with someone who they are similar to, whether it is by race, looks, or background and upbringing. Minorities do not have many great examples to look up to or emulate. Because there are barely examples of successful minorities in the textbooks or within the education system, children look to the media and entertainment for their idols.

    With the exception of few like President Obama, the black heroes of today are mainly entertainers, many who were raises in lower class neighborhoods and unable to receive a quality education. These rappers, singers, etc. , are what the black community aspire to be; yet the chances of success in the entertainment industry are slim to none. These facts provoke the question, if minorities were given better examples of successful individuals in prestigious career fields, would this encourage these children to pursue a formal education? Still, there is hope. Many times, the silver lining is in higher education.

    Many times, students’ experiences with the diversity of college campuses broaden horizons and offers different views on other races. With the exception of remedial classes, there are no leveling systems in college, offering a larger mix of ethnicities in college classes. The standard of academic achievement is high for everyone, due to the rigorous application process to attend college. Lastly, the stereotypical imaging in college may not differ within the faculty, but the broad offering of topics to learn about exposes people to heroes and people of power from ever race possible.

    With programs like EOP, minorities have more opportunities now to succeed in higher education, and in turn, my opportunities outside of school to obtain prominent positions in the workforce. The problem with education lies with primary education, which can discourage minorities and lower class residents to continue their schooling, resulting in many losing the opportunity to encounter the true melting pots in college that open minds and undo the racial and class divisions in America.

    Works Cited

    McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: The Invisible Knapsack. ” From Inquiry to Academic Writing: a Text and Reader. By Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 350-57. Print. Tatum, Beverly. “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? ” From Inquiry to Academic Writing: a Text and Reader. By Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 358-71. Print.

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