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2008 02 07
Culture & Multiculture 11: Teaching Segregation

Premier Dalton McGuinty needs our help. Last week, according to the Star’s Robert Benzie, McGuinty asked that Torontonians pressure “school board trustees into over-turning a controversial decision to create a black-focused school.” McGuinty needs us to tell trustees how strongly “opposed to this proposal” we are.

How strongly opposed are we, though? Should we at all oppose school board trustees opening Africentric schools? Should we pressure the trustees to cease and desist -- or should we demand Dalton McGuinty back right off, cease interfering and desist tormenting trustees? That he better mind his own business and just let trustees perform their jobs? Fraught questions. Answering hinges pretty much entirely on whether or not trustees are instigating segregation in Toronto, Canada.

For sure trustees should help students stay in school. But any free, democratic, tolerant and multicultural society absolutely must resist segregation. Especially here in Toronto, Canada -- arguably the world’s best model city when it comes to tolerant multiculture.

One young man, speaking passionately at the trustees’ meeting, demanded that media stop lying. His argument: why does media keep broadcasting trustees are instigating segregation -- when any and all students will be welcomed to attend Africentric schools? He concluded, in strongest terms, by exhorting media to disclose how indiscriminately welcoming Africentric schools shall be to absolutely everyone.

Quite right. While there’s no telling the complete truth -- too many molecules in the universe -- not disclosing Africentric schools’ wide open doors policy is more like not mentioning all those proverbial babies in the bath-water. Selling extra sensational many papers can’t forgive such misleading reporting.

Wide open doors must be mentioned. However. Opening doors more widely hampers covert discrimination -- not overt broad-daylight segregation. Seating on buses never got de-segregated by widening passenger doors. Not once nor ever. However crucial to averting discrimination, indiscriminate accessibility provides no answer to questions of broad-daylight segregation.

Whereas discrimination hides its face in public, segregation carries banners and sings anthems in the streets. Segregation isn't shy. Segregation isn't bashful. It turns like rabid mobs against us throughout all public spaces. Better access? Not remotely called for. In event of segregation, best try getting away. Far away.

Yet, back at the trustees’ meeting, many repeatedly ridiculed segregation as any relevant legitimate concern whatsoever. An older fellow asked to know what the big deal was, anyhow. Since he’d had such great trouble finding white faces when traveling to parts of Toronto he himself considered less desireable. Toronto demographics have long-since become thoroughly racially segregated -- so why pick so particularly on race-based schooling? Must be some sort of racist witch-hunt -- such over-reacting to a little race-based schooling designed in students’ best interests. For students’ own good.

Many ridiculed segregation as any legitimate concern -- and they weren’t joking, either. Which, coming from even some trustees of our schools, is particularly frightening. We ought to know by now how communities seek to self-segregate for internal cultural homogeneity. Not against but certainly away from wider multiculture. Yet regardless how pervasive, the inclination to self-segregate must never mean public institutions ought blithely join in. Especially not the public schools of multicultural society like ours. To the absolute contrary. We entrust public schools to provide countervailing cultural integration measures. To champion for young minds against anything remotely resembling segregation. Whether we realize it or not -- whether we’ve even thought about it or not: we trust public schools to prevail against segregation and cultural dis-integration. And that’s a huge trust. Which is why we respond so definitively against what phrases like “faith-based schooling” and “race-based schooling” entail. Also why it’s so frightening when even some school trustees ridicule segregation as any relevant legitimate concern.

Let’s get honest. Far too much teaching is abysmal. Teaching so abysmal it doesn’t qualify as such. More like administrating than teaching. Keeping them kids off the streets. Warehousing them in schools.

Perhaps, more often than not, it’s the teachers failing to achieve. Not the students. And, if so, it will make no single difference how teachers segregate among students. Because students will increasingly consider achievement to mean escaping their teachers. Escaping the confinements of irrelevant schooling -- even if only to the freedom of the streets.

Can’t say just how much teaching is abysmal. But here’s how abysmal some teaching is. Way back as a University of Waterloo co-op student, I was once hired to teach remedial math at a very inner-city school. My job was to get some the stupidest kids passing -- since it was getting embarrassing to that school how many stupid kids were attending there. And, in event I got just some few more those stupid kids passing, I’d be considered some kind of hero. Because everyone had already tried with them -- but they were just too stupid. They were the stupidest.

Honestly. That was my job description. That’s how the job got described to me. But here’s the thing. I did not believe in stupidity. Since I was doing alright despite how stupid and useless I was -- and had been told I was most every day of my life. I’d understood at some point how effectively humans justify diminishing -- i.e. discriminating or even segregating -- other humans on basis of stupidity. Right? It’s only natural for stupidity and incompetence to disqualify achieving. In fact, disqualifying the stupid or incompetent from any authority and all responsibility requires no additional justification.

Well, I might not have believed in stupidity. But the teachers did. Worse -- my students did. How could they not -- having been segregated as stupidest of all? The brand of their stupidity had ceased being just external. It burned permanently and inextinguishably from within. And, given how stupid those kids thought they were -- no way could they or I expect them to learn stuff.

“Crap,” I told them. “You guys aren’t stupid. You just don’t give a shit about learning anything.”

They insisted on their own stupidity -- but admitted that if there were any way to care less about learning, they didn’t know what it was.

“People only say you’re stupid because you don’t learn,” I said. “But the reason you don’t learn is because you don’t give a shit.”

They conceded it might be so.

“Well,” I announced, “I don’t give a shit either.”

They stared like something had gone genetically wrong with me. Said it was my job to teach.

“Yeah,” I replied. “But I get paid anyway. Just so long as you guys don’t tell anyone. All you got’ta do is keep quiet and we can just sit around in here.”

And that’s what we did. For about a week. During which I kept regretfully telling them how much fun math could be -- if taught right. How much like games it was. The potential fun of it for them -- but not for me. Since I’d have to be the one teaching. Which -- teaching -- was too much like working. Hence my feeling so glad they didn’t demand it.

We just sat around that week. By the middle of which they began believing I had no intent forcing their learning anything. By the end of which they’d grown so bored, they began demanding I teach some math.

“Alright,” I relented. Tentatively. “Just so you know -- I resent you guys making me work. But tell you what. It’s hard going from totally not giving a shit to me working at teaching math 50 minutes straight. I don’t feel like working that hard. So how about we do math for 25 minutes -- and then just talk about how weird life gets the rest of the time?”

They thought it was a grand idea. And that’s how it started. Motivation. Before long playing at math 50 minutes straight was no longer enough for them. They started hunting me down at lunch and after school for the better figuring of it. Which I did not altogether appreciate. Not entirely. But far better than me chasing after them.

Turned out some of them really were kind’a stupid. About as many as were rather gifted. Overall, just as intellectually regular a group of damaged city kids as anyone could have asked for. And it didn’t matter so much. Provided their motivation -- almost all started passing their math tests. Some went from getting F grades to getting C grades. Others went from F grades to A grades. Only very few remained sullen beyond reaching. A girl hiding pregnancy at 13. A broken-boned boy -- courtesy bullies parental or otherwise. It had never been stupidity.

It did not go over well. Of course not. I was young back then. Utterly naïve. Thought teaching was some sort of sacred trust -- due to the difference one singular teacher had made in my life. That’s why I believed it when initially told I’d be considered some kind of hero if I could get any those stupidest kids passing.

When I told the head of the math department -- same fellow that initially hired me -- how stupid those kids were not -- that’s when things got grim. That’s when he told me how it really was.

I’d been using inappropriate language with students, he said. Which was true enough from an administrative perspective and absurdly false from a better teaching perspective. I’d been using the exact same language as students. They would never have believed I was not there to force stuff on them otherwise.

My inappropriate language use was not the issue, though. It only meant the head of the math department had me over a large disciplinary barrel. The issue was how no way was some snot-nosed adolescent like me going to come into their school and make responsible professional family men been teaching 20, 30, 40 years look bad. As if they didn’t know their jobs.

The real issue was how I hadn’t done my job, of course. Since I’d been hired to get maybe a couple extra those stupidest kids passing. Not to get almost all of them passing. Not to refute the stupidity they’d been segregated for.

Not all teaching gets that abysmal. But, too often, that’s how abysmal teaching gets. Sometimes it gets yet far worse. But not in Toronto, Canada. Not until and unless we start practicing segregation, anyhow.

It totally doesn't matter what sort of difference gets used to justify segregation. Doesn't matter if it's race, gender, religion -- or lacking intelligence. It never, under any circumstances, benefits either culture or identity. It impoverishes both discourse and personal expression. It permanently tears at social fabric -- and severs every siblinghood of humanity. Let's not segregare populations to better disguise how pedagogical underachieving pertains to teaching in Toronto. Let's not segregate any students for that. Let's not even blame them. Damn right we ought to support Dalton McGuinty's call to pressure school board trustees -- to restore the trust we had put in them.

[Up next: Amy Lavender Harris responds with the argument that afro-centric schools can serve as a model for genuinely integrative, culturally relevant education in all schools.]

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University.]

[Rosa Parks bus image by Randy Stern and used via Creative Commons license.]

[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 02/07 at 02:34 PM

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