On Monday, January 15 Bates College invited Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir, President of the Spencer Foundation, to give the Bates MLK Day Keynote Address, “The Education Imperative: Dreaming a New Public Education Dream.”
In the beginning of her speech, Dr. Nasir discussed this year’s theme of “Power, Politics, and Privilege: Resistance to and through Education,” stating that, “this theme captures a core conundrum of education that can be a site of social reproduction and a site of resistance. It is a place where power, politics, and privilege play out in and are reified, and is a key site of political struggle.”
In organizing her speech, she addressed four pressing challenges for the education system and how they might be handled. Her first pressing challenge was what she called “Disinvestment in Education as a Public Good.” In this portion of the talk she stated the ways in which society has shifted its collective opinion on the public education system, from being a public good to being a private good that can be exploited by families to achieve access to resources and wealth.
According to Dr. Nasir, “This shift is not unrelated to the continuing privatization of public schools, the rise of charter schools, and the massive push for accountability as measured by standardized test scores. Because the accountability movement shifted the lens away from more nuanced and deep measures of learning, to more superficial ones. It also commodified learning by grading schools, creating the context by which the public came to see schools as a resource to be mined for personal gain.”
Part of the efficacy of Dr. Nasir’s talk was incorporating how Dr. King would have dealt with the current state of our educational system. In her speech, she revived Dr. King’s vision of an integrated education system and its central aim of healing a society torn by racism and segregation.
“[The integration movement] was about the kind of society we’d have if black children and white children attended school together,” said Dr. Nasir, “The hope was that the proximity would create a society where the next generation didn’t ascribe to the racist ideals and beliefs as their parents. The challenge of course, was the way in which integration was enacted, because the first thing that happened after Brown v. Board of Education was enacted…was that all of the black teachers were fired.” Not only did this destabilize the socio-economic mobility of African Americans, but it heavily impeded the quest of truly healing society as a whole.
Another pressing challenge that Dr. Nasir identified in her speech is the resegregation of schools. In her own words, “The resegregation of schools is deeply troubling, not so much because of the symbolic investments in integration, but because segregation gives rise to funding and other resource differentials.” She traced this phenomenon of an increasing shift towards resegregation in schools to residential segregation and the policies and practices made to ensure that African Americans were denied resources like the G.I. Bill and F.A.J. loans to buy homes in affluent neighborhoods and school districts.
Dr. Nasir spent the third portion of her speech analyzing the devastating consequences of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. She gave the statistic, “Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. They make up 16 percent of school enrollment but account for 32 percent of suspensions and 34 percent of expulsions. Black students are arrested more and are referred to law enforcement more.”
To end her speech, Dr. Nasir talked about the importance of creating a loving environment in the classroom, stating that it is “important because students cannot learn where they are not loved.” Creating a loving atmosphere in the education system leads to a broader message that came across in Dr. Nasir’s speech: cultivating change from a place of hope and vision. She appealed for us to be visionaries, “to think together about what we can create, not simply about what needs to be dismantled.”
In other words, the key to solving the pressing challenges we face in improving the education system as well as society as a whole is excavating and healing.” As Dr. Nasir said, “From the inner elements of patriarchy, racism, militarism, and white supremacy that we have taken in and we have to find ways to make this research impactful, to reach and influence policy makers and practitioners so that policy and practice are determined in relation to evidence.”