Since the 1960s publication of “Equality of Educational Opportunity” into the 80s when the publication of “A Nation at Risk” scared the country into “reform,” through No Child Left Behind in our current decade, one thread of commonality remains the same: American schools are failing American students, mainly students living in poverty. There is one difference though. Today those trapped in low socioeconomic circumstances are vilified more than ever before, assisted by a 24-hour news cycle giving impetus to a perspective that is shameful itself. A substantial population living in poverty was always the shame of the nation and motivated a response that most Americans were once behind. Now poverty is no longer the shame of the nation, but the shame of those who live in poverty. The finger of blame from so many Americans has moved from “us” to “them.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Poverty rates 50 years ago compared to today elicit debate about the relative success or failure of the “War on Poverty,” but the fact is that the percentage of children living in poverty is much higher today while SNAP benefits are cut without much rancor. Here is where the logic of merit, deficits and scarcity have found fertile ground to promote and continue our inequitable educational system. Vilification of the poor takes away any sense of responsibility from those benefiting from privilege and advantage. Once the moral onus is removed change will not come from those benefiting from unequal distribution of resources. Particularly if they feel they merit scarce resources due to the deficit of those who do nothing to deserve them. At this point ineffective technical reforms seem to be the less difficult way to say we are doing something, while organized social action built upon a foundation of participatory inquiry to alter existing circumstances is the more strenuous but ultimately more effective way to bring about change.
I find tremendous comfort in Catholic social teaching. Often folks from other Christian traditions are surprised that Catholics find reason to critique their Church on many levels and don't always see it solely as a monolithic body of opinion moving forward through existence, but rather as the Body of Christ, which includes us all.
Much of my growth as a Catholic comes from the influence of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, a bold and unswerving group of courageous women who live Catholic social justice every day, here and throughout the world in Africa, South America and Europe. This religious order of sisters was begun by Father Jean Gailhac and Meré St. Jean to bring comfort to orphans and exploited women in France. More recently they have done tremendous work to end human trafficking. I honestly believe that it is the Holy Spirit that has seen them grow throughout the world living thoroughly for social justice, peace, and religious tolerance. Honestly, I don’t think I would be in working on my doctorate in Educational Leadership for Social Justice were it not for the RSHM and their effect on my life.
I mention all of this because I want to bring attention to the reality that we, men and women, are the Church and its application of social justice. It brings any critique I may have, I believe, into perspective when I see women such as the Sisters of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and lay Catholics bring social justice to life in the world. I have been influenced and changed as well by incredible priests who have rocked my world, helping me to personal peace and introspection in my spiritual journey.
In light of Catholic social teaching, I find the subject of property ownership timely and fascinating in light of the presence of so much poverty and pain in our world. It is also timely given the recent comments from Pope Francis that mirror the encyclical Mater et Magistra. It is a fact that the Church in the last half century has moved in the direction of what John XXIII called socialization that encourages the use of government to bring about social responsibility in the use of property that I find remarkable. When these teachings are articulated it often comes as a shock to politically conservative Americans who had no idea the Catholic Church calls for an idea so anathema to the American ethic of private ownership that is clung to like its own religion leading to our current state of the super rich acquiring more and more to the detriment of what is left of a middle class and the devastation of the poorest of our American brethren.
Pope Francis’s rejection of market capitalism as the core measure of human well-being has been mentioned previously by Paul VI, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, yet until now, it is not what has been emphasize in any conversation about our Church that I have heard recently. Hearing an emphasis on social structures that we choose democratically having an obligation to treat every human we encounter with dignity and worth rather than an emphasis on conservative social values is a welcome change of tone. As Freire was influenced by Catholic liberation theology to build literacy education leading to critical consciousness, I believe that we as members of the Body of Christ have an obligation to inculcate the radical teaching of Jesus to renounce the acquisition of possessions, except our “daily bread” and to serve the poor rather than aspiring to become acquire greater wealth. He really wasn’t kidding when He told the very rich young man that if he really wanted to be perfect he should sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s tough to be a Christian and we all fall short. Strikingly, in our country and others around the world, the opposite is often encouraged and at times even celebrated as Christianity itself.
What responsibility does one have to acknowledge a life of undeserved privilege, particularly in light of the resentment, guilt, and historic injustice experienced by so many of our fellow Americans. It’s one thing if the injustices of this great nation’s history were exactly and only that: history. But ours is a history that lives on today in an American culture and economy that still feels the residual effects of an economy and culture that was built and depended, both in the South and the North, upon slavery. This model of the collective responsibility of our entire nation is a concept and challenge educational leaders should embrace, realizing that it lies beyond the simplistic view of prejudice taught in classes by those who may or may not enjoy privilege. Can we teach this history that moves into a full rejection of the misinterpretations and distortions of American history as presented by most generic textbooks today. Although eyes are more open these days, today’s educational leaders have an obligation to mold the misinformation subtly representing historic learning in today’s schools and present an alternative, more representative approach that recognizes privilege of all kinds and seeks to remedy the disparity of advantage.
Disparate outcomes must be revealed and challenged in class. Regardless of the good intentions of teachers in our schools who, for the most part, treat all students with respect and care in a collective effort to master the material in class, this approach cries out to be revealed. School leadership still has been unable to consistently employ and empower a rich diversity of faculty and staff in their own communities using coursework that approaches all aspects of American society and culture honestly. The result is the perpetuation of a local system that cries “privilege” and keeps us from our own acceptance of this reality. Could it be that this lived honesty of accepting our own “privileged status might relieve a deeply buried sense of guilt and make us more proactive in searching for solutions to the problems that plague the schools of America? These things aren’t easy, but they must be the center of focus in a nation that lives its own reality.
Occasionally, I get the opportunity to have very personal discussions with students at my school that give me some insight into their lives. Walking through the school and having cursory conversations with young people now on the cusp of adulthood can give a false picture, though, of their day-to-day lives. Looking out into the halls I see a group of happy, seemingly carefree students laughing and smiling with their friends while many of them grow up in neighborhoods that are impacted with crime and structural neglect. One would never know if one didn’t know.
One 17-year-old senior who was determined to eventually attend law school particularly impressed me. Sitting one day in my office we were talking about his academic success. He told me a story that shocked me as much by his circumstances as by the sure knowledge that his life would have probably overcome me. His house was really just two rooms separated from noisy neighbors by a piece of plastic hanging in a doorway. He and his mother and younger brother lived there with two older brothers living there with their girlfriends and their children. There was no way, he said, that he could do homework at home. Each day he went to Jack-In-The-Box and completed his work there, earning a grade point average that I never accomplished in my quiet, privileged, middle-class home sitting at my desk in my own bedroom. Students like this humble me because I know that their lives present them with obstacles outside of their control that I would most likely not have scaled. In fact, most people I know would not have.
I would say that this young man’s personal responsibility in the face of adversity accomplished great things for him. He is a very successful attorney and would be the first to attribute it to his acceptance of personal responsibility. He would also attribute his success to the institutional structures of government assistance that his efforts allowed him to exploit to full advantage. But he also knows that most people, faced with this adversity, would not break away from these circumstances. His brother and niece also came to my school. They did not succeed. Despite his example and help, they could not overcome the circumstances that they did not create. It is such a complex and frustrating condition that injustice creates and calls for what Young calls “the responsibility individuals have for the conditions of the lives of others, as well as their own lives.”
There is, of course, no one solution for the disparate effect that unequal distribution of resources and the lack of emphasis on structural background conditions create. It creates a trap that is very difficult to escape despite personal responsibility that would translate into success for those in a more privileged setting. One poor choice or circumstance can overcome those in this setting while leaving others with more resources, privilege, or in a different environment, untouched. America today is a much more complex environment in which employment opportunity, investment, neighborhood demographics are understood as structures in making judgments of justice and injustice. Certainly, the perspective that lack of personal responsibility on the part of the poor is the cause of poverty rather than structural injustice and the lack of responsibility all members of society, including the privileged, should address for the greater good of our shared American experience is simplistic and might serve only to perpetuate this evil.
Time is moving fast and a final direction for my research question is looming large. I've moved all over the place, which isn't good. After exploring the problem of parents cut out of the involvement loop because of the move to replace paper with digital information to issues surrounding assessment and the utter lack of implemented solutions to the most effective use of data by educators, I think I'm coming close to knowing my direction. It is the intellectual fusion of everything we do here to social justice that is very motivating. I need to seek a little more advice from my professors, but I'll get back to you here when I have completely settled on a question.
I'm really enjoying attending classes with my cohort. That seems a little simplistic, but so many programs these days are mostly online or a hybrid, it feels very good to be a part of a tradition doctoral program that gets us in a classroom each week for all of our classes. I care as much about how my cohort views me as I do my professors. That leads to a strong bonding and a collegial environment that is truly a joy. We do have an online component within the construct of a traditional doctoral program, and I really enjoy that as well. Below is a response I made to an online presentation from my colleagues. No matter how old I get or how self-indulgent it seems, I never get tired of watching myself on TV.