The death of George Floyd has prompted a rethinking of the problems of race in America. School systems have been asked to play a role in trying to address the issue, leading to conflict in school districts across the country.
In his excellent story, Reporter Zachary Matson summed up the conflict at a recent Saratoga Springs school board meeting in the May 12, 2021 edition of the Daily Gazette as follows:
“A new diversity and equity policy in the Saratoga Springs City School District is either a long-needed balm to heal educational disparities in the district or a rogue attempt to indoctrinate students with radical race theories.”
Mason described the purpose of the programs being considered :
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Saratoga district officials offered a presentation that underscored the kind of inequities the new policy will aim to ameliorate.
A presentation outlining student data on assessments, graduation rates and other categories showed Black students lagging their classmates in numerous categories. The presentation also highlighted stark disparities in outcomes for students who are economically disadvantaged, who had a graduation rate of 76.6 percent compared to the overall average of over 92 percent. Economically disadvantaged students also accounted for the majority of out-of-school suspensions despite representing about 20 percent of the student population.
A Frustrating Experience Trying To Get Information Out Of The School System’s Website
It is important that our school system has identified and quantified the challenges that need to be addressed.
In a presentation to the Saratoga Springs School Board, Lisa Cutting, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment did a presentation on the administrative strategies being considered to address these problems of inequality in the school district.
Ms. Cutting’s power point presentation included a reference to the book Letting Go of Literary Whiteness by Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sargianides. My attempts to find out just what role this book will play have been frustrated, however, by the opaque nature of the school system’s website.
First, I struggled to find the minutes of the meeting at which she did the presentation. I selected from the menu on the website “School Board.” This took me to a menu that included as its choices “Click here to view Board of Education Agendas and Minutes.”
This took me to a page that was titled “Files and Documents.” The subheading was “2020-2021 Board of Education Agenda and Minutes.” There was a list of dates of the board meetings. When I clicked on the date of the meeting I thought might include Ms. Cutting’s presentation, I got a list of PDF files that included one titled agenda but there was no file for the actual minutes. The items in the agenda were sufficiently vague and based on acronyms that I was unable to determine whether the presentation by Ms. Cutting was among them.
I called a friend for help. She directed to me to a page on the site called “NEWS.” Among the items on this page was a link to the Zoom record of several recent meetings.
Unfortunately, there was no way to determine where in the Zoom meeting any particular item was considered. As the meeting I looked at was over two hours long, finding any item would have required more time than any reasonable person would want to devote to such a search.
I decided to telephone Ms. Cutting directly to ask her what role the book would play in their plan. I believe the person who answered the phone was her secretary. She asked me for the purpose of my call and after I explained my interest she said she “would pass my request on to Ms. Cutting.” I specifically asked will someone get back to me “one way or the other?” I was told yes. I never heard anything further.
The purpose of this history is not to attack the district. In reviewing the list of meeting dates I noted that up until last January, the minutes for meetings were available. I have had very positive meetings in the past with Superintendent Michael Patton on other issues facing the district. I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and his obvious concern for the students. I expect that our school system has had its hands full during this pandemic. Hopefully the situation will be corrected in the future.
My Problems With The Book
[Let me preface my review of this book by noting that I am sympathetic to people trying to address the pernicious plague of racism in our country. I am quite concerned that my disagreements with this book will be exploited by using my critical review as a weapon in the culture wars rather than as a contribution to the dialogue we, as Americans, need to have about how to heal our country.]
The book “Letting Go of Literary Whiteness” is directed at secondary White English teachers working in predominantly White schools. As the authors explain, “…this book proposes antiracist literature instruction as a framework English teachers can use to carry out literature-based units that make teaching about race and racism a deliberate and systematic part of the curriculum in White-dominant schools. ” (p.3 )
The assumption in the book is that due to privileges that white people in America have over people of color, the role of a teacher is to help White students understand their inherent racism as a way of overcoming it.
They state: “We wrote this book …to expose the institutional, societal, epistemological, and interpersonal racism that undergirds our Whiteness, our White privilege.” (p. 4) Later in the book they argue that “White students must engage in identity work to understand the ways they are constructed racially and the ways race and racial privilege influence their experiences, identities, and worldviews.” (p.107)
The following is a telling observation from the book:
The deliberate efforts to develop racial consciousness, which often include reflecting on one’s own beliefs, assumptions, and privileges, can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or sense of being overwhelmed.
It is important to note that many students have even more dramatic emotional responses than Miranda to antiracism work. Although these are expected reactions to developing racial consciousness, it is also important that White students not remain in a state of guilt or shame, but stay engaged despite discomfort to develop a healthier, more productive identity as an ally or accomplice.
While a certain level of discomfort is necessary–and we do not want to completely eliminate the cognitive dissonance [JK: ??] needed for racial identity growth–those of us committed to anti-racist pedagogy are always working to develop more effective approaches for engaging White students in this work.Page 108 – 109
I have a variety of criticisms of this book but this extract illustrates my most central concern.
Therapy is at the heart of this approach rather than teaching.
Psychotherapy (also psychological therapy or talking therapy) is the use of psychological methods, particularly when based on regular personal interaction with adults, to help a person change behavior and overcome problems in desired ways. Psychotherapy aims to improve an individual’s well-being and mental health, to resolve or mitigate troublesome behaviors, beliefs, compulsions, thoughts, or emotions, and to improve relationships and social skills.Wikipedia
Even assuming that the approach advocated in this book is a good idea, teachers have neither the training nor the skill set to carry out this kind of work. It is even more troubling to me that the authors think that this kind of highly emotional work could be done in middle and high school classes that could include twenty to thirty students and may meet for as little as 40 minutes.
Teachers simply cannot be expected to act as therapists.
Shame Is A Poor Tool
According to the authors:
Whites are always becoming , continually struggling to recognize and understand the implications of Whiteness and White privilege. In other words, White racial identity work is never “done.” A commitment to antiracism constitutes a lifelong journey, one without guarantees of achieving the status of a “good White” once and for all.”Page 110
I have a basic problem with the construct that dealing with racial injustice is fundamentally a case of individual character evolution. I may address this more in the future; but for this post, my concern is the implications of this kind of approach.
As “Whiteness”, according to the authors, is an unearned privilege and by definition can only exist if there is another group (people of color) to contrast it with that has less, the privileged White person is compelled to experience guilt and shame.
Vulnerable teenagers trying to find their place in the world will be particularly susceptible to this kind of guilt and shame.
I have a good friend who is a psychologist who observed that shame is never an effective tool to bring about change and development. Much of the work of psychologists in fact is to help their patients overcome the debilitating impact of shame.
Anyone promoting this “teaching” approach has to also consider what impact this could have on the family of a student. I know that the proponents are going to argue that this will lead to constructive discussions at home; but I suspect most parents will not look kindly on teachers who, even with the best of intentions, foster anxiety and pain in their children. To me this is a politically untenable strategy. I think this shows how untethered college academics can be to the real world.
I do not claim to have a simple strategy for addressing racism but not only is their approach doomed to fail with the students, it is guaranteed to generate a public outcry that will be a losing nightmare for the administrators who are trying to manage their school systems.
I applaud our Superintendent and our school board for acknowledging that the statistics of students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged indicate problems that urgently need to be addressed. I applaud their efforts to find ways for the school to better serve these students. I am simply concerned that the approach offered by this book will not serve this cause well and that the administrative staff and board should seek other options.
For better or for worse, the old paradigms that guided this country have been breaking down and the culture wars that have superseded them serve only to drown out efforts to learn from each other as we seek solutions to our pressing problems. My hope is that as the debate continues over how best to serve students that the conversation remains civil and tethered to reason and substance.