James Baldwin, Talking to Teachers: What is the Purpose of Being Educated?

Teachers in plenty of poorer inner city communities are at once told they need to be cognizant of their students’ emotional needs and able to sympathize with them, and that they must rule their classroom with an iron fist. Can you imagine yourself trusting someone who immediately cracks down on any behavior of yours deemed unacceptable, no matter how small the infraction? It would reasonably lead you to wonder if the purpose of education today is to teach anyone anything at all, except what the true meaning of power is, and that most students are very much at the mercy of those who have it. There’s also the not-at-all subtle implication that they had better get used to this, because it’s how they can expect life to always be.

Teachers in these schools are often told by administrators we must be mindful that our students are constantly scheming, working to “play” us. We’re supposed to likewise get them to believe that we care for their welfare while we assume the very worst about their supposed character, as our default operating procedure? I say this as a teacher myself, who’s seen some things (I’ve been punched in the face breaking up fights at school multiple times, eaten more than my fair share of dinners in my car while driving from one teaching job to another, been spoken to by administrators as though I were not just an imbecile but also an infant, and endured many other indignities of the trade; it’s a living!). Everything I experienced with regard to my students taught me precisely the opposite: these were good, talented young people adapting to the circumstances of a system designed for their subordination at best and their abject failure at worst.

Baldwin frames the problem well in his essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

Simply obey, as Baldwin put it, and reject the culture from which you were raised. Docility and obedience are expected of the modern American workforce, and so too in our classrooms. Managers, indeed, often seem unaware of how to make good use of their employees’ diverse skillsets and instead simply try to force a certain kind of compliance that requires less interpersonal effort from themselves, not coincidentally.

We see this disposition in everyday interactions with our managers, our “betters,” as what is necessarily connoted with this distinction (no matter the semantic rebranding done by some corporations to refer to their staff as “team members”). Don’t ask why something is done procedurally, just understand that it must be done that way. When you’re as concerned with questioning established norms as often as I am, you realize the low tolerance so many people have for collaboration, or even demonstrating mutual respect. It’s easier to simply declare things must be done a certain way, as some form of decree, rather than conferring about what works best.

There’s no avoiding the reality of too many people of color’s experience in America today. We’ve been preoccupied with how this will make the predominant culture feel for too long. The focus of white America needs to be on owning up to an oppressive past so we can begin building a better future for everyone, not just the lucky few and, yes, to the detriment of all. You can’t do that with authoritarian constraints and trying to force people to bend to your will. You can only do it with the kind of uncomfortable honesty that, as a white person, might make you feel a little bad, a little guilty, but if faced honestly, will allow for a brighter, inclusive future for everyone.

I’ve found myself being honest anyway, being truthful even though it didn’t make me feel particularly good about the legacy I’ve inherited from my white ancestors. I expressed to my students that segregation in Chicago was not the result of some random chance but a concerted effort on the part of politicians, wealthy individuals, and yes, the general public (people like me). I’ve tried my best to take Baldwin’s words to heart, and I encourage you to do the same, particularly all you educators out there:

Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them — I would try to make them know — that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.

This is about hearing those voices that have been immediately silenced in the past. It’s about learning from what they’ve struggled with, endured, to build a better world, a more compassionate world. We wrongly view obvious demonstrations of raw strength as the true definition of power. To me, there’s nothing more easily defined as weakness, emptiness, than these overt shows of force. They’re motivated by fear, by an inability to understand the complexities of an extraordinarily and increasingly complex world. In response, individuals in positions of power attempt to box that world into something more easily understood and controlled. It’s simpler that way. But no light penetrates what’s put inside that box, nothing grows, everything withers slowly and sadly. Resentment and hatred build in these places.

The truth has a way of enduring, and sooner or later people will learn it. The consequences of depriving individuals of their right to the truth are often considerable. Baldwin understood this. He wanted a world where both whites and blacks understood the benefit of acknowledging and accepting a history that was ludicrously iniquitous and oppressive. I have observed an education system that is completely uninterested in understanding and reconciling these relational complexities of race and history, despite many teachers working hard to honestly help their students and assist them in pursuing their interests and develop their unique talents. Increasingly, for-profit schools that exist solely to artificially inflate graduation rates appear to be popping up nationwide. I can certainly say they exist in Chicago.

There’s few better places to go to get a sobering idea of what it means to be educated than reading James Baldwin’s essay “A Talk to Teachers”. I return to it often, and I find a new pearl of wisdom each time I read it. “A Talk to Teachers” offers much to its readers but arguably most importantly, it provides clear testimony to the advantages of being authoritative over being authoritarian in the classroom (and truly in every space of human interaction). That is, the former asks you, as teacher, to create a space in which students can learn while providing a feeling of security because you have control over the learning environment, and the latter requires you to work to control the learning environment through any and all means at your disposal, usually punitive, no matter how harsh or arbitrary those punitive means might be. Baldwin’s essay also describes how most human societies to date have proven they aren’t mature enough to choose the former over the latter. The French philosopher Michel Foucault crystallizes this idea in my mind: “Humanity will reach maturity when it is no longer required to obey, but when men are told: ‘Obey, and you will be able to reason as you like.’”

We see how this plays out in a variety of ways, not least of which is the absolutist treatment of students of color by teachers and administrative staff in schools across the country — another facet of this essay that Baldwin is equally, understandably concerned with. Baldwin puts it like this:

“The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself if there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around,” and then Baldwin says most strikingly, “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.”

It is essential for teachers to rebel against the norms of inequitous societal institutions and, for instance, make clear to their students of color how unjustly they’re being treated by that very same society, how disjointed a system is that says in the same breath that black and latino people are alone responsible for their poverty and lack of opportunities, while the country remains overwhelmingly disinclined to invest time and energy (and yes, literal money) in improving communities in which impoverished black and latino people predominantly reside (that is, without forcing them to relocate via gentrification and various other cost-of-living increases).

We squander the massive potential of these students each academic year. We let them fall by the wayside as education professionals and politicians manage their careers. It makes more sense to again imagine this from Baldwin’s perspective, and the imperative he presents to his readers: “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.  This is the only hope society has.  This is the only way societies change.” Teachers need to be part of this solution. It’s precisely what we’re supposed to do.


Matt Rowan lives in Los Angeles. He founded and edits Untoward. He’s author of the collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013). Follow him on twitter @veryrealbatman.

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