A panel of speakers more heavy on hip hop artists rather than academics or experts discussed the American education system last Saturday at an event organized by Wesleyan stuent Evan Okun. Titled “Exclusion and It's Consequences," it was intended to “host brilliant thinkers who are not granted 'legitimacy' within the field of academia.” The panel featured Hip Hop artists M-1 and stic.man, core members of the highly acclaimed rap collective Dead Prez, Wesleyan Professor of Sociology Daniel Long, Wesleyan student Chantaneice Kitt (Class of 2013), and Umi, a Wesleyan graduate also associated with Dead Prez's rap collective.
While it struck me as somewhat ironic that a conversation about inequality in the educational system was held at an elite, private institute of higher learning, I still found much of the discussion profound and inspiring. To me, and this is only my opinion, it seemed to fall short, however, of injecting much energy into the crowd of about 200 people that came to listen. The audience was subdued and clapped politely at the end, with a minor showing of enthusiasm, but not much sense of any take away action, at least that I could discern. It can be assumed that there was a much greater showing of spirit at the concert scheduled for later that night, which I didn't attend. The concert was covered in the Wesleying blog (click here) with much back and forth commenting about the irony that I also sensed as well as other sarcastic dueling.
Another attendee at the panel had a different perspective. On what felt to me like a lack of enthusiasm, she thought that the silence was a sign more of rapt attention than of disinterest. The fact that the audience was quiet and that very few people left before the end, which ran late, was a real sign of their respect and engagement, she thought.
While I enjoyed listening to the panelists' stories, experiences, and ideas, I didn't hear anything unfamiliar or atypical. Disillusionment and disenfranchisement seem to be the rule rather than the exception, something everyone can relate to, so I didn't feel in any way jarred or outraged as perhaps the title of the panel might suggest I should. But maybe that is the point. But again in discussing my reaction with another attendee, we had some disagreement as she noted that “taking Columbus Day off the calendar and not teaching European colonization as praiseworthy in schools is revolutionary.” The thing is, I barely even registered that this was discussed at all, it was only touched on indirectly in a passing comment and was not presented in any focused way.
The panel began by way of a music video of a song about school by Dead Prez and the first question asked was about how funding was obtained to record that song. M-1 answered by saying “your energy is your funding. Your energy, your time, your creativity, and your resourcefulness are the funding. Hip hop music was in a different place at that time, relegated to an underground status.”
Each of the panelists then spent a few moments explaining their background and reasons for being present. Wesleyan Professor of Sociology Daniel Long spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline and how the education system gives a false appearance of diversity and meritocracy when those don't really exist.
Umi, a Wesleyan graduate, talked about growing up in Tuskegee Alabama and about only knowing what he did not want out of life, as opposed to knowing what he did want. He spoke of his years at Wesleyan as a time of escape that allowed him to immerse himself in new experiences and meet different kinds of people.
Stic.man spoke about how he dropped out of high school and was proud of having done so at the time, because he thought of it as resisting the bullshit* he felt he was being fed by the educational system. (I considered changing this word to 'nonsense' but for the sake of journalistic integrity I decided to use the terminology as stated, so as not to change the tone.) He explained that he felt a lot of rage and frustration as a teenager and that if he put any value on a high school diploma then he felt he would be allowing the system to break him down, and he would be legitimizing the system he felt was a bullshit system. Whether he was describing a case of regular old youthful indignation, or a heartfelt reaction to actual systematic injustices, I couldn't really tell without knowing more particular details, though I suspect it's probably a combination of both. But upon entry into the world of adulthood, he says, he realized that schools don't have a monopoly on bullshit, it's everywhere. He thought he was rebelling against indoctrination but he got caught up in the same trap elsewhere. “It's what we think we know that keeps us ignorant,” he concluded.
Chantaneice Kitt, a current Wesleyan student from Harlem, spoke about her experiences in the New York City school system and having gone from an extremely progressive elementary school to being placed in a less than stellar junior high school. In attempts to transfer to a better school, she struggled through much bureaucracy and was faced with administrative incompetence, and ultimately was unable to avoid attending the poorly rated school. Still, she made her way to an exclusive preparatory high school in CT and then to Wesleyan.
M-1 looked at school like a movie, something to get through or watch passively, rather than something to achieve. He spoke of becoming increasingly disinterested in sports and academics, though at the time he didn't think about why. When he got to Florida A&M University, by what he called a fluke, and began actuarial studies he felt that the educational system was trying to make people into drones. He gave an example of a the business school requiring everyone to wear suits and ties every Wednesday. He began to reject the educational system and cited influences whose work he began studying in his quest to self educate: George Jackson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Chuck D, KRS-One, Eldridge Cleaver, Sonia Sanchez.
When asked by the moderator what changes they would propose to revolutionize education, stic.man responded first saying he'd have to overthrow that question because we have to ask “What is a revolution? What is a system of education? When you put education into a system, it's already dead.” He spoke of being influenced by Bruce Lee's ideas opposing a one-size-fits-all education. “Our perspective filters the reality. To revolutionize the educational system, it is about educating ourselves, and more about letting go of our notions than about picking up more. There is no absolute, and we need to let go of our preconceptions about what education is.”
M-1 said we're in “a revolutionary upheaval right now. Revolution has been disarmed by being made to seem ordinary.”
Wesleyan Professor Daniel Long spoke about an experimental school program in Tucson Arizona that was very successful and tailored to the student community's needs, but was also seen as a threat to the status quo and because of this it was eventually made illegal. The architects of the program were fired and sued to the point of financial ruin. “How do we educate ourselves without expunging the roots of who we are, in other words, outclassing ourselves?” he asked.
Kitt said that popular models of education get most of the available funding. She cited Geoffrey Canada's model [Harlem Children's Zone] as one that has been successful in working within the existing system. Kitt said Canada's model is the same as the Black Panther model but without the political element. Taking away the political message and challenge, she explained, has allowed the educational aspect to flourish.
“Who defines power? What power do you have?” asked stic.man… “Academia is a part of the real world because it shapes your psychology. If you believe power exists 'over there', you're helpless, you're hopeless. If you change your perspective and definition of power, you're inspired. ... Where is the class on integrity? Where is the class on discipline, creativity? It's not all about terms and definitions.”
There was some discussion about expansion of credentials, wherein a job that now requires a college degree might have only required a high school diploma in the past. In this sense, it was hypothesized, schools exist to maintain privilege for the already elite. But recognizing our own power is so important to achieving our highest potential and uniting individuality with community, according to Umi. We should see opportunities instead of obstacles, he said. We have to embrace our fears and step outside of our comfort zone. Go beyond the campus, take advantage of what the City of Middletown has to offer, not just in terms of restaurants or activities, but in terms of meeting a wide range of people.
Ultimately, though, we're all responsible for our own choices, successes and failures. Obviously there's room for improvement in education, but there are also many elements that work well. Finding the right balance between complacency and outrage, that is the hard part.