Some Historical Perspective

I went down to Georgia this past weekend for a family reunion that included a lot of family history.  Interestingly enough, much of it had connections to my experience teaching.  I’ve often felt that teaching must be harder now than it was in the past, because my experience was so brutal.  Well that might be true of the recent past, but there was a time not so long ago when things were far more difficult in many ways.

As part of our tour of the historical archives of a town in Georgia that is the historical home of much of my family, we learned about the school that blacks attended in the area from the end of slavery until the end of segregation.  School for blacks was held in a one room school house and education from 1st to 7th grade was provided simultaneously by a single teacher.  The only supplies provided to the school from the county were hand-me-down books and a single chair, for the teacher’s use.  Education ended at 7th grade, at which point, kids were big enough to go pick cotton.  There was no option for high school, let alone higher education.  And yet, some of my ancestors did manage to attend historically black colleges.

While the proprietor of the archive spoke, relatives of mine nodded their heads in affirmation and mentioned their own memories.  Obviously, all of this is old news to anyone who has ever taken a class on US history, but hearing about it from people who actually lived through those times made me really think about it.  Reflecting on the fact that there are still people alive today who were educated in these completely unequal conditions, it made me think, of course we’re still struggling with the education gap, you just can’t fix the effects of systematic discrimination overnight.  We learn a lot from our teachers, but we also take in a unquantifiable amount of information from our families and our societies.  How much of a disadvantage is it to a child to be raised by parents who never had the opportunity to go to high school at all, let alone a good high school or college?  How much is that disadvantage compounded when it’s the norm for an entire community?  We’re only a few generations past segregation.

I think that what makes education so difficult today is that we are finally starting to take the challenge of educating these urban kids seriously.  It has only been within the past 10 years that No Child Left Behind forced educational standards upon every school in the country.  Until then, kids were graduating from inner city schools, but it was a lot easier to pretend that they were actually getting an equal education.  I wonder how long it will take for the country to realize that “equal” will not be achieved until “separate” is done away with.  In the meantime, I think teachers face a different sort of difficulty than they did during segregation.  Then, there were no resources, but I doubt there was much in the way of standards and scrutiny either.  Now, teachers have a lot more resources, but also the pressure of working under a magnifying glass.

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