Education vNext, Part I: The Mental and The Cultural

The SuperSpade has dealt semi-tangentially with education at different points in time.  I thought [after having it suggested to me] that it’s be appropriate at this time, the beginning of the school year for most people, to give me perspectives on education going forward and it’s relevance and importance to our people, our community, and our future.

Many of my thoughts on this subject are included in this post.  My foundation for these thoughts/feelings is worth re-iterating: we have two-fold challenge that faces us on this issue.  We have mental & cultural issues in society at large and in minority communities that only value education as long as it has a payoff in dollars.  We also have institutional issues that not only create but perpetuate resource disparities between schools, creating challenges for students because not all schools are created equal. 

Though I do not believe that one of these is necessarily more important do the other, nor do I believe that we need to serialize the solving of these problems, I will address the mental & cultural challenges first. 

We [unfortunately] can many times only see value in things when their value is most easily measured in dollars and cents.  To put it bluntly, this is short-sighted and f*d up.  My closest mentor says it like this: “We need to flip ‘if it doesn’t make dollars then it doesn’t make sense’ to ‘if it only makes dollars then it doesn’t make sense.'”  What does that mean here?  That means that we must expand our actions and thoughts so that they are open to the notion that money is not the be all, end all.  One of the reasons that many people do not pursue education seriously or at all is because they are sure that they won’t make enough money from it.  Think about it.  Why do so many kids want to be doctors and lawyers (or more interestingly, why do some many parents want their kids to be doctors or lawyers)?  It ain’t because people admire and respect these profession so much (though they should).  It ain’t because every half-way articulate kid will make a good lawyer or detail-oriented kid a good doctor.  It is because both physicians and attorneys make lots of money, plain and simple.  What was the underlying theme behind every skit on Kanye West’s College Dropout album?  It was stupid to pursue [higher] education because you would be destined to be broke.  Now I am not naive enough to think that money does not exist, or wealthy enough to think that money is no object.  However, I am naive enough to believe that there is more to life than getting paid.  Why does this matter in this education discussion?  Ask somebody who hates their job, and they’ll tell you how happy their money does not make them.

We need to shift our perspective to things more personally and communally fulfilling than money.  This requires a change in how we look at ourselves and our own personal worth, as well as how we view our collective selves and collective worth.  I do not believe that individuals like Frederick Douglass and other slaves taught themselves how to read because they were trying to get paid.  Do you think slaveholders outlawed reading being taught to slaves because they were scared slaves would get rich off of it?  NO!!!  They did so because they knew, rather, they mentally and culturally embraced the value and power of being able to read.  I use reading here as a proxy for education in general; the notion is still the same.

How did we allow this anti-educational, anti-intellectual demon to pervade our hearts, minds, and spirits?  We got focused on the wrong stuff.  This is partly our doing, and it was partly done to us.  One cannot responsibly ignore the fact that when something is withheld from a person (e.g. freedom of expression, access to money), there is a tendency to over-indulge in that which was withheld upon receiving it.  That is part of the reason why when we ‘come up’ from being broke, we buy cars with big rims (whole ‘nother discussion).  My question is, why didn’t that sustainably occur when educational access was open to us?  We saw it happen in spurts in american history (post-Emancipation, post-Reconstruction, post-Civil Rights Movement, post-Affirmative Action), but the trends slowed to a crawl after these upticks.  Why is it that our thirst for material “wealth” outlasts our thirst for mental, or any other form of wealth?  Did we make that number one, or did someone else lie to us and tell us that was what was most important?  The answer is both.

What should we focus on instead?  We need to redefine what success means, what happiness means, what fulfillment means.  I challenge all ‘educated’ folks as well as those currently pursuing/seeking education to examine ourselves to find what our motivation(s) for education really were.  You may find that there was more to it than getting paid.  If that is not the case, are you happy with your decision?  If that is the case, I challenge you to share these motivations with students, telling them what fulfilled you.  Get a mentee and tell them why education was important to you outside of the financial payoff.  The message here is that we need to do a better job of communicating the non-financial benefits to education in order to make it more holistically attractive.

We also as a collective need to understand delayed gratification as opposed to the hedonistic, instant gratification that society embraces so readily.  Understanding that there is more to life than today, and that what you do today can have positive implications not only tomorrow but in the following decades as well.  The challenge is that some of the alternatives to education have instant gratification characteristics, especially when it comes to money.  What need’s to be communicated is that education’s financial benefits, although somewhat delayed, are real and sustainable, much more so than it’s alternatives.  We need to expand our perspectives.  This is challenging, but it can be done.  Try this: the next time you converse with a young person considering leaving school, ask them why they are leaving.  Then, ask them why they think it might benefit them if they stay.  As many times as I’ve done this, I’ve never had a conversation where the answer to these two questions did not overlap.  Why does that matter?  It matters because it says that many people on some level do at least know education is ‘good.’  Our goal then should be to remove all of the crap that makes it un attractive and that distracts students from it.  That means addressing institutional challenges to education…

This post is getting longer than I anticipated, so I will break here and deal with institutional challenges later.

One Love.  One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora and am a National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I currently live in Washington, DC with my beautiful wife Ellen. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. Today I work at the crossroads of traditional political organizing and online activism. I speak before diverse audiences on empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation though emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet.

One response to “Education vNext, Part I: The Mental and The Cultural”

  1. Mz. Mack says :

    G this post really speaks to me. I think that you have done well to outline our responsibility in this issue as a community. One of my only complaints about my upbringing was that I was not exposed to or encouraged to explore different occupations as a child. I think that part of the reason my parents did not take care to do this is because it was not done for them. The other more important but truly sad part is that my parents, just like many other adults in our community, equate happiness and fulfillment with having a high paying job. Therefore it was not the subject matter that I chose to study nor the zeal with which I pursued it that made them proud. Instead foremost on the list was the prestige of the University that accepted me and the career that I commited to pursuing. This is unfortunate because it perpetuates the myth that some how the higher one’s earning potential the easier it is to be happy. Of course studies have shown that most high paying jobs are in fact more stressful, less fulfilling, least likely to allow one to be healthy, and let alone make one happy.

    I firmly believe that if we stressed education for education’s sake in our community we would be much better off in general. I assume that as a community if we valued money less we would be more apt to give it back.

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