Confessions of an Aspiring Grad Student

The same day that I concluded my full time job I received an email from the dean of my graduate school, sent out en masse to incoming students. Given that I’m currently unfamiliar with all of the names associated with the administration at my school, it took me a moment to figure out why this name had graced my mailbox with its presence.

I opened it and began to read. It began with a welcome to the school and to engaging in continuing education.

And as I read on, I have to confess: I inwardly groaned. Halfway through the email, we as readers were directed to a link where we could download recommended summer reading, entitled Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV (2015). The purpose of the reading is to open a dialog around diversity, and explore the link between poverty and educational inequity.

Yes, despite the fact that my career path has led me to confront poverty through education, I still groaned that I was being asked to read, what in my mind, was simply another book about how if we can simply provide impoverished children with a quality education, then America will be better and all poverty will magically evaporate.

This was my fear: in my few short years in the education sector, it has seemed that education reformists have been preaching the same message. If we provide all students with a quality education, they say, they will get a good job and make enough money to provide for their families. Once this happens, poverty will be erased, and somehow we will also eliminate the racism that has been rooted in our country for hundreds of years.

I realize this is an oversimplification of what is being presented about a very complex issue, but many days, especially while I was classroom teaching, this is what it sounded like.

That message never sat well with me. Here’s why:

  • First, it revolves around money and financial security being the measure of success. And accomplishment. While I believe that no one should have to live in poverty, I think that focusing success solely on monetary gain is short-sighted and empty. There are many more things to life than accumulating material wealth.
  • Second, the message implies that we require students to learn and change within an educational system, without examining broader system that may itself be flawed. The United States, and even the world, is not what it was 150 years ago when the current educational system was modeled after industrialization.
  • Finally, the current educational system itself transmits certain cultural expectations that may or may not be in alignment with a student’s own culture. Not to say that any parts of the system is undeniably wrong, but there should at least be serious examination of the system itself before we expect students of different cultures to adhere to it.

So when I downloaded the book onto my Kindle that night and finally manipulated the text on the PDF to be of readable size, I did so with a certain amount of apprehension, expecting another overly simplified account of how education is the key to success in life for humanity.

To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

Five pages in, I felt like someone had read my thoughts and responded to them on paper. It was a similar feeling to the one I felt when I walked into Salon CDE at the FIGT Conference in DC this past March—without knowing me, someone had understood my concerns and was responding to them.

“Those who are in schools are coerced into assimilating into contexts that do not allow them to build the types of attitudes, dispositions, skills, and knowledge necessary for them to analyze, critique, and contribute to their communicates when education is in place,” I read on page three of the book.*

I almost dropped my Kindle. In the opening pages of this book, this man had addressed the broader scope of education—that education is preparation for the world, not a degree on paper. Education is a transmitter of a culture that we can either force on our students or equip them to participate in themselves.

Too often, we try to fit all students into an archaic educational box. The fight is not to train students to succeed in a predetermined culture. The fight is to create an environment where each student is valued and can reach his or her potential. I’m thrilled that a book on poverty and education is capturing this belief.

Within ten minutes, my perspective on this book and my entire year had changed. I haven’t even finished the introduction, but Milner has already articulated the depth of topic he is addressing, the limitations of his book, and the complexity of the problem. I’m thrilled to be able to enter an intellectual community led by people who are eager to engage in the heart of education and how we can use it to better lives globally, and I plan to suspend judgment before I enter into any future conversation about race, poverty, and education.

*All quotes attributed to Richard H. Milner, Rac(e)ing to Class, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015.