Sociological Analysis of the American Education System
The American education system is a socially accepted institution in our society for the technological, economic, and cultural advancement of our nation. Like any institution, there are advantages and disadvantages to our system of education depending on the sociological perspective used to view it. In this paper, I will tackle these perspectives, analyze them, and also analyze my experience in the American education system through a sociological lens.
Conflict Theorist Perspective on American Education
“… to understand the troubles that exist in any community, we must be mindful of how it is connected to the larger community that surrounds it.”
-Michael Schwalbe The Sociologically Examined Life (2001)
One doesn’t have to look hard to find that there are obvious inequalities in our education system. Conflict theorists focus attention on these inequalities, arguing that the American educational system as an institution that supports the Capitalist idealism and solidifies an American class system by consistently separating children by so called abilities, which has been documented to be determined at times by socioeconomic status. In Jonanthan Kozol’s work Savage Inequalities, staggering differences are shown between two public schools in New York. From his study, he found that the predominantly black and Latino school, P.S. 261, was stricken by an unbelievable level of poverty in contrast to the predominately white school, P.S. 24. The harsh learning environment called P.S. 261 was underfunded, under supplied, and in a deteriorating building which was used as a skating rink before it was an elementary school. What this school often lacked, P.S. 24 on the other hand had in abundance, in addition to having a beautiful campus with flowers, parks, and satisfied teachers. While P.S. 261 had 26 computers, about 700 books, and 1300 students, P.S. 24 had a computer in every class room, and nearly 10 books per student in the library (Kozol, 1991). These inequalities are not limited to schools in New York. This type of tragedy can be seen in cities all over our country.
Furthering the detriment of our education system is the involvement of corporations advertising in the schools. According to “Removing Schools’ Soda is a Sticky Point” by Annys Shin, approximately 75% of high schools have contracts with soft drink companies (Mooney, Knox, Schacht, 2009; Shin, 2007). Corporations see that funding public education benefits the their company in the long run because it gives them the opportunity to invest in the future work force. The consequence is the rise in obesity rates among American children and suffering school lunch proceeds that decline from the advertising and promotion of snack foods.
Conflict theorists also point out that the American education system indoctrinates our children into dominant European society, a concept called cultural imperialism by scholars. Students, no matter their ethnicity, are expected to learn an English centered education. Although there are schools that offer ESL or English as a Second Language classes, the overwhelming majority of curriculum in the United States are taught using the English language. Science, philosophy, and the idea of success are all given through the eyes of a European. Children are also expected to remember and regurgitate a history that is overwhelmingly European, and are given a world view that glorifies European conquests and devalues the significance of other cultures.
Conflict theorists have damaging arguments when pointing out the discrepancies in the American education system, but these theorists minimize the rising number of black and Latino students attending college, the cases of minority students who excel in this education system, nor do they consider the correlation between educational success and income levels which is not race specific. Using conflict theory I believe is needed to identify areas that need attention like socioeconomic gaps in the education system, but I also strongly believe that these theories are not solution oriented and can be perceived as pessimistic to some. The fact is that in America, credentials are important to the citizen’s character and expertise and to deny that makes it difficult, but not impossible, to survive this harsh economic climate.
Structural Functionalist Perspective on American Education
Looking at the American educational system through the lens of a structural functionalist, the system benefits the American people and the institutions connected to it. It teaches children how to function in American society through discipline and creates an atmosphere for achievement which nurtures self-esteem. Through the eyes of these theorists, universal education fosters societal cohesion amongst communities and the job market; creating an equal playing field amongst citizens (Benokraitis, 2012).
The American education system is necessary to move us as a nation away from poverty. Studies have been done to show the direct correlation between educational achievement and income levels. Tiffany Julian and Robert Kominski of the American Community Survey in 2011 showed that educational attainment is the single most important social characteristic for predicted earnings over time. Based on a 40-year work life, the average difference in earnings between a high school diploma holder and a college degree holder is about a million dollars. (Julian and Kominski, 2011). It can be empirically stated that the more money one makes, the more taxes one adds to the economy and the less likely he or she will need governmental assistance during his or her lifetime.
Blacks have fought for equality in America since their involuntary origins in this country. The 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision made the racial separation of public education in America unconstitutional. This monumental slice of history influenced major Civil Rights victories for black people not only in education but in the overall fight for equality. Its marked as an example of societal cohesion, in which social connections are created in a society where there may be cultural, economic, or historical differences. In a structural functionalist view of the education system, the institution creates an opportunity for victories like this in the educational and economic diversity of our country. Of course there will also be minimal failures, which Orlando Patterson discussed in his article A Poverty of the Mind. In this outstanding work, Patterson pointed out that the socioeconomic inadequacies of young black males is due to a “lack of reading and math skills” and that when the economy was “providing millions of new jobs at all levels…. jobless youths simply did not turn up to take them” (Patterson, 2007). If one cannot assimilate themselves to the United States’ economic, and social, cultural, and specifically the education structure he or she will be sorted or even phased out effectively and accordingly. Structural functionalist scholars seem to correlate functions of the American education system to the economic growth and stability. Discipline, achievement, rewards for productivity, punishment for not achieving, assimilation; these are all qualities structural functionalist accentuate as needed for capitalistic growth and necessary functions provided by American education (Benokratis, 2012).
With so much cultural diversity in the United States, how can one universal system of education incorporate them all? Although there were significant civil rights achievements among racial, feminist and even the deaf and handicapped communities, should there even be achievements to be “gained” in a country that prides itself on freedom and equality for all? Structural functionalist theories do not answer valid questions like these. They also seem to come from an elitist point of view, causing someone from a lower socioeconomic status to least likely align themselves with those positions.
Critical Pedagogic Perspective of American Education
What happens when you allow students to create the learning environment for themselves? When you allow the pupil to contribute individual thought into their education process? These are some of the many questions critical pedagogic theories spawn from. In an interview with Global Education Magazine, scholar Henry Giroux explained the critical pedagogy movement as a moral project that focuses on how students learn knowledge and how it pertains to them, while also learning the relationship between politics, knowledge and power (Giroux and Tristan, 2013).
A study done by Bettina Love in 2013 showed critical pedagogic principles being applied to the black community effectively while using unorthodox methods. What she did was use Hip-Hop culture, lyrics, and media to get 3 students to think critically about topics discussed in the songs and how the lifestyle discussed may pertain to them. Citing E. Petchauer’s 2009 work to support the process, she argued that using Hip-Hop critical pedagogic methods places the culture, context, learning styles, and experiences of the students in the essence of learning objectives, which encourages engagement (Petchauer, 2009; Love 2013). Needless to say, the children debunked some widely held myths about black youth’s identification to their relevance to Hip-Hop culture, while also learning new ways of interpreting the messages portrayed by media .
Critical pedagogy I believe is a necessary solution to the educational problems in America. Who would deny the benefits of children who are encouraged to participate in the educational process? There are few scholars who disagree with this way of teaching our children and see it as a detriment to American society because students seem to exhibit social unification around the injustices and structural barriers of our nation.
Symbolic Internationalists Perspective on American Education
From this perspective we see an emphasis on the interaction between the student and the teacher and how this interaction may define the student’s educational success. This occurrence, known as the Pygmalion effect by scholars, promotes inequalities in the classroom setting but in a way unbeknown to the student and sometimes by the instructor as well. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson tested the “self-fulfilling prophecy” theory in 1965 and found that students randomly chosen to be “spurters” or intellectually gifted received higher test scores than students who were not identified as such. It was noted that the teachers created a warm environment for these “spurters,” giving them more opportunities for participation and difficult material to learn. From this, the study found that student performance can be influenced by positive or negative interaction from the teacher. (Paul, 2013).
Knowing this, are symbolic internationalist theories a viable means to a solution or another way to point out the discrepancies in our education system? I would say the latter. Student success is somewhat determined on the teacher involvement with the students. I believe like critical pedagogic theorists that more teachers with a passion to teach would be the answer to fix the issue. The problem is an American investment on standardized testing can sometimes pressure teachers to focus attention on completing objectives, placing the importance of positive teacher-student interaction on the back burner. In Barry Kanpol’s work, Critical Pedagogy for Beginning Teachers: The Movement From Despair To Hope, he differentiated between schooling and education, saying that “education presupposes intrinsic motivation,” meaning that to really educate, both teacher and student are motivated by the interaction of learning and teaching, while schooling is motivated by numbers and test scores (Kanpol, 1998). I liken this concept to the automobile industry. Cars have predominately used fossil fuels to power the engine, although there are alternative fuels that are just as efficient and less harmful, oil and profits are driving the industry despite the environmental concerns, social barriers, and hardships it creates. In the education system the human need to give and receive knowledge in areas of interest is what “should” drive our education system, but the focus is on test scores and retaining information that has no connection to positive human social functioning, but like oil, the latter increases economic prosperity for some.
Sociological Analysis of My Experience in the American Education System
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
-W.E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folks (1903)
Dr. Donna M. Richards author of Yurugu: An African Centered Critique of European Thought and Behavior explained in an outstanding interview on For The People with Listervelt Middleton that “… to know thy self is to know the universe. To know the universe is to know thy self.” This ancient Kemetic proverb (Listervelt, Interview, 1994), which I have recently learned and believe is a vital foundation for the quest for individual success, has been denied me by the American education system. Looking at my educational experience through a sociological lens, I found that the American education system has impacted my life in such a negative way that it has caused me to question everything that I am and could be. This system aided in my loss of culture and identity, and has effectively indoctrinated me into a dominant society that does not see me as an equal. By doing so, my maturity has been delayed, further distancing me from my European counterparts. Therefore I feel there should be measures taken by the black community to reject the public educational system in the United States, to define, and create a system of education based on African culture, ideologies, and pedagogues.
When I was in Kindergarten, standing in line a girl asked me my name. I told her “Mulemvo.” She said, “Eww, that’s sound like Africa. You’re a African booty scratcher!” As all the kids around me laughed, I accepted the first wave of embarrassment for being of Congolese heritage. That is one latent impact of the educational system we are under. Allow me to explain.
Under dominant culture, which all can agree empirically is that of European origin, African way of life is taught to be backward, uncivilized, and sadly unknown and therefore it should be feared. The use of spears instead of guns is said to be technological immature. Living in huts or mud houses is considered primitive, and is the living condition blanketed on the whole continent. Because the perception of Africa is taught by dominant society in such a way, this young girl saw me and my culture as beneath her. This incident was my first confrontation with African culture being perceived as different. It was also my first experience being accepted as lesser than African Americans, being that this little girl was black. Had she been exposed to an African centered education system, my name may have sparked a very different reaction. But this girl, having been injected a European perception of Africa, is taught to see me and also herself as uncivilized, ugly, and in need of the “correct,” American way of living.
Through the American educational system, I saw that no matter my how great my educational achievements were, I’m slated for a designed socioeconomic status with my American credentials. I learned this watching my father.
My father grew up in the wake of the President Mobutu regime in DR Congo. He was able to attain an academic Visa, bring my mother to the United States and father 3 children while financially supporting our relatives back home. Despite having multiple degrees in business from the DR Congo and in the United States while also having a degree of Divinity from Duke University and completing his chaplain’s residency at UNC Chapel Hill, my father found himself working concurrently as a cashier at 7-11, pastor of a church, and part-time tax auditor at the age of 45!! This occurrence is common among the African community . Along with Blacks in America socioeconomic barriers plague our country, even though our education system is supposed create a level playing field. According to the Final Call newspaper, a study done by the Center for Economic Research found that “the percent of Black men earning a college degree has nearly tripled (since the 70s), but the ability to find good paying jobs has declined.” Researchers defined a “good job” as making $40,000 a year plus benefits (Lowe, 2013).
From a structural functionalist perception, my father was exactly where he needed to be. Although black academic achievement can be on par or may even exceed their white peers, socioeconomic barriers create an horrifically challenging predicament for blacks. This phenomena would be the focus of a conflict theorist efforts. Seeing these barriers firsthand caused me to disengage from the educational system by my sophomore year in high school and by college I was already seeking alternative ways to gain information about who I was, and what I was supposed to be. Fortunately for me, by adolescence my parents had worked hard enough to place our family in an environment where my alternatives where the church and extracurricular sports activities. For a vast majority of black children who disengage from the current school system this isn’t the case. Drugs, gangs, and sex are the commonly chosen routes to find one’s identity. A study done by the Metropolitan Center of Urban Development about the development of black said that “they (back males) also needed social and emotional support within a safe space to learn to cope with the negative aspects in their environment that contribute to their development as Black males (Martin and Jefferson, 2011).
Looking at my experience from a symbolic interactionist perspective, the American education system itself could be the barrier in my mind for achieving success, since success is defined not using African standards but the standards of a European. Watching my father excel in the American “credentialist” society and still be considered a working class citizen did not help the case for why I should excel in the same system. I dropped out of Norfolk State University after 3 years and joined the United States Marine Corps.
I don’t agree with the American education system as an educationl platform for the Black America because of the stark social, cultural, and historical diversity between Africans and Europeans. America contradicts itself by giving a perception that the education system is an equalizer for our children. But educational success in America means that someone of non- European decent has to somewhat dispose of their heritage, way of life, meaning of success, language, name, and even identity. Living in dominant society I am not asked, but expected to denounce my allegiance to DR Congo and take on the persona of what a black man should look like through the eyes of a European. As a young student, I was expected to “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.” Allegiance, according to Webster’s dictionary, is the obligation or fidelity owed by a subject, citizen, or alien to the government in which the subject, citizen or alien resides. My allegiance should be to no one entity, but to myself and the whole edification of my being. And if allegiance to a culture is necessary, let it only be the culture that courses through my veins!
Coming to grips with the realities of my educational experience was eye opening and thus has tailored my view of education in a very profound way. I do not believe the American education system fosters the necessary growth for the whole human being. It is an institution that creates a society of beggars, where the vast majority of Americans are consumer spenders, workaholics, and have mental issues that originate from one or more social institutions in our society. My college career is in jeopardy mainly because I disagree with the way I am expected to retain and regurgitate information in this school system. I identify most with the critical pedagogic approach to understanding learning but sadly, that isn’t offered in most classroom settings, especially in minority dominated communities. I believe if I was given an opportunity to be feel a part of my education, I would take a deeper interest in the process. Having an emotional detachment to our system even now creates a barrier that plagues my formal education, but it also has propelled me to find new ways of learning material of my interest.
I have heard it said that black children should not be considered learning disabled, but rather, alternative thinkers that do not identify with the process of education. I agree, and go a step further to say instead of going along with the status quo of a European centered education, Black educators need to create a system of education using critical pedagogic methods to infuse African ideologies and history into our children. The significance of African culture has been rejected, but the fruits of having the original cultural perspective of our identity is essential in prospering as a black community. The sad truth is, to get black people in America to unite under any one cause is such a monumental task that not too many people are coming forth to head up that effort; but it must be done. By accepting a culture that is fundamentally foreign to our original way of life, the “double-consciousness” DuBois likens to our mental battle will continue to enslave us and keep us from achieving the greatness black people were divinely designed to achieve. In the burst of technological advances and a booming job market, black people have been left behind not because we didn’t “rise up to take them” but because we have been systematically and intentionally malnourished from the education process that fosters the skills to attain these jobs. Far too often we blame the people in the condition and ignore the institutions that perpetuate the condition. But we can empirically conclude that the originators and crafters of our education system must have considered the amount of children that would “phase out” of the education system. Whether or not the fathers of this system knew that the dropout rates would affect the black and Latino communities so tragically is debatable. What isn’t debatable is the historical, economic, cultural, and social implications of the American educational system on the black and Latino communities, and how these create a cyclical condition of poverty passed from one generation to the next; and each generation gets exponentially worse. Join the fight. Send this article to anyone who may benefit and let us educate our people. Remember the words of our fallen fore father….
Know Thy Self
Inside Nianda Speaks: A Rejection of the American Education System
Benokraitis, Nijole V. 2012. SOC3. Belmont, California. Wadsworth: Cengate Learning
DuBois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, Illinois. A.C. McClurg & Co.
Kanpol, Barry. 1998. Critical Pedagogy for Beginning Teachers: The Movement From Despair To Hope. University of Colorado at Denver
Love, Bettina. 2013. Oh They’re Sending a Bad Message The International Journal Of Critical Pedagogy.
Patterson, Orlando. 2006. A Poverty of the Mind. The New York Times
Paul, Anne Murphey. 2013. How To Use the “Pygmalion” Effect. The New York Times
Schwalbe, Michael. 2001. The Sociological Examined Life. Mountain View, California. Mayfield Publishing Company
Tristan Jose Maria Barroso. 2013 Henry Giroux: The Necessity of Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times. Global Education Magazine. Interview
***Any works I did not cite I do apologize, it was not intentional. If I made that mistake, please contact me and it will be corrected ASAP. All pictures were not taken by Inside Nianda Speaks***