Thursday, January 17, 2008

(Un)Equal Educational Opportunity

My towns’ (three incorporated and one unincorporated communities strung together) high school had been condemned when I was in first grade. After bussing 7th through 12th graders sixteen miles away for one year (a long way, it seemed), junior high students were moved ‘home’ and the gymnasium was curtained with gigantic canvas tarps hung from ropes into large cubicles for elementary classrooms, including mine, until Christmas of my 3rd grade year. In 1968-9, I was in the ninth grade at a small junior high part of a consolidated school district and appointed to a school-community-educator committee. Our task was to join with representatives from other parts of the district in expressing what our small school needed (along with a couple of other small schools) from the district. Educators from a university moderated and guided the committee for nine months. In all that time, at twice a month meetings, we tried to define what we wanted, “equal educational opportunity.” I remember making lists, talking about why certain items appeared on the list—one of these was the return of our local high school—but our descriptions never satisfied the scholars. We wanted up-to-date books, solid buildings to replace prefabricated Quonset huts, and autonomy. We wanted a return to independence and financial self-sufficiency, a return of the pride we felt as a community that took care of its young. We were a feisty, hardworking coalmining and agricultural community, and we wanted a return to the excellence, the higher educational standards that preceded our absorption into the giant.

Nothing came of the meetings.

My class of 29 students was split between two high schools, and we spent two hours a day on the bus to attend an overcrowded school. Twelve hundred students crammed into a building during my sophomore year. Split sessions – 7 a.m. to noon, noon to 5 p.m., and swing session, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.—challenged the kids I grew up with to keep up, to participate, and to learn to adapt to what was good for us according to the more affluent, more powerful majority.

We wanted equal educational opportunity; they wanted to redistribute the assets and tax proceeds of small appropriated districts. In the name of economic expediency, we lost our community identity, and all across the nation, similar consolidations occurred.

I see similarity in the expansion of school districts and the expansion of technological literacy. Cynthia Selfe writes about some of the dangers of inequity in Technology and Literacy: A Story about the Perils of Not Paying Attention: “In the specific case of the project to expand technological literacy, the claim is that a national program will provide all citizens equal access to an improved education and, thus, equal opportunity for upward social mobility and economic prosperity. If we pay attention to the facts surrounding the project’s instantiation, however, we can remind ourselves of the much harder lesson: in our educational system, and in the culture that this system reflects, computers continue to be distributed differentially along the related axes of race and socioeconomic status and this distribution contributes to ongoing patterns of racism and to the continuation of poverty” (Selfe 101). The disparity of spending between urban and rural schools, between predominately white and Italian/Hispanic/French ethnic groups, and between middle class and working class communities echo loudly in the technological divide Selfe describes. But for both, the powerful stand in the central core of the panopticon and assign those with little or no power to the outer circle. Selfe writes, “The people labeled as ‘illiterate’ in connection with technology – as expected – are those with the least power to effect a change in this system” (107). My community made no headway in bringing high school students home until it gained a seat on the school board, and then improvements came slowly.

For people of color, the distance from agency, let alone power, is often profound. Andrew Walton, in Technology Versus African-Americans, states: “As the world gets faster and more information-centered, it also gets meaner: disparities of wealth and power strengthen; opportunities change and often fade away” (16). This, despite the buy-in to the American dream. “Blacks,” says Walton, “are subject not only to notions of a steady rise but also to the restless ambition that seems a peculiarly American disease” (18). Is it this disease that gives rise to a need for a cyber-underground like Black World to re-create the oral tradition Smitherman catalogues—“call and response, mimicry, signifyin’, testifyin’, exaggerated language, proverbial statements, punning, spontaneity, image-making, braggadocio, indirection, and tonal semantics”? (qtd. In Walton, 79) And does an “underground” signify revolution?

Jeffrey T. Grabill argues in Utopic Visions, The Technopoor, and Public Access: Writing Technologies in a Community Literacy Program that “writing with computers in nonschool contexts is a significant area of inquiry that needs the experience and expertise of computers and composition professionals. But, work in this area demands that we confront complex issues of public access and participate in the design of writing technologies” (299). We’re back to the panopticon—who’s in the middle? Who’s isolated on the outside looking in?

When Foucault asks “why at certain moments that regime undergoes a global modification” (Truth and Power 113), the question of time and timing arises. Giddens has the answer, insisting that “[s]ocial activity is always constituted in three intersecting moments of difference: temporally, paradigmatically (invoking structure which is present only in its instantiation) and spatially. All social practices are situated activities in each of these senses” (Agency, Structure 54).

  1. The question of access to technology for marginalized communities and individuals seems to have no concrete answer. If access is denied, the population is alienated and isolated. If access is provided, the population is marginalized as non-owners of the technology and the control of its access. We experience this problem as a binary. How can we—can we ever—resolve it?
  2. Despite living through the Clinton-Gore technology boom, I did not recognize the political manipulation that led to economic and social consequences (recovery from recession, proliferation of dotcom millionaires) and broke down when the bubble burst. The glitter of technological advances inspires similar naiveté in me and in others. I don’t believe I’m grazing alone in the field wearing blinders. Is there something more teachers can do than talk about the potential dangers of technology?

No comments: