The New Inquiry 32: Back to School Editors’ Note
This is the editorial note to TNI Vol. 32: Back to School. View the full table of contents here.
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When white teachers in the New York City school district defied their union and their employer’s orders not to wear shirts bearing the NYPD insignia on the first day of school, signaling to the students in their care that they supported the choking death of Staten Island father Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, the Police Benevolent Association president issued the following statement of support for the rebel instructors: “Teachers wearing NYPD shirts to school only underscores the solid relationship that exists between rank-and-file teachers and police officers.” Many commenting on the protest noted the symbolic violence of teachers showing up to the first day of class in cop shirts when many of their students will be targeted by the NYPD on their way home from school. But what about all the other days of the school year, when classrooms are run by cops who show up in teacher shirts?
In many parts of capitalist society, school is where children encounter the social on their own for the first time. School is the way we take infants, exuberant in their generic individuality, and form them into legible bearers of their race, class, and gender. They must then simultaneously master such novelties as calendar time, asking permission to pee, how to become a version of themselves which is more excellent than all their peers, and how to live inside the confines of an externally imposed type.
School is the alibi for class society. Passage through it is supposed to be what makes the unequal distribution of violence and luxury in the bourgeois world a fair outcome, what makes the bodies it disposes of earn their disposal. It is also the house of knowledge and so a powerful node of induction into the mysteries of this bloody society. Those who want to approach the knowledge held there must also internalize its mechanisms. Some go on to help it reproduce itself, as teachers. Unexpected success in this self-transformation is sometimes called class mobility, but to celebrate those who are capable of moving admits that the majority are fixed in place.
Returning to the topic of school after one has left can risk confusing the perspective of the child caught in its horizon with the perspective of the graduate who wants a critical assessment of what was done. But interrogating how school operates remains a crucial assignment. Often, the way people talk about school is an expression of a general desire for society to grow. The final lesson of any course is that every body of knowledge is unfinished, so any passage through one is necessarily experimental. But the tension between standardized testing and education’s uncertain outcome is borne unequally by students and teachers.
Where the lesson of any discipline is also the lesson of social discipline, even those who entered the academy hoping to eventually undo it find themselves in impossible positions. Keguro Macharia explores these in “On Quitting,” narrating his coming to the limit of an academy that only offers a place for self-expression in exchange for the self’s near total erasure. His decision, unthinkable in a place that teaches thinking, is to leave, which his fellow sufferers receive as a betrayal. But such personal choices don’t resolve the problem of the daily assaults on blackness. In “Carceral Educations,” Sabrina Alli discusses her experiences teaching in “re-entry” programs, educational initiatives that aim to guide people recently released from incarceration back into the low-wage work that is already the punishment for being born into a disposable population. The programs that pretend to keep them out of prison, she notes, merely replicate the systems that brought them there in the first place. For some, all education amounts to is to do as you’re told.
Adeola Enigbokan writes about Spike Lee’s School Daze and the Soviet artist Aleksandr Deineka, finding in the two an affinity for a form of art as life-building that helps discover and invite “fellow travelers, sometimes strangers, sometimes familiars bearing new forms,” to participate in the project of perpetual reconstruction after the devastation brought by the antiblack capitalist world system. Outside the schoolroom walls, other projects of subject formation persist. In “Making It: A Miseducation,” Yahdon Israel lays out the tensions between doing well at school and being a dutiful child, when “making it” means making it out of town. As he and his peers grow up in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, their mothers’ contradictory demands to not leave like their fathers and to succeed educationally seem to make completing their homework a serious risk. In the context of a society that operates by rending black families apart, the promise of success seems like something it’s smarter to refuse.
In “Teaching While Black,” Patricia Mathew explores the difficulties of pedagogical mastery when her social position places her askew to a role designed for and by white men. She finds herself performing being a scholar for her students because all too often she is not afforded the respect the head of the classroom is supposed to command. “I am the most unlikely of things—not a mammy or a nanny, the secretary, or a member of the custodial staff, but their professor,” she writes.
In “Not for Teacher,” Malcolm Harris investigates the battles that have raged over the teachers unions, which often unwittingly fight against the idealized character of the American teacher. As established by the eugenicist Horace Mann, in mourning for his dead wife, she is supposed to be a saintly and self-sacrificing young woman. The power of this secular-holy figure can be mobilized to fight both public-sector employees’ bargaining power and concerned parents, particularly black ones, working to ensure that their children aren’t in the hands of indifferent or hateful caretakers.
Some of the anxiety about excellence in schools is clearly that of jealous parents guarding their own child’s primacy. In “Trophy Season,” Molly Knefel writes of the pernicious myth that in today’s schools, all children get awards, and further, that this is to their detriment. Instead, she finds value in the practice of recognizing children as excelling in unique and individual ways, with or without a plastic statuette. In “The New Kid,” Corey Eastwood reviews Joseph Harms’s debut novel, Baal, in which a black teenager in a mostly white town attends to the adolescent task of combating evil with the help of Nietzsche and his best friend. The depravity of the family, of a Rust Belt city’s dismemberment, and the razor-sharp threats of high school society provide all the horror of a blockbuster YA novel, but this self-published book also impresses at the level of morphology, managing to flout the reductive grammar rules of a first-period English class without seeming like a showoff.
The universality of school means it’s a place where battles over difference have to appear to be settled, which is one of the reasons why racial segregation received its formal legal defeat with a board of education. Children in school are saddled with the task of self-creation in a way that also ensures the reproduction of society, with all its inequities and excesses. But the commonplace that children speak the truth is ignored when it comes to cries of displeasure or boredom with pedagogy, because attending to it would mean hearing a larger critique of what they’re being forced to become. And so the school year starts again, an eternal return of the same, yet still with the lingering optimism that maybe this is the year things will be different.