Monday, October 10, 2011

Christopher Columbus Would Have Put Me in Track 2

I spent my first nine years of my formal education at a Catholic grade school, in a fairly well-to-do neighborhood, where I was the only student of color in my class until 5th grade. That was when my school absorbed students from three other  parochial schools in the area while their schools of smaller enrollment closed their doors. I remember that a big stink was raised by some in our school about bringing in these other students and part of me now wonders if it was because of the diversity that they represented. 

That year, we welcomed about five new students into my class, 3 of which were tracked into "Track 2," almost doubling its size. This track, which included myself, had lower expectations for academic achievement and also set students on a trajectory for more technical education and then skilled labor. I was not being challenged academically nor was I applying myself. I remember Track 2 not being a good fit, especially once I realized what the difference was between the two groups. I wanted to be in the more challenging track and began actually applying myself academically. By 6th grade, my school allowed me to move into Track 1. My situation, however, was a rare case because generally students stayed in their track through junior high, which then followed them into high school and beyond.

Critically looking back at the situation, Track 1 and 2 were almost completely demarcated along racial and economic lines (based on my knowledge of students' residence in certain parts of certain neighborhoods, my proxy for family income). Students of color and/or those of limited means were in Track 2. I can't think of anyone from these groups who was in Track 1. Whether or not this was intentional by my school is a minor question I have, but more importantly that trend is yet another example to me of the systematic prejudice that exists about abilities of certain groups of people. And for that, it's harder to point a finger of responsibility. 

At least in the States, many prejudices that exist today can be traced back Octotber 12th, 1492.
"...they [Natives] are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white...They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion. I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses." (Recorded in Columbus' journal on October 12th, 1492)
The day Christopher Columbus first meets the indigenous people of this land, his first thoughts are of their value as servants and his immediate plans are to take six of them back with him to give to the King. Just imagine how things in the States would have been different if the Americas were "rediscovered" by someone who did not believe in the intrinsic supremacy of wealthy, educated, White, male Catholics (and Christians).

There is a clear link between Columbus' interactions with Native Americans and how I was tracked in grammar school. Tracking doesn't exist to address students' individual learning needs for their own self-betterment through education. If it were for that reason, we'd see more fluidity among the tracks and greater diversity within the tracks. Tracking would be based on assessment and not prescription. Students would also be educated about the implications of being in certain tracks and would have more freedom to chose a track for themselves (even if it meant demonstrating their fit in that identified track).

No, to me it seems that much of the inequality that exists in education is necessary to sustain a hierarchy for the powerful to remain in power. The lower classes are therefore educated only so much as to make them intelligent servants to those in power. In this country that hierarchy began the day that Cristobal Colon set foot on this land.

So, I encourage you to "Reconsider Columbus Day."

There are many Columbus critics out there, and this in example of a fairly reputable one, but nothing can beat one's own deep investigation of primary sources. Eventually with the kids at homeschool, I plan to read through more of Columbus' journal to better understand his thoughts and feelings from his own words and to contextualize it in history. One of the major attractions of homeschooling is teaching history from a more culturally relevant perspective. This weekend we got a bunch a free books from a local library and I purposefully avoided any history or social studies books because as the saying goes "history is written by the victors." I want to make sure my kids are learning a more balanced account of history. I want to place more emphasis on the struggles and the resilience of those who were and are marginalized because in some situations (like with my tracking), I'd count myself as part of that group. 

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