Yearning for learning…not

No amount of administrative, legislative, changes that are going to be made to the schools in Washington soon, will mean anything at all to the performance of Blacks in any kind of American learning institutions…with the exception of the University of Hard Knocks—unless the students involved arrive at school ready, eager to, and prepared to learn. A yearning for learning, so to speak.

So the Mayor appoints a new Schools Chancellor. The President appoints a new War Czar. Big deal. Neither will have much affect in the schools, in the streets of Baghdad.

There is too much attention focused on the top-level leadership of the schools, and not enough attention paid to creating an environment, a culture, where learning is a virtue. Oh sure, some individual “stars” will be born, sooner or later, but we are hard pressed to have a really lasting affect on Black peoples’s schools without doing a cultural 180.

Pianist composer Sun Ra said it, and I’ll repeat it and repeat it. “We’re on the right road. We’re just headed in the wrong direction.”

Black people should want to become, once again, the prosperous, united, intelligent, peaceful people we once were, who gave civilization to the world. If that was the case, our schools would be academies, everywhere.

But we would rather be a 1st Round Draft Pick, than a 19th Round Spelling Bee Contender. As difficult as it is to acquire knowledge under any circumstances, we place our value on the silliest and least consequential matters, and have cultural obsessions with them, style over substance all the way.

We pass it on to our children. Cute. Bling. Free breakfast and lunch at school. We buy what we want. We beg for what we need.

We’re the only people who are so susceptible to the influence the Thug Life, that we don’t even know it. Our school children fall into three categories. No. 1. The smallest group: the intelligent, the educationally receptive. Those who want to succeed, and are working, determined to succeed. No. 2. A larger group: the committed thugs, disruptive, with habitually bad intentions for everyone and everything. No. 3. The vast, vast majority: those who have the ability and desire to do well, but who are susceptible to being influenced into bad behavior by those in Group 2.

Here’s how they make our good children act bad.

They define as socially untouchable, anyone who is a: sucker, punk, mark, buster, square, or snitch, or who otherwise is “acting white” (i.e. intelligent).

In our culture, the thugs are winning. They won on M-TV and BET. They won on “Hot-99” Radio and on American Idol, and on VH-1, and on The Step Shows and the Drum Lines and the Hoop Dreams. We’d much rather be on the Jerry Springer Show, “Pimp My Ride,” “Girls Gone Wild,” “Judge Judy,” than “It’s Academic,” “Meet The Press,” “Washington Week.”

So, school chancellors come, and superintendents go, but nothing is going to change for real, except maybe some facile test scores, unless we change our cultural underpinning. Unless our children acquire a yearning for learning.

It’s not just something that can be solved by neighborhood, really. Not even by city or region. Our Thug Culture pervades urban, suburban, even exurban and rural communities, and out people lag behind in schools everywhere we go, because most of us—perhaps even our most brilliant and most gifted—are never even dealt into the right game, they’re too busy playing—sometimes very well—the superficial game we always play when we go to school and don’t learn anything.

Sure, it’s left over in us from slavery. But we’re our own worst enemies now. It’s not our superintendent. It’s not our chancellor. It’s us and our lack of yearning for learning.

3 thoughts on “Yearning for learning…not

  1. I am writing this letter in response to Mr. Askia Muhammad’s column last week entitled Yearning for Learning in the Schools…Not. I am very concerned with Mr. Muhammad’s and popular culture’s continued consumption of the Black youth anti-intellectualism myth. This notion of Black anti-intellectualism found its roots in the Middle Passage as a way to justify the inhumane treatment of African people during the slave trade. However, in a 1986 education research article by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu, this notion of Black anti-intellectualism resurfaced in different clothing called “Acting White”. Simply stated, Fordham and Ogbu contended that the academic underachievement of Black students can, in part, be explained by their aversion to institutional education. They claimed this aversion spurred a Black oppositional identity that embraced poor academic performance and ostracized high performing Black youth as acting white. Despite twenty-one years of severe criticism within the research literature, popular culture continues to cuddle with this mythology in opinion based books, such as John McWhorter’s, Losing the Race, op-ed articles such as Mr. Muhammad’s and of course Bill Cosby’s now infamous 2004 speech to the NAACP.
    The truth is, study after study indicates that Black youth anti-intellectualism and acting white is a myth. In a recent Harvard Educational Review research article, Professor Kevin Cokley asks the question, if Black children don’t value education why do they go to college? We know that between 1980 and 1999 the number of Black students enrolled in college increased by over 530,000, the number enrolled in graduate school increased by 70,000 and the number in professional school increased by 9,000. Similarly, available research demonstrates that the educational and occupational aspirations of Black youth stubbornly remain higher than youth from other racial backgrounds, despite glaring economic and social disparities among schools that primarily serve Black populations.
    Of course we all recognize that there is a tremendous problem occurring with Black children in the public school system and similar to Mr. Muhammad, I agree that reshuffling the top-level of leadership in DC public schools is not the magic bullet for DC or any other school system. Education officials should review the work of countless contemporary scholars and teachers such as A. Wade Boykin, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Asa Hilliard who have documented effective ways to increase achievement among Black youth. However, these and other important contributions to the education of Black youth are ignored, as we continue to explore the myth of why Black children don’t want to learn. Good science and theory are based on a preponderance of empirical or experimental evidence. In this case, the preponderance of evidence does not support the theory of anti-intellectualism and acting white. Consequently, it is time to move on and address the structural, institutional and social inequalities that often lock Black youth into failure.

    Dr. Woodland is an American Education Research Association Fellow at the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley and a current homeowner and former resident of Washington, DC’s Ward 8.

  2. Dear Dr. Woodland:

    Please refer to the article linked here, which appeared in The Washington Post on Monday May 28, 2007. I did not quote this article in my piece, but thought about it when I wrote it. In my family a 14-year-old male is going through some of the “buster-punk-sucker-mark-square-syndrome” action, being pressured by the rowdies to be one of them, and not to try to excel in his classes.

    The research referred to here confirms what I wrote (in my mind at least), and stands in contradiction to what you advise, except of course you already dismiss such research as this as being flawed from the get-go, and personal experiences such as mine as anectdotal, and therefore also invalid. Everything you disagree with, appears in fact, to be invalid or based on biased data.

    There was another incident I recall, written about by a journalist who left a Florida daily newspaper to teach at Stillman College, where he found rampant “triflingness” among the all Black students. He wrote that the entire class he taught refused to buy the assigned books, reasoning that the teacher could not flunk the entire class if none of them did the assigned work. He said the students at Stillman appeared to consider their college experience as an extension of their entitlement, their party-days from high school, with no intention of learning anything academic, or otherwise.

    I am amused that you consider Bill Cosby as anti-intellectual, after all how many anti-intellectual multi-millionaires bother to earn their own Ph.D.s in education? Can you say Bob Johnson, who consciously decided that B.E.T. would be “entertainment” tv and not “educational” tv? Cosby, who attended White Temple University, has also been extremely generous to Historically Black Colleges. Go Figure…

    Thanks for your comment.

    Askia Muhammad

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