(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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A young man named Bennett Brown gradated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994 with a major in physics and a 5.0 grade point average. As he pondered what to do after graduation, numerous high paying jobs were open to him – including ones in artificial intelligence, cancer research, and nuclear physics.
Two years after graduating, however, he was working in the South Side of Chicago, as a science teacher, in Du Sable high school. His pay was a little over $30,000 a year. He had no car and biked to work. He lived in a $750 a month apartment.
Du Sable High School has 1400 students and is majority African-American – most of whom live in nearby subsidized housing projects. On any given day, less than 70% show up for class – and those that do are often late. Brown was the school’s only certified teacher in physics and chemistry. Du Sable was lucky to have him. In the US, only 40% of inner city schools have a certified science teacher. Brown oversaw a classroom and lab with few supplies or materials. He worked 60 hour weeks.
He was not just a teacher but involved himself in the community – running an an after school program for gifted fourth graders and mentoring a graduate of DuSable who was struggling to keep up at the University of Illinois.
As Bennett said, his work was a form of activism. He was not a South Side Chicago community organizer like Barack Obama was, but he was working toward the same goal.
“We live in a country where the economic class you become as an adult is defined by who your parents are. Economic mobility is predominantly a lie,” Brown said. “I was born with quite a bit of privilege. I feel I have an opportunity to spread that privilege. Just by teaching, you give back. But if I were to teach in a wealthy school, who would I give back to? I’m acting to change the balance of power.”
My message series this month is “Overlooked Discrimination” and we’ve already looked at two – ageism and ableism. Today, I focus on educationism which I define in two ways. First, educationism is an elitist attitude that discriminates and stereotypes those who are less educated.. Our culture tends to believe a less than ideal education is one’s own fault – he or she is ignorant or lazy. We saw this divide in last year’s election when a large majority of persons with high school eductions or less voted for Mr. Trump, while a large majority of those with college educations or more voted for Mrs. Clinton.
The other manifestation of educationism is the discriminatory and unequal access to quality education. Our nation discriminates against children who live in poor or low property-value communities because of how we fund schools. Most children who are affected in this way are minorities who live in inner city areas, or rural poor who live in small and mostly impoverished areas.
One common thread in all forms of discrimination – be it racism, sexism, ageism or ableism, is that they are prompted by a fear of those who are different. With educationism, that is also true. We fear those who are less educated because we unconsciously assume they’re mentally deficient and culturally backward. Many also fear blacks and poor whites as threats to elite privilege. Denying them access to quality education is a way to insure they remain marginalized. To salve our unconscious fears of people who are different or a treat to our well-being, we isolate, demean and discriminate.
With Educationism, those who are less educated feel guilt and shame. Studies show they can lack self-confidence and carry a stigma society puts on them. That becomes, some economists say, “psychologically constraining” since persons affected by unequal educational opportunity internalize stereotypes about them and then make little attempt to succeed. They also have poorer health, fewer job opportunities and lower incomes. This situation becomes a vicious cycle from one generation to the next – low education causes poverty which In turn causes children In low income families to repeat the same.
Our culture worships the Horatio Alger myth – that those who study and work hard in life will succeed. The poor are the lazy ones who do not study or work. This myth is based on the idea that everybody has an equal opportunity to learn in well funded schools staffed by well trained teachers. That too is a myth.
A Chicago study of 300 black and white first graders found that when students are given equal educational resources, small class sizes and highly skilled teachers, they all realized comparable levels of achievement. In other words, a child’s ability to learn and grow into a successful adult is not primarily dependent on how hard one works. It’s dependent on how much money is spent on that child’s education.
Most states in our nation fund public schools with property taxes. Logically, children who live in high property value communities can then attend schools with ample resources to fund their educations.
This system is in direct contrast with European and Asian public schools which are funded equally. The American education system is one of the most unequal among industrialized nations. The wealthiest 10% school districts in the US spend ten times the amount per pupil than do the poorest 10%. We get what we pay for. Virtually all students from those wealthiest 10% school districts go to college. A little over one-fifth of students from the poorest 10% districts go to college.
Such unequal allocation of education funds is very evident in Ohio. Despite four decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court that the way school districts are funded is unconstitutional, Ohio’s school funding method has not changed. Ohio’s leaders lack the political will to change the system primarily because those who elect them oppose any change. It’s only fair, many people believe, that their property taxes pay for their child’s education. The solution, however, is to completely un-tie school funding from property taxes. Revenue can be raised with income taxes, for instance, and be allocated to schools on a per student basis – thus insuring all children have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Numerous studies show that students learn best when four criteria are met. 1) They attend small schools – 300 students or less. 2) Their class sizes are small – especially at elementary ages. 3) They have access to state of the art, challenging curriculum. 4) They are taught by highly qualified teachers. All of those factors are determined by funding.
At this point, my message could easily veer off into becoming more a lecture than a spiritual message. Gaining head knowledge is important. But gaining heart and soul knowledge, I believe, is of far greater value. Our purpose as a spiritual community is not just to know facts, as I’ve outlined many of them, but to feel at a spiritual level the consequences of those facts. Ultimately, I believe change in a society’s laws and systems to promote equality does not happen until a majority of people change their hearts.
100 years after passage of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, sexism is still rampant. Sixty-five years after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruling that unequal educations are unconstitutional, we still have unequal and segregated schools. Forty years after the Americans with Disability Act was passed, we still struggle with ableism. Systemic change and passage of laws against discrimination, often brought about by years of organizing and activism, do create better conditions for the marginalized. But they usually don’t change people’s discriminatory attitudes.
More important, I believe, is the unseen kind of change in human hearts and souls – the kind of change that prompts one to stop being self focused and focus instead on empathy, compassion and service to others. Regarding educationism, a majority of people in our nation need the kind of heart change that Bennett Brown had.
Professor Faoud Ajami of Princeton University, a well known TV commentator, says that a politics of love and compassion, instead of the current politics of legislated change, is what is needed in our nation. He echoes Buddhist philosophy of how real change happens. It must first begin in us.
Buddhism is often said to be the most equal form of spirituality. Everybody suffers. But everybody also has access to full enlightenment and nirvana. The roadblock to achieving nirvana is our selfishness. We lament suffering and so we desire things we think will make us happy – material items, judging and putting down others, or discrimination. When we step out of ourselves and the “poor me” attitude we can often have, we move into a way of thinking that is empathetic. We begin to stop thinking, “Why do I suffer” to instead think, “Why do others suffer – and how can I help them?”
I am not against the activists and community organizers who push for systemic change in our laws and government. Barack Obama, perhaps a good example of a community activist change agent, was able to bring about substantial good change in our nation. But as we see, those changes are being dismantled quickly – all because a large number of people in this nation still harbor prejudice – against immigrants, hispanics, African-Americans, women and LGBTQ persons. Indeed, we political leaders can initiate change but people from all streams of spirituality – including Atheists – can facilitate, I believe, a national reawakening of the soul. This would not be a religious revival, but a revival of respect and kindness toward all.
That’s why I find the story of Bennett Brown so inspiring. He’s now working in Iowa City to teach teachers and develop curriculum for inner city schools. But his early years as a teacher and his continuing work in education are sacrificial. With his knowledge and skills, he could make millions in another career but he has purposefully chosen to practice activism of compassion and love.
That kind of heart decision, one that denied what he might desire, is one we can all aspire to copy – in our own ways. How might we support equal education opportunities for all? How can we choose to deny ourselves in small ways – to volunteer, work or even live in lower property value school districts? How can we change the hearts of other people or our children to think and act as Bennett Brown? He has not changed systems or laws, but he’s changed lives. Which will be more lasting and echo across generations?
A national movement that promotes compassion and love is desperately needed in our nation. Far too often people today demean and judge others – out of anger, disagreement or fear. The dark side of humanity discriminates and stereotypes because of fear and selfishness. As we’ve discussed this month, our culture often isolates and shuns. We do the same for persons who are differently abled. And we do the same for the less educated, for blacks, hispanics and the poor of any race.
Practicing selflessness, in some way, is the answer. To practice compassion, empathy and self-denial does not mean we should give up our jobs and become a teacher, or that we sell our homes and move to another community. But it does mean we each have the opportunity, in our own ways, to deny ourselves in some big or small way to serve the needs of others.
I love that about this congregation. To serve and care for others is our collective commitment. But as we all know, each of our hearts has room for enlargement – to recognize our abundant blessings and then make those available to all others.
Our enlarged hearts, full of kindness and love, will then have empathy for the challenges of others. No more judgement, no more anger, no more fear, no more discrimination.