Progress – The American Way!

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. 

James Baldwin

I love public education!  Anyone who knows me, knows this.  I am a passionate and sometimes strident advocate for universal public education.  For this reason, I see it as my duty to perpetually criticize it.

The image above is American Progress, painted by a Prussian immigrant, John Gast, in 1872.  I vividly remember this image in almost every American History text I have picked up.  I remember one publisher was so kind as to include this image in the transparency collection that came with the teachers’ edition of the text, so that I could place it on an overhead projector, and have my students use visual thinking strategies to analyze it.  When I taught 8th graders at Urbana Middle School, my student’s discussion was rich with criticism about the imagery of light and dark. The problems with the concept of Manifest Destiny. My students inspire me to see the world through other perspectives.  

I recently participated in a Crossroads Anti-Racism workshop about dismantling systemic and institutional racism.  The facilitators projected this image, and participants used a variety of strategies to discuss the roots of racism portrayed in this image.  I was so familiar with this lesson plan, I leaned in. It had been 15 years since I taught American History. I was curious to see how adults responded to an image with which I was very familiar.  I was not prepared to be surprised.  

Joy:  “What book is she holding?”

Derrick: “No… It is not the Bible.”

If you have the ability, zoom in.  The book is labeled simply, horrifyingly, obviously, “School Book.”  From the first public (tax-payer funded, Colonial) schools in New England in the 1630s, the purpose of school has been to “Americanize” to “socialize” to “educate” to “assimilate.”  Schools as institutions, and public education as a system have, from the beginning been the standard bearer of White Supremacy. “Progress” is pushing this concept of superiority and oppression based on race across the country.  “Progress” is erasing aboriginal culture through genocide and… education! “Progress” is ensuring that the purpose is so entrenched that the “progressives” and idealists are unaware of how successful schools are at marginalizing, excluding, and perpetuating White Supremacy. 

I love public education! We must do more than invent more progressive programs that approach inequities through technical solutions.  We must examine our personal belief systems. We must study how those belief systems have been created and formed over time, specifically to perpetuate segregation, subjugation, marginalization, and indoctrination.  As individuals, we must continually question policies, practices, and long held beliefs. As a society, we must organize. We must change. Not progress, but radical change.  

1 Comment

  1. cmpayne32 says:

    Opportunities like this provide the chance for students to develop critical thinking and analytical skills. This painting also provides a chance for educators to consider the mirrors and windows that schools provide for students. With mirrors, students see themselves in what they are learning, and with windows, they see the perspectives and experiences of others.


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