In his 1963 publication in The Saturday Review, “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin aptly reflects: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. […] It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” A meaningful education—according to Baldwin—is one that gives students the tools “to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk,” by historicizing their place within larger structures of society.
As I sit just two weeks away from wrapping up my undergraduate education, during a political moment I never anticipated would characterize my entrance into post-grad life, I have been spending a lot of time reflecting on the role of my education—and education more broadly. In doing so, I am left with more questions than answers: What does it mean to become “conscious” in Baldwin’s terms? How might educational institutions facilitate opportunities for their students to develop this consciousness? And, what happens when the historical legacies and/or existing practices of an educational institution progress the very same power structures students learn to resist?
The greatest tool I have encountered within my education at Pomona to “examine society” in the terms Baldwin poses has been actually stepping outside of the classroom and connecting theory to praxis. As much as academic theories of how the world works can help in the development of such a “consciousness,” those ideas are ultimately meaningless if they do not affect the ways in which one interacts with the world in one’s day-to-day existence. What is the value of fighting for communities at the policy-level, unless one is equally open to treating such communities with compassion and empathy in the everyday? Detaching oneself from the ways such theories manifest in one’s actual life, I think, allows one to miss the very point of education itself.
Investing time and energy into engaging within one’s neighboring communities opens up the possibility of better understanding one’s own position—both physically and historically—in relation to systems of power. I think there is something profoundly important about place and the relationship between neighbors (such as Claremont and its surrounding communities) within our larger systems of politics. For example, it is one thing to speak critically about educational inequality from a detached, theoretical sense, but it is another thing entirely to locate one’s own identity within the history of that inequality and actively work to resist that inequality through one’s relations to others. Understanding one’s place within broader systems of inequality is critical, ultimately, because it allows one to understand potential channels of resistance.
In my own context as a student at the Claremont Colleges, engaging directly with our neighboring communities through work at the Draper Center and through classes that directly partner with our neighboring communities has been one of the most powerful ways I have found to give my education more meaning. Through my experiences, I have come to think that such engagement is most powerful when it centers the sharing of personal narratives within and across different communities.
The power of exchanging stories is that doing so humanizes problems and allows one to move past dualistic understandings of others who one might not otherwise directly encounter. All peoples’ identities are largely intersectional—existing at the crux of several different identities and the power dynamics associated with them, so thinking about groups’ identities in strictly Either/Or terms can be dangerously naïve. In her 2009 TED Talk, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reveals the danger of succumbing to dualistic “single stories” when she reflects, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Such single stories thrive when the groups they are about are unable to reclaim their identities. Being “conscious” in the way Baldwin suggests, therefore, requires an openness to hear the stories of people not like oneself and a willingness and openness to engage with them.
The work that the Draper Center and community partnership classes do has the power to bring together communities that might otherwise never interact, and pushes them to learn from one and other in ways that might sustain mutually beneficial progress. This is not to suggest that all community work necessarily deconstructs systems of power; in some cases, seemingly “well-intentioned” community work actually serves to reify the very same institutions of power it attempts to criticize. If those engaged are not willing to be open to listening to others’ stories and responding appropriately, then that community work will be counter-effective. This is also not to suggest that there is no value in the dialogues that occur within academia. Rather, this all seems to suggest that the most meaningful education is one that pushes students to become critical and compassionate learners, inside and outside of the classroom, and always work to think of ideas and theories in relation to their own physical existences.
Baldwin concludes his piece addressing teachers by arguing that, if he were a teacher in a school, he “would try to teach make [students] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful, and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him.” Schools hold a particularly powerful place in society: not only are responsible for the “academic” education of society, they are also spaces where students are socialized to hold values as members of the American political order. With that understanding, I hope to use my own education to never stop examining society, as Baldwin suggests, and to push for our systems of education to continue to be critically engaged spaces, open to listening to the narratives of others.