We can do better than a return to normal in the education world
We are in the middle of something now that, at least for those of us in the United States, none of us have been alive to see. Older Europeans may remember the devastation of the 1940s, and of course many other nations that the United States itself has abused can recall the trauma of national chaos and despair, but for us, in the US, this is unprecedented. What I am going to say here does not at all discount the reality of the thousands who will die here (and have already passed away in many other countries), or the complete foolishness of our national politicians (whom I’ll return to), or even the abject immorality of the senators who engaged in insider trading when they were briefed about the impending pandemic months ago. Suffice it to say, the bad actors and bad results are real, and should not be ignored. But once we reach a point of relative stability, be in two months, six, or (hopefully not) eighteen, we will try to return to some version of normal. And that normal will feel comforting, certainly more comfortable than the feeling we get every time we get a push notification on our phones about the latest death toll (or is that the anxious way I live my life?). I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to get back to the status quo. But what if we chose not to go back? What if we didn’t have to settle for normal? What if we could make an entirely new version of our world, our country, and especially our educational institutions? The only thing stopping us is a series of rules that are rapidly being revealed as fictitious and arbitrary. We don’t have to go back if we don’t want to. So let’s not.
For so long, we’ve been told that our dreams of equity and desires to dismantle oppressive systems were unrealistic and not pragmatic. Dis/ability advocates and allies have long claimed that the conference system was inaccessible and were roundly ignored. Working-class students have argued that journal paywalls and professional organization membership fees are unnecessarily exclusionary, and though there are more open-access publications than in the past, the so-called “top” journals remain those that cannot be read by the majority of the public. Teachers and parents have repeatedly pointed out that state testing is discriminatory and a poor measurement of student progress, but, well, we must have “accountability,” so nothing can be done about it. Whatever your vantage point is in our system of education, there is a marginalized group crying out to be heard and people in power ignoring them for reasons that are, at best, inscrutable and, more likely, cruel.
My own background is in English Language Teaching, and as a Black educator and doctoral student in an extremely white space, I research the intersection between language, race, and whiteness. My own field is rife with various forms of oppression (e.g., the hiring preference for less credentialed white, “native” speakers over their racialized and multilingual colleagues), many of which are explained away, like everything mentioned above, by the inertia of the status quo. As we’re seeing now, however, due to an illness that not even Rand Paul can avoid (even as he works against funding relief), when pressed into a corner by unanticipated circumstances, those in power can make regulations, conventions, and restrictions vanish without too much thought. Suddenly, conferences can indeed be accessed virtually, people can be allowed to work from home, student loan payments can be suspended, standardized tests can be waived. They absolutely will claim that these are special circumstances when pressed in the future, but they can no longer make the claim that changes are impossible, and that they cannot occur quickly if necessary.
I don’t want to paint too sunny a picture on a global catastrophe. At the same time that these and other merciful decisions are being made (e.g., potential moratoriums on evictions), the Grifter-in-Chief and his friends are still going ahead with their plan to toss hundreds of thousands of people off of food stamps, ICE is still operating (although feigning at a more humane approach, but do you trust them?), and some would argue that the shift to remote work and learning is just going to lead to spending cuts in the long term. There is absolutely a scenario where an effective antiviral treatment is developed relatively soon and the national politicians use the public relief to consolidate power. If normal is one possible choice, a real-life Gilead is a possibility, too.
But it’s up to us, ultimately. And remember, even in the Handmaid’s Tale, the novel is told from the perspective of a rebuilt society looking back on a brutal period with dismay. (In fact, it’s explicitly constructed as data being analyzed by academics.) Which is to say, even the worst case scenario will be temporary. However long this liminal period lasts, and even if it is followed by an even more dire version of the stark authoritarianism that has been on display in recent years, there will come a time when we can choose our way forward. We now know that the rules never existed, that they never had any more justification than the desires, whims, and fears of those in charge. When power is desirous it acquires what it wants. There will soon come a time when the rest of us are presented with the chance to hold accountable those who are now proven to have misled us, and we can and must choose not to just let things go back to how they once were.
So what do we do? I can’t really tell you, because each of us is going to take a different angle. We all have different vantage points in the education field, different amounts of power, different identities. It wouldn’t suit me very well to try to become an activist for arts education, for example, because that has never been my space. If that is your space, however, gather with others in your field, identify policies and patterns of inequity, figure out what they’ve always told you was impossible, and don’t let them tell you what can’t happen.
I make a particular point of mentioning that you need to gather with others, by the way. As much as Americans love to be individualistic, we are much easier to continue to defeat if we try to make these changes on our own. They want us to work as individuals so they can keep things the way they prefer them to be. We will not be alone if we seek collaboration in countering inequity. The future, however it looks, will be time for collective action to challenge the power structures that have had their fallibility forcibly revealed.
This is a difficult time and I have no way of knowing how it will turn out. I can’t actually know if my own loved ones will survive, be it my parents, my newborn son, or even me. But most of us will be here. And whoever is here, we owe it to any and everyone who is hurt by this partially unavoidable disaster to take what we’ve learned and make certain that power stays uncomfortable. It’s the absolute least we can do.