Why College Is Not the Goal of a Progressive Education

Can’t we come up with a more creative incentive for our learning communities?

As an oppressed student, it was ingrained in me from early on in my educational career that attending college was not only the key to justice, but a revolutionary act. As a member of learning communities where students of color and from low-income backgrounds where often the majority, I was used to seeing college banners and insignias hung up on the walls of classrooms and hallways, accustomed to teachers wearing sweatshirts with the familiar names of schools emblazoned on them and hearing stories of their lives there. As I got older, I was advised by counselors and educators to do everything I could to stay on the college path, including changing my manner of dress and speech, and leaving the social circles of which I was a part, which I was told were “holding me back.” It wasn’t until this latter phase of my educational career that choruses of “college is the answer” began to sound suspicious to me.

Even now as an aspiring teacher, many of the programs of which I have been a part have placed college entrance as the primary goal of their students’ trajectory, citing the number of graduating students which go on to four year institutions as a mark of their organizations’ success. In orientations and training sessions for these programs, I have been made to pour over statistics which prove without a doubt that first generation college students will “end poverty in their families forever.” I have visited public and charter schools which take the school recognition which I was exposed to as a young student to whole new levels–naming lunch tables, classrooms and entire class years after the names of elite educational institutions, believing this to be a means of setting the high expectation of college admission for their entire learning community.

There are a number of reasons why I think this is a problem. I believe it is irresponsible to brand students with the names of colleges and universities–which are businesses–and would feel just as uncomfortable calling a learning space “The Harvard Room” as I would calling it “The Halliburton Room.” I also refuse to endorse obscenely-endowed private institutions who garner their wealth from all manner of seen and unseen sources, and which I hope learning communities would be in the process of resisting rather than celebrating. But stamping children and their learning spaces with the logos of complexly conservative organizations aside, there is another reason why I believe making college the goal of education sells our communities short.

When we gear education toward the sole goal of college admission–especially in the case of oppressed students and communities–we make it about careerism, middle-classness, and individual achievement over community empowerment. What is most abhorrent to me about this is that it forces students to create dreams and futures for themselves inside of the same educational and economic models which have engendered their positions at the lower end of the social ladder in the first place. Instead of engaging students in complex conversations about disparity, economic justice and the power of class identity, college-geared learning makes escaping ones immediate class and community the desirable outcome of education–a message which demonizes families, friends, neighborhoods and older generations, instead of imagining a kind of education which unites and empowers them. It creates a conservative structure for learning, one which supports the idea that individual economic success is equivalent to community uplift, when I feel it is fairly easy to argue that the opposite is true. The far more radical and responsible goal of education, I believe, is to resist its hijacking for the purposes of class mobility and economic conservatism, and to imagine success as a far more complex idea than admission into a four year institution.

John Dewey, the well-known education reformer, made some radical assertions in his time, arguing that education should prepare students with knowledge that would help them navigate the world beyond the classroom, and that every student had the right to find knowledge in their own way, and should not be forced into one streamlined kind of industrial learning. His own arguments would be pilfered from him by his more conservative predecessors, who used his works to justify vocational training for poor and working communities, and tracked classes for students of color. I want to be careful to avoid having the same thing happen here. When I tell friends that I do not intent to make college the goal of my classroom, they often accuse me of making decisions for my students and deciding their futures without their consent. (I do think it is interesting that schools which put students on a college track as early as kindergarten are rarely accused of deciding kids’ futures without their consent.) They worry that I am saying I will never talk about college as an option, never speak on my own experiences as a college student, and never encourage students to continue to pursue their own educational paths, on whatever terms they see fit. What I am instead trying to say is that the goals of a learning community should be devised by all members of that community, and with the radical benefit of the entire community in mind. I am trying to say that there are a million ways to be successful, and we should help our students imagine ones which include and connect them to the community at large, and which challenge conservative institutions rather than feeding into them.

3 responses to “Why College Is Not the Goal of a Progressive Education

  1. I love this. I had a huge problem with students being grouped into “Harvard,” “Yale,” and “Princeton” in my 3rd grade cohort. Our school even had our boys recite a pledge every morning that included a chant of “we ARE going to college.” I believe that there are larger issues at hand and that is not saying college is not an attainable goal, but perhaps focusing on the steps along the way is more important. How about: we are all going to read on or above grade level? I think taking something that was so remote to most of my students and shoving it down their throats was probably more stressful to them (and will become more so the further along the progress in their education) and less helpful. Anyway, just my 2c. I love this piece and your blog is inspiring. Take care!

    • Thank you! I agree with you that sometimes focusing on the immediate hurtles can be not only more academically helpful, but also a different way of framing the learning process all together. The teacher I am currently working with sat down and told all of his sixth grade students during the first week of school that he was not going to be preparing them for the seventh grade. Instead, he said, he was going to help them be the best sixth graders they could be. I thought there was something radical about that–committing the classroom to the goals and needs of its immediate community, rather than creating it merely as a rung in a ladder-climbing process of credentialing and mobility. It takes unneeded stress off of students, just like you point out, but also helps them to think about learning as a commitment to now rather than preparation for an abstract future.

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