Education in America: Navigating through a World of Unequal Opportunities
- 1 Introduction
- 2 History of Education
- 3 Early Education
- 4 Unequal Opportunities within Education
- 5 Gender-As described in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
- 6 Evolution of Education and Education Today
- 7 Today’s Education
- 8 Conclusion
- 9 Works Cited
Education is the key to success—A phrase many renowned scholars, influencers, and advocates have adopted to shape their lifestyles and moral beliefs. We are taught early on in life that acquiring a good education can be the difference between a low paying job and a high paying job, and we are encouraged to pursue a higher education so that we will be of the small percentage of people who are making a substantial income to support our cost of living. According to Claudia Goldin in A Brief History of Education in the United States, “Formal education, basic literacy especially, is essential for a well-functioning democracy, and not only enhances citizenship, but also enhances the community. Schooling is also a pure consumption of good, that enables people to better understand and enjoy their surroundings. Education can, thus, serve a multitude of functions in the economy, polity, community, and religious and personal lives of a people” (Goldin 1). The thing about education however, is that it is not a merely universally equal system. It is a system that depending on race, gender, social class, and/or individual funding for specific school systems, can prove to be very oppressive. Also, due to those factors, it can be extremely difficult to gain exposure to and ultimately get to experience the glories of higher education. While education is the key to success in most instances, it is also recognizable that there are many discrepancies between higher education and the access that individuals may have to it based on their race, gender, and/or family background.
History of Education
We can credit the history of certain educational practices and thought processes to philosopher, Socrates, who is said to have laid the foundation for modern western philosophy and education. As learned in earlier classes, Socrates was put on trial by the Athenian democracy for corrupting the minds of youth and going against the gods of that time. However, the early history of education that he so vividly displayed showed the emphasis he put on educating children at a young age. On page 6, when Euthyphro asked Socrates what indictment was brought upon him, Socrates responded by saying: “For it is correct to take care of the young first, to make them the best as possible, just as it’s reasonable for a good farmer to take care of the young plants first and all the others afterwards” (Reeve 6). His dedication to educating the youth and spreading his philosophy jump-started the early educational movements that would later take over America. Higher education in the United States was not initially intended for everyone however. In fact, education during the 16th century was merely a concept for most, with only wealthy white families being granted true opportunity to gain knowledge through private schooling carried out by churches and ministers. Then, in 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to create a compulsory education law that required every city and town to offer primary schooling for children–which showed the early emphasis our country put on education (“Education Laws”). The question is: did our country truly want education for all people to be possible, or was it built on the premise that only whites should be educated?
If we think back to slavery in the mid 1800’s, slaves were not permitted to be taught in any way shape or form. In the south, southern states passed laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read so that they would always be uneducated, and therefore easier to control and exert power over. Even free slaves in the north faced much adversity when it came to seeking schooling and education, with schools being segregated and therefore both separate and unequal (Goldin 2).
To begin, I wanted to shed light on some of the discrepancies in education that may start to occur as early as preschool. There are many factors that contribute to these things, but those most important and possibly most egregious occur as a result of a child’s family background and social class. Early on in a child’s life, what they learn in their homes and what they are exposed to can have more of an effect on their development rather than what they learn in their few hours inside of a classroom. In saying that, what goes on behind closed doors in a child’s household, whether that be financial crises, single-parent households, or abuse within the home–all can affect the way a child performs in the classroom. The problem with this however, is that many times, these children who are of a lower socioeconomic class and/or are faced with one of the problems above aren’t able to be exposed to higher education in the same ways that children of a higher social class are. This is due in part to the lack of importance put on them in the classroom and the overall lack of care for students as a whole in a majority of the largely populated public school systems.
Unequal Opportunities within Education
Race- As described in The Souls of Black Folk
For minorities, and black people in particular, education has tended to be a concept much harder to grasp due to obstacles put in place to keep us behind. Although laws such as affirmative action have been enabled to help people of color get equal opportunity in comparison with white counterparts, educational opportunities are still much harder for us to receive because of the system our country operates on. As talked about in Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, we are often seen as a problem in our society. He discusses the problem of the color line and ‘living behind the veil,’ or in other words–living while bearing the hardships of both prejudice and segregation, all while remaining largely invisible in the eyes of white people (Dubois 3). He felt that no matter how many strides our society makes to help us gain true equality under the law, we will always be seen as somebody’s problem and ultimately someone’s job to fix.
Americans often forget that as late as the 1960s, most African-American, Latino, and Native American students, if educated at all, were educated in segregated schools that had low rates of funding. Because of that, minority students performed lower on national tests, with the gap in minority and white students’ test scores narrowing substantially between 1970 and 1990 (Darling-Hammond).
Educational experiences for minority students have continued to be substantially separate and unequal. Two-thirds of minority students still attend schools that are predominantly minority, most of them located in central cities and funded well below those in neighboring suburban districts (Darling-Hammond). It is evident that racial prejudices affect individuals on a deeper level, but when it comes to education, Dubois felt that we must all come together as one to further the educating of individuals overall. He said, “..In this great question of reconciling three vast and partially contradictory streams of thought, the one panacea of Education leaps to the lips of all:—such human training as will best use the labor of all men without enslaving or brutalizing; such training as will give us poise to encourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and to stamp out those that in sheer barbarity deafen us to the wail of prisoned souls within the Veil, and the mounting fury of shackled men” ( Dubois 7).
Within A Letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo writes to the Duchess and talks about those who were defying him. He says on page 1, “There were others who denied them or remained in doubt only because of their novel and unexpected character…but some, besides allegiance to their original error, possess I know not what fanciful interest in remaining hostile not so much toward the things in question as toward their discoverer. No longer being able to deny them, these men now take refuge in obstinate silence, but being more than ever exasperated by that which has pacified and quieted other men, they divert their thoughts to other fancies and seek new ways to damage me” (Galilei 1).
In the same way that Galileo was scrutinized and criticized for his findings of the heliocentric theory, many blacks who challenge educational norms are criticized for their efforts. African Americans who seek higher education and then reach a point of legitimacy are not only questioned religiously but are often deemed unreliable as sources simply because of racial prejudices that are still ever-present in our society.
Gender-As described in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
With many similarities to race, gender can and has also served as a setback for those trying to gain a higher education, let alone an education at all. As soon as we come into this world, we are automatically assumed to be either male or female, and in an instant, gender roles are assigned to us–setting a standard for how we are supposed to act as either male or female. “A gender role is a social role that includes a range of behaviors and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for people based on their actual or perceived sex” (Fry) and assigning gender roles is the very reason why women are often discouraged to gain a higher education and occupy spaces that are very much male-dominated.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to criticize and challenge these societal gender roles as well as advocate for proper education of women so that they could indeed occupy those male dominated spaces and feel comfortable in doing so. She felt as though the neglect of young girls’ education is largely to blame for the condition of adult women. Within chapter 2, Wollstonecraft explained that women are expected to be ‘innocent’ in the eyes of man, or in other words naïve and weak. She also stated that in our society, women are assumed to have a soft temperament and in turn are expected to be subordinate beings that wait on men. On page 13, she said, “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by their mothers’ example, that a little knowledge of human weakness (properly called ‘cunning’), outward obedience, and scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety will obtain for them the protection of man: and if they are also beautiful, that’s all the need for at least twenty years” (Wollstonecraft 13). From times dating back to as early as the first wars, women were viewed as docile beings that had a place in the home and the home only. It has been ingrained in women’s minds that we are supposed to live a life that benefits the man and live in their shadows rather than emerge and conquer the world in the same way they can and do, and in certain areas, our education system still mimics these ideologies.
For example, (relating back to early childhood education) teachers in the school place have an enormous amount of power to promote gender equity by modeling positive behavior within the classroom setting. Teachers often lose sight of the fact that they are teaching and building a relationship with a number of individuals, rather than a number of boys and girls. Instead of seeing diverse individuals, many teachers often only see their students as male and female–categorizing children in terms of their gender rather than their individuality. Gender bias is so deeply rooted in our society today that many elementary and middle school teachers don’t even realize that they are partaking in discriminatory behavior when communicating with students in a classroom setting. Some ways teachers unintentionally promote gender bias is by making statements or asking questions assuming that boys and girls, and men and women all think or act the same way. Using phrases such as “strong boys” and “quiet women” when trying to get a point across, further promotes the ideas that women are supposed to be docile beings whereas men are supposed to be strong and courageous. It’s important that our educational systems confront these gender biases so that they can make a positive change and better encourage more women to feel comfortable working towards getting a higher education in America.
Evolution of Education and Education Today
Funding Gap and the Legitimacy of Schools
Although we have come a long way in regard to education and access to it in general, we still have many issues within our educational system–the first being the funding gaps within the system. Some school districts and systems are very poor, which makes it harder for the students placed in those school systems to excel. To contrast with that, the schools that have more money, are in better locations, and ultimately are better school systems, send out children that are more well-rounded and will ultimately end up with better jobs and opportunities in the long-run. “Recent analyses of data prepared for school finance cases in Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, and Texas have found that on every tangible measure—from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings—schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students” (Darling-Hammond).
It is evident that schools benefiting from significant funding can employ more competent teachers, provide more expensive, high quality, and up-to-date textbooks, better equip classrooms with the best technologies, and offer more varied courses, in addition to many other advantages that may impact the academic development of students (Olivier).
The idea that the real world is somehow separate from the world inside our schools and that issues of inequality, poverty, mental health, addiction, and racism won’t impact the capacity of our students to thrive academically sets a dangerous precedent for measuring success (Chesler). Assuming that the student living in a car, not a home, should be able to stay awake during a lecture, and that the one who is raising younger siblings, thinking about how they are going to provide for that night, should be able to instantly tackle a difficult math test, is a grand delusion. We have to consider that people cannot merely leave their lives at the door without carrying the burden of life in with them. It is up to the school systems (along with adult guidance) to take into account the diverse backgrounds of students and understand that one person’s situation is not the same as another, and the care and attention needed for one student may be completely different for another student as well. This brings up the much-debated issues of underfunded schools and factory-like institutions that our education system has fallen victim to. It is a constant cycle of shortcomings due to the schools being underfunded and overcrowded. This leads to schools not only having a lack of resources to help learn in a comfortable environment, but also a much higher student-to-teacher ratio because the school can’t account for fitting the large student body into adequate classroom settings or afford to hire enough teachers to split up class sizes. With such a large number of students, classrooms become much rowdier and more unorganized, with attention to detail and quality of material a student can learn diminishing before they have even tried to open a text book. This is an apparent issue across the country, but it has to be addressed that public-school systems being underfunded or directly affected by budget cuts are impacting minorities and people of lower socio-economic classes the most.
I am proud to say that I am an African American woman who has defied many odds when it comes to confronting the problems in our education system. Being undermined and told that I can’t or shouldn’t be able to do certain things because of my race and then also because I am a woman has been a frustrating experience to say the least, but those situations have also served as empowerment and can be used to encourage other people of color as well as women to challenge the norms and help better our educational system as a whole. Still though, as I am ascending in my education, I still find many situations where I find myself in male dominated scholastic environments or am the only person of color exercising my rights to work. In my own experiences however, I have been granted with a great sense of reassurance, and I have had to hold myself to a higher standard knowing the history and things sacrificed for me to be where I am today. On a local scale, it’s important that we recognize the discrepancies in the educational system because it affects our college selves in the present and will affect our children in the future. The discrepancies in our education systems are being talked about and voiced openly by not just minorities, but many other parties who recognize the systematic wrongdoings deeply rooted in our nation’s core. Pinpointing these issues, holding people accountable for their actions, and having dialogue about the issues as well are all ways that we can make a change.
- Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education.” Brookings, Brookings, 28 July 2016, www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/.
- Reeve, C. D. C., et al. The Trials of Socrates: Six Classic Texts. Hackett Pub. Co., 2002.
- Fry, Katherine. “Sex, Gender, and the Feminist Movement.” Thrive Global, 1 Feb. 2019, https://thriveglobal.com/stories/sex-gender-and-the-feminist-movement/.
- Galilei, G. Letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina of Tuscany, 1615 Retrieved from https://scitech.au.dk/fileadmin/site_files/science.au.dk/NF/Komm/DenbevaegedeJord/Letter_to_the_Grand_Duchess_Christina_of_Tuscany.1615__Gallilei.pdf
- Dubois, W E B. The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/114/100.html
- “Compulsory Education Laws: Background.” Findlaw, https://education.findlaw.com/education-options/compulsory-education-laws-background.html.
- Wollstonecraft, M. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1793) Retrieved from https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf
- Olivier. “Access to Education in the United States = Inequality.” Humanium, 7 July 2015, www.humanium.org/en/access-to-education-in-the-united-states-inequality/.
- Chesler, Belle. “Stop Defunding Our Public Schools.” The Nation, 18 Apr. 2019, www.thenation.com/article/oregon-education-defunding-public-schools/.
- Goldin, Claudia. “A Brief History of Education in the United States.” Historical Paper 119, Aug. 1999.
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Education in America: Navigating through a World of Unequal Opportunities. (2021, Feb 19). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/education-in-america-navigating-through-a-world-of-unequal-opportunities/
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