400 Years Blog #21 – Education and Liberation

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Malcolm X was right: “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” This passport was kept from Black people for centuries. South Carolina’s government denied it in 1740 when they outlawed teaching writing to enslaved people. Virginia denied it in 1819 when it inflicted 20 lashes on “slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes” who gathered to learn. Post-bellum racists denied it when they eviscerated the Freedmen’s Bureau, ending federal efforts to educate newly freed Black people. What better way to ensure an exploitable under-class?
Why is it that Malcolm X began his real education in prison rather than before he was arrested? With a little help from the Norfolk Prison Colony school, reading by the hallway light cast through the bars of his cell, Malcolm X transformed his life: “I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.”
Throughout U. S. history, denial of education has – intentionally and through neglect – disempowered people of color. The links between a lack of education, poverty, and crime are clear. According to Deborah Stipek of the Stanford School of Education, those without a high school degree are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested and make up 68% of males in prison. Many studies, including one by the ACLU, explain the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who fail in underfunded schools often end up behind bars.
Sadly, those incarcerated are rarely prepared to succeed after being released. Despite overwhelming evidence that prison education is an effective way to lower recidivism, the political currency of “tough on crime” rhetoric led Congress in 1994 to deny Pell educational grants to inmates. A study by the Rand Corporation indicates that it’s four times more cost effective to educate inmates than to release them unprepared for employment and thus more likely to return to prison.
Prison education advocates have in this particular case unexpected allies in the White House, including the President and Jared Kushner. Let’s encourage bipartisan cooperation to provide inmates with education, which is what Nelson Mandela calls, “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Of course it would be more enlightened if we provided all children, regardless of zip code or race, superior educational opportunities. As Victor Hugo pointed out, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.”
• Lesson #87: Denying education to portions of society is a tactic to create an exploitable underclass.
• Lesson #88: Malcolm X discovered the power of education while incarcerated.
• Lesson #89: Assuring a good education to youth is one of the clearest ways to prevent crime.
• Lesson #90: While “tough on crime” policies had political currency, less education funding resulted in fewer positive outcomes for inmates.
• Lesson #91: Sometimes our work requires support from unlikely allies.
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