Examining the politics of public education: Values
Scholar Perspective
By | Manuel Espinoza, PhD

I have read closely the summary of community responses to the question: What values (interests) do you see reflected in public education in the area? I take no issue with the responses. I am content to let them stand as given. I do have a few things to say about dignity and our march towards to the prize.

Dignity ought to be a guiding value in the design and organization of public schools. In some classrooms, it is already a guiding light. In public schools, there are “elite” spaces—e.g., Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Gifted and Talented—that represent the best of what a school and district have to offer children and adolescents. (They also are indicative of the persistence of the problem of “caste” in our schools. It is one expression of the American way: live and let live, so long as me and mine have a bit more.) Classrooms that treat all children and adolescents as human beings of the highest rank, that understand all people are of noble birth, should also be thought of as “advanced” in a broad humanistic sense. In making claims regarding the presence or absence of the recognition of a person’s inherent dignity, the first-person voice is alpha and omega. A person’s claim that they are being treated as “less than” is inherently meaningful and merits consideration. That same person’s appraisal of the affordances and consequences of a social remedy demands attention. The responses that have been reported carry weight and merit public debate. The issues must be reasoned through and addressed. To my mind, there are no shortcuts or ready-made remedies. Only creative labor, performed with patience and purpose, can resolve these issues.

I have a few thoughts regarding the matter of “pressing on” towards the social prize of integration. The term itself is contentious so I am compelled to do a bit of definitional work. Integration is social cohesion, a global, not just a national, problem. It does not mean the relinquishment of any portion of the human personality. It does imply a permanent willingness to live together peacefully. It almost goes without saying—almost—that peace is not simply the absence of conflict or the repression of opinion. It does mean that we the people are committed, joyfully and unwaveringly, to creating a society with room for all, one in which deference to the supreme value of all is normalized.

How might we get there? How many years might this pilgrimage last? How might we sustain ourselves during this protracted and arduous process? We should take care to bring enough love, we should take care to bring resources for the replenishment of the spirit. If you are a person of faith, bring your sacred texts. If you are of civic faith, purchase a volume containing the collected works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His words, nurtured and watered in community, are of value to children of God and children of the Enlightenment. Bring poetry: Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others. Bring drama: Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and their friends. Bring music: Oscar Peterson, Lola Beltrán, Mozart. Anyone who can make grow in you wings, majestic and billowy, bring them along. Why? For celebration along the way, for nourishment as we travel and tire, to soothe our souls after defeat, to gird our backbone when the work at mid-day has begun. To critique values is our cultural right, to lament the absence of values is our choice, to cultivate a lasting remedy is both burden and freedom.

Manuel Espinoza (Ph.D., U.C.L.A.; Associate Professor, CU Denver) was born in Denver and raised in Five Points and Curtis Park. He is the Director of the Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L) and a Chicano ethnographer of education. Dr. Espinoza and R2L study dignity in education and are developing an argument for education as a fundamental right built on the principles of dignity.