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That tricky Afrocentric thing

by RICK SALUTIN   February 8, 2008

What's wrong with a separate Afrocentric or "black-focused" school in a public system — as the Toronto board recently approved? Well, no one should be reduced to a category. I've learned this especially from black students. Those from the Caribbean say they never thought of themselves as black, in a central or existential way, till they came here and were labelled. That is not the sort of thing a public education system should reinforce.

You get just one shot at a life and you want it to be your own, not as an emblem of a category. Public education worth a rat's ass should provide not just job training, but assistance in grabbing that unique chance to be you. Racism is about forces in society reducing you to a category and you resisting the reduction. If you somehow embrace or abet it, in the name of self-esteem or an economic boost, you help them along toward victory. The tricky line to walk has to do with fighting racism without unintentionally bolstering it.

The public school system has a central role in this. The severe difficulties faced by black students and families are a challenge not just to them but to our whole society, which expresses its aims and ideals above all in its schools. Health care is about survival. Housing is about shelter. But education is hardest: It involves nurturing values in evolving young people.

It's not enough for a society to teach its values off a curriculum; they won't be effective if they aren't embodied in its classrooms. There is a debate about whether black kids will do better in black-focused schools, where their self-esteem might be enhanced. The counterargument says what helps students is going to school with a mix of kids, who lend experience to each other, much like Jane Jacobs's model of mixed neighbourhoods. What I want to argue is that the mix is the education. This is how you get a society, real and interconnected, rather than a collection of perhaps well-trained, highly "educated" individuals.

The latter model is where the "choice" option touted by Tom Flanagan in this paper last week takes you. With parental choice or charter schools, you'll get people going off to school with others like them. The kids may or may not wind up well-trained, but it won't be training for participation in a rich, diverse society. That's an acceptable result if you agree with Margaret Thatcher that there's no such thing as society anyway.

The Toronto board has already gone some way down this road with its "alternate" schools in the arts, sciences etc. You can say those are different because they're based on interest or ability, not colour. But they, too, tend to segregate kids — by socio-economic subsets. They undermine the grand social aim, if more subtly. Black parents who say they just want their own alternate school have a point.

What bothers me most about alternate schools is the implication that the system is working fine except for a few extreme cases and, by adding programs on one end for the privileged and on the other for the deeply unprivileged, all will be well. It's like the corrections The Globe runs, implying the rest of the paper is flawless. Public education is an overwhelming challenge. It's always a mess. Plato cracked his head on it 2,500 years ago. Mike Harris wreaked such havoc on Ontario schools that people felt, if they could get the washrooms cleaned and classrooms staffed again, it was worth an A+. But that was setting the bar far too low, as Barack Obama might say.

The task is to improve school for all, not to solve problems by cordoning off the groups who make enough noise to get attention. The question isn't whether we get a black-focused school in the short term. It's whether that "choice" becomes the long-term direction — which would mean failure for the whole social project of which public schools are the main expression.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail

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