What Is Humanizing Education? A Greater Diversity Exclusive Part 3: A Pledge to All Childrenby Demetrius Haddock, Contributing Writer March 30, 2022
“Not…by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Is this the ideal to strive toward? Interestingly, these words are being used to suggest that, based on the color of their skin, Black children should not expect “special treatment,” despite centuries of segregation, enslavement, black codes, lynching, minstrel shows, blaxploitation films, and more. All of that “special treatment” was certainly based on Black skin but it is to be ignored in favor of judging Black children today by the content of their character. The question is then: From where does the content that becomes their character come?
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered his words about character, he was speaking about his “four little children” and his hope for them, “one day.” At the time in 1963, they were very much judged by the color of their skin, as were most of the people in American society. With his, his wife’s, his family’s, and his church community’s guidance, Dr. King focused on treatment based on skin color since the impact of environment on his children’s character was not much of a concern.
In his last penned book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” King wrote about his time “living and working in the ghettos of Chicago.” In his description of the children there, he offered that despite the “light of intelligence glowing in their beautiful dark eyes,” those children “live in a world where even their parents are too often forced to ignore them” as “their mothers and fathers both must work” with the father often holding down two jobs. The result of the lack of attention to their emotional needs and environmental resources was a toxic environment.
Years after his 1963 “I have a dream” speech, when King moved his children into a Lawndale apartment in the summer of 1966, he saw the effects of that “hostile world” in their behavior. Despite his high expectations for them, “Their tempers flared and they sometimes reverted to almost infantile behavior,” he wrote about his own children. They were in a place that was “too hot, too crowded, too devoid of creative forms of recreation.” In other words, environment matters and parenting alone is not enough.
Nearly a century ago and nearly four decades before King’s children’s experiences in Chicago, American President Herbert Hoover in 1930 stated that “there are safeguards and services to childhood,” all of which being “beyond the reach of the individual parent” can only be “provided by the community, the State, or the Nation.” Education through our public schools is such a community and state service. It makes no sense for school officials to argue about the deficits of parenting when school by definition can do what no individual parent(s) can—combat the effects of toxic environments.
Schools Have a Daunting Mission
Today the change in behavior that Dr. King witnessed in his children is understood as the response to chronic stress. The “hostile world” that his children were exposed to for a short time creates what are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The vast majority of today’s children face multiple ACEs.
At the community level, the public schools directly engage with children. When it comes to ACEs, we readily acknowledge the traumas of the home—divorce, physical and sexual abuse, death of a parent/loved one, drug abuse, and more. However, we often give no credence to the larger “hostile environment” produced by the messages and imagery of mostly electronic mass media. Cell phones, computers, and televisions create a toxic environment of their own and often produce real effects in children’s lives, whether parents are present or not.
At the state level, public schools have the daunting mission of standing above the fray between the problems of the home and our larger society. Our State Constitution mandates that we each have “a right to the privilege of education” and the State has the duty “to guard and maintain that right.” No matter how complex and difficult the task, our schools must use a “sound basic” approach that is humanizing and opens the door to healthy human connection. After all, our children’s health supports the state’s health.
Without healthy human connection, children are stuck seeking ways to cope that manifest in various forms of addiction – drugs, alcohol, sex, food, shopping, etc. Unable to place their trust in others, they may display aggressive behavior such as bullying or fighting. To minimize these challenges, schools therefore must prioritize the emotions and feelings of children. In his 1969 address before the U. S. Senate seeking funds for public television, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stated, “If we can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” It is a healthy mind that is likely to lead to a healthy body for the children of our state.
Our National Approach Abandoned
It is only at the national level that we can truly address the larger societal problems of childhood inherited from previous generations and those created by new technologies. From 1909 to 1971, assembling our hearts and minds every ten years to consider the welfare of children, we took our national approach seriously with a series of White House Conferences. President Hoover made his comment about the safeguards and services to childhood as he welcomed participants to the 1930 Conference.
Determined both to reflect on and act to ensure humane treatment of children, participants faced the often horrific realities of the systems and culture they had inherited. For example, during the 1950 Mid-Century Conference, social scientists faced the inheritance of their time including the impact of legal segregation on American children. Their work factored into the subsequent 1954 Brown decision that ordered an end to legally segregated schools. In total, the Conferences prompted the development of many laws and agencies, private and public, that dramatically changed the treatment of millions of children.
As President Hoover stated during his 1930 opening address, “We approach all problems of childhood with affection.” Affection is instrumental in forming a healthy environment for children. Just consider these words from the pledge made to children at the Mid-Century Conference: From your earliest infancy we give you our love, so that you may grow with trust in yourself and in others.
When Dr. King referenced the content of our character, he had in mind a healthy environment. Lawndale’s impact on his own children demonstrated the significance of environment. President Hoover knew that the influence of individual parents is not enough to combat societal problems; a national approach is needed. However, the White House Conferences, our primary national approach and a major resource in facing the challenges of our inheritance, ended with nothing comparable held in 1980 or since.
For the sake of our nation and our children, we should restore the White House Conferences as our definitive national approach. To make healthy the norm, we must pledge to make the school environment serve our children and not vice versa!
In Part IV, we examine the rise of standardized testing and its impact on our children and communities.