BLM, Protests, and the Impact of School: “Just Thinking …”

Like many others, I have watched on the nightly news the unfolding of social unrest and divisive confrontations for months.  I have been on the side-lines and always ready to state an opinion while others, much younger than me, protest.   It really doesn’t matter which side of the red and blue debate one takes; there are patterns as expressed through the human condition which unfolds no matter who you voted for.  Nevertheless, it’s really hard to watch these events night after night.

On a personal level; my thirty year old son has taken to the streets since the George Floyd protests began, and we have had many lengthy conversations related to his “civil action” experiences in Seattle and Nashville.  I am proud of his decision to take a stand and I am impressed with his understanding and knowledge associated with the complexities surrounding social justice.  I have learned a lot through our discussions.  But most notably, as he expresses his impression of the experience; it appears that he does not stand alone from his generation: “We do not support racism and injustice, which are inherent within the capitalist system, and it’s our civil duty to tear it down; no matter what the costs; as long as we do not cause physical harm to others.  Property damage is simply “collateral damage” for the cause.” 

Honestly, these conversation are hard to listen to for I ask myself, “Did I do something to nurture what appears to be anguish and hostility against the American system?”  And his ideas are clearly not unique to him; for another one of our sons expresses the same frustration toward America as if our economic system serves as a reflection of the Evil Empire.

So when we get beyond discussions about protests, arrests, and police action, the conversation often highlights the following points:

  1. Somehow the extraordinary economic opportunities in America gets lost in translation from one generation to another for my son often reflects the following sentiments: “Capitalism is ruthless in its current form and will eventually impact many more on its path toward the pursuit of profits.” He also makes it clear why things need to immediately change: “It’s so important that we take it down [capitalism] as soon as possible before it takes absolute control of our lives.”
  2. Also, the discussions highlight the following points: Our educational system fails to support the development of the individual as well as society, for it serves as an extension of the corporate agenda:  My son clearly states, “Very few young people today found their experience at school “meaningful”; not only does it serve as a pipe line to prison for people of color, but it also creates a sense of disregard for most others unless they are to be teachers or need a specific certification.”

As an educator for over 40 years, these conversations about education really stuck with me.  Especially, as I see so many young people demonstrate disregard for public property each evening as protests continue into the winter. But also, it’s the lack of regard for others that concerns me. I observe where political confrontations with varied belief systems often lead to violence and sometimes, injury and death.  This level of disregard and disrespect for life is upsetting on all levels, whether instigated by police, civilians, protesters, agitators, or politicians. And I believe these actions, though shrouded in political postures and contemporary memes, appear to be an extension of the human condition within the individual rather than an expression of the social – cultural conditions alone.  

My hypothesis is as follows: When people experience life from a perspective of purpose, promise, and social contribution, through service to others, outward expressions of emotional dysregulation, disillusion and frustration shift and are often guided by higher order values such as compassion, creativity, critical analysis, problem solving, and collaboration. This is in contrast to separation, oppositional disregard, hate, and destruction, as demonstrated on the newsreels each evening.  Clearly, as people experience fear, worry, and trauma related to the basic physiological needs, safety and security, and a lack of connection through belonging [See Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs], the human condition responds to life through dysregulated behavior including acts of violence and property damage:

When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of basic human needs such as security, love, and self-esteem.”   Maslow

Extending this hypothesis further through correlation: As long as our educational system continues to represent a shrinking window of the definition of success and self-worth through testing, standards, and meaningless learning experiences, the systemic by-product of the K-12 program will continue to produce numbers of students who are disengaged, disregarded, and discouraged to participate in the overall social – cultural system.  As a result, a number of these students may continue to engage in activities associated with “a pipeline to prison”, the need to carry weapons, and face social cultural struggle with destruction and violence.  Certainly, the political protests as demonstrated on a nightly basis are not only a reflection of BLM, civil rights, and anti-capitalism movements; these actions may often be a reflection of the soul within the individuals themselves.  And I am speculating here: A significant number of these young people likely faced struggles in school, felt disregarded by the process, and experienced failure within our educational system.

Call me Polyanna; but this is what I believe.  Sure, I am taking a leap here but I believe this as truth.   One of the most powerful research studies I have read in the last twenty years comes from the work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford based researcher and psychologist: “With a fixed mindset, you believe you are who you are and you cannot change. This creates problems when you’re challenged because anything that appears to be more than you can handle is bound to make you feel hopeless and overwhelmed. People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve with effort. They outperform those with a fixed mindset, even when they have a lower IQ, because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new.

A positive self image and healthy self esteem is based on approval, acceptance and recognition from others; but also upon actual accomplishments, achievements and success upon the realistic self confidence which ensues.”  Abraham Maslow

And getting back to my conversations with my son, I believe as a by-product of disengagement, disregard, disconnect, and hopelessness, experienced for so many students, our society takes a hit for we cannot expect the results of public schooling to lead to something remarkable if the process itself appears to be flawed.  Here’s a sample of related evidence:

“According to data collected from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, African American students in the United States, especially young Black males, are excessively suspended compared to students of other ethnicities and it starts as early as preschool. Data shows that black preschool students are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than white students. Students with disabilities, LGBTQ youth and trauma-affected students are also disproportionately suspended. The preschool-to-prison pipeline is the process in which students are pushed out of school through out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and overly-harsh discipline and into the prison system.”

No matter how I look at the data, the impact of the traditional school system continues to put forth an increasing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”; those who experience success versus others who experience disengagement.  Often, we call this a matter of “privilege” which can be traced back to a wide variety of life’s influences and systemic racism.  However, I believe this gap can be traced back to school and its impact on our lives moving forward. 

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