The New School
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for www.theatlantic.com
July 11, 2012
I was lucky enough to be invited back by the New York Times to do a few guest columns this summer. The first one is a sequel to this post which I wrote a year ago, in which I was worried as hell about finding a middle school for the boy:
I was telling Kenyatta last night that I don’t actually want Samori in a school that’s preparing him for college–especially not in middle school. I want him in a school that’s preparing him to question the world, that nurtures his formidable curiosity, and at the same time, reinforces the kind of work ethic that we’re trying imbue him with at home. More than I hope that he goes to college, I hope that he learns to be passionate about something. If he grew up to be a curious, humble, reflective dude who was passionate about operating a fork-lift, the boy would be alright with me. Again, part of this is class and privilege. But another part of it is the Coates gene. My Dad grew up in grinding poverty, while my Mom grew up in the projects. I think they, generally, felt much the same way. More than anything, they wanted curious children.The problem with all of this is that, despite my own experience, I’ve always been committed to public schools, and I believe in them for many of the reasons I outlined above. Public school put me in contact with kids who were a lot different than me, and forced me to learn to relate. It taught me how to navigate other worlds, and appreciate vocabulary that wasn’t particularly native to me. At my middle school, you couldn’t erect a wall between yourself and the kids from the projects. You had to learn to cope.That’s a lesson that I’d like the boy to learn also, but not at the expense of eight hours of test prep. I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I’d really hate–hate–to put him in private school. But at least up here, it feels like public school is now mainly a means of steering people out of poverty. Maybe that always was the point, and even it’s not, maybe that should be the point. But I still think there’s something to be said for institutions that bring different kinds of people together. Maybe it’s all just a continuation of the a’la carte society. I don’t know.
I have often been told that I should be proud of having overcome my grade-school bungling, for having done it my way. “Remember,” these people say to me. “Einstein wasn’t good at school either.” The people doing the reminding were all A students. The fact is that anyone who spent his earliest years as a loser knows that failure leaves an indelible mark. A morbidly obese man can will himself svelte, but always he will be somehow escorted by his old portly self.I can tell you everything that was wrong with my education — how cold pedagogy reduced the poetry of Macbeth to a wan hunt for hamartia, how the beautiful French language broke under rote vocabulary. But more than that, I can tell you what happens when education is decoupled from curiosity, and becomes little more than an insurance policyI was a black boy at the height of the crack era, which meant that my instructors pitched education as the border between those who would prosper in America, and those who would be fed to the great hydra of prison, teenage pregnancy and murder. That impulse still reigns today, and compelled by a disturbing range of statistics, it is utterly understandable.But for me it meant seeing learning not as an act of work and romance, but as a kind of hustle, a series of trials in the long effort to get over. I did not get over. I failed repeatedly, until somewhere around 11, somewhere about my son’s age, I internalized it all. Thus prophecy came to fulfill itself, until years later, as a college dropout, I would lie alone asking myself, “What is wrong with me?” I know better now, but once you’ve internalized your failures, the bitterness remains at the back of the mouth.One of the tough things I wanted to convey, but couldn’t, is the distance that I now feel between myself and a large swath of the black community. A utilitarian/survivalist approach to education is perfectly logical if you look at the numbers. Yet it don’t think it would work for the kid. I’m starting to wonder if can ever really work at all.Anyway, next week I think I’ll write about Nas.