Education for “Progress,” and “Progress” for Education

Tyack and Cuban [1] raise important questions about what purposes and interests it is possible or desirable for formal education systems to serve, and for whom. Declining public faith in schools seem to hint that most of the public has a specific set of expectations when it comes to education, namely that education systems evolve along some vague, linear progression that the two authors call an “animating ideal that gave direction and coherence to reform.” If schools are products and progenitors of progress in our society, it is valuable to consider what constitutes “progress” for schools and society, and who is held responsible for preserving the privileges and institutions that uphold this concept.

The concept of “progress” is loaded, and in considering its scope I am reminded of indigenous intellectual Waziyatawin’s powerful words in her essay, “Decolonizing Indigenous Diets,” featured in For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook: “In a society that values progress,” she writes, “our colonizers taught us that conditions are perpetually improving, that with each new technological advancement, each new discovery, each new way to utilize resources, each new way to alter the environment, that the world is getting better, that it is advancing. These are all lies…Microwave ovens and satellite television are poor compensation for the extinction of life-forms and a toxic earth.”[2]  Notions of social and economic progress differ in each culture and society, and education systems play a powerful role by denying, affirming, or regenerating these notions. Unequal power relations are evident between schools and communities in which community views of progress – imbedded with specific values and worldviews – have not been reconciled with those of schools.  Talk of educational progress cannot be divorced from specific views about what constitutes social progress in society as a whole, and these views must be interrogated for their latent political, economic, and cultural biases and motives.

Carter has taken the stance that the educational “playing field” for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans can be equalized through student integration; that somehow, in keeping with the views of W.E.B. DuBois, blurring race and culture lines will lead to higher self-esteem and accomplishment for students. This view is simplistic at best, because it ignores the cultural, linguistic, and social capital that inform distinct views of human, and thus educational progress, and which should be reflected in the schooling of distinct cultures and societies. Maintaining this capital is vital for resisting the homogenizing forces of globalization and colonialism that favor Western societies and elide colonized ones. This view is assimilationist and colonialistic at worst, because it locates the sources of power and success for students of color in white, middle-class America, and seems to bow to the assumption that what constitutes educational success for whites is fundamentally the best thing for Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and other distinct peoples.

Indigenous societies have survived white conquest, for example, largely because our Constitutional right to maintain separate but equal polities and societies creates a degree of space for our own cultural, linguistic, and intellectual resilience and survival. Racial integration has defensible benefits for some, but is certainly not prerequisite to the educational success of all. Focus on greater integration as a goal can also miss more important opportunities to focus time and energy on the true sources of inequity, such as gentrification, colonial schooling, and inherent educational biases.


[1] Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of school reform. Progress or regress. Chapter 2 (pp. 5-42) in The Jossey-Bass reader on school reform. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.

[2] Wilson, W.A., & Yellow Bird, M. (2005: 67) For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Sana Fe, NM: School of American Research Press

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