In a letter to the editor printed Monday (Daily is misinformed about school reform, 04/04/2005), a Flint teacher offered a challenge from the real world: “Take your interest in school reform out of well-meaning, misinformed editorials and bring it to urban areas like Flint or Detroit. By all means, do not go to the School of Education. Join Teach for America, pay your dues in the trenches, come back ready for another career and then we’ll talk.”

Ken Srdjak

Buzz Alexander, founder of the Prisoner Creative Arts Project and co-curator of the recent prison art show on campus, called me out with a similar argument. I was writing in my class journal about wanting to “help” the poor, to reform education and the justice system, to eliminate poverty. Buzz told me to ground my desire to “help” in the people I want to work for, to go down in the trenches and learn the hard way what’s going on. My passion couldn’t be “theoretical and be valid,” he said.

Too many of us speak or write passionately about social causes — affirmative action, gay rights, education reform, Social Security — without doing a damn thing about them. This University is overflowing with progressive minds and voices. By the way we talk you’d think we were all Mother Teresas and Martin Luther King Jrs — but when are we going to stand up and act? After we’ve gone to graduate school, or made some money, established ourselves, started a family?

I’m worried what four more years of theoretical learning with predominantly rich, white people will do to my progressive spirit.

I will never forget what child advocate Jonathan Kozol said a few weeks ago in Ann Arbor: “Patience is only a virtue to those who are not in pain.”

According to a recent article in Time Magazine, more than eight million people in the world die each year from poverty. That breaks down to more than 20,000 deaths daily. Those people can’t wait for us to finish graduate school or to make some money. Unfortunately for them, in America we have been raised to climb the social and economic ladders, to get the most expensive education possible, to live for ourselves, and in doing so, to trample on everyone else.

Too many of us in this country have sacrificed our humanity on the altar of individuality. I’m not a very religious person, but I find many bits of wisdom in the Bible. After murdering Abel, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The resounding answer in this country is no, and that pisses me off. How does your good fortune, more often than not a birth-right, justify your brother’s suffering? How can a person raise himself up by his boot straps if he doesn’t have any boots? What if you’ve hoarded all the boots?

I’m a great admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his essay “Self-Reliance,” but his beliefs don’t justify our brand of individualism. Beneath the surface of his essay is the idea that, if we all do what we feel is right in our souls, we will ultimately do what is best for each other. But does anybody actually think, “Deep in my heart I know my purpose in life, the right thing for me to do, is to optimize profits in a capitalist Market?” Individualism has lost its soul-searching element and has become an excuse for selfishness and social irresponsibility.

Emerson says that all great men are hypocrites, and he was no exception. In “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” Emerson asks Thoreau, “Why are you in jail?” and Thoreau responds, “Why are you not in jail?” The play, which was written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, alludes to the famous quote from Thoreau that the only place for a just man to be in an unjust society is in jail.

How many of us who decry the injustices in this country are in jail?

I’m not asking everyone to go to jail in political protest, because our current government would probably keep you there indefinitely, but it’s time we put our money where our mouths are. Writing for social change is important, especially if you’re as good as Emerson or Thoreau. But if we’re sincere in our desire to bring about change, we should go into the trenches.

Earlier this year I figured I’d go to law school, but after Buzz’s classes and some serious thinking, I realize I need to go into a community and work directly with people first. I need to put some faces to the big terms like “social justice” that we all like to throw around. I need to see what kind of work is needed most and how I’m going to intersect with that work.

In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Freire warns us about presuming to know how to help oppressed people — a term he uses to include any marginalized group. If you educate a poor kid and train him to be a successful businessperson, he may then screw over thousands of workers. You’ve only reversed the roles of oppressor and oppressed; you haven’t changed the system. I don’t know how to begin changing the system, or what my role will be, but I know those answers won’t be found in a university classroom.


Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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