Education as Etch-A-Sketch: Toward a Future of Promise and Possibility

Education is never innocent, because it always presupposes a particular view of citizenship, culture and society.

—Henry Giroux ((Henry A. Giroux, The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999), p. 31.))

Education occurs in a context and has a very definite purpose. The content is mainly unspoken, and the purpose very often unspeakable. But education can never be aimless, and it cannot occur in a vacuum.

—James Baldwin, “Dark Days” ((Reprinted in James Baldwin, Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 788.))

The renowned comedienne Wanda Sykes unleashed the following in I’ma Be Me, her latest HBO special: “We really do need to revamp our education system. It doesn’t work. It does not work. … We don’t learn anything. It’s not comprehension—it’s just retention, it’s just rote. That’s it. We just keep it long enough to spit it back out—pass the test, and we get rid of that shit. … It’s like our brain’s a big Etch-A-Sketch.”

At this Wanda began rattling her head vigorously, in like manner of a kid erasing scrawls from an Etch-A-Sketch pad, leaving audience members bent over from cracked ribs. But in jest, as is often said, much truth is told.

The retain-then-regurgitate model most kids today are taught with does in fact provoke very sobering consequences for not only their intellectual development, but the social stability of our society. Any society filled with individuals too timid to think for themselves, or too civicly illiterate to decide what’s in their best interest, is a step away from self-damnation. There are a number of implications for a society that teaches its kids instant gratification and ephemeral pleasure is key in life, among which is the loss of long-term commitment to even the most basic elements of human existence—family, community, friendship, etc. This might explain the inexplicably high divorce rates these days. It might also explain why some seem to find greater joy in blowing life-savings at casino crap tables (a la Las Vegas) than investing in the future of kids or other similar worthy causes. Why spend the time, energy, or money requisite in cultivating life-time friendships and social bonds when a weekend in Atlantic City promises to deliver equal amount of thrill?

This is the Etch-A-Sketch model: The sovereignty of Now. I want it—and I want it now! Sadly, these are the rancid values kids growing up today are brought up with. They are told all that matters are good grades on tests. It doesn’t matter what effect the tests’ contents have on the future awaiting them. All that matters is “doing well”—now! Whether or not the student shoulders certain cultural baggages which school, by nature, should address is of no consequence. The demand is plain: give us what we want—or get held back. And because many kids, through admirable perception, find this speed-driven, individualist model deadly to their survival, legion of them are being held back and demoted.

But the Etch-A-Sketch model does more than rob kids of opportunities to learn the social values without which a livable society ceases to exist: it also ingrains in them a resistance to critical thinking—an abandonment of independent reasoning. The same philosophy that tells kids learning should only function within specific time spans is at work in adults who seem to have a hard time choosing political candidates with substantive promises to make society more fair and just. Most end up settling for immaterial qualifications like fashion choice, personality, and charisma. Thus, a child fed on instant gratification is an adult socially malnourished. The pernicious effects of such pedagogy is perhaps most evident in its limiting and limited outcomes.

It is limiting because kids are given no freedom to explore a subject widely and engage deeply in what, for instance, makes Los Angeles the largest city in California. All kids are taught is that it is so. They have no clue why, they have no clue what its current demographic makeup is and how certain social factors came to account for it; worse yet, they are clueless of the history—a rich and hybrid one—that produced Los Angeles. At most, if lucky, they might be told that one of the world’s most sought-after attractions, Hollywood, rests at home there. But if such child expects further elaboration for why Hollywood is at all a fascination, she might be sorely disappointed. It is simply assumed Disney has already taken care of that.

And the Etch-A-Sketch model is limited because it compresses—often for political purposes—history, culture, and language into sound bites of reference. It disciplines the past into a subjective capital—susceptible to selection and pickiness. Kids learning about the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s, for example, are told only that Rosa parks sat, Martin Luther King marched and, voilà, doors which were previously shut opened, and color barriers were lifted, and economic prosperity became a reality, or possibility, for whichever Black families preferred a “deluxe apartment in the sky” to run-down slums on the cold concrete. It wipes out entirely the diverse and complex characters whose irreducible contributions were central to reclaiming the dignity people of color—not just Blacks—were robbed off with the double whammy of Jim Crow laws and domestic terrorism.

No talk of Malcom X—except in disparaging terms. No talk of Dorothy Cotton. No talk of Fannie Lou Hamer. No talk of Rev. Joseph Lowery. No talk of Medgar Evers. No talk of Grace Lee Boggs. No talk of No talk of Mahalia Jackson. No talk of Odetta. No talk of Nina Simone. No talk of Kwame Ture. No talk of Freedom Riders. No talk of John Coltrane. No talk of Louis Armstrong. No talk of Bull Connor. No talk of Orval Faubus. No talk of Hoover. No talk of Little Rock. No talk of Bloody Sunday. No talk of Sept. 15, 1963. All kids are taught is that a Black woman spontaneously refused to give up her sit to White passengers, a Black man slept soulless nights in jail cells, but came back swinging with dreams of integrated playgrounds, and today the Blacks lucky enough to live in the suburbs owe all gratitude to that movement for their success. Of course the economic quagmires within which people of color—and Blacks especially—have long-wallowed is never addressed. The Prison Industrial Complex is deemed too controversial for kids to learn about. And, most devastating, the history leading up to Rosa Park’s 1955 defiance remains unengaged. That she was a seasoned student taught the art of protest at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee is a mystery to most kids.

Ralph Waldo Emerson warned over a century ago against patronizing kids or determining what serves their interest—and what doesn’t:

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. ((Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lectures and Biographical Sketches (New York: AMS Press, 1883, 2008 ed.), p. 143.))

This, however, hasn’t done much to impress a society obsessed with I.Q.’s and other such narrow theories of intelligence. Society isn’t yet settled on whether kids, young enough to be sentenced to expire in jail for life, can be trusted with determining what pedagogical models should be best applied in teaching, and reaching, them. The “tampering and thwarting,” we are begged to believe, merely shows a society concerned about the content kids are exposed to—not a surveillance state bent on monitoring every aspect of their lives. If kids can’t adequately choose for themselves what’s best, what use does it make to “respect” their wishes when they decide schools are doing more harm than the streets. The folk singer Ani Difranco wrote a stellar poem in 1993, “My I.Q.,” excoriating the sham that is I.Q. testing, and the segregative classification of kids based upon perceived performance differences:

When I was four years old, they tried to test my I.Q. They showed me this picture of 3 oranges and a pear. They asked me, “Which one is different? It does not belong.” They taught me different is wrong. …

But a good brain ain’t diddley if you don’t have the facts. We live in a breakable, takeable world; an ever available, possible world. ((Ani Difranco, “My I.Q.,” Puddle Drive (1993).))

Society loves “exceptional” kids. They are the ones whose parents proudly post “My Child is an Honor Student” bumper stickers on cars, refrigerator doors, and even office computers—for all to marvel at. These are kids told early on that they are “special.” They have something their peers lack—“intelligence.” They would most likely be “successful” in this world: graduate high school valedictorian, earn enough college scholarships to cover tuition costs, and matriculate thereafter with enough honors to stumble into high-paying jobs. Rarely are these the kinds of kids who go on to earn Master or, heaven forbid, PhD degrees. They don’t have to. What it might take another student to earn a PhD (in financial terms), they were able to settle for right out of college. They are “exceptional.” Better than most others. Their self-esteem was being nurtured, even pre-birth, to ensure they grew up with brows high enough to look down upon the many “non-exceptionals” with.

On the other side of town are children born not in hospitals but in crack houses, in trailer parks, in mobile homes. They have no one to fill in their heads lofty ideals of “exceptionalism.” They learn early on that to demand so much as food when hungry can earn thunders of insults. Not because the adults around hate them or fail to see their unique qualities, but because sobriety hasn’t made an appearance ‘round those parts in quite a while. When sober, the adults show as much affection as possible—until the pipe begins calling their name anew. These children are placed in dilapidated nursery centers and end up in middle schools and high schools that speak more of death than life. Those that make it as far as high school graduation barely earn requisite grades. Those who don’t—and they are in the majority—resort to street crimes and petty hustling.

Both sets of kids are White, by the way.

Who made the first set “exceptional”? Does the fact that as young as 3 months old they were provided countless educational toys to prepare them for “excellence” count? And does the fact that the other set had brains which as young as 3 months old were being chewed out by the various chemicals scouring the environment and choking the air they breathed in count?

When society turns from a “Child-As-Problem” to a “Condition-As-Problem” philosophy, not only will the playing field both kids compete on be leveled, but the second set won’t have their futures written out and defined—indeed defiled—pre-birth. Then, only, will the “better, richer, and happier life” promise yield more than laughter and mockery from all those who know better.

A Child-As-Problem way of life contends children have in their hands various opportunities from which to choose and plot out successful futures—regardless of social strata. It blames children for any shortcomings—minor and major. It visits on the heads of failing students ridicule and humiliation, and tells them Social Darwinism is a moral concept to separate the wheat from the chaff; in which case, chaffs like themselves are no good for a world facing “complex problems.” It readies—and narrows—the options those kinds of kids have at their disposal: Jail; Army. That districts in California reportedly build prisons based on the 3rd grade reading levels of children is a telling example. Kids, in this sense, are not only set up to fail—they are destined to fail. (( “How Schools Can Work Better for the Kids Who Need the Most,” Challenge Journal (Volume 2, Number 2, Spring 1998).))

Condition-As-Problem, however, takes seriously meanings of redemption and liberation—especially in an educational context where kids are assaulted regularly with pedagogical weapons. It does away with farcical, lunacy-led fantasies of “personal responsibility,” and holds up the state as responsible for the lives of its disenfranchised, tax-paying citizens. The aim, here, is to find constructive ways to make neighborhoods more palatable for the intellectual growth of children whose conceptions of life are bound to reflect poverty and nihilism. If the condition is the problem, then greater emphasis is placed on concrete commitments to construct avenues through which kids can dream bigger, brighter, and bolder than the social constraints enforced upon their imaginations by surrounding blights.

This philosophy tears down that inhumane wall which seeks to divide kids into categories and define their destiny based on scores on superficial tests. It reorders the thinking and priority of society into believing every child has the necessary skills, values, and ideals to help transform the world into a domain free from oppressive forms of prestige and privilege. It always keeps in mind that “the motivation to succeed is present among children of all cultures, no matter the way in which it is directed.” ((Janice Hale, Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1988), p. 51.))

Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Tolu.