We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom by Bettina Love (2019)
Reviewed by James C. Sherlock
Background and Introduction
I became interested in reviewing this book when I watched Dr. Bettina Love, as Associate Professor of Education at the University of Georgia, speak at a seminar for Virginia K-12 teachers sponsored by the Education School at the University of Virginia.
I did that as part of personal research into the radicalization of my alma mater.
I found her presentation to be pretty radical to my old white ears. I decided to read her book.
This review, like the one that will follow of Dr. Sowell’s book, “Charter Schools and their Enemies,” focuses on the actual words of the author, not the views of the reviewer. I will give each their say.
Because her views are likely to be highly controversial, this review will be longer that it otherwise might to ensure I allow the reader full opportunity to hear her.
She has been featured multiple times in Education Week, and has been a recent speaker at the University of Texas, Duke, and the University of Houston as well as C-Span, the City Club of Cleveland, Women’s Voices and advocate.com. She has provided commentary for NPR, the Guardian and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Yet I find no review of her book by any major newspaper of magazine.
She needed an editor. The book is very disorganized and peripatetic. It is thus very hard to read. No editor is credited and none is apparent.
But no editor would have curbed the venom coming out of the author’s pen.
Ms. Love’s Views
Ms. Love fiercely rejects everything about America and American education.
Perhaps most remarkably of all, she dismisses the overwhelming optimism of the children she is trying to “save” and attributes it to a misunderstanding of the world around them.
“Among low income youth in the study, 91% believed in the “American dream.” While holding system-justifying beliefs, these young people lacked the skills to interpret their world, which, sadly, is filled with intersectional, systemic oppression.”
An equally startling position is her rejection of Brown v. Board of Education. The rejection of the integration component of Brown, for this reviewer, focused the mind on everything else she writes.
So what else?
Dr. Love abhors the current education of Black students, rejecting the success of black students in some charter schools as child abuse by whites.
She warmly embraces by name all the critical theories so dominant in the American academy as the foundation for her abolitionist teaching, the touchstones that tell her how far she needs to go in her revolution.
As for abolition, she means to do exactly that with the American educational system. It is what comes after abolition to which she will not fully commit. There are broad descriptions of general outcomes she seeks but no next level of details on how they will be achieved in practice.
Ms. Love’s black schools will be taught by black teachers with pedagogy reflecting black values (she assumes hers are universal black values) but does not define the curriculum. The only things she dictates is that there will be no standardized testing, not a hint of modern school reform methods and that the curriculum will reflect (her) community values and result in what she calls a “homeplace” for African American children.
She raises the bar for white teachers from “allies” to “co-conspirators.” By my count the ladder of racial justice commitment by white teachers has now an additional step — top to bottom:
Dr. Love clearly doesn’t think there will be many co-conspirator white teachers, but equally clearly does not care.
As for “Latinx” — a placeholder for recent immigrants — schools, she suggests they should be taught in the native tongues of the students and their families. But that is at most a throw away line. The Latinx suggestion, like passing references to Latinx people in the rest of the book, is her paean to intersectionality and politically important to reach critical mass.
But this book is about abolition and rebuilding of African-American education. Everything else consists of strategies to achieve that.
She never offers an opinion as to whether the education of white children should change. She never mentions math, English Reading, English writing or science in her new curriculum for Black or Brown schools.
The reader is left to wonder why she will not clearly state that separate and different schools with equal resources are what she demands. There is no other conclusion from this book.
If Dr. Love won’t go there, then everything else she says is pointless. She should be asked directly that question.
She should also be asked why not a single word in her book addresses how black students, taught in segregated classrooms by black teachers a radicalized curriculum entirely different than that taught to white students, will get into college (which she says is her goal) and fare out in the world as adults.
Or how the resulting culture will work.
Or how America will work.
The University of Virginia
As for the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development featuring Dr. Love as keynote speaker for an online symposium for active Virginia K-12 teachers, it says more about the school than about the speaker.
Her opinions seem to be reflected in a considerable number of the courses at that institution.
The Dean of that school should answer directly what he thinks of the American dreams of the 91% of poor children referenced by Dr. Love. And about Dr. Love’s view of American education.
Actually, he must answer those questions.
The Threads in her Story
There are four basic threads that Ms. Love weaves together into her narrative:
- her personal story as explanation for how she arrived to where she is
- her recounting of innumerable episodes of racial violence in America
- her recounting of the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement
- yhe narrative of her current abolitionist teaching project
I will summarize the first three and concentrate on the fourth.
Her current views on America and American education are clearly and convincingly linked to her childhood in Rochester New York, which is told in enough compelling detail to explain the roots of her radicalism.
She demonstrates a true gift for narration in that portion of her book, and, given that it is autobiographical, incredible generosity. One of the things she left out because of her concentration on her mother, father and community that helped her is where she attained this level of skill.
She could make a living as a writer of non-fiction, and perhaps of fiction set on the playing fields of her childhood.
Her hometown turned into an economic disaster area when she was growing up.
“Thirty years ago Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb accounted for 60% of Rochester’s workforce. In 2012, that number was 6%. The economic downturn that led to an employment crisis was happening in my city at the same time America rebooted slavery through a war on drugs.”
Both of her parents were caught up in drugs.
“Currently Rochester is one of the poorest cities in America, with more people living at or below the federal poverty level than any other city with similar demographics.”
Her ticket out was as a scholarship basketball player. She is in the Section V (12 upstate counties in New York) Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2003.
She is a 1997 graduate of Rochester’s Edison Technical School, where she was instrumental in leading her team to two Section V titles in Class BB (1995, 1996), and four City-Catholic League Championships (’94, ’95, ’96 and ’97). She scored 1,897 points and gathered 949 rebounds in her four-year career, and improved her game each year, capped by her stellar senior year, when she averaged 32 points and 14 rebounds a game. She once scored a career-high 49 points in a single game, and was the Section V Tournament Class BB Most Valuable Player in 1996, and was named to the All-Tournament Team in two other Section V tournaments.
She was chosen to play in the annual McDonald’s Exceptional Senior Game, and was the game’s MVP (1997). She was also recognized for the quality of her character, when she received the 1997 Youth Citizen of the Year Award in Rochester.
At 6’2” tall, she played Division I basketball first for two years for a highly ranked Old Dominion University team and then for the University of Pittsburgh, leading that team in blocks and winning various awards, including the Pitt’s Scholar Athlete Award (2000-2003), and Big East Player of the Week.
She became involved with the community in Pittsburgh, teaching Sunday School for two years and participating in the “Read-to-Win” program, where she visited Pittsburgh area schools and read grade appropriate books to the classes.
I report the details of her basketball success, where she went to college, and what she accomplished there because she did none of those things in her book. She only talked about basketball being her ticket out of Rochester.
Racial violence in America
A significant word count in Ms. Love’s short book (small format, 162 pages hard cover edition, small font) consists of a recounting of the horrors of racism in the history of America.
She uses it, however, in what seems to be an attempt either
- to remind readers of why they should keep reading; or
- to inoculate her comments about K-12 education in America from criticism; or
- to meet her publisher’s demand for word count; or
- some combination of the above.
The incidents are retold, usually without specific correlation to her views about today’s educational system, before and after each of her demands for abolition of that system. Given the audience for her book, who like this reader, is familiar with every incident she offers, she could have avoided that and had a much more coherent book.
The other three threads are the point.
Pre-Civil War Abolitionist Movement
The retelling of the history of the antebellum slavery abolitionist movement in the north, focusing on abolitionist leaders in Rochester, Boston and the slave market in New Orleans make for interesting reading and give her the link to the title of her book and lectures.
The fact that the pre-Civil war had a single objective, the abolition of slavery, mirrors the current status of her own mission to abolish the current system of public education of black children.
She uses the term freedom widely in her own motives. What is missing is a clear definition of what comes after abolition of the education system.
Introduction to Abolitionist teaching
The first chapter is either a rant or a rosary depending on the reader’s point of view as she describes the things she despises about America.
On the first page of her work, the author writes:
“(W)e as dark people see — which White Americans cannot — a country with enough promise to capture and hold four hundred years of freedom dreams while systematically attacking, reducing or destroying each and every aspiration”. … We who are dark want to matter and live, not just to survive but to thrive.”
On that same opening page she aspires “to create new systems and structures for educational, political, economic and community freedom”.
As for tactics, intersectionality for her is “a way to build alliances for social change.” “The racial uplift of dark people is crucial, but that uplift cannot come at the expense of trash folx, folx with disabilities or women.” That is what she hopes to be her grand alliance, isolating straight white males.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas
The author’s case against Brown is as follows
“Before the landmark decision of Brown in 1954, Black schools were proud institutions that provided Black communities with cohesion and leadership. Though Black schools facilities and books were inferior to their white counterparts, the education they provided was not. Black teachers reflecting on Black schools before Brown constantly made remarks like, “Black schools were places where order prevailed, where teachers commanded respect and where parents supported teachers.” Educating Black children was viewed as the collective responsibility of the community. Schools were anchors for the Black community, and teachers were leaders inside and outside school walls. Schools represented places of solidarity, places to build power amid White rage. Schools were the foundation of moving towards thriving. The educational survival complex ensured that after Brown, Black folx would be unable to thrive. … As soon as schools desegregated, more than 38,000 Black principals and teachers lost their jobs due to the closing of all-Black schools and the fact that white parents did not want their children taught by Black teachers.
She later termed the results of Brown to be colonization of Black schools.
One is left unavoidably to see her as a Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal, Black educational segregationist.
First, We Kill the Reformers
In a section in the First Chapter titled “Reform Ain’t Justice,” she vents the special hatred she holds for education reformers.
First she disposes of “Teach for America”.
“It is Teach for America’s mantra, spend two years in an inner city or rural school with poor and/or dark children and help them service. Individuals with little or no experience are tasked with working in struggling schools that were designed to fail, (e.g. they are underfunded, with high teacher burnout, tests that punish students, and low quality teachers) and given only two years — if they can make it that long — to “make a difference.” … These educational parasites need dark children to be underserved and failing, which supports their feel-good, quick-fix, gimmicky narrative and the financial reason for their existence.” Thus my spittle comment.
She goes on to similarly dismiss the textbook industry and compare educational reform efforts to for-profit prisons.
Critical thinking, problem solving, social and emotional intelligence, zest, self-advocacy, grit, optimism, self-control, curiosity, and gratitude are the characteristics school officials, politicians, policymakers, educational consulting firms, curriculum writes, education researchers, and corporate school reformers prepackage and sell to educators and parents of dark children. .. Character education is anti-Black and it has replaced civics education in our schools” …
Reviewer’s note: the footnote for the statement about white parents above refers the reader to an article by Melinda Anderson in Ebony magazine While that article is highly critical of education after Brown, it nowhere addresses “white parents did not want their children taught by Black teachers” that Ms. Love attributes to it. I did not check other footnotes.
Ms. Love’s doesn’t just dismiss the work of charter schools, she demonizes it:
“I would be remiss if I did not mention the “no excuses” teaching approach of many charter schools across the country. Charter school networks such as Success Academy and KIPP popularized aggressive, paternalistic, and racist ideological teaching practices on dark bodies.” … These schools function to feed the school-to-prison pipeline that targets dark children.”
She excoriates by name Mark Zuckerburg’s foundation Startup:Education . It’s Mission:
“The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to leverage technology, community-driven solutions and collaboration to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges. Our mission is to build a more inclusive, just, and healthy future for everyone.”
Dr. Love’s take on such efforts:
“Corporate school reformers profit from the history of oppression of dark people. Their earnings rely on the stability the stability of dark children and their families surviving while preying on their desire to do more than just survive. They make money on dark families’ dreams of thriving through education.”
Dr. Love sums up her chapter on “Educational Survival” as follows:
As educators, we must accept the schools are spaces of Whiteness, White rage and disempowerment. We cannot fall into narratives of racial progress that romanticize “how far we’ve come” or suggest that success comes from darks being more like Whites. Education is not the antecedent of failing schools … Racism is.
Those of us who make it through school leave with skills and scars that are necessary for survival in this racist, sexist and capitalistic world.
Vision for Black Schools
Her vision for the schools is scattered throughout the book.
“What does this approach look like in the classroom and beyond? Teachers working with community groups in solidarity to address issues impacting their students and their students’ communities. Reimagining and rewriting curriculums with local and national activists to provide students not only examples of resistance but also strategies of resistance. Protecting and standing in solidarity with immigrant children and their families. Joining pro-immigrant community organizations community organizations and in the fights for rights for all. Knowing that freedom is impossible without women and queer leaders being the thinkers and doers of abolitionist movements. Engaging in civics education that teaches direct action and civil disobedience while incorporating the techniques of the millennial freedom-fighting generation, such as social media, impactful hashtags and online petitions.”
“A robust civics education should include discussions focused on current events, opportunities for students to participate in school government, media literacy, and classroom instruction on government, history, law, economics and geography.”
The subjects mathematics, science and even English writing and reading are never mentioned in this book.
“Abolitionist teaching is refusing to take part in zero-tolerance policies and the school-to-prison pipeline. Demanding restorative justice in our schools as the only school wide or district wide approach to improving school culture. …”
“Abolitionist teaching … oppos(es) standardized testing, English-only education, racist teachers, arming teachers with guns, and turning schools into prisons. Abolitionist teaching sports and teaches from the space that Black Lives Matter, all Black Lives Matter, and affirms Black folx’ humanity.”
“Abolitionist teaching asks educators to acknowledge and accept America and its policies as anti-Black, racist, discriminatory, and unjust and to be in solidarity with dark folx and poor folx fighting for their humanity and fighting to move beyond surviving. …”
“Lastly, teachers must embrace theories such as critical race theory, settler colonialism, Black feminism, dis/ability, critical race studies and other critical theories that have the ability to interrogate anti-Blackness …”
“Teaching strategies and education reform models must offer more than survival skills to dark children – test-taking skills, acronyms, character education, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, charter schools, school choice.” …”
“In reality, many … teachers who “love all children” are deeply entrenched in racism, transphobia, classism, rebid ideas of gender, and Islamophobia. These teachers do not belong in classrooms with dark children or even White children because anti darkness can happen without dark children in the room. …”
“This book is about struggle and he possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist approach to educational freedom, not reform, built on critical civics, joy, theory, love, refusal, creativity, community, and, ultimately, mattering.”
In her section on “White Rage” she writes:
“The field of education is anchored in white rage, especially public education. Education is one of the primary tools used to maintain White supremacy and anti-immigrant hate.
In “Educational Survival Complex” she writes:
“Native American boarding schools, school segregation, English-only instruction, Brown v. Board of Education, No Child Left Behind, school choice, charter schools, character education, (President Obama’s) Race to the Top … all have been components of an educational system built on the suffering of students of color”
Dr. Love is outraged at everything about America and committed to its abolition and replacement.
It is the broad question “replacement with what” to which she leaves incomplete answers in the case of the school system.
That question is entirely unanswered in terms of the nation.