They Were Born for This Moment
How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of privilege.
Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the impact of teenagers from Parkland, Florida after yet another mass school shooting is a flawed Bob Dole read on the power of education. The most telling moment that this misreading of why America seems to embrace these teenagers comes here:
Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.
Political analysis of Dole’s last failed run for president often includes that Dole’s narrative focused on going back to an idealized and whitewashed past, while Bill Clinton focused on the future.
To suggest a “1950s-style public education” is a major element of the good ol’ days is an incomplete and ultimately offensive view of history.
Public schools reflected and perpetuated in mid-twentieth century all of the very worst aspects of American society, including segregation and corrosive inequity along race, social class, and gender lines.
The disturbing irony of the flawed central thesis of this argument is that the student activists from Stoneman Douglas High do in fact represent the realities of 1950s-style public education: Privileged children in the U.S. also benefit from privileged schooling — a fact of the 1950s and of the 2010s.
There are, however, two lessons from the activism of these Parkland, Florida teens:
- It provides another entry point into debunking that education is the great equalizer, and
- it represents in contrast to how America has responded to #BlackLivesMatter activism the lingering racial divide about whose voices, and thus lives, matter.
To the first lesson, consider the following:
- Education Is Not Great Equalizer for Black Americans
- Family Background and Earnings Inequality among College Graduates | Social Forces | Oxford Academic
- They Tell You ‘Education Is the Great Equalizer’ — Here Are 20 Reasons That’s a Lie
- Children don’t live in a vacuum: why US education is not the ‘great equalizer’
- Ten Things We Shouldn’t Expect Public Schools to Do
- Educational Attainment Not “Great Equalizer,” But Deforming Myth
And as a powerful visual for understanding that educational attainment does not level racial inequity, consider this (as well as a wealth of research contradicting education as the great equalizer):
Yet, Lithwick maintains:
Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.”
The mistake here is that educational opportunities are a marker for the accident of birth most children enjoy or suffer; highlighting the rich schooling experiences of the Parkland, Florida students receive is a veneer for confronting that they mostly are the beneficiaries of privilege, first in their homes and communities, and then in their schools, which reflect and perpetuate their privilege.
To be clear, this is no condemnation of these teen activists, but their access to widespread national recognition is driven mostly by their privilege in many of the same ways that the Bush family and the Trumps have parlayed generational wealth into more (often ill-got) power, regardless of their merit.
This misreading of the reasons why the Parkland, Florida teens are being heard provides cover for the more damning and problematic second lesson, as Sarah Ruiz-Grossman confronts:
For some black activists who have long been mobilizing around gun violence, the current wave of public attention and outrage over the issue is welcome. But it also invites the question of why there’s been comparatively little attention and outrage focused on the even more common reality of routine gun homicides in the country, which disproportionately affect communities of color, and specifically black Americans.
Prominent black organizers and public figures have also noted the largely positive public response to the student activists from Parkland ― most of whom are not black and who attended school in a largely white, relatively affluent Florida suburb ― compared to the frequent vilification of young black activists protesting gun violence, particularly police shootings.
The Stoneman Douglas High teens are no more credible in their activism than the many black teen activists who have responded to the equally disturbing normal of police shootings that disproportionately kill blacks.
When affluent and a certain kind of articulate young people confront massgun violence, their privilege sparks responses that are distinct from the responses to a differently racialized and classed protest against gun violence perpetually killing one person at a time.
Kurt Vonnegut, who died of lung cancer, confessed in the preface to a collection of short stories: “The public health authorities never mention the main reason many Americans have for smoking heavily, which is that smoking is a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”
Beyond the macabre humor and stark reality of Vonnegut’s admission, we must see that he is deconstructing the power of normal; once something become normal, it projects the impression that is also right.
In the U.S., the messengers and the messaging are more powerful than the message. And this is the large scale lesson of the Parkland, Florida activism: Privileged voices and lives matter.
Public schools in the U.S. are not game changers, not great equalizers. Further, as the Parkland, Florida teens argue, no public school should be tasked with defending children against a negligent political class bought and owned by the NRA.
1950s nostalgia also ignores the celebrity class, often movie stars, doing the dirty work for Big Tobacco, ruining the health of America’s youth for the sake of commerce, and this too fits in an ironic and ugly way with misreading why privileged Stoneman Douglas High teens are now waging a battle with the NRA controlling negligent political leaders.
Simply saying something is true doesn’t make it true, and just because it is normal doesn’t mean it is right.
The Stoneman Douglas High teen activists were born for this moment. They demonstrate the power of privilege.