Educational reformer and former politician Hoance Mann is credited with saying, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” In the U.S. we are taught that education is the amorphous key that is guaranteed to unlock the doors of opportunity, upward mobility, and societal respect. However, the more one looks at the American education system, how it is structured, what it teaches, and who it benefits, one must wrestle with the validity of Horance Mann’s statement: How can education be the “great equalizer” when public schools are habitually underfunded by the billions, school districts with majority minority (particularly Black and LantinX) populations receive less and lower-quality instructional materials than majority white districts, and rural schools suffer from poor transportation systems for students, a shortage of teachers, and a severe lack of access to everyday technology, like the internet ?
The term “state-sanctioned violence” refers to “terrorism that is carried out or sponsored by the government, which involves deliberate attacks on civilians, for the purpose of attaining a political or religous goal. It is often used to describe the type of physical violence seen in incidences of police brutality, or the inhumane treatment of incarcerated individuals, who are considered wards of the state. What is often hidden in plain sight, however, are the ways in which violence is woven throughout the tapestry of American society, from the lack of universal healthcare throwing millions of Americans into bankrupcy, to failing infrastructure that heightens the risk of fatal car accidents. These are undeniable instances of both economic and physical violence that are greenlit by the state in order to further disadvantage the poor and bring in more money to private entities. Since violence in America can be both overt and covert in its many institutions, it is worth looking into the ways in which public education in the United States can, or is even intended to, be used to perpetuate violence against its most vulnerable citizens.
Education as Hierarchy, Hierarchy as violence
Despite Horace Mann’s statement, education is, in many ways, the great diving line. Let us take a deeper look at how American schools are funded. Public schools in the United States are the most unequal in the “developed” world, despite spending 37% more per full time elementary and secondary student than the average of all OECD nations. The inequality in American schooling is in large part due to how schools are funded. Approximately 48% of a public school’s budget comes from state resources, including income taxes, sales taxes, and fees. The other 44% of funding is contributed locally, primarily through taxes paid by homeowners in the area. So, because nearly half of all public-school funding is provided through property taxes, the higher the property taxes in your area, the more money your public school district receives, and the more resources, both tangible (textbooks, computers, qualified teachers) and intangible (a sense of safety, access to AP courses, smaller teacher-student ratios for one-on-one learning) a school can provide for its students. Therefore, poor students are systemically barred from accessing resources that are available in wealthier, noticeably Whiter schools. Wealth is concentrated in the United States, and because of this, wealthy schools keep getting wealthier, and wealthy students, through no hard work or motivation of their own, benefit from being born in a zip code they have no control over. In the same way, poor school districts are habitually underfunded, continuing a cycle of burned out, underpaid teachers, underprepared students, and unsafe schools.
Second, let’s talk briefly about the curriculum. From the moment students start school, they are indoctrinated with the belief that America is the greatest country to ever exist and that all other nations, cultures, and people are naturally inferior. The controversy surrounding the teachings of Critical Race Theory in schools, the 1619 Project, and the removal of Confederate monuments highlight how disturbingly unwilling America is to admit to wrongdoings, no matter how obviously egregious. Capitalism is taught as not only the most efficient economic system, but as the most realistic and morally acceptable one for any properly civilized nation. Socialism, and communism, if taught at all, are villainized in McCarthy-era rhetoric, so much so that Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently issued House Bill 5, which adds a requirement to public high school government classes, that students receive instruction on “the evils of Communism and Totalitarian ideologies, even though an accurate studying of communism isn’t even taught in Florida high schools.
Students are taught that slavery (used in the US to increase capital) was a “necessary” evil in order to make this country the great City on the Hill. Some students are even taught that slaves enjoyed slavery: that they got to become Christians, they ate well, and they even preferred slavery to their primitive lives in Africa. They are taught that everything good and useful in the world was conceptualized or invented in Europe or in the Americas by those of European descent. They learn that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism, while also learning that America is not racist. Students are essentially indoctrinated into delusion, not only about their own country and economic system, but about everyone else’s.
Current educational practices exist to create and maintain hierarchies based on race and class in order to keep rich, White Americans on the top and poor, mainly non-white Americans at the bottom. Education in America is not meant to equalize, it is meant to stratify, and inflict economic, and sociopolitical violence onto poor children by leaving them underserved, underprepared, and indoctrinating them to be complicit in their own subjugation. Education is therefore used as a function of the state to strip students of intellectual and economic freedom and create generations of citizens who are only taught how to listen and labor under a delusion of freedom and intelligence for a state that does not require working minds, only working bodies.
Rebecca Elliott is a writer, a nd public health professional currently residing in the Boston area. A policy analyst by profession, Rebecca has been trained in public health research, policy, and law. She has a deep love of knowledge, and believes that education is and always should be inherently revolutionary. When she is not diving into the politics of education, she enjoys reading, cooking, and finding the best ice cream spots.