By Doug Ferguson
It was around 2002 when my state of Michigan came out with the first report cards on schools, measuring what they called Adequate Yearly Progress, a mandate of No Child Left Behind. Our school district earned top grades for all of our schools. We advertised it as a point of pride and used it to demonstrate that our schools were better than the schools in the neighboring districts so we could recruit more students and increase our funding.
At one point in a meeting of our Superintendent’s Cabinet, I said that as a top ranked district we should take the opportunity to criticize the system, which I saw as designed to eventually label many Michigan schools as “failing” to make way for more charters and emergency managers, resulting in loss of local control. The Cabinet did not disagree with me, as most educators didn’t think much of NCLB, but my suggestion to speak out against the system returned puzzled looks. We had gotten good scores. We were looking good and we were going to win funding and prestige for our district. Why on earth would we criticize the rules of the game when we were winning?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the impact of criticizing a system from a position of privilege. As an upper middle class, straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered male, I’ve got a lot of it. I feel that I have a moral obligation to speak out against the constructs that perpetuate my own privilege. I don’t feel any shame for who I am but I recognize that the accidents of my birth and DNA have something to do with how my life is going.
I can’t think of a struggle right now whose prime movers were members of the privileged class. No, the voices that must be heard are the voices of those whose lives cry out for change. The privileged can amplify those voices and perhaps influence people who don’t listen to those unlike themselves. We can protest, financially support social justice movements, and say something if we see something. I don’t apologize for racist white guys any more than I expect Muslims to apologize for the 9/11 terrorists. I can, however, recognize the privileges that have been handed to me and all my fellow white guys, and do my best to change the system that perpetuates them. As I recognize that being able to be blind to one’s own privilege is the very definition of privilege, I will seek the counsel of those in a position to see what I cannot.
The world will never be perfect, but that excuses none of us from working to make it better. Those of us who think we have something to lose from changing the system are missing the point.
Doug Ferguson is the son of Steve and Connie Ferguson.