Review: We Want to Do More Than Survive

Survive

We Want to Do More Than SurviveBettina L. Love. Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.

Summary: A plea and argument for abolitionist teaching that advocates for educational justice in our schools, that understands and is in solidarity with the struggle people of color face in our often racialized schools, and affirms the goodness and joy of one’s ethnic, sexual, and gendered identity.

This book is an impassioned argument for “abolitionist teaching.” The writer, educational theorist Bettina L. Love, offers this definition:

“Abolitionist teaching is the practice of working in solidarity with communities of color while drawing on the imagination, creativity, refusal, (re)membering, visionary thinking, healing,  rebellious spirit, boldness, determination, and subversiveness of abolitionists to eradicate injustice inside and outside of schools” (p. 2).

In this work, she describes an “educational survival complex,” in which schools serving people of color struggle under regimes of performance testing (and the testing companies who profit from all this), school report cards where “failing” jeopardizes funding, and often where students see few teachers of their own ethnicity. She describes how important the seemingly simple thing of mattering can be with examples of teachers, coaches, mentors, and advocates who said she mattered, helping her to obtain an athletic scholarship that launched her academic career.

She has harsh words to say about an educational culture that has only a cursory grasp of the power of white privilege, and does not understand the need for advocacy for children of color, or as she describes them, “we who are dark.”  She is highly critical of character education programs like Grit, arguing that the circumstances under which many students live already require grit in abundance. Instead, they may need celebrating. She also decries the substitution of character courses for those on civics–then engagement with the political structures needed to advocate for justice. She believes students need co-conspirators who educate with a culturally relevant pedagogy. She seems most concerned for teachers who call themselves “white” and who labor under the burden of whiteness and then afflict this on students of color.

Love also engages the additional layers of intersectionality as a black woman who is lesbian. She helps readers recognize the added layers of struggle to thrive involved in these additional layers and seeks to advocate for others in this situation.

I mention this book is an impassioned argument. Apart from citing some studies of the impact of having teachers of one’s own ethnicity in one’s schools, this book feels long on theory and short on practice. I do not have reservations about her arguments. It makes sense that students will do better when they know they matter and when their education speaks to their identity rather than tries to conform them to a dominant culture.

Rather, I would like to have seen a few case studies beside the author’s own experiences where theory has been translated into practice, showing marked flourishing of students. Perhaps it is hard to implement such programs in the state and federally mandated testing regime approach to schools that I have heard teachers decry even in suburban schools with good report cards. It would be great to know of places where Love’s approach is working.

Also, I recall a presentation by an educator on the faculty of a school dedicated to training teachers in justice pedagogy, but whose teachers were found to lack content competency in the subjects they taught, with the impact that school districts would no longer hire their teachers. It seems to me that a culturally relevant pedagogy that results in students flourishing, fosters excellence not only in artistic and social studies programs, but in reading, language, math and science programs. I hope subsequent works by this author addresses these matters.

Perhaps this is asking a great deal of one book. Perhaps first we need to hear the educational equivalent of “black lives matter” and sit with that truth. Love contends that “dark” students matter and what is needed are those who so enter into these students lives that they know existentially that they do matter. Too many are going through our schools without knowing that fundamental truth so crucial to grounding one’s life. Anyone who has had a teacher who showed them they matter knows what this can mean. Hopefully every child will not be left to struggle to survive rather than be buoyed by such support and advocacy.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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