A Breach of a Social Contract

I recently changed cell phones (or mobile phones to all my folk in Oz), and like any break-up, there was a kind of a dance around the contract, with implicit and explicit appeals to preserve the agreement.

You have been a customer of ours for quite awhile. Do you know about our special offer that could cut your monthly costs, across three years?

Have you considered upgrading to our Gold Status Customer Care Line? That would provide many more features to the data plan you already have.

In looking at your record of calls, it seems that you have some unnecessary features; I can adjust your billing plan to make it more affordable.

And finally, when all of these appeals have failed: may I ask why you want to cancel the contract?

We all live within and agree, implicitly and explicitly, to different forms of contracts. In relation to the formalized government, we enter into explicit contracts, for example, of what we promise to do behind the wheel of a car in exchange for that same government’s legal sanctioning of our ability to drive on public byways and highways. The driver’s license is a laminated, pocket version of an explicit contract. Implicitly, we also enter into social contracts that have been scripted and fashioned into material realities for us, long before our time on this planet begins.

Schooling as a social contract

Education is based on a social contract in which parties (parents and adult caregivers) give up some of their stewardship of their children to the institution of schooling in exchange for that institution providing children with academic, socio-emotional, and moral development. If the statue of liberty were refashioned into the image of a schoolmarm offering this social contract, she might say something like: Give me your illiterate and uneducated children, and I will give you back capable, responsible, safe and secure citizens. Now even though you may not regard your inquisitive, independent, creative, collaborative, artful, intellectual child as illiterate or uneducated, the education version of this statue does and it is part of how she forms her own identity and purpose in society, through this social contract. She is the provider of knowledge, skills, and opportunity. Under the social contract that promises safety, stability and upward mobility in exchange for 13 years (or more) in formal schools, teachers and administrators are the some of the parties whose realities are shaped by the contract.

We are surrounded by, and for the most part, are daily complicit in the social contract of schooling that promises educational achievement, which should then translate into social stability, safety and even mobility (see previous post on Obama and Sotomayor). This contract has been a discursive veneer, super-glued on top of the material ways in which schooling has worked to produce societal stability, safety and status preservation for the ruling classes, and in turn, dispossession (Fine, 2008), violence, and internalized self-hatred for those on the lower rungs of society. So, in many senses, the contract has been honored, but only for the ruling classes, and it has been used as a ruse to keep the lower classes in their stations in society, with across the board buy-in. Each time that we as researchers and educators hold up education in traditional schools as the key to success and chase ways to bridge the achievement gap, we not only pay homage to this myth, but we make sure that charcoal is added to the fire so that in continues to burn, fueling an inequitous society.

In turn, the massive amounts of energies and money poured into educational research that seeks to close the achievement gap is based on an underlying assumption that, largely through technical adjustments to pedagogy and curriculum, the social contract is solid but simply needs to better serve those who historically have been trampled within the social contract. Ladson Billings (2006) took on the ways in which the achievement gap discourses do not account for the achievement debt: the moral, historical, cultural, political, and economic structures that have coalesced to disadvantage racially, linguistically, and culturally minoritized children. In times past, the colonizing goal of education was far more explicit. The policies of Australia in the early 20th century, and those of the United States previously stated explicitly agendas to assimilate the ‘savage’ indigenous populations into White cultural practices.  We’ve not come such a long way, though. Even though the explicit policies have removed such offensive goals from their platforms, appeals to bridge the achievement gap for Black and Brown students operates upon an assumption that achievement in schooling 1) measures skills, knowledges, and practices relevant to these youth, and 2) the knowledges taught in schools are not still colonizing forces.


I join others (Apple, Deloria, Brayboy, Smith, hooks, Du Bois, Baldwin) in proposing that the social contract underlying the discourses of closing the achievement gap, and state-sponsored Western[ized] education more generally, is, in fact, an exercise in colonization and assimilation. That, in order, for students to be recognized as intelligent and capable, they must surrender to Whitestream (Grande, 2007), capitalist ideas of knowledge as quantifiable, appropriable, and objective. For the ruling class of Westernized nations with colonizing histories (U.S., U.K., and Australia, to name a few of the nation/states with the most storied and well honed colonizing practices), this assimilation and genocide through formalized education has been key to their rise to and preservation of power. For the ‘lower’ classes, races, creeds, and genders, this has meant longitudinal destruction of their ‘other’ forms of knowledge and simultaneous measured inadequacy in the sanctioned knowledge forms. The social contract of safety, stability and mobility in society has never been honored for racially minoritized youth. Why would we think that closing the achievement gap, based on practices and measures of Whitestream knowledge, would, by some miracle, flip the prevailing social order on its side and result in a new society of social justice and equity for all? But that is the mantra and mantle of so many educational researchers, working to develop, pilot, and scale up the interventions that will result in linguistically, culturally, and racially minoritized youth who will close that achievement gap. From strategies that seek to provide English Language Learners, as immigrant children are narrowly defined, with tools for mastering academic language in Standard English, to tutoring projects that aim to raise the classroom grades of students, each project has the potential, and often the history, of implicitly acquiescing to the existing social contract of schooling in exchange for success in society. This pursuit of closing the achievement gap elides the basic work of lifting up. Sadly, any discussion of justice is over before it has begun because it is premised on a hegemonic social contract designed to reproduce the social order. In legal parlance, the explicit contract has been breached since educators in the lands of Australia, the United States, Canada, have taken dominion over colonizing children, through miseducation. However, the implicit spirit of the contract, to miseducate the haves and have nots to preserve their relative cog positions in a capitalist system, has been honored and well.

Breaking the Contract

Not surprisingly, there are myriad examples of folks who have seen the parody of justice within achievement gap discourses and have decided to break this social contract in favor of a contract that reaches for different processes and ends than performing in service of a Whitestrean-determined definition of achievement. Within the field of educational research, some of the most compelling examples come from projects that reach across the boundaries of youth and adult spaces, generating and drawing on diverse perspectives of social systems. For example, youth and adult researchers working through the Polling for Justice project are systematically designing and gathering quantitative and qualitative information to documented the ways in which justice is disparately distributed across social classes in America. The IDEA project at UCLA has similarly provided space, resources, and support for youth who have developed action research projects into documenting the existing challenges, problems, and symptoms of social systems that are failing urban youth of color. There are hundreds of educational research projects like these around the nation and globe. However, there are thousands more, globally, that seek technical interventions that are premised on the social contract that educational achievement on large-scale flat assessments will result in societal safety and prosperity. For educational research to, in large scale fashion, break with its own colonizing ways, it must first recognize the breach of this contract that happens every day is perpetuated by studies into closing the achievement gap.

I actually marvel that students and teachers are not more outraged that they are asked regularly to perform to competencies that have historically privileged the middle, middle upper, and upper classes, mostly of European lineages. Sometimes when I am in urban schools servicing low-income youth of color, and I sit in classes taught by teachers who don’t really know let alone care about these children, I listen to endless lessons that chase achievement on flat standardized assessments and that are, in essence projects of dehumanization, I’m actually amazed that nobody sets anything on fire out of sheer frustration.

We don’t think twice about breaking contracts with companies if we are not happy with the service. Sadly, we are far better trained as consumers than we are as citizens under our own sovereign power. Schooling long ago began to breach its educational promise to young people, their parents, and to society at large. It continues to do so on a daily basis, with educational researchers complicit in this orchestra of malfeasance. Sometimes they are even the conductors.  It is time to break the contract.

One thought on “A Breach of a Social Contract

  1. Pingback: The best part of my day… | Inter.Connect.Ed

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