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Noguera: A strong democracy requires teaching history, race

July 1, 2020

The new dean of the USC Rossier School of Education discusses childhood in New York and what the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about education.

By Ross Brenneman

The USC Rossier School of Education welcomes its new dean, Pedro A. Noguera, on July 1, 2020. A former faculty member at Harvard, New York University and UCLA, as well as a former teacher and school board member in Berkeley, Calif., Noguera has been a champion of public education throughout his career.

Noguera succeeds Karen Symms Gallagher as the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. He is the 11th dean of the school, and the first person of color appointed to the deanship.

Noguera is the author of 13 books, with his most recent being The Crisis of Connection: Roots, Consequences and Solutions with Niobe Way, Carol Gilligan and Alisha Ali.

He spoke with USC Rossier about his youth, democracy and living through the pandemic.

How did growing up in Brooklyn shape your scholarship?

Coming from an immigrant family, I understood early on how important education was, not simply in terms of going to school and doing well, but the importance of reading. My parents really valued reading and my father told me that you can get a free education with a library card. Although neither of my parents graduated from high school, they believed in education and all six of their kids went to college—some of the top colleges in the country. I learned early on that, despite our backgrounds, we can use education to advance ourselves and help our communities.

In addition to your childhood, you worked at New York University from 2003-2015. What do you miss about New York City?

The thing I miss is also the thing that’s the problem right now: I miss the hustle, bustle, the intensity that comes with the density. I miss the excitement that comes with the large concentration of people. It’s the city that doesn’t sleep; there’s a dynamic there you can’t find anywhere. But sadly, the New York I grew up in is vanishing; many people have been displaced by gentrification. A lot of the old stores and restaurants we used to go to as kids aren’t there anymore.

We’ve already talked too much about the East Coast, so—Los Angeles: Great city, or greatest city?

I love Los Angeles. I love the weather. I love the geography. It’s an interesting place, and it’s got so many layers. I’m still learning about the city and I enjoy that. It’s dynamic in a different way than New York City.

Also very affected by gentrification.

I live in Culver City, and almost within eyesight there are five new, expensive houses going up. It’s a reflection of the larger problem. There’s a lot of displacement that’s occurring and it will exacerbate inequality in the city.

You earned your PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley. How has your training as a sociologist influenced your approach to education?

I always start by asking how are our schools being affected by our society, and how, in turn, can our schools impact our society in positive ways? The lens of a sociologist allows me to understand how history and social inequality shape the character of our schools, but also help me understand what it would take to create schools that expand opportunities for people and expand horizons for the next generation of kids. I was also a history major, and that’s been important to my thinking too. History is important to my outlook on things. It shapes who we are and the institutions we rely upon.

When people lose a sense of hope about their chance of improving their lives, they become hopeless.

Is there a particular educator who has changed your life?

In high school I had Ms. Harris, a tough math teacher who got me to see the value of discipline. I was lucky in college to have a mentor, Martin Martel, a sociologist who introduced me to social theory and encouraged me to go on and get a PhD at Berkeley. He saw in me my own enthusiasm and ability. And then there’s Troy Duster, one of my mentors in grad school who helped me to look at complex social issues from all sides so that my actions were informed by clear thinking.

In a 2018 essay published in The Nation, you wrote this: “It’s become clear that the fight over the future of public education is a major front in the fight over the future of American democracy.” Many political leaders, historically, have espoused the importance of public education and democracy. How do you see these two intertwine? What does that relationship mean to you?

I see it two ways. Thomas Jefferson recognized early on that you can’t have a democratic society without an educated citizenry. He feared that without mass, public education society might devolve into a tyranny, and we’re seeing signs of that now.

Horace Mann, the first secretary of education in Massachusetts, put forward the idea that education could serve as an equalizer of opportunity. He saw that education could serve as the means to develop talent and ensure that hard work rather than privilege was rewarded.

That is key to a democracy—when people lose a sense of hope about their chance of improving their lives, they become hopeless. They can also become bitter and resentful. We see a lot of that in the country today. Education is the key to ensuring that all of us have access to a promising future. This is important to social cohesion.

USC and UCLA both have a long history of working in Los Angeles schools, including the work you’ve done after founding the Center for the Transformation of Schools. What do you see as the role of a school of education in the community in which it is situated? What’s an ideal relationship or partnership look like, and how do you build that?

I want to give (outgoing dean) Karen Symms Gallagher a lot of credit for the work she’s already done in building partnerships with schools in the vicinity of USC. I want to continue that work and serve as a thought partner with school and district leaders because a major university should be a resource to schools and assist them in thinking through complex issues. USC has a great tradition of developing teachers and leaders. I want to build on the great work that’s been done.

For a TED Talk you delivered while at NYU, you said the following: “We have lots of evidence that we know to educate all types of children, the problem is the way we treat the children. … We have lots of evidence that what we’re doing as a nation isn’t working.” How would you revisit that quote now in the context of a pandemic?

I think that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the preexisting inequalities we knew were there: the digital divide, the lack of a social safety net—many kids are dependent on schools for meals and nutrition. The pandemic has exposed all of that. Now the question is what will politicians do about it?

We cannot allow legitimate concerns about logistics related to the safe operation of schools be all that we think about as we prepare to re-open. We must realize schools are critical to the economy, and they are also the key to the future. Our kids must be prepared to thrive and think in an uncertain world. In school they should experience the joy of learning, and that’s why they need a well-rounded education that includes the arts, physical education and nutrition. Kids need a well-rounded education.

We’ve been so fixated on achievement and lost sight of the fact that the goal should be to get kids excited about learning so that they will become life-long learners. I hope this pandemic reminds us of what the important things are. Kids need to feel challenged and supported.

We should not be afraid of exposing children to the history of racial oppression in this country so that they are prepared to confront it and create a more just and equitable society in the future.

As a K-12 teacher, what’s been one of your favorite things to teach? A concept, a book, an event?

I was a history teacher, and I love history. It’s a great way to understand society. I used to engage my students in debates, I found that was a great way to teach and understand history. American history is full of controversial topics.

Teaching kids to debate important issues prepares them to participate in democracy. When you hear someone or something you disagree with, you should know how to engage in civil, intelligent debate. I practice that as a teacher, and I try to encourage it. I worry because I think we’re losing that as we become more polarized. We lose our ability to listen and to cooperate in an effort to solve the pressing problems we face.

Amid this spring’s protests against police brutality, we’ve seen many White adults admit how ignorant they are of the history of Black people in America. It’s not like simply learning the facts around the Tulsa race massacre, for example, prevents racism. But how does the process by which we learn history affect how we understand race?

Students should learn history in all of its gory and unvarnished details. Without an adequate historical background it’s impossible to understand society today. Why is there so much poverty and homelessness? Why are there ghettos in every American city? How is it possible that in a nation as wealthy as ours we struggle to provide a great education and healthcare, especially to low-income people of color?

We should not be afraid of exposing children to the history of racial oppression in this country so that they are prepared to confront it and create a more just and equitable society in the future.

In a 2013 interview, you mentioned that your 7th grade teacher knew how to use theater and drama to get you to read Beowulf. Are you a theater geek?

I don’t go often enough. The last thing I saw was Hamilton, which I loved. My youngest daughter is the real thespian. What I really love about theater is the way kids learn through theater. It opens them up, it expands their imaginations, it helps them understand the power of language. Theater, like music, is a great medium through which to teach kids, and that’s why it should be made available to all kids.

Are all your kids at home for this period of social distancing? What have you learned about yourself during this period?

It’s just our youngest, but even with one child it’s hard to keep that child engaged and on task. I have come to appreciate the value of going slower. Taking the time to go for walks, spending time together as a family. That’s been one of the few good parts of quarantine.

Before this, I traveled a lot, and I was away from home often. You don’t even realize how much you’re missing. I’ve learned to be more present.

How do you decompress?

I’m an avid gardener (currently: kale, chard, lettuce, peppers, eggplant, spices). I enjoy growing vegetables and eating fresh vegetables grown from the garden. I enjoy bike riding, exercise and cooking. I’ve become vegetarian during the pandemic. I cook with a lot of peppers. If you don’t like spicy food, you probably won’t like my cooking.

There’s a lot of bad news in the world. What’s good?

The acts of kindness I see during the pandemic. The health care workers risking their lives, the grocery clerks out there—they’re not out there because they want to be—they have to be, but without them we couldn’t get food. Shortly after the quarantine, I helped distribute food to schools in Los Angeles—my kids yelled at me, “You’re too old, you’re at risk!” But it helped me feel so much better. I keep thinking what can we do, and when you feel helpless you have to do things to be helpful.

Social distancing should not mean everyone is out for themselves. If that’s what it means, we’re in trouble.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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