Chancellor Christ encourages GSE graduates to change the paradigm

May 24, 2019

The Graduate School of Education recognized the academic achievements of nearly 100 graduates at commencement on Friday, May 24, including doctoral and master's degree students, as well as classroom teachers and school administrative leaders. Dean Prudence L. Carter provided welcoming remarks, and UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol T. Christ gave the keynote address. Our student speakers were Sheila Afnan, and Fady El Chidiac. Some photos from this celebratory day are here

The Chancellor's remarks are below. 

Thank you, Dean Carter, for the opportunity to address this year’s graduating class.

First, I’d like to echo the congratulations we’ve heard today. You all have just completed a demanding course of study at one of the nation’s leading schools of education, and I want to acknowledge your diligence, your perseverance, and your resilience. You have undoubtedly made sacrifices; you have dedicated days and nights and weekends to your academics. Some of you juggled school alongside work, or completed your coursework as you were starting a family. And now, at the end of your studies here, you are likely experiencing a mix of relief, elation, wonder, and apprehension. But in addition to all that, I hope you also hold a keen sense of pride.

Of course, you are not the only ones here feeling proud. Today, we are joined by GSE staff who supported you, faculty who taught and mentored you, and mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, and other family and friends who stood by you with their understanding and love as you worked towards this milestone. Let’s give a round of applause for all of them.

Long ago, Aristotle proclaimed that all men and women desire to know. And this makes us who we are, distinct from the other animals around us. It is this yearning that brings us the deepest gain new knowledge of the world, the past, and discover the laws that govern our universe, to understand our place in it.

As teachers and educational leaders and policymakers and scholars of education, you all recognize and celebrate this great human trait: curiosity, a natural and innate love of learning, a universal desire - simply - to know.

But this is not the only reason we cherish education. We also know about the transformative power that schooling can have. We know of its ability to lift people up, to change their fortunes, to prepare them for success in work, society, and life. In 1848, Horace Mann said - in a quote that you have likely heard - “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men - the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

When education is at its best, I believe this can be true. The American ideal is for young people of all backgrounds to be able to gain the best jobs, live the most rewarding lives, and enter the upper reaches of social status not by being born into the right family, but through their own abilities and on their own merits.

In our society today, however, Mann’s maxim is simply not accurate. Our educational system is not disrupting the socioeconomic landscape, but often reproducing the inequality that affects low-income families, African-Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, immigrants, LGBT people, and those with disabilities.

The examples of this are nearly endless, and GSE research has drawn our attention to many of them. Schools serving low-income students receive fewer resources and face greater difficulties in attracting qualified teachers. These schools’ teachers often don’t look like or know how to engage the students they teach. Schools often do not have the resources to provide adequate - let alone excellent - advanced placement, vocational, or special education courses. These schools receive less support from parents, they have fewer guidance counselors, they have less access to technology.

On the student side, when engaging in the same behaviors as their white counterparts, students of color are punished at higher rates. The curricula students encounter emphasize and celebrate the achievements of white men. Non-English speaking students and their parents are understandably unable to navigate a complicated educational landscape. Students are judged on standardized tests that measure a narrow segment of their abilities and knowledge. Due to a need to work and complete family obligations, low-income students often get less sleep, have less time to complete homework, and have less of an ability to take up extracurricular activities.

It would be impossible to mete out success based on merit given such glaring disparity. Dean Carter, in her book Closing the Opportunity Gap, uses the following comparison to illustrate our present system:

“Imagine two children asked to race to the top of a stairway. One child is well-nourished, well-trained, and well-equipped; the other student lacks all of these basic resources. But, instead of designing a system around the needs of the second child, her stairway is steep and slippery. Meanwhile, the first child’s stairway is replaced with an escalator. Holding these two children to the same standards may allow for a comforting “no excuses” sound bite, but it does nothing to help the second child achieve.”

I offer you this sobering assessment on a day of celebration because if we take it as our goal - as we at Berkeley and at the GSE do - to provide high quality education to all young people, then it is our duty to confront what may sometimes be depressing truths. To succeed as teachers, leaders, and scholars, it is beholden upon us to understand these patterns of privilege and inequality, and do what is in our power to remedy them.

How do we look at the roots of educational success or failure holistically, partnering with others to study and change the pernicious poverty and racial discrimination that segregates our cities?

How can we ensure high quality teachers and resources are spread more equitably across institutions and districts?

How will we break a culture of teaching to the test, and equip students for success in an economy fueled by technology and creativity?

How will we meet the needs of undocumented students and their families?

How will we give disconnected youth the dignity of a second chance to recover their education and pursue a career?

How can we reinstate a belief in the value of public education, to help our society remember that it is a common good and worthy of investment?

These are some of the questions that you must take up as education professionals in this troubled age.

I want to give some extra attention myself to that last one, about education as a public good, because it is one that I think about a great deal as Berkeley’s chancellor.

When our nation was young and trying to sort out how to function as a democracy, many early leaders believed the common people were too ignorant to govern themselves. Thomas Jefferson disagreed. In 1820, he wrote, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Jefferson believed that education should be free and universal, and that its aims should be to cultivate civic virtue, character, and a thoughtful, critically engaged populace. These beliefs became bedrock national guiding principles.

Yet in the last few decades there has been a shift towards thinking of education as an exclusively private good, something families use to get into colleges and gain access to wealth and to gain or retain privilege. Coupled with this shift, as one might expect, there have been declining funding streams for public education in many parts of the country. Higher education institutions like Berkeley have had to make up budget shortfalls by raising tuition or cutting services, impacting access and resulting in food and housing insecurity. In the 1980s, Berkeley received nearly 66 percent of our annual budget from the state of California. By the early 2000s, we received 33 percent of our funding from the state. Today, we receive 11 percent.

Despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, and in contrast to attitudes prevalent not so long ago, there has been a palpable decline in the collective confidence that public institutions have the capacity or the aptitude to deliver basic services and to meet emerging needs. It is a foolish and wrongheaded notion, and I believe it must change for our educational system to be successful.

So that brings me back to you. We need a new vision of public education, rooted in equity, with the confident backing of a society that believes in the value of schooling as a common good.

This will be your system to build, but I offer a few pieces of advice as you take up the challenge.

The first thing is you must do is start with yourself - cultivate your own awareness of the ways in which privilege affects education and how we may be reproducing, often unwittingly, undeserved advantages or disadvantages. Privilege is nearly invisible to those who hold it - and to make it visible is arduous work. Only once we’ve understood and acknowledged the problems that exist can we hope to remedy them.

Second, we have to work for equity. I am not asking you to devote yourself to the whole of this problem - otherwise you will be overwhelmed by its vastness. But I want you to find your universe of concern and make change in that place. For researchers, this means taking up the large and messy and critically important questions that matter, but it also means being solutions-oriented in your work. For those who will develop curricula, this means knowing that teaching must be done in culturally relevant ways, and recognizing that there exist multiple ways of learning and knowing. For policymakers and other leaders, commit to looking at inequalities squarely in the face and doing your part to create structures and opportunities and spaces that disrupt the status quo.

For the teachers - many of whom will be going out into underserved areas - I have a third ask, and it is to commit to and remember the power of great teaching. As President Obama recently reminded us, “After our parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom.”

A great teacher, trained in pedagogy and charismatic in her methods, will stimulate a love of mental adventure and excitement about learning in her students. In college, I took Victorian literature classes with an English professor named Janet Buck. Her connection to the material—her way of living in it—made me understand the philosophical and human issues at stake for the writers in ways that still shape my understanding of the nineteenth century. Like most great teachers, she showed how the material she taught could enlarge our own human capacities. When I went on to graduate school in English, I chose to specialize in Victorian literature, and it has been the center of my own scholarship ever since.

We learn not just from the content of a course but from the vividness of commitment that a professor brings to her material. We learn from passion as well as smart method, for teaching is both a craft and a discipline. So educators, continue to cultivate your teaching in both ways.

Thank you. Our systems of education reflect the kind of society we want to have - and I know both you and I believe so strongly in a world that is just...a world in which success in life is determined not by your zip code but by your resilience and grit and hard work. Today there are 75 million people in the United States under the age of 18. In just a few short years, they will be the nation’s adults. The majority of them will be people from communities of color, and many will speak multiple languages and dialects. They will be the ones who advance our society, who build new knowledge, who create new art, who determine our future. They have amazing things to contribute, but they will need your help to do so. With your skills and your education, you have what you need to change the paradigm. I wish you much more than luck. Thank you.

(Photos (l to r): Chancellor Christ gives keynote address; faculty members prepare to walk into Zellerbach hall; graduates prepare for commencement; Dean Prudence L. Carter offers opening remarks.)