Saturday, September 26, 2020

Derek W. Black's "Schoolhouse Burning"

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law and the Ernest F. Hollings Chair in Constitutional Law. He is one of the nation’s foremost experts in education law and policy. He offers expert witness testimony in school funding, voucher, and federal policy litigation and his research is routinely cited in the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also a regular commentator in popular media.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy discusses the challenges of establishing school systems in the South following the Civil War and emphasizes the freedmen’s role in overcoming those challenges. I write, “Having opened the schoolhouse door and all that it promised in terms of citizenship and democracy, Congress dared not close it. The freedmen, among others, would not tolerate it. . . . They, more than anyone, fully appreciated that transitioning to a permanent education system was crucial to their future place in the world.” The remainder of the page discusses how African Americans began to organize and demand the constitutional right to education.

This glimpse into the post-War period gives readers a good sense of the book’s overall themes. It reveals how Congress and the Freedmen saw education, citizenship, and democracy as tightly interconnected. It also reveals that America’s evolution toward a more perfect union has always involved struggle. A system of public schools came into being because African Americans fought for it.

A reader, however, might mistake the book as limited to the Civil War. The book, instead, covers the nation’s education and democratic history from founding to today, using our historical values to evaluate current policies.

But if readers were going to land in one historical period, the immediate aftermath of the war would be the one I would choose for them. Jim Crow segregation largely erased or whitewashed the freedmen’s pivotal role in constitutionalizing public education. So the basic telling of this story is important and eye-opening. I believe it will force a lot of readers to rethink what they “know.”

The freedmen’s pursuit of education is also emotional, so much so that it regularly caught me off guard. I found and was able to tell of slaves’ and freedmen’s very first encounters with education and what it meant to them. The stories often felt like something pulled from a Hollywood script rather than diaries and journals. The importance of education can seem overblown today, but the freedmen’s experience dispels that notion.

Finally, the post-war period is the most constitutionally significant in our history. It literally reframed our state and federal democracies and the right to education, serving as an anchor for the book’s thesis.
Visit Derek W. Black's website.

--Marshal Zeringue