Last fall, when orange leaves started to make their gentle tumble out of the trees, I visited the office of a favorite professor to discuss an assignment I was having trouble with. I took my place in the spare chair next to the door of his office and, after lifting some papers off the seat, he sat in the worn leather lounging chair next to his bookcase.
We chatted for some time. The class we had together was a freshman seminar on the topic of higher education. I was doing most of the talking, explaining possible approaches to an essay prompt that was stumping me.
After one of my proposals, the professor leaned back in the scholarly chair of his and gave me the kind of nod that only a professor who has spent years nestled deep in the stacks of a dusty library can give. He turned his face away from me and scanned the wall of books to his right.
He pulled out a blue course packet from an old class, then flipped through some pages until an essay titled "A Talk to Teachers" by James Baldwin appeared somewhere in the middle of the packet he handed me. He said, "You need to read this."
I did read it, and it completely changed how I thought about education and what effect scribbling my professors' words into notebooks – for 9 months, a year, four years – would have on me.
In the essay, Baldwin demonstrates his brilliance by arguing that even though the societal purpose of education is to provide us a "social framework" that ensures the aims of society will be perpetuated, education can have a reverse, paradoxical effect. He writes, "the paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated." We begin to see how we fit in the bigger picture – even if we aren't in it at all and there's someone pushing us out of it.
In 1963, Baldwin was writing in a storm of a time. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X offered competing visions to a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Nuclear war loomed as Soviets loaded up the Cuban island with nuclear weapons. The possibility of an unfavorable result in the Vietnam War began to enter the American consciousness.
In retrospect, solutions or responses to many of the problems of Baldwin's era seem common sense, but they came about as part of education's paradoxical effect. The visionaries and change-makers of his era asked the questions no one else was.
The paradox still exists in our time. What we learn in our classrooms still calls into question what we seem to regard as normal and fine in our society and on campus.
As another year of school begins, we must stay aware and nourish education's interrogative effect. Things still make little sense in America or on campus, just like in 1963. There is still so much that remains unjust, whether it be on campus or in our governments. Jailing children was a federal policy for much of 2018. The dates have changed, but much of the scenery remains.
Baldwin wrote, "It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” Now, as our backpacks sag once more with books and our campus fills with people, his directive remains as true in 2018 as it did in 1963.