The Game Was Right:
The Education System Is a Booby Trap (And More)

By Tolu Olorunda

Kicked out of Brooklyn Tech, focusing on looking fresh/

Bright kid accepted to the schools that only took the best/

Bounce like a check, yes, without no hesitation/

I went to college, then I left—thats when I got my education/

—Talib Kweli, Over the Counter, Liberation, 2007.

Sometimes it takes the stinging critique of Hip-Hop artists to wake society up from its slumber; and it is in line with this tradition that I hope the comments made by The Game one week ago would travel further down into offices of government and school boards. On his Twitter page last Monday, Game questioned the sincerity of the education system in educating young people toward a future of self-governance. He asked, “After you learned how to read and do addition, what else did we need school for that we use in everyday life as an adult?” Game was especially concerned about the teach-to-test formula currently in use in most public schools nationwide (NCLB [No Child Left Behind]), and whether parents aren’t willingly—albeit unknowingly—handing their kids over to a system set up to preserve the status quo, rather than empower them to change it: “up at 7:00 A.M., out at 3:00 P.M. five days a week. Caught in the matrix but as a parent, I just dropped my kids off at school and [I get a] break from ’em.”

Game pondered if “school was a government’s plot to keep track of us and program our lives,” and, like educator John Gatto suggested two decades ago (Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling), concluded many parents aren’t equipped emotionally to challenge the pedagogical models used to educate kids because “school is a babysitter.” Don’t ’wanna upset her!

For this, Game has been chastised by bloggers and fans, accused of encouraging kids to drop out. That 7,000 students already quit school every day—and only 70 percent graduate with High School diplomas—is less a concern to his critics. That in the 50 largest cities only 53 percent graduate on time is another ignored reality. It’s easier, you see, to blame rappers for their “anti-intellectual” comments and content, than to confront the truth.

The education system today is not only a sham, but also, as Game alluded, a booby-trap. Pass through any public school peopled with Black and Latino kids and reality is sure to meet you halfway. You’ll find students abandoned in classes with broken ceilings, unqualified teachers, hostile administrators and, most remarkably, legions of law enforcement. The same is also true for poor white kids. Only the rich—and super-rich—have it good.

In the last two decades, the public school system has been radically remodeled in two distinct, but connected, ways:

1) Privatization

2) Militarization.

In the first instance, schools are commercialized so savagely that now giant corporations like McDonalds and Pepsi and Campbell Soup are granted license to invade classrooms and design actual curriculum packages. A decade ago, McDonalds partnered up with a Florida elementary school to structure programs for its students. “If you want to work in a McDonald’s when you grow up, you already know what to do,” a ten-year-old student reported. “Also, McDonald’s is better than Burger King.” Today, McDonald’s has upped the ante—now passing out “Happy Meal” coupons with the report cards of elementary school kids. Such was the case in Florida three years back, where some students, of the 27,000 in Seminole County elementary schools, brought home free coupons with their report cards, as part of a “Made the Grade” program. Why? The school board was short on funds—but McDonald’s wasn’t. Never is. The $1,700 tab needed to cover envelopes and printing fees was gleefully picked up by the multi-billion dollar chain which, though in violation of its Council of Better Business Bureaus pledge, was permitted to market directly, without the consent of parents, to school kids. “I was appalled and shocked, because I don’t want her eating that type of food,” fumed a concerned mother whose 9-year-old daughter brought home a report card with fast food menu items printed on the cover.

On the other hand, public schools are often designed to model prisons. In some states, like Boston and California, more money is allocated to the construction of “correction facilities” than for education facilities. The politics of zero-tolerance has ensured that disenfranchised Black and Brown students are reprimanded, often harshly, for immaterial infractions, leading off to detention halls eerily identical to the penitentiaries they ultimately end up in. Hence, the school-to-prison pipeline. Most public schools located in low-income districts are not only dilapidated and under-funded but often appear more invested in the reduction of violence and prevention of gang activity than the sculpturing and molding of future pioneers. Schools now have surveillance systems located at every nook and cranny, and lockdowns or locker-searches are increasingly gaining grounds. An explicit example occurred on November 5, 2003, where police officers, clad in SWAT team attire, stormed Stratford High School, South Carolina, armed with K9s, and advanced through the hallways with guns-drawn, pointed at students who by now were, trembling for dear life, all knelt or lying down with arms clasped above their heads. This caustic charade went on for a while, until the officers, whose trusted sniffing agents had turned up 12 false-positives, decided to end it.

And this horrific freak-show of privatization and militarization has taken place in rapid succession within a few decades only.

“there’s not a lot of
critical thinking going on in the schools.”

Fifty years ago, it seemed almost impossible to imagine a time when public schools were more reflective of market principles than moral virtues. Worse yet, it was nearly inconceivable to predict an era wherein schools were modeled, structured, and designed after prisons. Unfortunately, that seemingly dream world of leftist-paranoia is the reality staring us down today. Not only are schools increasingly taking flesh in forms of corporations—where students are treated as consumers and patrons—more and more are adopting rudimentary tactics plagiarized from prison play-books. So much is this thinking pervasive in the school system that a child born today might never know what it means to go to school daily without being strip-searched en route to classes where teachers know more about Pepsi than Paulo Freire, and more about Wal-Mart than W.E.B. Du Bois.

So, Game is right on target, and, in my judgment, didn’t even go far enough. Anyone who doubts how dilapidated and dangerous most public schools are today to the creation of a livable society free from neoliberal or biopolitical governance needs to pick up the works of acclaimed scholar Henry Giroux. Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life: Democracy’s Promise and Education’s Challenge; Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning; and Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? would be good starts.

Hip-Hop artists are in an especially opportune position to articulate critiques of the public school system since many are products of it. In truth, many were deemed academic failures who wouldn’t (and couldn’t) “amount to nothing,” but ended up giving life to a cultural force that changed and transformed millions worldwide. We’ve all heard the lamentations of artists once considered intellectually incompetent who, today, set the cultural temperature under which the world operates. One reason why a student may fall within the cracks in school but blossom outside of it is the definition of intelligence as understood by most school administrators. “We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence. ... We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children,” cautioned creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson four years ago at the renowned Technology, Entertainment, Design conference. He explained that intelligence is diverse, dynamic, and distinct.

These three qualities, unfortunately, have fallen faintly on deaf ears, as schools nationwide rush to improve math and science scores—by any means necessary (even “rewarding” teachers for students’ performances). And even recess is being cut—already in over 40 percent of schools—to drive home a harder bargain.

So, a born poet might never find fertile ground to sprout successfully, and a future graffiti artist is likely to see nothing of value in a school only interested in reproducing engineers and architects, scientists and doctors to “compete”—like cannon fodder—with citizens of other countries.

Any hopes of reform from the current administration seem almost Utopian considering the background of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who, while CEO of Chicago Public Schools, ran a reputation of militarizing and privatizing public schools, shutting down schools abruptly, mass firing teachers (often entire school staff—including janitors and kitchen workers), and tearing down public schools to erect charter, voucher, and other private substitutes in their stead.

Duncan has very little to say on school reform—besides catchy slang like “standards” and “up to speed” and “high bar.” This, however, never mattered one bit when, in January 2009, he was approved unanimously in the Senate—and with haste. Senators laced him with fawning praise: “I think you’re the best,” one gushed. And another: “This is a guy who gets it.” One wonders, with perplexity, what Duncan “gets,” and if he, in fact, was the “best” possible choice.

In the $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress February 2009, Duncan was presented $10 billion to raise standards and rectify dilapidated schools across the country. Of his bounty, $5 billion has no strings attached, meaning, as a PBS report put it, “[h]e can spend it to push for the changes he wants. That’s real power.” Duncan not only has the power to do whatever he pleases; he also has the press. Thus far, he’s been favored with uncritical coverage by mainstream channels—and even independent forums like PBS—while many Chicago students still feel the pinch from his 8-year-stint.

Duncan’s vision for the future is refreshing; consider his recent remarks that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

Students get very little out of the education system, save for a clear understanding of their place in the world, and how unforgivable society considers dissidence. They are to fit perfectly within a set paradigm and do as told—or end up suspended, expelled, arrested and, later on, incarcerated.

Hip-Hop artist/educator Asheru agrees: “There are a lot of schools that are low-performing, low-functioning, that do our children no good. They literally are babysitters.” But he’s also aware of a “growing movement in education” amongst teachers of greater knowledge and good conscience. “There’s always that undercurrent of teachers who look at teaching as a mission, who look at education as a doorway to freedom,” he says. For them, “it’s not just a job—they’re trying to liberate kids.”

Asheru, who founded the groundbreaking Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.), sees his role in concert with this movement: “As a teacher, my job is to show you how what I’m teaching applies to your everyday life; otherwise, I can understand why people tune out.”

And H.E.L.P is just one means by which he metes out this objective: by asking a few questions about the connections between art and life—Hip-Hop and society: “How does what they’re [artists] saying shape their reality? And how does what they’re saying shape your [students] reality?” These questions must be asked because “there’s not a lot of critical thinking going on in the schools.”

When 6-year-olds are dragged out in handcuffs to police stations simply for throwing tantrums in class, there’s little doubt to what end education today is directed. When 11-year-old autistic kids are charged with felony assault for refusing to be subdued by adults, it’s no more ambiguous what expectations are made of children in the authority-centered world surrounding them. When over 1,500 students are mass-disciplined for refusing to put on the garb of oppression (uniforms), it’s no more shocking to hear a commercially successful rapper openly wonder if schools are merely part of a larger “plot to keep track of us and program our lives.”

Asheru says he understands how Game’s “negative experience … plays into his attitudes when his children are in the same scenario.” However, “as rappers we have this tremendous voice—but what are we saying with it?” He wants Hip-Hop artists to do more than talk tough—to forge alliances with progressive organizations whose boots are on the ground, day-in-day-out, trying to make life more meaningful for disenfranchised kids.

Artists like Game, having survived the education system, “should have a say in what goes on from here on out.” This “ongoing domestic problem,” which is the “root problem for all the other problems we face,” requires mobilization on all levels—especially from Hip-Hop artists. Rappers should “take proactive stances and actually do something.” Hopefully, Game’s listening.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on and other online journals., February 1, 2010