This week I interviewed Dr. Abena Ampofoa Asare, Assistant Professor of Modern African Affairs at Stony Brook University. Her research and writing spans questions of human rights, citizenship and transformative justice in Africa and the African diaspora. Her work can be found in The Radical Teacher, The International Journal of Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, African Arguments, and Foreign Policy in Focus, among other places. In 2018- 2019, she will be Scholar-in-Residence at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
(1) How well-prepared are your students for college-level work?
One of the strengths of Stony Brook University as a public institution is that it draws a range of excellent students and of course, some have been better prepared than others. As you would expect, student preparation usually correlates clearly to the quality of the high school education students walk in the door with. When a first-year student arrives, she may have already developed a particular student identity– certain study habits, grade expectations, classroom demeanor, etc. All of these are related directly to the education that she has already received in high school, and sometimes to the wonderful work that has been done in community college. I believe that all students should grow as scholars and thinkers throughout their college years– that’s what we professors do in the classroom. But the boundaries and amount of that growth are often already determined by their high school education.
This is part of the reason I think it is so important for higher education faculty and administrators to be vocal, passionate, and engaged with educational policy at the K-12 level. Professors like myself, we are receiving students at the end of the line– when they already have pretty clear ideas about education’s role in their life and their role within the classroom. This is not to say that we can’t have an impact on students, but there are so many brilliant students who have already fallen through the cracks along the way and will never even have the opportunity to walk into my classroom at Stony Brook. For me, my role as a professor at a public university is not limited to the students who are in my classrooms; I also have a responsibility to the students who should be in my classroom but who are not there because they have been denied an adequate K-12 education.
Unfortunately, we live in a national climate where the fundamental understanding of what public education is has been steadily eroded. The recent federal court ruling in Detroit where the judge said that students do not have a fundamental right to literacy– that public elementary and high schools are not required to teach students to read and write? — It’s shocking, yes. But it is really the most blunt articulation of decades of educational policy where public schools have been allowed to offer drastically different quality of education to our youth based on their identity, geography, and economic situation.
Do we really believe that all children should have a fair shot at a quality education? When you looking around at our schools– it becomes clear that we have not committed ourselves to the basic concept of public education. This is what we have to address first.
(2) Do you feel that there are areas your students are worst/best prepared for?
I think that critical thinking and writing are two areas that almost all students who enter my classrooms have a difficult time with. I am a historian of Africa and the African Diaspora so the vast majority of the students who enter my classroom do not have much background knowledge when they come to my class. This is expected. But beyond their lack of familiarity with the topic, I find that students are often very unfamiliar with the idea of classroom as a place for critical thought. My students often comment that they’re surprised by the fact that I’m listening to the ideas, and really expecting them to contribute in our discussions. They are used to education where they are being led toward the test as the highest goal. I tell my students this upfront every semester that, frankly, I could not care less about their grades. My goal is always to give them the skills to continue doing research, learning, analyzing the news and other sources of knowledge. These are life skills; this is what you need not only to get a good job, but to be a contributing member of society.
Also, writing. With all the technology these days, we cannot lose the importance of writing! Many excellent students these days really struggle with putting their ideas on paper, and expressing themselves in written form. Now writing is an art, but it is also a skill: practice makes perfect. Oftentimes, the students who are better able to jump into the college education are those who have had a lot of practice and instruction around writing.
(3) Are Black students less well-prepared? If so, why do you think so?
Black students at Stony Brook University are not any less prepared than Asian, Latino, or White students. On the contrary, from my perspective, one of the most wonderful things about the SBU student in general, is a strong work ethic. Many of my students, from all backgrounds, are immigrants or first-generation students. Many are also working class. The Stony Brook student, whatever his background, is a go-getter. The Black students are Stony Brook are also a very diverse group– from first-generation Ghanaian students, to Afro-LatinX students from the Dominican Republic, to Jamaican students raised in upstate New York, to African American students from southern California– these are all part of the Black community at Stony Brook. However, the numbers of Black students at Stony Brook are still proportionally very small; and this means that their experience of higher education is inevitably influenced by this lack of representation. There is considerable research about the burdens placed of US students of color in educational experiences where they are not well-represented among the student body and/or faculty. Unfortunately, much of these research findings seems to ring true for Black students at Stony Brook.
(4) What can NY schools do better? How can they do it better?
I often wonder what the impact would be if we began to approach education and educational policy as a human rights issue. Let me explain what I mean: I have recently written a book about a truth and reconciliation commission that was held in Ghana, West Africa about twenty years ago. One of the findings in this research was about how particular individuals and communities use the language of human rights a to identify those things in life that are fundamental, that are necessary for a basic sense of security. So in Ghana, so many people were mentioning school fees– their inability to pay school fees for their children—in their testimonies. Now at first, this struck me as strange. Truth commissions are created when nations want to address grave human rights violations! Why were all these people speaking about school fees? Mundane school fees? Then I begin to listen closely to the stories. These people were connecting the dots. Education, they were arguing, was the first step to the rest of your life. Without school fees, a person might not be able to find a good job, or any job. Without a good job, or the ability to find a good job, this person and their family are placed in a precarious situation. When their child gets sick, they cannot pay for good health care, or consistent medicine. And then what if they lose this child from an absolutely preventable and treatable illness like malaria, or TB, or infection? This is what I mean when I say they were connecting the dots. In these stories, they were mapping out the crucial role that educationplays in the lives of Ghanaians– school fees were indeed a life and death issue.
Now I do not think this is only true in Ghana. In the USA as well, education is a life and death issue. When we do not provide educational opportunity to students, we should realize that we are sowing the seeds for disease, for violence, even for death. This is why it is important to begin to talk about education in the USA as a human rights issue. The passion that people bring to rescuing a starving child, I wish they would bring that same passion to making sure that all kids in this country have access to a quality education. It is that important.
So I think this is something that NY state could perhaps lead the way on. I think framing education as a matter of individual “choices” is a way of ignoring the reality for many of the most needy students in our communities. Who if given the opportunity would not choose a solid education for their child? The problem is not one of choice but one of availability.