As Things Stand



“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”from Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead as translated by Constance Garnett

What Dostoyevsky says about the incarcerated applies to how we treat children and animals too, of course. And — of course —  we’re failing immeasurably on all those counts. But you’d never know that by sitting in 99% of classrooms across the U.S.

I’ve been a fly on the wall in enough academic settings ‘cross country for the last decade and a half to make such a statement unequivocally. To clarify a bit, one doesn’t have to sit through the entirety of cinematic productions in a given nation to know that gratuitous violence rules in films. Nor does one have to secure a grant to study nationwide nutrition to be clear on the proliferation of corporate crime vis-a-vis our food supply.

And speaking of grants, we should all applaud the Fund for Investigative Journalism for providing financial support to Truthout’s Candice Bernd, and Earth Island Journal’s with enough bottom line support to publish their “America’s Toxic Prisons: The Environmental Injustices of Mass Incarceration” for Earth Island Journal (a Special Report in the Summer, 2017 edition). I’m indebted to them all.

Among many revelations embedded in the admirable piece, the authors note that seven of New Jersey’s thirteen state prisons are located on Superfund sites, and that many of them are also in close proximity to other contaminated sites. I come from the so-called Garden State, and I pray that educators there will pay attention to this article of mine because the same is true (dis)respecting the siting of schools in their realm. I’ll be sending a copy of this piece to a number of academics on all levels in New Jersey today, though — as per the experience which I documented late in 2016 — I don’t expect much of a response, if any.

No matter, the effort must be made.

Ditto with regard to counterparts in Texas, where FMC Carswell, a federal medical facility and prison camp in Forth Worth is within a mile of two Superfund sites. I can give interested readers a list of at least two dozen schools where students and their teachers (and others) are in pretty much the same situation in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and (the supposedly progressive) Austin.

Not a pretty picture. But, again, not one which is drawn in Art classes or any other academic settings as a rule. Ostrich Syndrome seems to continue to be in vogue at the same time that schools vet their teacher candidates with questions concerning how they communicate the importance of Critical Thinking. It’s very popular for academic authority figures to go ballistic over the importance of “thinking outside the box” whilst they themselves remain very much locked into that which will not rock the boat.

Well, we’re sinking, truth be told. And it’s long past the time that educators should be teaching something significant about our horrid momentum. Take a break from advocating on behalf of ACT/SAT preparation, and tell the truth about how securing an academic passport (in the form of GRE success or post-doctoral degrees) won’t cut the muster any longer. Meaning, it’s not going to do much good for someone to boast about a degree from any prestigious institution if they’re not going to have potable water or polar bears on earth.

I could go on for quite awhile, of course, with regard to my “not going to have” sentence. But I think you get the point, yes? And, besides, my use of the word sentence has reminded me that I want to get back to addressing what plagues the incarcerated and schoolchildren both.

In the state of Washington, there’s a privately operated Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. It’s adjacent to a Superfund site, as are schools and/or youngsters’ recreational areas in Belliingham, Moses Lake, Seattle, Spokane and Yakima, among many other locales.

It should be underscored that the categorization of Superfund sites (Active NPL, Active Non-NPL and Archived) must not be taken seriously. Meaning, what’s indicated as safe might not be. For neither the EPA nor other government agencies are authentically looking out for the Collective Good. And Critical Thinking — that highly prized component in educational circles — has to now be blended with Critical Research of one’s own. It’s all part of that “horrid momentum” I alluded to above, whereby there’s no longer a basis for trust in realms where we used to expect the truth, where we still rely too much on what receives official seals of approval.

War! What is it good for? School! What is it good for? I could go on, of course. Maybe ask about what’s being served in this or that lunchroom, as I write.

The thing is, I’m writing this article because I want to plant seeds for DOING something about all this. I recently applied to teach at a number of schools nationwide, and have had to decline several offers of employment because I discovered that certain educational operations were being conducted in places like California’s Central Valley, where the incarcerated and school children are exposed unconscionably to what’s called valley fever, endemic to the entire Southwestern U.S.

I didn’t want to play at being Florence Nightingale. Not at the moment.

Right now, I’d like to get the educational ball rolling for (and with) one and all somewhere. Stay healthy long enough myself to spread the word in solidarity in a given school, and pray that the students, their loved ones, colleagues and members of some community get it, and are moved to make the kind of difference which will not be made by well-meaning and highly educated teachers and administrators as things stand.

As things stand we will all fall.

Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at [email protected].


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