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Scott Fina: The Columbus ship logo as a teachable moment
Guest Commentary

Scott Fina: The Columbus ship logo as a teachable moment

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The board of education of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District (SMJUHSD) has indicated it will discuss the appropriateness of the continued use of an image of Christopher Columbus’s ship as the district’s logo. I urge the board to follow through on this discussion, and offer some advice on how.

Some years ago, I directed the field placement office of the teacher preparation program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. The education students were mostly young, White suburban women. My office placed them in K-12 schools as student teachers and managed their supervision. When I arrived at the university, most of these placements were in the suburbs.

Saint Joseph’s University is a Jesuit institution. Its ethos embraces “social justice.” I took that ethos seriously and quickly steered student teaching assignments toward inner city schools. The children and youth at these schools were mostly African American and typically came from low-income families.

My heart was in the right place in refocusing student teaching placements toward underprivileged school children; my method may not have been. I sent university students into neighborhoods and situations that were foreign to their experience. I hadn’t properly prepared them for this. This was because I was on my own learning curve on poverty, marginalization, dominant culture, and systemic racism. I realize today this is a lifelong journey in unpacking “white privilege” and prejudice.

I also taught “Schools and Society” at Saint Joseph’s University: a course on the historical, cultural, and political background of schooling in the United States. An underlying tension served as a course theme and was related to my effort to connect suburban student teachers with urban school children. The tension concerned the fundamental purpose of education.

There are two competing etymological (historical root) meanings for the English word, “educate.” One, educare, means to mold or train; the second, educere, means to lead out. (See “Educare and Educere: Is a Balance Possible in the Educational System?” by Randall Bass and J. W. Good, The Educational Forum, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ724880.pdf)

This bifurcated understanding of education has concrete consequences for schooling. It begs two questions. To what extent should schools hand down values, beliefs and perspectives to each generation of students from generations that preceded it? And to what extent should schools support each generation of students in formulating its own values, beliefs and perspectives?

The two questions can be merged by examining the founding of our country.

A group of men adopted two broad ideas to frame a good society: liberty and justice. These men had their faults — profound hypocrisy among them — but they were courageous and gifted with critical thinking. They stumbled upon a revolutionary experiment called a republic of the people. That experiment only survives by each generation of Americans judging the world it has inherited through the lenses of liberty and justice. A perpetual learning curve lies central to Americanism.

So I ask, how beholden is the board to an earlier generation of leaders which decades ago adopted a logo to represent the heritage, mission, students and staff of its education system? This educare question views Columbus’s ship as an icon of courage, exploration, and enterprise, but is markedly uninformed by historical fact.

Then I ask, how beholden is the board to current district students, families and staff, and Santa Maria Valley community members, in recognizing our populace has changed, as have sensitivities around ethnicity and culture? This educere question views Columbus’s ship as a historical instrument of racial-ethnic oppression and exploitation.

Hold these two questions in the light of liberty and justice, and their answers will find you!

Scott Fina is a Santa Maria resident.

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