Winter Term Contextualizes Social Justice Concepts

Erin Ulrich, Contributing Writer

I think it goes without saying that Oberlin is a stimulating place; the social rigor parallels that of the academic, resulting in an inevitably challenging yet invigorating environment. However, what I find more often than not (as I know many other people do) is how isolating the Oberlin bubble can be and how exaggerated this is during Winter Term. As an opportunity to depart from the bubble for an entire month, Winter Term is a prime time to apply theoretical knowledge learned in the classroom to the real world. I was particularly excited about my first Winter Term experience this past January; I felt as though I had been specifically primed for exactly what I was going to do outside of Oberlin.

For the month of January, I spent five days a week student teaching a combined fifth- and sixth-grade classroom in the San Francisco Bay Area Public Schools. The students in my classroom were primarily students of color from low-income families, many of whom did not speak Standard English as a first language. Seeing as I spent my first semester at Oberlin being pushed by my Rhetoric and Composition class to move past orthodox, outdated, Eurocentric ideals of English monolinguism and to essentially tell the standardized education system to fuck off, I felt as though I had sufficient education and practice in theoretical discussions regarding such issues that would easily transfer over to the real world.

But as I flew across the country, I felt the bubble begin to pop. It was not as though all I had learned at Oberlin and all the previous ideals that I had challenged just disappeared, or that I felt as though the amount of classroom time I had spent discussing the count- less racist policies in the institutionalized education system had been wasted. However, theoretical knowledge does not equate to practical knowledge. My Winter Term experience was not a smooth shift in thinking in the abstract or ideological to the concrete, but rather a reformation of both modes of thinking as the result of the other.

It’s true that the public education system in this nation is fucked up. I cannot count on my fingers the number of times I saw students verbally abused by teachers, paid no attention to in the classroom or punished for no reason other than the color of their skin. And because this immense inequality is so embedded in such a massive system, theoretical discussion is needed in order to begin developing strategies for reformation. But without exposure to the real world, taking things so entirely out of context and engaging in conversation at such a place of privilege, it is often easy to fall into a trap of a type of radicalism that is ineffective in practice. Theory misses not just macro-problems such as funding for the institutionalized education system, but also even more basic problems, such as how racism plays into office politics and thus affects the treatment of teachers by their students.

We have a responsibility to stand up against the ways in which the institutionalized education system predestines certain students to lives of inequity because of their race. We cannot accept that those in power contributing to this oppressive system can be the sole determinants of a child’s future. We cannot accept that 10- and 11-year-old students of color are expected to perform well in school, regardless of their home lives, without any sort of support or reassurance that they are intelligent, powerful and can have the same access to the same opportunities as white students.

But in order to implement real and lasting change, we must also exist outside of the bubble so as to position ourselves in a way that is not counter or damaging to the way things exist currently. And with the tools our community and education provide us, we need not be distinct from the real world here at Oberlin, but rather can make whatever change we wish, however large or small — but only if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zones.