I like everything about Courtney E. Martin’s new book “Learning in Public,” but what I like most is that it’s full of kid energy. It deals seriously with adult subjects – education, integration, race, class, the challenge of living “the white moral life” – but Martin’s young daughters and their friends fill up the pages, playing and learning together and reminding us of what this is all about.
“Learning in Public” centers on the experience of having Martin’s older daughter, Maya, attend a public school in their Oakland, California, neighborhood. The title suggests two themes: Maya is learning in a public school. And Martin is learning the messy role of being a kind and responsible member of a racially integrated school community, with the public – the book’s readers — watching.
The neighborhood is historically Black and working-class, but it’s gentrifying, and Martin’s family is part of that. Her friends are mostly white, affluent and politically progressive, people who drive Priuses, eat organic food and support leftist causes. But in the elementary school down the street, called Emerson, most students are Black and most families are low-income.
Martin’s white neighbors profess to believe in public education, but many enroll their kids in a “progressive” private school where tuition is $29,000 or finagle their way into better-resourced public schools where only a handful of students are Black or poor. (Readers, does this sound familiar, if you live in a self-identified progressive community? Even if you don’t? I suspect it may). Martin and her husband eventually choose Emerson, never mind its low test scores and GreatSchools rating of 1 on a scale to 10.
Martin feels the universal maternal urge of wanting what’s right for her daughter. But “most of all,” she writes, “I don’t want to live with the hypocrisy of claiming to care about equity but abandoning the kids with the least resources in my own city from day one. I want not that.”