The Day the Roof Fell in

Mr. Robertson glared at me. Beads of sweat rolled off of his shaved head. Some of them ran over the prison tats that decorated his temples. The arms of the swastika rippled as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. He wanted to argue with me. He wanted to challenge the statement I had just made. If we had been in a bar or in another facility he would have punched me in the face for sure. But getting through my class and getting his GED was his ticket to parole. Plus there was a good chance that his Aryan Brotherhood shot callers had ordered him to get his GED. He didn’t dare confront me without consequences. A black student raised his hand.

“How do you know we all came from Africa,” he asked.

“It’s not 100% certain but the evidence is both what we observe and what we don’t observe. Our observable evidence is threefold: physical, biological, and cultural.” I walked around the room. Robertson continued to glare and clench. I pointed to the map projection on the whiteboard.

“This chart, which shows the origins of language, all point to a protolanguage in Africa. And there are other cultural artifacts as well—tools and artwork, for example. But all of the oldest physical evidence, human bones, footprints, fire pits, and animal kills are all in Africa. All of the genetic evidence, all of the DNA mutations, point to Africa. The oldest human evidence found outside of Africa is about 200,000 years old, which is when we think humans began to migrate into Europe and Asia. And the further away from Africa we go the younger the evidence.”

“So isn’t that proof we are all Africans?”

“No, because we can’t say there are definitely no older human fossils elsewhere in the world. We can only say the evidence strongly supports an African origin. ”

I noticed that Mr. Robertson had relaxed a little. I had given him an out so he could maintain his racist narrative. Of course he started clenching again when I pointed out that Caucasians have a defective gene for producing the melanin that gives Africans their dark skin. This genetic variation allowed humans to migrate away from the equator and get enough sun to maintain the necessary vitamin D levels required for healthy offspring. I don’t know which disturbed him more, the evolutionary framework or the implication that white people are defective black people.

The story of human origins is an important one. Unfortunately, too many people do not learn it in school. Exhibit A is Dylann Roof, the Charleston killer. Anyone trying to fully understand the makings of a domestic terrorist like him is doomed to failure given the current state of our technology. But it is necessary to try nonetheless. Lots of attention is being given to his upbringing and the roles played by online bigotry and the Southern heritage of racism. I, however, care more about the failures of the education system. And the system obviously failed him in at least three ways. First and most obviously is that South Carolina’s schools did not keep him in school. When he failed ninth grade, they didn’t intervene and try to divert him into a program such as industrial arts or apprenticeships that would engage and motivate him. Instead, they made him do the same things over again, so he dropped out.

Second, they failed to teach him critical thinking skills. They did not teach him how to handle disparate information or deal with paradigm shifts. They didn’t teach him how to handle diversity and cultural clashes. When faced with the AME bible study group who do not match his expectations of black people, he didn’t know how to retreat from his narrative of hate. So he acted upon the racist perspective instead of the reality in front of him.

Lastly, the schools did not teach him about his own origins. They ignored teaching the evidence that Africa is the motherland for all humans. Some of that is because those who run the schools and classrooms in South Carolina don’t believe in anthropology. They believe and even teach biblical creationism. They use the same book and passages that have justified slavery and racism for centuries. Special creation means that god created each species and each race separately. Therefore racism is acceptable and even divinely dictated. And those who do want to teach the scientific evidence are beaten down by fundamentalist parents and principals who want to avoid conflict. It’s one thing to hear someone say that all men are brothers. It’s quite another to see the genetic evidence.

In fairness to South Carolina, its failures with Mr. Roof are mirrored all over the country. Starting in the Seventies, Industrial Arts programs were abandoned or gutted due to budget cuts and the mistaken belief that everyone needed and would benefit from going to college. The private sector, it was said, would pick up the slack of training mechanics, plumbers, machinists, etc. Since there are currently over 600,000 manufacturing jobs that are unfilled due to the lack of trained workers, it’s apparent that the private sector strategy has failed miserably. Kids are being pushed out of schools by high stakes testing or just by endless testing period. And there’s nowhere for them to go. Even low skilled service jobs in the fast food industry are slowly disappearing due to automation.

The expanding rounds of “accountability” testing leave schools little time for putting students in the less structured situations required for learning and practicing higher level thinking. And due to economics, schools are more segregated than ever. Affluent parents live in the neighborhoods that reflect their wealth and their children’s schools do as well. Equality of educational opportunity in this country is a myth that many studies have disproven. And even when teachers or schools try to open student minds to other ways of thinking, parents raise a ruckus over “violations of their beliefs.” It’s hard enough for schools to ensure that children are vaccinated against physical illness let alone the mental illnesses of racism and bigotry.

This unwillingness by the public to let schools encourage students to expand their perspectives is most obvious in the sciences, particularly biology. And not just in K-12 public schools. Private universities are firing professors who dare bring evolutionary evidence into the classroom. Public universities are watering down science curriculum so as not to offend the “consumers.” The dogmatism of private enterprise has infiltrated every corner of education. Professors no longer have students. They have customers and their continued employment is predicated on consumer surveys.

I don’t know how many more “Roof failures” we will have to endure before we make some fundamental changes in society that will be reflected in our education system. As a teacher, I am sort of an eternal optimist. For example, I don’t know what happened to Mr. Robertson after he got his GED and left our facility. I do know he planned on going to college. And I haven’t read about him being involved in any crimes racial or otherwise in the last six years. Lack of evidence does not mean that education has altered his racial attitudes. But no news is good news. And meanwhile, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.