Interview with Iconic Educator, Dr. Janice Hale, by Tolu Olorunda.
It is rare for an educator to reach great heights of popularity and acclaim, but Dr. Janice Hale has earned every stripe of fame. As an internationally-renowned scholar, Dr. Hale is no stranger to controversies surrounding her work and theories. No other than Rev. Dr. Jeremiah E. Wright Jr. acknowledged her in his, much-talked about, speech in Detroit earlier this year. Wright celebrated Dr. Hale as someone we owe “a debt of gratitude.” Unfortunately, the mainstream press would seem, soon after, less concerned with her scholarly contributions, but more fascinated by the claim/theory, documented in her first book – “Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles” – that Black kids and White kids possess different cognitive learning styles – hence, think, learn, function, and process information differently. Picking up where she left off a decade earlier, was “Unbank the Fire: Visions for the Education of African American Children,” her second book, which explored Dr. Hale’s family’s history and educational lineage. Her third, and most recent to-date, is the well-known “Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children,” a biting exposé of the encounters of Black students at private learning institutions – using her son’s experiences as a case study. YourBlackWorld.com recently had the esteemed opportunity to engage Dr. Janice Hale in dialogue on a wide array of topics. Included in the conversation were issues surrounding the recent selection of Arne Duncan as Sec. of Education, problems confronting Black students, the ISAAC program, Early Childhood education and more. As one never known for mincing words, Dr. Hale took no prisoners as she expressed her feelings about Bill Cosby… Excuse me, Dr. Bill Cosby, modern-day Civil Rights Organizations, Oprah Winfrey, and the public/private school system. Get your pens and pads ready. Class is in session:
Thanks for being with us, Dr. Hale. To kick things off, how did it feel being snubbed for the Sec. of Education position, which you lobbied so tenaciously for?
*Laughs* That’s so funny. I don’t feel snubbed about that. What I feel snubbed about is that, I feel in my book “Learning While Black,” I really provide solutions for what is wrong with education and how to fix African-American education, and I don’t feel my solutions have gotten any attention. Nobody has told me it’s stupid, or it wouldn’t work, or publicly critique it. I go out to speak; I get a standing ovation, and everybody tells me it’s great, but it’s just ignored. My book, “Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles,” came out in 1982, and is still being mentioned today.
Based on the selection of Arne Duncan – who holds a bachelor’s in Sociology – as Sec. of Education, what is incumbent upon Black folks in pushing an agenda that would improve learning conditions of Black students?
We’re going to have to make some noise as a community, and develop some clout and unity. We’re going to have to respond to this kind of thing. There are a few organizations out there, but we need a vehicle to respond to inappropriate governmental behavior, and be heard. We need to begin bringing issues to the table. In many inner-city school districts, we have teachers with less teaching-experience, and the state, and federal governments, use that as a conduit for giving less money to the school districts. But the White school districts, with more teaching-experiences, receive better funding, which equips them to offer more advanced-placement courses, and a broader curriculum. So, we got to sit down and think through what our goals ought to be, and draw out a plan. This is why I started the ISAAC program.
In Black Children, you mentioned that Black kids and White kids have different cognitive learning styles. Why do you think there’s so much contention surrounding this, otherwise logical, theory?
When Carol Gilligan wrote her book, in 1982, about white female learning styles, she suggested that White girls have different cognitive patterns, compared to boys. She was, as a result of her book, given awards and grants. If we, in society, don’t believe that there could be different learning patterns for different people, why was she lauded with numerous grants and awards? Yet, when I talk about Black people, I’m a big joke. People have tried to interview me like it’s a big joke. On a radio interview in Toronto, the interviewer was asking, in a sarcastic tone, “Dr. Hale, are you saying that Black people’s brains are hotwired differently from White people’s brains. You mean if we cut the brains open, it’s going to look differently?” Even CNN came to my house, telling me that they wanted to “get it [the theory] right.” But when the interview came out, she had searched all across America to find some Black person – which nobody has ever heard of – to refute my theory. He was characterized as an “expert.” How are you an expert when nobody has ever heard of you? So anything that benefits Black people is a joke, but if it pertains to White boys and girls, they receive funds and grants to advance the theories. My book, Black Children, came about because I couldn’t get any funds for my projects. I kept writing, and writing, for grants, but nobody gave me anything. When I looked at what I had amassed, in the process of writing for grants, I thought to myself that I could publish it as a book.
In Learning While Black, you chronicled your son’s experiences in a private school, and how the pedagogical methods employed by his teachers were bound to impair him intellectually. Is this something that still goes on today, and how do we put an end to it?
I would say: Yes, Yes, Yes! Being a mother, everywhere I go, I have well-educated Black Women, with their children going to the best schools, telling me about their similar experiences. Everybody was so happy I wrote it because they are going through this stuff, and it’s so subtle, and people need to understand that Black children are having difficulty in every arena. I was sacrificing enormously for my son to go to that school, and I couldn’t afford for them to mess it all up. So, by the time he got to the third grade, and they found out that my critiques were accurate, they started placing him with good teachers. I’m fortunate because I have a PhD and I’m a full professor, but for the average person, it’s a struggle. In my next book, I’ll be discussing what he went through in High School. My son plays basketball, and he went to a Detroit private High School – and I got stories to tell, brother.
What must Black parents – especially single Black mothers – know about the public/private school system?
It’s very difficult. That’s why I created ISAAC. One of the divisions under ISAAC is an educational aid society. So, when they’re trying to medicate Black students, and put them on Ritalin, you can pick up the phone and call an expert. It’s very hard for a single parent walking into a PTA conference, and there are five administrators with clipboards telling you ‘the truth’ about your child. It’s very overwhelming. I can’t be like Alvin Poussaint and Bill Cosby, and say, ‘All this parents need to do is read to their children every day.’ Well, 42% of Black adults in Detroit are illiterate. So, Black parents must think very critically about anything that is going to take your child out of the mainstream of the classroom. My son used to come home and tell me, “Mom, I’m in a group where the other kids can’t read, and if I try to tell them the words, the teacher wouldn’t let me, and I don’t want to be in that group.” When I go up to discuss this matter with the teacher, she subsequently moves him to a higher-reading capability group. I would have preferred a reason for why he was in a lower group, but I was left to think, ‘so, I complain and now he’s in a higher group.’ Well, why was he there to begin with? If you go in with the idea that everything the school does is right, they’ll do whatever they want. With standardized tests, nowadays, they provide white kids with all the help they need, so when Black kids fail those tests, they try to make it appear that something is wrong with us; but it’s unfair, because we’ve been excluded from everything.
How do Black female-headed, single-parent homes exert more pressure on the schools to exercise better judgment with their kids?
The first thing we’ll have to advocate for, which I’m doing on a personal level, is get through to Black females to stop having these babies out of wedlock, and at a young age. I think we are starting to see a decline in teen pregnancy, because younger females are beginning to see what their relatives are going through. In most relationships, the burden is predominantly on the woman. So, we need to look at that as a community. The next issue is that the whole community has to step up and be an extended family for these children. We can’t have Black Women out there, by themselves, without the support they need. There were a whole network of men who helped me raise my son, and I think that we have to draw upon those resources, in the situation we’re in.
You’ve also championed the cause of Early Childhood Education. At what age is it most appropriate to begin focusing on the educational needs of a child?
The first step is when you’re at the hospital at birth. When my son was born, I took books with me, and from the minute he laid eyes on me, I began to read to him daily. The most important thing that differentiates Black and White kids is vocabulary. I have a vocabulary initiative with the ISAAC program. White students come into school knowing, sometimes, twice as much words as Black students – regardless of income level. And the more words you know, the better your reading capabilities. One of the equalizers that should be in place should be preschool, but we don’t have those structures anymore. So, vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary, and it’s something every parent can impact upon his/her child, at a young age. Reading is important because it captures kid’s attentions at young ages.
What is the ISAAC program?
It is the Institute for the Study of the African-American Child, and I want people to think about it as a Civil Rights organization that has one basic agenda; and that is educational equity for Black children. Civil Rights groups are acting like firefighters, and I don’t think anybody is addressing education in a systematic way; I feel education is being lost in the shuffle. Right now, we are arranging conferences to bring people together, and putting our best minds together. We are also trying to create an income-stream for the organization, because people are not handing money to me. I’ve been given the runaround, and it is terrible, but we’re going to move on with/without the money. I have some volunteers who are spending their personal money to support me, so that’s encouraging.
What is the key difference between ISAAC and other programs advocating for a rehabilitation of African-American Education?
Well, the first thing you have to ask yourself is, “What other programs are you talking about?” I have written a Preschool curriculum, Visions for Children, that we hope to make available to Preschool programs throughout the country. We are about empowering the community, creating some dialogue, and making some noise. ISAAC seeks to have an impact on every Black child in the country. I want to set up a network of pre-schools across the country that utilizes my curriculum. We also hope to offer accessible, affordable, high-quality tutoring. The vision of ISAAC is to form an apparatus that would alleviate these problems to give Black students a chance. In the Black Community, we don’t have a healthy respect for intellectual activities. We need to step up, and be the ones researching Black children. We should have structures that can speak out, and be heard, and be consulted on what steps to take forward.
In your working paper, you mentioned W.E.B. Du Bois as central to the theme of ISAAC. How does ISAAC implement Du Bois’ philosophy of street-activism fused with the academy?
Just the creation of ISAAC is following in Du Bois’ footsteps. Du Bois was a scholar. I’m a scholar. I had a choice of whether to simply stay in the ivory towers, write papers, write books; or go ahead, step out, make some noise, and make things happen. I’m a full professor. I have tenure. So, I feel that I’m stepping out like Du Bois, to make those much-needed changes.
The ISAAC program is structured in the U.S., but do you have any plans for expansion to reach Black kids internationally – mainly in Africa?
That is what is in my heart. Du Bois was a Pan-Africanist, and in my own heart, I want to see us step out and unify our struggle. If we can get this going, we should include Africans in the Diaspora. There’s no question about that. I don’t think Oprah should jump over her community here, and run away to Africa to build a multi-million dollar school. I think it should be a symphony. I think we should start here, in the U.S., and then move to Africa. We need to come together with a plan. That’s the problem: We don’t have a plan.
Lastly, are you hopeful about the future of Black Education?
I feel so wonderful with the response I’ve gotten. My founding sponsors have been very generous. I couldn’t believe that in this economical climate, people were sending me $1,000 and $2000. Rev. Wright was the first one to send me a $1,000. So, just the fact that people are entrusting this into me makes me hopeful about our future.
To find out more about the ISAAC program, pls. visit:
Dr. Janice Hale on Early Childhood Education:
This interview was conducted by Tolu Olorunda, for YourBlackWorld.com.