As if it wasn't already clear that America's education system was as broken as, well, everything else in this country, and a prime example of the structural inequality this country was founded on, we've all recently gotten front-row seats to the ways that the rich profit in our supposed meritocracy, thanks to the recent college admissions scandal that definitively demonstrated just how fucked the system is. Beyond that, though, this past year has seen teachers striking across the country, in the hopes of getting fair wages, and reminders that New York City has the most segregated school system in the country. Change needs to come, and one way to move forward is by increasing the volume on the kinds of conversations about school reform that have long been happening.
Adding to that essential conversation is the second season of Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas. In the HBO show's first season, Cenac explored the problems with the American police state, and so for Season 2, he's tackling another inherently flawed national system: education. It's an incredibly rich topic, one that involves labor issues, class issues, race issues, and so much more, and Cenac travels across the country to see how different places in America are affected by the inequitable state of education, and brings in education experts like Brittany Packnett, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and more, to talk on the topic, as well.
Below, I speak with Cenac about why this topic intrigued him, what the most pervasive problems are within our educational system, and what he feels hopeful about for the future.
Why did you want to focus on schools for this season of Problem Areas?
[During the first season,] education was this thing that kept coming up in conversations in the office with writers and researchers and story producers. As we started to think about Season 2, there was interest in the office as far as education goes. Outside the office, we were seeing stories that were bringing it to people's attention more, and we were thinking about teacher strikes, about how those started to spread. It felt like there was a conversation that was happening nationally around education that was also connected to our interest in it. It felt like an ideal pairing.
Education issues are one of those systemic problems where problems can be different in different locations, but everybody deals with it as an issue, whether because they're in the system, working for the system, or have children in the system. And a lot of the problems with education are universal in that they are labor problems, class problems, and political problems. What were you surprised to learn about how pervasive these problems are?
As someone who doesn't have kids, I know that I pay into public education in the city through taxes, so in that way, I have an investment in it even though I don't actually go and take advantage of that investment outside of when I go in [a school to] vote.
What surprised me is how education funding works in this country, and how inequitable it is, and how comfortable some people are at the state of funding in this country and within cities, where you can have districts that may spend a lot per pupil. How that money gets spent from one school to another looks different. And how that money provides things for those kids looks different. Also, what parents are able to then do to supplement a school's budget through PTA funds is very different. Seeing all of that stuff and seeing it in different cities, that was surprising just to see how those funding differences can really impact the educational opportunities of a kid.
What was surprising was that those children, in K-12, those kids have nothing to do with their socioeconomic status. That's not on them, yet they are the ones who so often benefit or are punished because of something they have no control over. They don't have jobs, they didn't come into kindergarten with jobs and money of their own to choose how their education is funded. Whatever their parents have, they then get that. Just seeing how that can create these generational opportunities or lack of opportunities, I think that was one of the things that you would hope that funding proper, equitable education could adjust or fix, but it doesn't seem to do that in this country.
It reveals almost more clearly than anything else the myth of class fluidity. It really does show how financial success in life is a predetermined thing, even though education and access to education are supposed to be the great equalizer. We're told and supposed to believe that, but, in fact, it's really to the contrary: All our educational system does is highlight the disparities in resources and income between kids.
Yeah, I agree. I think time and time again, we see examples of that at play. We're currently in a moment where we're talking about a college admissions scandal that is built on the idea that class and money can get you an entry point into something, and regardless of how qualified you are, if your parents don't have half a million dollars to get you into college, you could lose out to someone who has that money to spend.
That's not unique to how education has worked in this country for a very long time. I think what's unfortunate is that it's become a dirty joke. How many politicians have we joked about over the years as far as their father paying for them to get into Harvard or Yale or whatever Ivy League college? It's become a thing that people say. In some ways, we shouldn't be surprised when we see this type of corruption exists in education because we've allowed ourselves to numbly joke about it.
I feel like that was actually the most surprising thing about that scandal, that people were surprised. The idea of a meritocracy is a joke, and you already know there's cheating and payoffs going on, and then more subtle stuff like spending hundreds of dollars an hour on an SAT tutor. But the extent of this corruption risks making people so totally disillusioned that they want to opt out of the system entirely. How do you not become disillusioned and want to opt out of it all?
I think that's why we're looking at what it looks like to opt in, and how to make something work for everybody by opting in. I think, to your point, when people opt out, they're opting out of something where, one, we don't have a standard set for what a quality education looks like. We've never defined that, there's no guarantee to give a kid an education to any sort of level of quality.
I think what you see oftentimes in some states is that they say they guarantee kids an adequate education, but we don't have a definition of what adequate is. In those states, you could very easily go to a school where adequate looks like a school that has a STEM program, enough counselors for students, renovations to the library and athletics, and a functioning athletic team and arts programs, and by that definition, it could be adequate.
But you can go across town and see a school that is struggling to retain teachers and has class sizes of over 30 or more kids, doesn't have enough counselors, and has more metal detectors and cops in the school than counselors, a low graduation rate… somehow, by that standard, that qualifies as adequate too.
Somehow, those things can exist as being adequate and that then creates a situation where we have no floor for what a good education can be. As a result, you'll see people continue to try to go for the ceiling and try to go as high as they can, if they can afford to do that, but what that does is leaves the people who can't afford to do that alone on a floor that's not defined. Because it's not defined, it can get worse and worse and worse.
I think that's what you see time and again, so for the show, the idea was to say, "Well, how can people who are committed to public education in this country, how can they define what they want an adequate education to be? And how can they take ownership and control over that?" If they can define what that can be, then, when it becomes substandard, they have a voice and evidence to hold people accountable.
That idea of actually finding specific language to create standards of what education should be is really essential. It also relates to something said by Britney Packnett in the first episode of this season, when she basically said that our education system is unjust, but schools are working fine. Her point was that education, as it was set up in this country, wasn't supposed to benefit everybody. It was supposed to benefit the people who already knew how to work the system. So it might be bad, but it's working like it's supposed to. And it's another example of how America's idea of equality is a myth, because we've never tried to educate everybody. It's related to the idea of asking something like, "Is capitalism broken?" And the answer is "No, it's working fine because it's supposed to benefit some people and make other people losers," basically.
You make a good point. That, at the end of the day, what you said about how there are winners and losers, that's the part that we don't talk about. We've put so much of our attention into this individualistic idea of winning. To say that there are winners means inherently that there will be losers. Winners and losers are great in a video game, where the loser just disappears, and they're just code and don't exist. When that is actually applied to society, what you're saying is that you're going to focus on winners and then everyone of a certain socioeconomic status becomes losers, and we don't owe them anything despite the fact that they are contributing to this society that we all live in and are paramount to the society that we all live in. We have said, "No, we would rather focus on the winners."
As a society, we have spent a long time trying to ignore the fact that, by doing that, we are calling some people losers and undeserving of their fates, despite the fact that many of the factors that have them in those circumstances may have been outside of their control, in a game that was rigged for them not to succeed.
I think what's unfortunate is, especially with something like education, we look at success in education being placed on the kid who got out. The kid who got out of a bad neighborhood and made it all the way to the fanciest Ivy League school and is now a judge or a politician or whatever. The idea that a kid has to escape something, that a kid has to escape their heritage and what they grew up with. Look, it's a weird thing to say that growing up in poverty is a heritage, but there is something there. It often feels like you're asking people to disavow the circumstances that built them into the person that they are, the neighborhood for all of its flaws also had a lot of great things that gave them the drive to want to succeed. That same drive exists in a lot of other people in that neighborhood, they just don't have the resources to access that. Yet when we say, "Oh, that kid got out, that kid escaped, that kid is free," we are damning the rest of the people from the neighborhood and saying that they're not worthy of that and that they're losers and that we should not be surprised if their fates are ones that seem to fulfill the same patterns and cycles of communities like that that we've seen time and time again.
What are some of the most hopeful things that you left with at the end of filming this season? What makes you feel hopeful and good about our country's educational future?
I think for me, I found myself thinking about how there are people who are trying to make education work for everybody, that there are people who are trying to figure out how to do this and have ideas. Seeing that those people exist and they're doing that work, hoping that they have a big enough megaphone to rally more people, it makes me think that you can change these things. It's just about getting that momentum behind an idea, and nothing is really as intractable as perhaps it seems in the moment.
I think history, time and again, has shown us that change is possible. It's not easy or quick, but it's possible. What gives me hope is me learning this new vocabulary, but also being able to then share what I've learned, and share the voices of the people who can speak better to those things than I ever could and can.
The second season of Wyatt Cenac's Problem Areas premieres tonight at 11pm on HBO