Why are things the way they are?

Why are things the way they are?

In Jared Diamond’s, Guns, Germs, and Steel, the geographer and physiologist commences with a  relatively straightforward question: why is it that some civilizations conquered others? Check out the  Diamond’s collapse – the Anastazi somebody who didn’t know writing and the consequences. Then  another culture that had writing but only wrote about kings. Explicitly rejecting the premise that  conquering occurs by virtue of racial superiority and inferiority, Diamond carefully traces the history of  13,000 years of civilizations. Through this history, he details the gaps in power and technologies between  human societies, largely attributing advancement in power to differences in environmental geography and  the uses of that geography. Environmental differences such as communicable diseases and the domestication of animals are explored not just as singular factors but intertwined aspects of civilizations. Diamond also explores, although to a much lesser extent, the role of writing and literacy.

“Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest. The commands of the monarchs and merchants who organized colonizing fleets were conveyed in writing. The fleets set their courses by maps and written sailing directions prepared by previous expeditions. Written accounts of earlier expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what conditions to expect, and helped them prepare themselves. The resulting empires were administered with the aid of writing. While all of those types of information were also transmitted by other means in preliterate societies, writing made the transmission easier, more detailed, more accurate, and more persuasive.”

Contemporary Guns, Germs, and Steel

Although Diamond’s work located writing and texts as a proximate factor in explaining the disproportionate concentration of the world’s power and wealth amassed in Western Eurasian societies, it is more central to this inquiry. Rather than as a direct source of evidence, Diamond’s book, its wide following, and its overall premise is used to frame this first chapter because this influential tome scours for deep evidence and analysis for answers to why some civilizations conquered others. This book begins with a different but related question: why is it that within these conquering/conquered societies, Western[ized] societies in particular, there are perpetuating and perpetuated differences in educational achievement among populations along racial and ethnic lines? Why is it that long after colonization has occurred through guns, germs, and steel, colonized peoples, now sharing physical space with those who colonized them, remain at lower end of the social system in terms of access to security, health, and wealth? Without a doubt, the question about a system can only be seen only through a systemic view, but within that inquiry into the system of achievement in society is the underexplored role of research. While inquiries into questions of achievement, status, and stability make up the bread and butter of social science research, this book reverses the gaze (DuBois, 1895) back onto research. When W.E.B. DuBois (1899) undertook, in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, one of the first studies of the racial disparities[1], he focused on Black populations but also their contexts. He used tools of statistical, anthropological, and sociological analysis, “reveal[ing] the Negro group as a symptom, not a cause; as a striving, palpitating group, and not an inert, sick body of crime; as a long historic development and not a transient occurrence,” (p. 175). In the same rhythm, this book does not seek to prescribe a set of preferred methods of social science research but to locate educational research specifically within its contexts, particularly the context of disparity. What do we, as social science researchers, have to do with these disparities? In what ways are our actions, research questions, and foci symptomatic of the larger context of disparity?  Not what can we do about the disparity. Although that is a crucial inquiry for applied fields like education and must be addressed, in the impulses to implications and action, we must be vigilant about our roles in the larger system of status, security, and welfare. We must, rather boldly, see what correlations, connections and perhaps even causations we hold in these disparities. However, where writing and texts were ancillary in Diamond’s inquiry into dominance of civilizations, they and central to this book. Educative processes, from the kindergarten classroom to the doctoral seminar, reflect much of a society’s shape, and much of this happens through textual practices.

In the United States, education figures prominently within the public imaginary as deliverance from inequities in society. Even amidst overwhelming evidence of the complexity in what contributes to social stability and mobility, education maintains its central place. Ever fond of sports metaphors, Americans often colloquially refer to education as the way to ‘level the playing field,’ meaning that while children may be born into differential environments, education can enable individuals to transcend the scripts of those environments. When President Barack Obama introduced Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for the United States, he highlighted her triumph over lower odds of achievement and attributed her success to studying hard in her Brooklyn schools and maintaining that ethic through ivy league college and law school (Obama, 2009). This widely-held belief in the promise of education is echoed in policies and governmental actions. In the United States, access to a free and public education has been negotiated by various groups and awarded as a symbol of this opportunity (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954; Lau v. Nichols, 1974). In fact, national progress in civil rights is almost always examined in consideration of how equity and inequity plays out within the field of education (e.g., Rumberger & Palardy, 2005). And by that measure of educational opportunity and success, the report card is and has been dismal for hundreds of years.

This inequity in education is both so ubiquitous and persistent that we have a nickname for it, the achievement gap, our shorthand for the disparity on educational measures between groups of students. Particularly entrenched have been the gaps between White students and their peers of color, particularly African American and Latino youth.  If you conduct a Google search for the achievement gap, you will find results numbering over 1.5 million. If you simply search scholar.google.com, a search engine for academic papers, your search will be somewhat more limited, to just under a million entries of research that explores the achievement gap, ways to close this gap, and implications for educators. Educational researchers have become recipients of doctorates, received tenure, been promoted, honored and lauded for studying this gap. The gap remains. Taking cue from Jared Diamond, I question why does this gap persist? More incisively, what does educational research have to do not just with the gap in achievement but also legacies of colonization? Where is educational research transcribed into the achievement gap? In this blog, an active writing space that will inform a forthcoming book on Decolonizing Educational Research, I explore, map, and [hopefully] provide pathways for interrupting the colonizing trends of educational research.


[1] DuBois’ work is largely acknowledged as the first published social scientific study into race.

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