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Toward Democratic Possibilities: Revisiting “Another Kind of Public Education”

By Patricia Hill Collins


Patricia Hill Collins, one of our nation’s leading sociologists and experts on race, has championed “another kind of public education,” one that opens up more possibilities for democracy, and more empowering modes of participating for young people of color. In her intellectually rigorous yet accessible book, she examines the landscape of young people’s lives, and how schools, race, and the media intertwine in the twenty-first century.

This weekend, as an invited speaker at the American Educational Research Association convention in Washington, DC, she will revisit key points from her book. Her discussion will address students’ experiences within the larger context of feminist ideologies, racial theories, and practical realities of schooling. The following excerpt from Another Kind of Public Education acknowledges the challenges that twenty-first century young adults face and how a new education will equip them to meet them head on. This will give context for those attending her talk.


On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people gathered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One line stands out: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Some would say that the outcome of the 2008 presidential election has been either the realization of King’s dream or evidence of its failure. We can speculate endlessly about how and why Barack Obama won and John McCain lost, but this may not be the best use of our time. For the United States and the globe, too much is at stake to concentrate too closely on winners and losers.

Quite frankly, no one wins and everyone loses if the social issues that face growing numbers of the world’s population are not given serious thought. We know the list—environmental degradation, illiteracy, poverty, HIV/AIDS, a global fiscal crisis, hopelessness, and violence in all its forms—these issues all require critical analysis coupled with new action strategies. No one wins and everyone loses if we continue to think of the world’s population itself as divided into winners and loses. Who wins, for example, if the children and youth of the world lose?

This framework of winners and losers is unlikely to shed light on the complex issues of our times. In this context, political parties or any other group that claims to have quick and easy solutions may itself be part of the problem. When times are tough, people look to leaders to give them hope and tell them what to do. It is seductive to see our most cherished leaders as responsible for solving problems—vesting them with authority enables us to praise or blame them for the answers they propose and the results they do or do not produce. Yet the more sobering realization is that they can only lead us where we are willing to go. We each must learn to think for ourselves as individuals, but we also must learn to act collectively. We are each unique, yet we are also part of something bigger than each of us.

Another Kind of Public EducationI think that the United States is at a turning point in its history, and it should look to the lessons of world history for guidance. Blind faith in strong leaders has gotten many groups of people into trouble. In countries where a small group seizes power and imposes its will on an unwilling populace, we recognize that shift of power as an illegitimate coup. But we are less skilled at seeing how individuals and groups manipulate structures of power for their own ends, often within legitimate structures of government. For example, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (better known as the Nazi Party) was elected to office in Germany in 1933. There was no palace coup—the Nazis did not seize power by force. Instead, a legitimate democratic election brought them to power and, once in office, they so quickly changed the rules of the game that they eviscerated the meaning of democracy. There are numerous cautionary tales like this about democratic power being wrested from an unwilling public, or worse yet, willingly relinquished by a public that confused its own interests with those of its elected officials. In democratic societies, people who passively follow the rules and uncritically obey their leaders open up their countries to undemocratic outcomes. Unquestioned obedience may be the best way to run an army, but it can be the death knell for democracy if a citizenry chooses this path.

The United States prides itself on being one of the greatest democracies of all time and calls upon each individual citizen to defend democracy from its enemies. These enemies, however, do not include the historically imagined enemy of brown or black youth, more often depicted as America’s problem than its promise. These enemies do not include the nameless, faceless, yet ethnically imagined terrorists that we have been encouraged to fear in the post-9/11 environment. Rather, the greatest internal enemy of American democracy is more likely to be an uninformed and uncritical American public that can be manipulated by soothing political slogans, feel-good photo ops, and endless rounds of shopping.

What the United States needs is another kind of public education—one that encourages us to become an involved, informed public. What this country needs is a recommitment to schools and other social institutions whose mandate lies in delivering the kind of public education that will equip us for this task. We miseducate the public and students when we dumb down big ideas and shy away from politics. We do not need a public that stands on the sidelines, cheering political candidates like they were heavyweight contestants in boxing matches; or a public that passively listens to political commentary with an ear attuned for the latest putdown. Voting, for example, is more serious than calling in one’s opinion to American Idol, or text-messaging one’s fan favorite to America’s Next Top Model.

As young adults in early-twenty-first-century America, youth see the challenges that face them—a deep-seated worry about the uncertain future that awaits them in such volatile times; a growing disenchantment with the seeming inability of the United States to provide equal opportunities to a sizable proportion of its youth of color; their impatience with parents, teachers, clergy, and others who struggle with the rapid technological shifts that brought the wonders of the Internet and cell phones. But mostly, the politically savvy among them see the significance of themselves as the next generation of leaders.

Youth will not be following us. Rather, we will be following them. I want them to be prepared to lead me in directions that eschew complacency and put some genuinely new ideas on the table. I do not want to follow them down a path of hopelessness; rather, I want to look to them to envision and take action for new possibilities that I could not consider in my life. Therein lies the critical significance of delivering another kind of public education to youth. They will inherit not only social issues, but also the responsibility for addressing them. To meet these challenges, youth will need another kind of public education that equips them with tools to take informed action.


About the Author 

Patricia Hill CollinsPatricia Hill Collins is Distinguished Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of several books, including Black Feminist Thought and Black Sexual Politics. She lives with her husband in Wheaton, Maryland.