#ScholarStrike: James Baldwin and Educating Against Society

By Lauren R. Kerby 

Lauren R. Kerby is the RLP’s Education Specialist and a lecturer on religious studies at Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Extension School. 

Author’s note: On September 8-9, 2020, academics across the country, including faculty and staff at the Religious Literacy Project, are participating in teach-ins for racial justice known as the #ScholarStrike. I assigned these readings to my students at Harvard Divinity School to start our semester studying the history of education and religion in the U.S. For others interested in these questions, I offer them as resources for thinking about how critical pedagogy can serve the goals of racial justice. 

James Baldwin speaking from a lectern with microphone, black and white
James Baldwin speaks to an audience in Amsterdam in December 1984. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of the Netherlands.

In his 1963 “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin describes a paradox at the heart of education: 

As one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change. 

The purpose of education, as Baldwin sees it, is not to maintain the society providing it. On the contrary, education should teach students to see the contradictions and injustices in society and work to correct them.  

Baldwin himself confronted these contradictions daily as a Black man in the United States. He witnessed the disparity between the promise of “liberty and justice for all” and the realities of how both were denied to Black Americans. His essay narrates the cracks and fissures he sees in his society that might go unnoticed by the privileged, but that are all too apparent to those on the margins.  

The Religious Literacy Project often refers to the work of Paulo Freire as our foundation. Freire’s goal of conscientização, or critical consciousness, embraces the paradox Baldwin points out, training students to critically perceive reality so that they may act to transform it. Education should set students at odds with their society insofar as that society is unjust.  

We at the RLP and our education partners aspire to train students as critical thinkers who can independently analyze complex situations with an eye to justice. This means students can identify who gains or loses in a given scenario, which factors make these outcomes possible, and what interventions might lead to equity, justice, and peace for all involved. 

The following writings from Black scholars offer opportunities for students today to consider the complicated role of education in this search for a more just society, specifically when it comes to anti-Black racism. On the one hand, education can teach students to see the world more clearly and given them vocabulary to name injustice. On the other hand, education can (and is often designed to) uphold the existing structures of society and convince students they are just—even if students themselves are suffering under those structures.  

invite you to use these recommended readings to help students begin to see these contradictions and to identify others that may be visible in their own context. 

My goal here, as ever is that students learn to see that the world does not have to be as it is. The world has come to be this way through the actions of human beings. Though it is not easy, and it is certainly not without risk, we can work to dismantle oppressive structures and build a more just society. 


Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.”  The Saturday Review. December 21, 1963.  

This is a powerful, short essay that advanced high schoolers and undergraduates can read in full. Excerpts may be appropriate in-class reading for other students. Pages 2-3 offer a painful description of what it was like for Baldwin to grow up as a Black boy in New York under Jim Crow. Page 4 challenges the dominant myth of American history (liberty and justice for all) by juxtaposing that promise with Black Americans’ experience. If you want students to reflect on the purpose of education and what they’re learning, excerpts from the first and last pages offer short summaries of the argument. (Content note: this essay contains the n-word, so give your students appropriate context and guidelines before reading it, especially out loud.) 


Collins, Patricia Hill. “What Does the Flag Mean to You?” In Another Kind of Public Education: Race, the Media, Schools, and Democratic Possibilities. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.   

Collins opens this wonderful book with a personal story: as a Black girl in Phildadelphia, she was asked to write a speech about what the flag meant to her as a large public ceremony. She wrote about her honest ambivalence, which the teacher deemed inappropriate, and she decided not to speak rather than to speak unqualified praise for the flag. At the end of her story, she alludes to Frederick Douglass’s famous What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?, which resonates with her own feelings about the flag. This story would pair well with a reading about Douglass, or it could fit into lessons about patriotism or nationalism, or it could be part of discussions about athletes kneeling for the flag. See pages 1-6 and 36-39 for the flag story, which is appropriate for most high school and undergraduate students. The entire book offers much food for thought for educators.  


Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. New York: New Press, 2017.  

McMillan Cottom’s work on for-profit colleges offers a look at the structural and cultural violence baked into higher education. Like Collins, she opens with a story from her own experience about a particular student, Jason, who is considering enrolling in the for-profit school where she works. Her account of Jason’s experience and how it is guided by what she calls “the education gospel” is likely to be of most use to high school students and undergraduates as a prompt for discussion about the purpose of education and where the current system falls short. The clear analysis of how race and the market are entwined with education will benefit both teachers and students. See pages 1-18 (parts of which may be too dense for high schoolers, but are informative background for an educator).