Reflecting on Workshop with Dr. Charles Payne: The Historical Context of Universality Rhetoric in American Education


This evening, I attended a workshop with Dr. Charles Payne, hosted by UChicago Careers in the Education Professions. I attended an event with Charles Payne last quarter as well, hosted by Block 58. I have to say, having the opportunity to hear him speak frequently is very much a perk of attending this university.

One of the great things about events featuring Charles Payne is that there are only two certainties. The first is that you never have any idea what the topic will be. As one of my professors put it, he speaks about whatever happens to be on his mind that day. It can range from neighborhood development to national policy, employing any and all types of logic from theoretical sociology to real-world policy debate. The second certainty, luckily, is that whatever Charles Payne chooses to speak about, it will never be boring.

This evening’s talk was a short presentation followed by a Q&A discussion with Dr. Payne. The presentation commenced with a question: “Why do kids who look like they’re from very similar backgrounds have very dissimilar outcomes?” I’ve heard Dr. Payne speak to this interest of his before, though always with a slight twist that makes each asking of it differ from the last . After all, so much about education boils down to variability, and so does much of the political rhetoric. In the classroom, teachers must work with variability in an incredible way, somehow managing a classroom with (sometimes up to 35) students who come from different cultures, socioeconomic levels, and home climates, and that’s before even broaching the topic of differences in academic abilities and motivation levels. The issue of variability travels all the way up to the international level, with our top officials asking how our students compare to those of different nations.

Of particular interest to me is the management of variability in urban school districts, both in terms of neighborhood composition and policy rhetoric. Fortunately, Dr. Payne spoke to this tonight. He explained his most recent research interest, which concerns the successes and failures of various urban school districts in the United States. One story in particular I found really intriguing, namely, his story of an urban district superintendent who tried to directly combat “white privilege.” There are many ways of circumventing this crucial issue in urban education, and it is always refreshing to hear someone use the term in the context of honest inquiry, rather than with apology or hostility.

The most important policy lesson that Dr. Payne saw in the superintendent’s success, he explained, was universality. In short, improving educational opportunities for less-privileged children in urban districts is only politically achievable when improvement can be shown for more-privileged children as well. This is something I spent a lot of last quarter thinking about, while I was writing a term paper about the history of universality in education reform rhetoric and putting the universal pre-k movement into that historical context. After hearing Dr. Payne speak, I believe even more fervently in the sheer power that universality rhetoric can have in the field of educational reform. I am not saying I have an opinion in whether this power is ultimately a positive or negative force for society (though perhaps this question will go on my list of potential topics for my Sociology BA Thesis). Regardless of connotation, the rhetoric of universality has proven important historically in a country that prides itself on–though it rarely knows how to promote–its own diversity.


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2 responses to “Reflecting on Workshop with Dr. Charles Payne: The Historical Context of Universality Rhetoric in American Education

  1. Mark E. Nerenberg

    Mom read it and we were kvelling

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