Letter to the Editor

Milton S. F. Curry, associate dean at Taubman College, on race, class, public education, and the future of architecture

Architecture National Professional Practice
Milton S. F. Curry, associate dean at Taubman College, on race, class, public education, and the future of architecture. Seen here: the University of Michigan. (AndrewHorne/Wikimedia Commons)
Milton S. F. Curry, associate dean at Taubman College, on race, class, public education, and the future of architecture. Seen here: the University of Michigan. (AndrewHorne/Wikimedia Commons)

The following letter was sent to The Architect’s Newspaper in response to the current debate, at local and national levels, about public education, in and out of the field of architecture. The author, Milton S. F. Curry, is the Associate Dean at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Director of Michigan Architecture Prep

ARCHITECTURE AND PUBLIC EDUCATION: CULTIVATING CREATIVE POTENTIAL

In University of Michigan President James B. Angell’s Commencement Address on June 26, 1879, he stated  “The most democratic atmosphere in the world is that of the college. There all meet on absolutely equal terms. Nowhere else do accidents of birth or condition count for so little.” Ezra Cornell stated in his address at the opening of Cornell University on October 7, 1868, “I hope that we have laid the foundation of an institution which shall combine practical with liberal education, which shall fit the youth of our country for the professions, the farms, the mines, the manufactories, for the investigations of science, and for mastering all the practical questions of life with success and honor…. I trust we have laid the foundation of [a] university—‘an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.’” These words are not merely rhetorical flourishes, they are ideological imperatives that buttress some of our superb world-class public and private universities and institutions and by extension our collective belief in an egalitarian system of public education that educates all, no matter what one’s lot in life.

The Michigan Architecture Preparatory Program—an architecture enrichment program based in Detroit and supported by the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning—leverages the institution’s public ethos by engaging high school juniors in a studio-based architecture and college preparatory academic program. The program—one of the few of its kind to commit to a half-day full semester program with high school students—is an exemplar in leveraging university-level thinking towards enriching the secondary education of students in a large urban public school district. The field of architecture is expected to grow by 17 percent between now and 2022 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Yet as of 2008, only 1.5 percent of American architects were African-American, despite comprising 12 to 13 percent of the total U.S. population. This fact alone—virtually unchanged since I was a junior in high school, accounting for population growth and demographic growth among minority populations since the 1960s—should precipitate crisis-level response from our educational and professional institutions and accrediting bodies. But it hasn’t. Attracting diverse students, retaining them and supporting their academic success and professional development is challenging in architecture for several reasons: 1) unique residential segregation by class and race in the U.S. which leads to sizable gaps in academic achievement by twelfth grade—evidence shows that residential segregation and segregation in the nation’s public school system has gotten worse since the 1970s when desegregation plans were enforced by state and federal offices for civil rights; 2) lack of sufficient cultivation of “successful mindsets” among underrepresented minorities and marginalized populations and groups, 3) lack of “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities and other marginalized groups—making it more difficult to develop a sense of well-being and belonging, and 4) the focus on “identifying talent” versus “cultivating potential” in trying to articulate and sell the value of an architecture education to minorities and marginalized populations.

The discipline of architecture alone cannot alter the systemic and exclusionary forces that have resulted in the current situation in which architecture students, and top-tier university students as a whole, are much wealthier and more ethnically and racially homogeneous than the population at large. Yet precisely because of our legacy of studio-based educational pedagogy and the capacious way in which architects can receive a broad liberal arts education while simultaneously becoming experts in visual and spatial aspects of conceptualizing and making physical and virtual objects at all scales, we are uniquely qualified to make substantive interventions in the public education landscape at this moment in American history. Detroit students, like so many students in large urban school districts, need more opportunities to expand their creative horizons beyond the traditional classroom. At a time when the twin forces of efficiency and technocracy translate into more mechanized test-taking and quantitative metrics of evaluation, an architectural way of thinking and making can unleash creative potential in students who have been all but written off because their way of learning and their cultural forms of expression and knowledge exchange do not comport to middle-class values and norms.

Our democracy depends upon quality public educational institutions to educate the country’s diverse population. Privatization and defunding of public education strike at the heart of our social compact and our racial history as a nation. Our current political debates about the growth of charter schools and voucher schemes and the privatization of public schools as alternatives to underperforming public schools must be subjected to fact-based analysis. As U. S. Senator Elizabeth Warren stated in her January 9, 2017, letter to U. S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, “Today’s voucher schemes can be just as harmful to public school district budgets, because they often leave school districts with less funding to teach the most disadvantaged.” With just 58 percent third-grade reading proficiency in Detroit Public Schools, as reported by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce State of the Region Report 2016-17, clearly there is a necessity to improve performance in Detroit and other urban school districts. But this urgency need not result in opportunistic formulations that lead to random shuttering of neighborhood schools or a turn to online education as a panacea for the problem of effective knowledge exchange in K-12 education. The collective energy and monies spent trying to influence politicians and create a parallel system of unregulated publicly-funded private charter schools would be better spent facilitating smaller classrooms, empowering quality teachers to teach meaningful content as opposed to ‘teaching to the test,’ and paying teachers for the value that they are expected to provide.

Individual and collective identities—understood in the context of historical legacies of exclusion and marginalization—are directly connected to life outcomes. Detroit students, like so many students in large urban school districts, need more opportunities to expand their creative horizons beyond the traditional classroom. Without a critical mass of representation from women, Black Americans, Latinos and Hispanics, and others who have been systematically underrepresented in the discipline of architecture, the discipline will continue to underserve not only the communities from which these persons emanate, but the entire polity. The context for the production of art and architecture today is shifting—because people want to understand themselves as not only having a stake in the cities they live in—and they want to be involved in how they are designed and developed. I anticipate a new generational critique of the exclusion of our disciplines to underrepresented minorities and lower-class citizens globally; and a renewed sense of participation in thinking anew about the very institutional structures that enforce elitism and exclusion.

Detroit Public Schools Community District students who participate in the Michigan Architecture Preparatory Program—unlike the caricatures of them that get publicized in the media—are motivated to learn and eager to be intellectually challenged. I have witnessed this with my own eyes. They—many of the over 130 students who have matriculated through our program—are better equipped to succeed in college and better prepared for the cultural shift from an urban high school to a top-tier public or private university. How do I know? I know this because we have students who have matriculated through the program who are now enrolled at the University of Michigan, Lawrence Technical University, Michigan State University and other institutions, and they tell us that our program helped propel them to grow their mindsets and to more quickly assess the own “knowledge landscape” for gaps and to correct for those gaps quickly and proactively. Project-based learning coupled with focused basic proficiencies can more quickly propel motivated and unmotivated students to aspire to their own academic achievement—this is what we have found in our five semesters of operating the Michigan Architecture Preparatory Program. Smaller class size, intense student-teacher interaction, and iterative-based design projects that incorporate applied geometry and visual arts are the core of our program. Their design projects are infused with lesson plans on social movements and the relationships between the visual histories of social movements and the space of the city—the integration of humanistic thought, social issues of concern to them and their families, and the study of architecture. Our relative success suggests that these pedagogical innovations can and do work, and that those of us in higher education can learn from them as well as apply many of these design-centered pedagogical approaches into the university context —in architecture and design-related fields but also in the humanities, social sciences, and engineering.

Students in our program are not acutely aware of the history of race and class that pervades the city of Detroit. They are not consumed by the massive loss of jobs, the rampant corruption at the hands of countless emergency managers for their school district and for the City of Detroit. They are interested in seeing—that is, believing in—a vision of the future for themselves that is possible and achievable. They are less interested in platitudes like ‘individual responsibility’ or ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstaps’ than in personal narratives of persons like them who have started their own business or charted a nonlinear path from high school to a seat in an architecture firm doing what they love and what they are passionate about. As Marshall Brown stated in our Fall 2016 Graduation Ceremony, “Architecture can take you places—geographically, mentally, and intellectually.”

When I was the age of our students—a high school student growing up in Central California to upper middle class parents, yet living among working class Black Californians, and being bused to predominantly white public schools during the heyday of school desegregation—I valued diversity even though it meant enduring psychological trauma at the hands of racist teachers. The wager that was available for me, my parents, and so many of my contemporaries was to seize the high level of intellectual content accompanied by abject racism or settle for low-quality educational options with a homogeneous Black community (largely poor and working class). With Black wealth at fractional percentages of white wealth, the Black middle-class today, 2017, is relegated to the many of the same schools and school districts as their working class and poor counterparts. Because of my background of inhabiting several worlds simultaneously, I celebrate cross-class and interracial learning environments as some of the most stimulating forums of cross-cultural knowledge exchange and one in which the research has shown are best at producing a leveling of the playing field in terms of matching Black and Latino academic achievement with their white counterparts.

The methodology of public education—one that used to be focused on high-performance and outcomes that provide a pathway to college—has shifted to become more focused on accepting society’s conception of poor and working class and minority students as irreparably damaged by their station in life and their own bad luck. What flows from these conceptions are a tamping down of expectations and a “settler” mentality that these students should be educated, but the threshold of education that they deserve is related to the individual choices that their parents made and on the available resources that society is willing to part with to help them along. This is not helped by an accelerated white flight currently taking place whereby white families are fleeing schools with the largest minority student populations.  To counter these efforts, universities must become more engaged in leveraging their resources and intellectual capital to create expanded opportunities for the nation’s most vulnerable children—those in high-poverty and monolithically minority-populated urban metro areas and those in rural areas. Based on our experience at the University of Michigan, this is the best way to extend our values and assist in what has to be a massive crisis-level response to the failure of our public educational system to live up to our aspirations as well as the historical success that was achieved in other periods of our history—when public schools were very good and when public university systems were recognized and funded as a public good.

More information on the University of Michigan Michigan Architecture Preparatory Program can be found here.

Related Stories