I Spoke Too Soon: Education in the Patternist Society

In my blog post last week I wrote that although Octavia Butler didn’t specifically write about education, her commentary on innocence in Wild Seed is important because of the way perceived innocence manifests in public education. Little did I know that by the end of Mind of My Mind, Mary would create a society of Patternists and top off her reorganization of Palo Verde with her own school for latent children. Although the Patternist school may seem more like Charles Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters—with Rachel searching the pattern for Latents in the same way that Professor X uses cerebro to find mutants—a myriad of connections can be made between the Patternist school and American schools.  Not only do the fictional Palo Verde school and actual American schools both operate as a tool for measuring ability (albeit in their own distinctive ways), but they also function as a venue for the stigmatization and discrimination of status groups and as a medium for the reproduction of cultural inequalities.

I first noticed a similarity between the two education systems when Page is singled out and brought to Ada; not only does the mere occurrence of this scene suggest that Page is someone to look out for in the rest of the series, but this scene also establishes that Page is exceptionally powerful, and reinvigorates the power hierarchy that categorizes Latents/Actives. In other words, Ada’s surprise at Page’s ability to feel her mind being tampered with, and Ada’s reminder that Page “was going to be too strong to be soothed,” is reminiscent of the way Mary and Doro play favorites with their more powerful Actives. Page has been singled out as being more powerful than other Latents, thus creating a power hierarchy. In this way, the Palo Verde school becomes a tool for measuring (potential) ability—in the Patternist society, ability is equal to one’s power—in a manner similar to the way American schools measure ability; the difference however, is that American schools have a different measurement for ability, namely through educational achievement. With this said, teachers are used in both systems to measure both the student’s ability, and their potential ability. In the case of Mind of My Mind this contributes to the ongoing hierarchy of power, with Mary at the top, followed by the other members of the “First Family” below her, and from there the Latents/Actives descend the hierarchy from those with more power (those closer to the First Family) to those with less power. This hierarchy very likely determines the importance of an Active’s job—demonstrated by the importance of the jobs of the First Family.

On the other hand, measuring ability and potential ability has similar implications, but the results are easier to see because they are manifested in the reproduction of social class. Measuring ability in American schools directly leads to the reproduction of status groups—and the intrinsic discrimination that comes from creating classes of people—and inherently contributes to allocation into the division of labor, and/or college placement; students who have high academic achievement are categorized as more important than students who are stigmatized by their peers for their “low” academic achievement. High academic achievement has become a standard in America—evidenced by the push for everyone to obtain a college education, which has resulted in “30.4 percent of people over age 25” obtaining a bachelor’s degree, and 10.9 percent obtaining a graduate degree, “up from 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent 10 years earlier.” Those who earn only a high school diploma or less often face classist stigmatization; indeed, in an interview for The Atlantic, NYU anthropologist Robin Nagle argues that “some forms of knowledge are considered more valuable than others, and they tend to break along educational lines. College education is considered of higher status than the kind of education that lets a person know how to repair an engine, or design a truck that’s going to be safer for the workers, or organize things.” Thus, the “higher value” of a college education places Americans in a hierarchy similar to that of the Patternists. One of the largest differences, however, is that whereas everyone in the Pattern benefits in some way, regardless of their status in the hierarchy, Americans who fall to the lower end of the hierarchy often face discrimination in some form or fashion.

Nagle demonstrates this power hierarchy and its discriminative implications in her book, Picking up: on the Streets and behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, where she illuminates the discrimination and stigmatization of sanitation workers—discrimination which often stems from their job not requiring formal education after high school, but requiring a much more specific skill set. Furthermore, Nagle comments on the demands of sanitation work that often go unseen by the public eye:

“Academics have the luxury of setting their own schedules to a certain extent. You don’t have that luxury when you have a job where you have to punch a time clock or sign a time sheet and where the work must be done. You can’t telecommute as a sanitation worker. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Yeah, you will do it tomorrow, but you’ll also do it today. And the day after that, and the day after that.”

Not only is sanitation work demanding, but it’s also dangerous. According to Nagle, sanitation workers have “twice the fatality rates of police offers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. And their work has “similarly life-or-death consequences in the long-term.” Nonetheless, people often fail to see, or blatantly disregard, how important sanitation work is to the function of our society. Can you imagine if sanitation workers stopped collecting our disposables for a month? A year? Nagle’s book highlights the lack of acceptance in America for people with a lower measured “ability” (based on educational achievement), and thus of a lower socioeconomic status, regardless of how important their job is to the wellbeing of our society.

Herein lies the fundamental juncture between the Patternist education system, and real American education: both systems function to measure “ability,” and place those with low “ability”—in the Patternist system the people with the lowest ability are the one’s without it, namely “mutes”—into less desirable occupations that are necessary to the function of society. Furthermore, because of the way “ability” is measured in both societies, and the way “ability” in a child is tied to the ability of his/her parents, education in both societies serves as a form of cultural reproduction that reproduces inequality. To put it another way, the significance of the school in Mind of My Mind is that it will become an institution for reproducing both the Pattern, as more Latents arrive, and the enslavement of the “Mutes,” as more are needed to care for the increased number of Latents. In Mind of My Mind, the roles of “Mutes” are undesirable because the mutes are forced into them against their will, and unable to pursue the things they are actually interested in. The “Mutes” are necessary to the longevity of the society because most Patternists cannot be around children, in the same way that sanitation workers are necessary to society because without them we would be overwhelmed by health issues associated with pollution. Similarly, because one of the functions of American education is to allocate students either to a proper division of labor, or allocate students into the realm of college, inequalities will necessarily be reproduced.

The inequalities that are reproduced in education were perhaps most prevalent during the time period that Octavia Butler wrote the Patternmaster series: the 1970’s. Although the school plays such a small role in the novel, its display of inequality in education is so obvious that it cannot be considered without the context of educational policy in the 1970’s. In an attempt to carry out court ordered desegregation, the court decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg in 1971 ruled that inequality should be remedied by interdistrict busing to achieve a racial balance and therefore give black students the same resources as suburban white students; however, the ruling was negated by the decision of Milliken v. Bradley in 1974. In another court ruling, Serrano v. Priest (1971), the court determined that school funding based on property taxes was unconstitutional, and school districts must either redistribute property taxes to equalize funding, or they must supply all schools with a minimum of funding. But like the interdistrict busing laws, Serrano v. Priest was overturned by San Antonio v. Rodriguez in 1973. In these years preceding the publication of Mind of My Mind, our nation could not decide on whether or not inequality was acceptable in our schools. While the Patternist school only appears for one chapter in Mind of My Mind—when it is considered within the context of the functions of American schools, especially during the 1970’s—it leaves the lasting impression that any institution created to maintain society cannot benefit all its citizens if it does not plan on remedying the inequalities that hinder its people. Whereas the Patternist society reproduces the inequality of the “Mutes,” real life American schools implement stigmatization, and prepare less-achieved students to be discriminated against. Ultimately, Butler argues that any institution that does not push for the equality of its entire people is bound to fail.

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