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Contrived Conversions: The Master Narrative of Educational Uplift


Education in the United States has responded to the evolving demands of society. Historically, it has been tasked with supporting religion in colonial America, preparing citizens to support the republic, integrating new Americans into society, and cultivating an industrialized workforce. Throughout these movements in education, one enduring purpose for institutional schooling has been to adapt people to an extant social order. The master narrative of educational uplift has been a cornerstone of this project. Uplift prescribes a transformational trajectory by which anyone can achieve greater social and economic success through the pursuit of purportedly meritocratic education. It frames the world as fixed, and the ways to achieve success as scripted, as if education has always been the unequivocal pathway to accessing the privileges of subjectivity. Dominant in-groups sanction uplift as an equitable means for individuals to transition from object to social subject. However, uplift achieves the opposite of its ostensible objective: it does not move society towards greater egalitarianism, but rather reproduces structural inequalities and maintains exclusionary power relations. Instead of liberating individuals, it oppresses people by preventing them from recognizing and engaging with the world as a changeable reality they have the capacity to shape.

This study, informed by critical pedagogy and critical race theory, examines how educational uplift operates in the modes of narrative, economic, and cultural conversions. Each mode is beholden to the uplift plot line, which requires that individuals change. In order to achieve liberating social transformation, oppressed peoples must develop critical consciousness and come together in solidary praxis, combining action with critical reflection. Mainstream educational uplift presents itself as a transhistorical emancipatory narrative that converts subpersons into full subjects, yet complete subjectivity is an unattainable ideal couched in normative middle-class whiteness. Closer analysis reveals that uplift is deeply ahistorical in its treatment of students as objects of conversion. A fully historicized narrative would acknowledge these individuals as makers of that narrative, capable of altering its terms themselves.

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