Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Return to Sender

A couple of days ago, I spent a morning looking for articles on continuing education and teaching poor students.  While promising at first, what I found eventually led me into the weird old world of the nineteen nineties ethnic studies and radical liberalism.  I read works like Herbert Kohl's classic "I Won't Learn from You", about minority student defiance.  I read a paper from a UCSC grad student recounting his experience studying goings on at a poor migrant continuation school in Northern California.  On a whim, I ordered a copy of Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring, by Angela Valenzuela.  But I started to have a problem with the direction these articles were taking.  They seemed to be framing the struggle of poor students as if the real problem was not the student's behavior or cognitive/emotional development, but rather the teachers and the curriculum's biased or cultural chauvinism.  When the Valenzuela book arrived at my doorstep today, and I quickly glanced through it, the narrative was essentially the same: misunderstood kids being oppressed by "uncaring" teachers.  Oh, brother.  After slaving away trying to reach the most brutally screwed up kids you'll ever meet, I'm going to read this for insight into trying to help them? 

The following is my Amazon review:

Depressingly Dated

OK, I have to start out by saying that I get the whole ethnic studies thing.  I majored in liberal studies and am actually pretty sympathetic to the dialogue on class/race/gender/culture politics dynamics.  It's much of why I got into teaching.  There is a lot of inequality and oppression in society, with poor schools as the front lines.  I blog about it frequently, and live it daily in my science class at an alternative education school, where most students are poor, minority and otherwise disadvantaged.

But the problem with this book, and the mentality behind it that was so in vogue 20 years ago, is that it misses larger issues in society, and ironically contributes to those problems not getting addressed.  This school of thought basically believes that racism and cultural imperialism are what are keeping minority students down.  Now, if you take a hugely macro view, and look at history going back centuries, yes, it does originate in active racism.  But the problem today is not racism, or biased teachers, or biased curriculum.  It is a lack of human and social capital development.  Minorities are not disproportionately failing in school, in prisons, or stuck low paying jobs because of discrimination.  They are there because of a structural inertia that has sapped their communities of social resources for so long that children are growing up without the kind of cognitively rich and stimulating, loving environments that create successful adults. 

This isn't about their culture (well, mostly - there is an issue of identity and defiance there, but it is rooted in larger structural impediments).  Black or Hispanic culture is perfectly suited for academic, middle class success.  The ethnic studies school from which Valenzuela hails actually has more in common than it realizes in the actual white cultural conservative nationalists who would denigrate minority ethnicities by blaming their lack of success on an intrinsic incompatibility with middle-class, "Western" values.  This is poppycock.  The lack of success isn't to do with ethnicity, but lack of knowledge and social capital with which to leverage their families out of the ghetto.  When 16 year old girls get pregnant and the dads run away, and the grandmother can't offer much support, the child gets raised in a woefully inadequate household.  I see this daily in my classroom. 

So, is it their fault?  Hell no!  They are completely disadvantaged and caught up in a system which is a direct descendant of racism.  But it is also a natural byproduct of capitalism and the tendency for property values to create geographic ghettos, with correlative low levels of human and social capital.  All the poor kids get shunted into the same schools.  Their parents are struggling.  They are struggling.  There is stress.  There is tension.  Parents work crappy jobs.  Kids resent society and feels like outsiders.  They rebel in any way they can - which for boys often means fighting and gangs, and for girls it means having babies.  For everyone it means getting high and not doing their work.

But this is an old story.  It is the story of the underclass.  Poor minorities are no different from poor whites.  Poor whites have it easier in many ways, but many of the exact same disadvantages in human and social capital play out the same way.  The old ethnic school doesn't realize it undercuts this larger issue by narrowing its gaze and playing guilt politics. 

Look at what is happening to teachers in America today.  Conservatives love to blame the government and unions, not to mention poor people themselves, instead of larger structural problems that trap the poor and hold them down.  Liberals, having bought into much of the ethnic studies framing, wish to take a sort of noble savage view of minorities, and pretend that if only teachers would "care more", as Valenzuela might have put it, the achievement gap between whites and minorities in education would close.  But by far most teachers do care.  You wouldn't last more than a year or two in a poor school, dealing with that population of students if you didn't care.  Sure, most teachers are still white.  But the vast majority of us care deeply for and empathize deeply with our students.

But we can't do it on our own, with budgets slashed, and class sizes ballooning.  There needs to be a larger national dialogue.  Not on race, or ethnicity.  I think we're actually doing OK there.  But we still won't talk about class, and how it sets up generation after generation of kids to fail, especially those historically discriminated against and disenfranchised.  Poor schools need massive investments that will dramatically reduce class sizes and pay for enrichment activities that their community just can't afford.  Poor mothers need home visits from nurses and social workers who will help guide them toward better education and parenting practices.  More than anything, poor kids feel like no one outside their community cares about them, and that the world is against them.  They take their frustration out on individuals, not understanding the bigger picture of what is really conspiring to force them down.  But individuals are actually pretty OK.  It is the system we much change, and demand that real policies be put in place that guarantee more help for struggling communities.

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