Saturday, October 27, 2012

Future Dishwashers of America

I teach the messed up kids.  OK, not all of them are messed up.  But a much higher portion of them are in my classes, as I teach subjects that, although core curriculum, are generally not college-track.  These are the kids that don't do their work, talk too much, have little interest in school as a priority.  Instead of taking notes, they like to break pencils and make jokes with their friends.  Anything they can do to disrupt the lesson and distract the teacher means less time spent focusing on school work.  These are students for whom passing the class with a bare-minimum D is all that matters.

Some of them are angry and mean.  But most are nice enough.  They just hate school.  Some of them truly struggle with reading and writing, and repeated failure has made them frustrated and bitter.  But most simply lack the "grit" to succeed; they cannot stay focused and often give up on completing even the simplest of tasks.

While they comprise maybe half the students in each of the subjects I teach, the other half of the students are generally hard working and genuinely interested in getting a good grade, respecting the class rules, the teacher, and their fellow students.  Many of them struggle as well with reading and writing, but unlike the failing students, they have the grit and determination that the others lack.

I am deeply convinced that the polarization in America today among liberal and conservative outlooks can be boiled down to how we view the nature of human choice, and the process of human development.

A local business woman in my neighborhood like to place bold right-wing slogans in large print in the windows of her dress shop.  Her most recent was "The government didn't build my business, I DID!", an obvious reference to the Republican campaign attack on Obama's speech in which he argued that government and social infrastructure is integral to a successful economy.  An obvious rejoinder to her slogan would be to point out that her business relied on everything from the clean streets and stoplights outside her doors, to public school and post office up the street, to the parks and libraries across town, to the well-regulated, quality neighborhood buildings, clean water, police patrolled safe streets, firefighters putting out fires, interstate highways bringing her goods, etc.

But at a deeper level, her impulse is representative of conservatism's emphasis on individual responsibility, and the corollary claim that people get what they deserve because of the choices they make.  She worked hard to build her business, and shouldn't have to pay for government expenditures on those who maybe made poor choices.  She was never (in her mind, infrastructure aside) looking for a "handout".

I recently had a conversation with a fellow teacher, an older Republican guy, who himself has taught these very same "gritless" students, who make poor choices on a daily basis, have misplaced priorities, and will statistically go on to live lives of poverty and likely dysfunction.  Many will drop out, many will resort to substance abuse, many will end up in prison.  Most will simply live out their lives in poor desperation, creating broken homes and generally living with high levels of stress and exhaustion.  "I tell my students," he said to me, "don't hate wealthy people.  They worked hard.  You can be wealthy too.  Just do your work.  Go to college."  It's a good message, but its optimism somewhat deceptively hides an ugly truth.

To conservatism, people have no one to blame but themselves.  They could have studied harder.  They could have put their own pain aside.  They could have reached down deeper, focused harder, sacrificed more, and put in the work to become successful.  History, they'll remind us, is filled with examples of people who have come from little, faced enormous odds, and found a way to overcome.

Yet these are exceptions.  I see it daily with my students.  Many of them have terrible stories, and yet they manage to buckle down and keep pushing to success.  But the vast majority of those who truly face disadvantages - broken homes, negligent parents, wayward peers, etc. - do not find success.  For them, the best they can do, amid the multitude of teenage distractions, is keep their head above water, struggling to complete just enough assignments to pass their classes by a hair.

So what is it about the exceptions, those who diligently do their work and seem to have a vision for themselves of a better life, that is different?  With 130 students, it is impossible to know all of their stories.  But there are many clues.  They tend to have more supportive parents.  They are more mature.  They tend to have a quietness about them that speaks to lower levels of stress coursing through their brains.  They are often preternaturally more introverted, more academically oriented, seeing a definition of self in terms of intellectual, rather than social pursuits.  They have a better sense of self-esteem, not feeling the need to measure themselves up against others through constant attention seeking.

In poor, disadvantaged, broken communities, seeking external validation means adopting what are often destructive and unhealthy norms.  Internal validation, unlike external validation which is subjective, and a constantly moving target, is more objective.  It gives one reliable, immediate feedback against intrinsically rewarding goals that are self-reinforcing.  Making art, reading books, playing sports, getting good grades involve the building of skills that are not only easily identifiable but progressive and generally highly valued by wider society outside of the local, dysfunctional community - especially that of superficial and status-driven teenagehood.  And in a poor neighborhood, where so many peers are going to have lower capital and developing dysfunctional coping mechanisms, external validation is a constant driver of community destruction.

It is hard to disentangle the genetic and environmental factors in either students who manage to "rise above", or those who do not.  But it is undeniable that it is developmental forces that have created them.  They cannot be said to be "making their own choices" in a sense in which their actions can be separated from their background, life-experiences and temperament.  Whether at 16, 12, 7 or 5, each student has a specific developmental history that is entirely dependent on his own genetic and environmental story.

When zooming out to a larger, macro social level, the pattern is all the more distinct.  Socio-economics is completely determinative of a student population's exhibition of successful or unsuccessful characteristics.  At schools in which parents are better educated, have better jobs, and whose families are more intact, the student populations will always be much more mature, have more self-control and emotional management, have better world knowledge, better cognitive skills, better academic performance.

Can these students be said to "choose" their developmental abilities?  Can they in elementary school?  Middle school?  High school?  They can't choose their genes or their environment.  They cannot be said to have chosen their development of emotional and cognitive skills.

So how can they be said to "choose" their ability to act beyond their developmental capacity?  How can they be said to possess the ability to have more self-control than they do?  How can they be said to have the ability to choose to have more intrinsic than extrinsic motivation?  How can they be said to have the ability to be more loving and compassionate than they know how to be?

There is a classic Mad TV skit in which Bob Newhart plays a therapist whose basic technique is to simply tell his patients, "Stop it!  Stop doing it!"
While there is some truth to the notion that such simple advice can be effective in certain situations, the basic premise, that all manner of psychodynamic and developmental patterns of conscious behavior can be reduced to such a simplistic either or choice, is absurd.  Over 100 years of psychological research, as well as the burgeoning field of neuroscience provides ample evidence that such a view is laughably naive.  Equally, social science research into the enormous variety of factors that contribute to the ways we end up living our lives paints the same picture at a social level.  If it were so simple, nearly all social problems would be neatly resolved, billions of dollars and countless hours of productivity would be spared.  Nothing less than world peace would be accomplished by the simple admonishment, "Stop it."

Who could believe such a silly notion.  Well, conservatives, for one.  Again and again, this basic premise underlies many forms of conservative rhetoric.  I built it.  I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps.  I played by the rules.  I worked hard.  I never asked for a handout.  I abstained from sex.  I never did drugs (or if I did, I quit on my own).  I studied hard in school.  I never needed anyone's help.  I found God.  It isn't easy, but one faces a choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.  You have no one to blame but yourself.

All of this sounds good.  And these are mostly good words to live by.  But, even though they feel true, they aren't.  The choices we make seem simple at the time, but our ability to make them is dependent both on a lifetime of development as well as the specific situation we find ourselves in at any given time.  Even though feel as though, at any given point in time, we are completely free - seemingly omnipotent - agents of every choice we make, we are just the opposite.  We are merely the conduits, second by fleeting second, of all that has gone before, into all that will come to be.

This is a profound perspective.  The absence of free will, classically defined, strikes many as utterly contrary to common sense.  But, just as it was once common sense to believe the Sun circled the earth once a day, once the evidence is gathered, and the theory becomes better supported by fact, it is increasingly understood with a "new common sense".

There are a number of claims made in opposition to the notion that we do not have free will, but they are rather easily dispatched.  The first claim is often that this leads to fatalism; if we are mere conduits of time and biology, then what is our purpose?  Well, what purpose is there anyway?  Any evidence of purpose with free will is the same without.  This is because although we may be conduits, our brains have evolved a consciousness that is dependent on a model of ourselves as agents, functioning within a limited range of knowledge of choice at any given moment.  There is a vast, incomprehensible reservoir of stimulus operating on every conscious thought that arises within us.  We will only ever be capable of understanding a small fraction of it, and most of us will spend the majority of our days not giving it a second thought.  In fact, one of the strengths of consciousness is the ability not to get caught up in self-reflection and over-analysis of one every thought.  Many mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety , are actually marked by a tendency to over-think one's problems, real or imagined.  People with a capacity for minimal self-reflection can often be much more successful, focusing only on the positive aspects of life, as opposed to both the positive as well as the negative.  In general, while we do not have free will, we cannot but act as though we do have it.  We are thus subject to the same pleasures and pains that would drive our behavior and give us purpose regardless.

A second common claim against the idea that we don't have free will is that personal responsibility would disappear, and we would thus have no mechanism for justice or social order; people would be free to do what they wish, with no accountability, being as they could no longer be considered free actors.  The first part of this claim is certainly true; personal responsibility, in the sense that one could have done differently, does disappear.  But the latter does not follow, that social order would break down.  The concepts of deterrence and reward would still apply, as would the utilitarian notion of protecting society from the dangerous among us.  Interestingly, the concept of deterrence and reward are actually behavioral concepts that rely on an certain absence of free will; if one truly has free will, at least the psychological effects deterrence and reward would not exist.  Obviously, they do.  We do not have to believe that one could have done otherwise to allow the intelligent and hard-working to be rewarded for their productivity.  But we would acknowledge that their ability to work hard and apply their highly developed cognition and self-control was not consciously made, but rather the product of genetic and social forces that created in them the capacity for behavior that society holds in high regard.  Likewise, we do not have to believe one could have done otherwise to punish criminal behavior, or provide more limited pay to those who have only developed limited cognitive capacity, or the capacity for much self-control.  But we would acknowledge in them as well the centrality of genetic and social forces, and thus ensure that their lives are as meaningful and dignified as possible.

I can't simply tell my students to "Stop it!"  Although I certainly do, on a daily, hourly basis.  But I am merely one behavioral mechanism in their river of development.  With the current level of resources at the disposal of government, acting as an agent for larger social policy, one teacher can only do so much.  When my students leave my classroom, when they leave my school, they will return to the environment that created them.

In a recent conversation with a couple of well-intentioned, yet struggling students, I was described home lives that were developmentally crushing.  One child described being yanked about by a father high on methamphetamines.  His later conflict with a step-father drove him to rebellion in middle school.  To this day he struggles to find his priorities.  All day long, his teachers have told him to "Stop it!"  But after talking with me, the next day something in him beamed with intrinsic desire to be successful.  He needed me to listen to him.  It was by no means everything he needs, but it was a start.  Another student told me everyone in his family has been to prison (likely for drugs).  He does no work in school, and spoke of being depressed.  But he has never wanted to do drugs himself, seeing how it affected his family.  After we spoke, he too expressed an interest in finally doing enough work to at least pass the class.  He told me he felt like none of his other teachers listened to him.  They were probably too busy telling him to Stop it!  In a classroom of 30 students, there isn't much time for anything else.

If a student doesn't work hard in school, his prospects for success in life are severely dimmed.  Society is rife with inequality.  Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to remain disadvantaged.  Those from privileged backgrounds are much more likely to remain privileged. 

In a recent column, Steven Pinker described how conservative thinkers such as Thomas Sowell and David Pinker characterize the right-wing view of humanity as having
a Tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason. Human beings are perennially tempted by aggression, which can be prevented only by the deterrence of a strong military, of citizens resolved to defend themselves and of the prospect of harsh criminal punishment. No central planner is wise or knowledgeable enough to manage an entire economy, which is better left to the invisible hand of the market, in which intelligence is distributed across a network of hundreds of millions of individuals implicitly transmitting information about scarcity and abundance through the prices they negotiate. Humanity is always in danger of backsliding into barbarism, so we should respect customs in sexuality, religion and public propriety, even if no one can articulate their rationale, because they are time-tested workarounds for our innate shortcomings.
This Tragic Vision might also be summed up as the Stop it! vision; the choice between hard-work and sloth, barbarism and civilization, sin and sainthood, comes down to a simple choice.  The simplicity of the choice implies an ease which needs to complex social science or psychology to understand: that who make the wrong one have made a choice and thus must face the consequences.  In this vision, inequality is not structural, but rather personal.  Thus, it dismisses any sense of collective culpability, either in contributing to the original inequality, or the failure to adequately correct for it.

The Tragic Vision is built upon intuitions, and denies mountains of scientific evidence that paint a far more complex and nuanced picture of social structure and human development.  It appeals to a certain kind of common sense about the degree of power one has over his own life.  It appeals to basic human emotions about wrong-doing and causality, where the person-hood of others is understood to be the rough equivalent of ourselves, and imagined to be operating within a similar context of agency; if I were you, I would Stop it!  So why can't you?  It appeals to a sense that humans all have roughly the same capacity for action, regardless of genes or environment.  It denies the complexity of human behavior, and the facts we know about development.  It supports the status quo, where millions of Americans who grew up poor are imprisoned, addicted to drugs, or raising children by themselves, their children statistically destined to repeat the story of their parents.  It supports the status quo, where the millions of wealthy and middle class Americans grew up in educated, intact families from nice neighborhoods, with health insurance and safe childhoods filled with enrichment and positive stimulation.  It supports the notion of "I got mine, and I don't have to care about you", by pretending that "you can to" because developmental capacity doesn't matter.

This is the essential underlying belief of the Republican party, who in the current election are enjoying the support of 50% of American voters.  This is what half of the country believes.  According to them, the rich deserve to be rich because they knew how to Stop it!, and the low-skilled, low-income workers deserve to be poor as long as they continue to refuse to Stop it!  As long as this particular brand of common sense, this intuition unrestrained by fact, this unscientific fantasy, is alive and well in America, there will be no hope for my struggling students, who clearly don't possess the capacity to do better in school, despite what some of their teachers, voters and politicians continue to assume about them.  And that is a truly tragic vision.

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