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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Behavioral Politics

A family is struggling to pay rent.  The father has a drinking problem and is abusive to his wife.  His hours have been cut back at work, and she makes minimum wage working as a cashier at a convenience store.The two teenage children are having difficulties in school, and acting out.  The son has been hanging around with a crowd of thugs, and has been arrested for vandalism.  The daughter is pregnant and planning to drop out of school to care for her baby, whose father denies responsibility.  The family lacks health insurance, and relies on food stamps to afford groceries.

Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon in America.  There are however, two very different responses from liberalism and conservatism, our prevailing political party ideologies.  These responses can be broken into two elements: the behavioral narrative, and social action. 

In the liberal response, the behavioral narrative is that the family is victim of social dysfunction that has limited their capacity to turn their lives around.  Without outside help, their dysfunction will only be compounded, their problems leading to even greater net harm to themselves and society.  Though opportunity may exist, the family is so behaviorally challenged that it is almost impossible for them to avail themselves of it.  They literally cannot see the correct normative path that would lead to success, mired as they are in a variety of cognitive challenges.

In the conservative behavioral narrative, the family has indeed lost its way, but is responsible for its own recovery.  It assumes that it is within the family's power to reverse its course without outside help, and that any ongoing failure to do so is a choice that the family has consciously made.  Many opportunities that exist in society and culture, and all that is necessary is for the family to embrace that opportunity and follow existing social norms that lead to success.  They do in fact possess the adequate cognition to make the correct choices, and thus their failure to do so represents a lack of personal responsibility.

Both liberals and conservatives take a position on social action that follows directly from their behavioral narrative.

The liberal social action response is predicated on a sense of inclusive social culpability for the plight of the family: by its structure, society has participated in the systematic creation of the family's  problems.  Implicit is a larger assumption that current social and economic norms are unjust, and inevitably lead to such "underclass" families.  Because of the behavioral narrative of limited cognition, liberals see government intervention as
the only way to guarantee equal opportunity.

The conservative social action response is predicated on an exclusive culpability for the plight of the family: the family is solely responsible for their own plight, except for the extent to which it has been lead astray from a particular set of right-minded norms and values exclusively by a liberal culture which promotes values counter to traditions such as church, patriarchy, and obedience to time-honored norms.  Conservatives tend to be quite charitable towards the down-trodden, but only if they can be sure that certain cultural and religious tests have been met by the recipients of their largess.  They are highly skeptical  and resentful of broad governmental programs which they cannot be confident are not administering aid to those not worthy of it, or in other words have not made the requisite religious transformation.  By approving only of private (religious) charity, they can be sure their donations are spent with exclusivity. Furthermore, the claim is often made that government aid is not only wasted on the unworthy, but actively promotes a culture of dependency and irresponsibility.

If you'll notice, there seems to be some odd incoherence between the conservative behavioral narrative, which eschews gracious social determinism in favor of get-tough contra-causal free will, and their social action response, which mixes tough-love with protestations against just the sort of social determinism it denies exists.   My guess is that this paradox is rooted in a deep schism between the biblical commandment to be humble, charitable, compassionate and giving, and the desire to see behavior as black and white, where cognition is freely available to all, especially in the sort of free-market utopia they like to envision America as, where meritocracy really does reign, and people's value is truly self-determined.  How can it be, one might ask, that this struggling family can be both personally responsible - personally accountable - for their own situation, yet be simultaneously at the mercy of an unrighteous path, their existence bent not only by the evils of secular liberalism, but then caught in a web of nanny-state learned dependency.

The science of behavior has existed for well over a century now, and social learning theory is a simple fact.  While the debate over free will still burns, with most scientists and philosophers who study it finding it ultimately rather nonsensical, the idea that a poor, dysfunctional family can be examined outside the context of social learning, with a cognition capable of understanding and dealing objectively with its circumstance, is nothing if not preposterous.  Yet such is the state of discourse and political ideology in contemporary America. 

In many ways, with respect to human development and behavior, certainly with respect to our scientific understanding of why people do the things they do, and why society continues to struggle with problems such as poverty and dysfunction, conservatism is in a state of deep denial.  As with most forms of denial, taking it head on is often not the most effective tactic.  More knowledge can actually often only entrench it further.  Yet it is my belief that denial of behavioral and social determinism is at the root of our contemporary political drama.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Modern Abbey

I’ve been watching Downton Abbey, and it seems to give key insight into how Americans are able to buy into the fantasy that we live in a classless society. For, as it is said, individuals can succeed by merit, as opposed to inherited wealth and social status, and no one begrudges them for it. Yet while there may no longer be social stigma to upward class mobility, it is largely as determined as it has always been, even if there now exist many facilitating institutions and structures in society that encourage the leveraging of oneself upwards.

Let me give an example. My daughter’s public (charter!) school, in a relatively posh neighborhood, your average parent is highly educated, well to do or both. At a recent gathering, I learned that one of my daughter’s playmates parents were both ophthalmologists. There are college professors, business owners, lawyers, etc. At a poor school down the street, the average parent might be a gardener, housecleaner, or cashier. The two worlds rarely meet. And why would they? Culturally, they have little in common. Their life experiences, interests, activities, etc. are likely very different. While it is in theory possible for one to rise or fall out of these class-oriented circles, it is the exception, often owing more to chance than anything else. Because these orientations are not static, but highly self-reinforcing.

Starting at the earliest age (in utero, really, studies have shown), the children of these groups are groomed by their environment, through exposure to different varieties of parenting, cognitive activities, language skills, environmental stressors, expectations, norms, etc. My 4 year old daughter is just now really beginning to read, about nine months before her first day of kindergarten. She’s at about a first grade reading level. Her parents are not well-to do (one teacher’s salary!), but we both have graduate degrees, have traveled the world, are interested in world culture, philosophy, the arts, and generally things that will translate directly into highly leveragable human capital for our children. Furthermore, they are now being introduced into a peer community that has similar levels of capital.

Our children have not inherited noble blood, nor vast land claims, nor social honoraries that entitle them to understood social privilege. Not literally. But if your look at the way reality actually plays out, if you draw the causal lines between what environmental grooming delivers to human development, there might as well be little difference.
Children play a game called King of the Hill, in which those at the top fight to keep others down, while staying there themselves. In the rigid class systems of Downton Abbey, the business of actually fighting for one’s place was unnecessary: place was assumed. Yet while today place is not necessarily assumed, the systems of leverage upon which one reaches and stays on top are still almost as effective. Humans vary widely in their innate cognitive capacity. The lazy, the striving, the introverted, the sociable are born to rich and poor alike.

Yet even if we were to assume that fairness might lie in some innate meritocratic value – “each according to his ability” – even if we were to admire such a system, it would bear little resemblance to that which we enjoy today. The well-born lazy tend to land on their feet, cushioned in their deficit to the degree that their inherited social and financial capital has been able to provide its own kind inertia. Likewise, the poor-born striver faces a million slings and arrows all conspiring to direct his inclinations toward more dubious opportunity. In my work with poor teens, I’ve come across more than a few young minds no doubt possessing some special spark, yet which rather than alighting a road to success, has instead lit a fuse of personal tragedy or ruinous disarray. (Of course, teasing out the origins of this mystical “spark” more often than not leads not to any special innate talent, but rather to some other secret cache of social capital, in the form of a supportive parent, a family tradition of determination, or good old fashion fortuitous circumstance that resulted in the child being able to grow that particularly fruitful set of neural connections.)

“Capitalism: better than the rest”, may provide sufficient comfort to the more credulous and self-deceiving. Yet despite the objective truth of the phrase, capitalism remains an ugly facilitator of class entrenchment. We do our best to take off the rough edges (at least those of us with enough with enough skeptical inquiry and critical faculty to empathize with the plight of those pressed by position to the grinding wheel). And hindered as we are by those who would pretend the ugliness away, the problem seems to have no easy solution. At the end of the day the hill still exists, and it will always be in the interest of those of us who have been either born to scale it, or who have been born at its peak, to do whatever we can to say at the top. Be that as it may, we possess faculties sufficient to recognize our hypocrisy (oh, what good little boys and girls we have been, such hard workers we!), and at least attempt to not only attempt to smash down any extant barriers to class transcendence, but – and this now seems our most difficult challenge – to erect systems that empower those born into circumstances devoid of the requisite social capital to nourish their development.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Social Aristocracy

David Bornstein has a nice piece in the NYTimes on poverty and human development.  Poverty is more than simply a lack of income, or access to opportunity, but a complicated blend of social disadvantages.

Thinking about poverty in terms of human development is an essential shift.  Ghettoization happens not only by income, but by social and human capital.  This human tendency - our natural association with like-minded peers - reinforces a de facto class hierarchy, in which human development is imposed on individuals from socio-economic circumstance.  Social immobility is thus limited not by opportunity so much as by consciousness and familiarity.

At my daughter's public school, in a relatively posh neighborhood, It isn't uncommon to find at a gathering of parents multiple doctors, lawyers, business owners, and other professionals.  In a poor neighborhood, you would likely find multiple service industry workers, such as janitors, house cleaners, cashiers, etc.  Within this dynamic you find a disparity in human development and skill.  Compounded by the practical effects of income on the facilitation of daily life, there is the effect that forms of human capital such as vocabulary, cognition and social knowledge have had on an individual's ability to build self-efficacy and leverage ambition.  In aggregate, as groups of individuals with similar levels of capital come together, the network effect is powerfully determinative of a family's ability to achieve and maintain higher levels of social status.  Children of these families develop skill-sets largely in accordance with their parents' levels of capital.

Looking back over generations, what you see is a sort of social aristocracy, in which not only income, but human and cultural capital, as well as social capital, is the determinative dynamic in social mobility, or the lack thereof.  Society is coming to terms with this, and naturally looking at schools as the most obvious solution.  But the problem is much deeper and more complex, and real solutions will require much more than finding so-called "superteachers", able to leap tall fences of human and social capital development in a single bound.  What we need are programs like those mentioned in this article, as well as a relentless effort to find innovative ways of building human capital for all.  Relying on social aristocracy for human development is the antithesis of freedom.