Saturday, January 19, 2013

It Shall Be the Fuck Ups

Statue of Benkos Bioho, 16th century slave
Ahh, Fridays.  A fellow teacher in the lounge at lunch told me it couldn't have come too soon.  Slightly overweight, she hobbles around on a prosthetic leg.  This is her 26th year of teaching.  Somewhat of  a polymath, she teaches Earth Science, Life Science and Algebra, depending on the year.  These are lower-level, core subject classes that students take who have demonstrated a history of lower grades and lack of study skills, who would likely not be successful in more difficult subjects.

She doesn't have to explain the weariness in her voice; I know it all too well.  It comes from teaching five subjects a day to students a majority of whom are either failing outright or barely passing, struggle to stay focused, have poor organizational skills, frequently miss class, do the minimum amount of work required (even at a substantially lowered bar), frequently disrupt class and get in trouble, and generally find education repellent.  It comes from struggling to find the line between holding to high expectations yet at the same time recognizing practical realities of what the students can actually do (their "zone of proximal development"), and maybe most importantly, empathizing with what can only be described for many of them as tragic home lives and understanding that this socializing force lies at the root of their relentlessly poor performance,

When I entered education, I did so after having spent my undergraduate years trying to understand the roots of social inequality that I saw all around me as I drove back and forth across the class boundaries clearly demarcating the San Francisco and Oakland neighborhoods in which I worked as a delivery driver.  I was convinced that through education, students could be empowered to transcend the shackles of socio-economic disadvantage.  If they came to love learning, they would set themselves on a path to consciousness.  I had experienced enough brain-numbing, authoritarian teaching in my own education to see the glorious value of empathetic, compassionate and inspiring teachers.

Yet after nearly ten years of teaching, first as a substitute in various districts, then as a teacher in various grade levels, I've come to more fully appreciate the ultimate limitations of education as liberation, especially within the context of traditional instruction.  The brutal truth is that the level of developmental disadvantage and relentless life hardship is so great for so many students, that the educational system by itself is woefully inadequate to address their needs.

The classroom is not the proper arena for social change.  It can be a place of rich learning, socialization and self-discovery.  But this can only happen if children's more basic needs are being met.  If a student has not been reared in such a way as to develop age-appropriate cognitive and emotional skills, or is living in an environment at home which causes high levels of stress, the effects of formal schooling are only going to have marginal impact.  Some students, luckily, will possess the right mixture of luck and temperament to overcome such disadvantage, but on whole, most will not - an empirical truth backed up by fact.  Children have basic developmental needs.  In a recent article for the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn lays out just how powerful this developmental disadvantage is.  Research shows that a good portion of a child's developmental trajectory is laid down in its first two years.
a scientific revolution that has taken place in the last decade or so illuminates a different way to address the dysfunctions associated with childhood hardship. This science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. Researchers, including those of the Bucharest project, have shown how adversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA—establishing for the first time a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life. And they have also shown a way to prevent some of these problems—if action is taken during those crucial first two years.
Unfortunately, these are years that are, among disadvantaged populations, going to be spent - by definition - in a context of developmental disadvantage.  And these are only the first two years of life.  By age 5, development is already deeply behind advantaged peers.  The gap only grows.  By the time the child reaches high school, all manner of life trauma and developmental drought have conspired to bring the full weight of social inequality pressing down upon his neck until he either drops out, destined if not for jail then a life of minimum wage toil, or barely squeaks by with a diploma, however with a penchant for rebellion and nihilism that so diminish his sense of self-efficacy that hopes and dreams seem impossible, if even extant in the first place.  Yes, there are those who escape, providing fodder for myths of free will and self-empowerment free from social constraint.  But upon closer examination these prove little more than feeble justifications for a bias towards a status quo which denies structural effects of inequality and seeks to confirm its own flawed assumptions.

For us to continue to pretend that minor education reforms - those centered around the classroom experience, teaching and curriculum - are adequate to deliver social equality to millions of disadvantaged children in America is to ignore the desperate reality of their situation.  If we take a sober look at what these children truly need in order for them to be successful, our gaze cannot but survey a landscape of broken homes, neglect, family crises, neighborhood decay, substance abuse, and a generalized, creeping sense of communal despair at a future of low-wage work and frustrated opportunity. 

No one likes to be treated unfairly.  Even if they don't understand why, they intuitively know that the game is stacked against them.  This seems a basic cognitive truth, grasped by no less than primitive apes, as this video clearly demonstrates.
What the scientist in the video is illustrating is just how obvious injustice is, even to a monkey, who understands quite clearly that he is being punished for doing the same work.  Now, apologists for the status quo might object, claiming that the disadvantaged don't do the same work.  The students in my class are not doing nearly the work of their more successful classmates.  But this is a misunderstanding of human psychology, and the nature of motivation and reward.  Yes, they are fuck ups.  They draw pictures on the desk instead of thinking about the lesson.  They throw papers at their friends instead of copying down notes.  They smoke pot instead of do their homework.

But what is work?  And what does it take to complete it?  An advantaged student who has been given adequate development in a safe, emotionally satisfying and cognitively rich environment hardly has to work to be successful.  Her heart and mind are quiet as she sits, pencil in hand, her book open and organized to digest the lesson.  She has had no conflict with a family member or friend, no sleepless night, no hangover from an escapist substance.  The lesson makes sense because it meshes smoothly with neural patterns in her memory that have been laid down neatly for years.  She makes it look easy because it is.  For her.

Compare her to a child of disadvantage, whose heart is beating fast, stress hormones pumping through his veins, who never had a father, whose family is poor and suffers the slings and arrows of any number of social problems that might have landed them in poverty, who's found solace in a stance of rebellion and a respected identity as one who is unbounded by external rules and limitations.  He didn't come prepared, and he has no intention of completing his work.  But he knows how to play the game well enough to stay out of trouble just enough not to get sent to the principle, yet who is damned if he is going to sit there and suffer through 50 minutes of academic labor.  Because it isn't easy for him.  If the girl next to him makes it look easy, he knows how hard it is.  Trying to concentrate on the teacher's voice, reading the assignment on the board, remembering to get out his notebook and pencil (if he even remembered to bring it), is the academic equivalent of mining for granite with your bare hands in the hot sun (and considering how hopeless the entire endeavor seems - today, and every day for years now - there is no paycheck to look forward to. 

Work, for him, is just showing up and not punching anyone in the face.  Work is maintaining sanity one day at a time.  Work is struggling to finding a way to squeeze something meaningful and fulfilling out of this relentlessly antagonistic world.  Assuming in him that the task is simple: just do your work and behave, is a vicious insult to everything he has ever learned about the world.

Cohn outlines some good directions for policy in his article.  But we have a deeper problem, one that we have yet to come up with a solution for, and can only fumble to put band-aids on.  We live in a system in which societal capital is leveraged for individual advantage.  In a non-linear trajectory, advantage secures more advantage, while disadvantage secures ever more disadvantage.  A war on poverty, a war on inequality must grapple with this fundamental aspect of our system at large, in which both are built in to and perpetuated by the nature of the system itself.  A system of enormous productive power, it also breeds exploitation of the disadvantaged by ensuring their continued existence.  If there can be distilled a singular dilemma that propels this blog, it is this: Some one must clean the floors.  It shall be the fuck ups.  And we shall fuck them up.

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