Sunday, May 29, 2011

Blaming The Poor

"Poverty and Wealth", William Powell Frith
    Apparently Michael Bloomberg put his foot in his mouth recently, commenting on public opposition to the closure of 22 poor-performing schools:
“Unfortunately there are some parents who just come from — they never had a formal education, and they don’t understand the value of education....
The old Norman Rockwell family is gone.”
    Deborah Meier took umbrage, finding his words an extension of a long tradition of blaming the poor for their problems:
    Bloomberg got properly chastised for these words, but they get at the heart of the matter. We have a heritage of disrespect for the poor. Either they don't know what they're doing or they deserve what they get. (While we insist on bragging about our rags-to-riches family histories to prove the latter.)....
    It wasn't and isn't the poor who, ala Bloomberg, failed to "value" education. It was those with far more power and resources who made the rules that kept them out. It took an enormous battle, led by labor unions and do-gooders, on behalf of our natural thirst for knowledge and self-respect. How dare the elite question the value others placed on getting a good education for their children?  But it is part of our shared history to do so.

    I think this is a very important discussion.  I've taught poor kids for a number of years, both at the kindergarten and high school level.  There is definitely a kernel of truth to what Bloomberg was saying.  We have a hard time discussing class in America for a variety of reasons, but it is at the core of education and what proper reform should be about.

    "The poor" are not monolithic.  Like any group, they are a diverse set of cultures and circumstances.  I think the best way to look at class is through the human/social capital model, which essentially measures agency.   So you can factor in everything from parent education, to in utero toxicology, family salary, neighborhood resources, ethnicity, etc.

    My students, most of them poor, have come from a spectrum of circumstances - some from families with a lot of substance abuse, some with little English, some with histories of mental illness, some with single mothers who were teenagers, etc.  Others had two parents who worked multiple jobs to pay the bills.  Some had college degrees in Mexico.  Some were read to every night, others had practically never seen a pencil.

    Yet don't people "choose" their actions?  I always find this to be the philosophical nut of the issue.  What does "choice" mean.  Does a teenage girl "choose" to get pregnant, or not do her work in class?  The answer is yes and no.  She does choose, but her choice is limited by multiple parameters, most of them established by competing emotional, behavioral, and cognitive experiences she has had in her life.  This is why there is "good" parenting.  Human development is a process of learning, and we learn to make the choices we do.  Can they still be called choices?  Yes and no.

    I currently teach at a continuation high school and my students have very limited abilities to make good choices.  Over the course of the year, most are using drugs.  Many of the girls will get pregnant (the fathers nowhere to be found).  Many of the boys will get arrested for dealing or fighting.  I have designed an independent elective course on family and parenting.  The students find it fascinating.  Many of them remark that it is very different than how they were raised.  (This is actually backed up by a lot of research).  My hope is that they will do better than their parents did.

    In the end, all parents want their children to be successful.  They just don't always know how.  Many poor parents do, and whether it is through proper discipline, or applying to a charter school or moving out of the neighborhood, they manage to help their children escape poverty.  Despite lacking access to health care, not having time to be there for them, etc. , they have enough "capital" to pass on to their children.

But other parents, who also want their children to succeed, simply don't know how to do it.  They don't know how to properly discipline their children, they don't have a very large vocabulary themselves, or they don't know how to properly emphasize academics - likely not having had very good academic experiences themselves.  The of course, you have the substance abusers, absent fathers, etc.  (I've stopped counting the number of my students whose parents are on or were on meth).

    Any problem in these families is going to be amplified by a neighborhood with a much higher rate of dysfunction.  You then take all the children in the community and put them in a schoolhouse and you then have multiple students in every class coming from very dysfunctional households.

    In the end, whether or not the poor "know" the value of education, the fact is that they don't have the value of education - for any of the reasons I discussed above.  As a society, with a system of property and rent that we do, the poor are going to wind up in distinct neighborhoods, scaled according to access to human/social capital.  Each of us has "choice", but only to the degree that we have received these forms of capital, and thus have agency in our lives.  Public school are the bedrock of the American concept of liberty, in that they try and give each citizen fair access to the agency he or she will need to be successful in life.

    Education reform has become so important because society is waking up to the fact that schools such an important role in leveling the playing field, instilling agency, and thus providing access to freedom to all.  Yet we have slammed right up against the reality that this is not an easy task.  We need to come to terms with the fact that we are asking for a complete transformation of class and power structures that have existed for centuries.  We are going to have to find a way of providing public education that is in line with this mission, while not prohibitively expensive, yet realistic in its goals.  Neither our society, nor capitalism, nor humanity, will ever be perfect.  Yet we can do a lot more than we are currently doing.  

    We can “blame” the poor and wait around for them to “help themselves”.  Or we can recognize the injustice of the structural problems – cultural, economic, etc. – they face and put in place a system of interventions that work.  The question should never be existential.  This is the mission of public education.  Of course it is a monumental task.  It is about nothing more than liberty – the central question of our species since the dawn of time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

On Bent Knee

Today's Supreme Court ruling on the inhumanity of California's prisons reminded me to look into the issue of prison guard pay.  I found this somewhat old, yet interesting piece . I imagine its general theme hasn't changed much.

Basically, it had average salaries at $64k, with an average of $15k in overtime pay.  What I find interesting though, is the complexity of issues surrounding the overtime pay.  Apparently they've had terrible staffing problems.  I think being a prison guard is probably pretty tough - $65k average seems a bit high, but not unreasonable, certainly considering working conditions.  Yet add in the overtime and the public is pretty pissed.  But isn't that a management issue?

Honestly, prisons just seem like an expensive enterprise, especially considering how poorly they function as "correctional facilities".

So, lateral thinking here would point towards reducing inmate populations, and looking at the communities from which inmates largely come.  I work with children from such communities, and there seems to be almost zero state involvement in pre-emptive treatment.  I hear horror stories from kids about their home lives, making me question how they could wind up anywhere at all but prison.

The driving force behind keeping the state out of intervention in these communities seems less a question of efficacy, or even cost (see: willingness to spend on the much more expensive incarceration option), but one of behavioral philosophy.  An agency equivalent with intact and advantaged communities is assumed that doesn't exist. When choices are made that produce negative outcomes, the assumption is that there was a moral, not cognitive failing.  So when parents raise children who are destined for prison, society assumes that it was a conscious choice.

Yet it never is.  No parent chooses to create dysfunctional children.  Just as no one chooses to become an addict.  They simply make poor choices, that then lead to negative outcomes, the consequences of which are greater than they could have possibly imagined.  In the case of addiction, if addicts understood the dysfunctional patterns to which they were falling prey, they would not have become addicts in the first place.  But the "ball", so to speak, almost always got rolling long before they reached anything like adult maturation.  Complex behavioral, emotional, cognitive patterns were being laid down often times in adolescence, or even earlier - sometimes in utero.

I often wonder whether social intransigence on necessary interventions ultimately has less to do with any tangible rationalization, than mainly a balking at the seemingly incomprehensible complexity of the socialization process.  Especially when one hears of a horrible crime committed, there seems little solace in the notion that there is no clear line of causality, that instead the individual was caught in a complex web of events bearing down from countless angles and pressures.  Our attachment to the retributive impulse seems to bark away such intricacies as "excuses", instead of recognizing that their reality is entirely consistent with our pain and frustration over the tragedy of the crime.  We can both feel the loss and anger, as well as place blame on the individual and the events which created him or her.

But much philosophical ground is lost in the word blame. For when we say we blame an individual, we generally mean that we are referring to a conscious state of moral choice, wherein an action’s consequences are assumed to have been evaluated in moral terms. Yet we know that so much of what drives any human is unconscious; every choice we make cannot be said to be thought out with full consciousness. We know that certain individuals possess more conscious awareness of their actions than others. This is what is meant by the term agency – the degree to which an individual is able to summon his or her human capital and apply it towards thought and action. We accept this as a truism with children. Their obvious cognitive limitations demand from us patience and understanding. We then assume some sort of switch is flipped in late adolescence, past the point which all actions are somehow fully-considered.

Of course there is social utility in defining some minimally arbitrary state of adulthood in which individuals are granted certain rights, as well as held to certain responsibilities. Yet this utility is quite a separate thing from actual assignment of moral culpability. Our criminal justice system is designed to establish whether a crime was committed, not why. Obviously, this would be too great a task. Our understanding of human nature is vague at best, and no where near enough data could exist to determine anything like definitive culpability. What’s more, blame, to use that nebulous verb, would immediately begin to extend outwards, necessarily incorporating family members, friends and all relevant formative social interactions – clearly a social inconvenience to put it mildly.

But what it seems we can do is draw a larger circle of blame – or shall we say accountability? – around the perpetrator. Into this we inevitably include ourselves, along with our sense of social solidarity. Unfortunately, we must also take responsibility for some of the blame. We cannot simply look down upon the criminal, using him as a reference point for our own sanctimony. We must be drawn to him, to meet him at his level and walk with him towards his fate, whatever utility we find appropriate in our social designs.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Evolution of Modern Conservatism

Jonathan Zasloff points out the irony of current conservative lamentations over Newt Gingrich's presidential bid.  How could they disavow them, he asks, when he is the current Republican party?
    Gingrichism is the philosophy that all means short of illegality are fair game in the struggle for political power.  He came to the fore in the House minority by personal attacks on other members’ patriotism; he stirred up the Republican base with the argument that the Democrats were not merely wrong, but evil and a threat to the Republic....
    And if we examine the most malignant trends of the Republican Party over the last 15 years, many (although not all) of them represent this pattern of destroying institutions — and, importantly, any sense of impartiality, good faith, or nonpartisanship — for the purpose of achieving political power....
    And that is why, in my view, we cannot ignore Gingrich even if his campaign is doomed to fail.  His campaign, with all of its narcissism, mendacity, intellectual incoherence, and duplicity is the Republican Party in its purest, least adulterated form.  By looking at Gingrich we are not avoiding how the Republicans will choose their issues, or even their candidate: we are looking at their methods, ideology, goals, and tactics in their ultimate nature.
This seems right to me.  But like all politicians, he is merely a reflection of political dynamics and ideology at any given time in society.  How Gingrich came to prominence is a story that begins much earlier, and to the extent that he resembles so much of the modern Republican spirit, so too does he resemble the modern conservative movement at all levels.  Because of my age, I'm not comfortable speaking to any era prior to 1992, yet there were clearly many themes developing for decades that culminated in Gingrich's special standing.

My first experience with the modern Republican party was when I began listening to conservative AM radio as a delivery driver in early 1990s San Francisco.  Horrified and fascinated, I listened to Limbaugh and local host Michael Savage spewing their particular brand of logical fallacy, faux outrage, chauvinist entitlement, and paranoia.

A middle class white kid out of high school, raised with leftist parents and anti-authoritarian to the bone, I had never encountered such a triumphantly wrong-headed cacophony of right-wing political rhetoric.  Taking social science classes at night, delivering meals to people with AIDS during the day (some of whom lived in mansions, the majority of whom lived in appallingly wretched slums and housing projects), I listened as the poor were deemed lazy, minorities thankless whiners, the government greedy and corrupt, and white Christian businessmen persecuted and oppressed.  There could not have been a more striking contrast between the reality of what I was studying in school and witnessing daily in my travels around the city, and the bizarro narrative coming out of my van's speakers.

This was the age of Republican ascendancy, Whitewater, Lewinsky, welfare reform, Ruby Ridge and Waco, Elian Gonzalez, the Oklahoma City Bombing, militias, and political correctness.  Yet what I heard on the radio was much more radical than most of what could be heard coming out of mainstream Republican politicians and pundits.  Violent rhetoric, or at least language that framed reality in such imperiled terms as that anything but violence seemed inadequate, was the norm.  The government, with its "jack-booted thugs" was literally one step from imposing martial law, liberals and feminists were mentally ill and plotting to take over the world with their one-world-government, otherwise known as the United Nations.  Apocalyptic language painted a picture of imminent end times. You don't negotiate with Satan.

Thinking back on those years, I would have been shocked at the thought that such radical and extreme ideology would come to pervade national politics, and give rise to such a mainstream movement as the Tea Party, which promoted even more outlandish conspiracies and fabrications, making the allegations against Bill Clinton seem tame in comparison.  Yet if the climate today was built upon the climate of the nineties, which in turn was built upon decades prior, a pattern emerges that - if continued - bodes poorly for decades to come.  Assuming Obama is re-elected, achieving a popularity rooted in (hopefully) economic recovery that eclipses Clinton, what might the next Republican presidency look like?  What mistakes might they make that usher in a Republican radicalism even greater than we see today?  With the relatively reasonable and somewhat grounded conservative fore-bearers having by then passed away, what will the next generation - those raised on FOX news - look like?  A frightening thought, indeed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Invoking the Sacred

Since the death of Osama Bin Laden, I've found myself in the somewhat precarious position of standing on the principle of "Love thy enemy", a biblical reference. Yet I'm atheist. In a way, by using that phrase I'm sort of lazily employing an appeal to moral authority. I don't use it out of obedience to God, but as a touchstone of timeless human wisdom and intuition about social relations.

But what does that phase mean - love thy enemy? I guess for me, in my naturalistic worldview, it is is the humble recognition of human frailty, that due to events beyond our control any one of us could have been OBL - whether genes or environment. Interestingly, I've always found this to dovetail nicely with the Christian notion that we are all "sinners", in that humans are imperfect and face daily "trials" that challenge our attempts to have moral integrity. (There is a reason we refer to people who are able to pull this off as "saints".)

Maybe it is not even the "enemy" that is to be loved. Maybe it is the process of life's unfolding, and the recognition that there is no real reason for any of it, and thus nothing to dwell on. This is definitely not something that fits with religious tradition. Unless, you replace "no reason" with "divine reason" - which I think actually is a substitute that makes a lot of sense. In both, there is a demand of transcendence and acceptance that somethings simple are, despite our feelings either way.

And maybe the final emphasis is on the word love, the verb. There is an implicit selflessness, bravery and wisdom in that word. It is a word that binds us together, again in transcendence. It reminds us, by definition, of a joy in living. It reminds us to look for it in every aspect of life, including in the hearts of our enemies. Because in every man, even the cruelest and most "evil", there is love. We were all children once - "God's children", innocent, pure, hopeful and beautiful. And at some level we are all still children. We are reminded of that, especially when we want to forget it, whether by only looking at the worst in a fellow man, objectifying and dehumanizing him.

Religious phrases have great meaning for so many people, and reflect such ancient and honored traditions. I suppose that is why I find myself making my appeal in religious terms. These sacred words were written with deliberate purpose. They are not by themselves proof or an argument really, of anything. But they have meaning and a power that ordinary language does not have the benefit of holding.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Compassion and Violence

Among the relieved and somber celebrations of Osama Bin Laden's death at the hands of the military today, there exists a small chorus among the more meek among us to remember that all life is sacred, and that no death should be relished.

A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
He stands on the shoulders of giants.  Jonathan Zazloff quotes the Talmud:
Certain brigands were in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood used to trouble him greatly, and he prayed that they would die.  Beruriah his wife said to him, “What is your opinion?” [i.e. on what text do you base your prayer]?”  [He replied,] “because it is written [Psalms 104:35], “May sinners vanish from the earth.”  [She responded,] “Does it say ‘sinners’?”  [No!]  It says ‘sins.’” [End evil, not evil doers.]  “Furthermore [she continued], go down to the end of the verse: ‘The wicked will be no more.’  Since their sinning will stop, will there ‘no longer be sinners’?  Rather, you should pray that they repent, then ‘the wicked will be no more.”
Rabbi Meir prayed for mercy upon them, and they repented.

This atheist finds complete sympathy with the Talmud here. It is rooted, I think, in an ancient human – likely mammalian (at least) cognition of empathy. We make a model of the world in our heads, and thus are able to see ourselves in others, and visa versa. I don’t see why any among us could not have just as easily been led towards the evil that Bin Laden was, given the proper environment. And to the extent that we could not have been, to what special power do we owe that privilege? I find the assumption that we would are somehow “above” depravity frankly narcissistic.

This insight to me is the key humility that man must learn, especially if we want to move towards the heaven on earth we are capable of. It is here where retribution dies, and forgiveness is born. Utility being what it is, we will often have to treat people in ways which we would rather not – but we can always be something more if we work at it. The Talmud here – like all great religious teachings – calls us to do just this.