“The soft bigotry of low expectations” Race, Class, and Education in Daily Roundup Monday 8/5/2013

Today’s roundup features some material featuring really great intersections of race, class, and education.

First up, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame pens an amazing article about generational differences that have affected class and our approach to education:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.” Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

Janelle Scott, writing over at The Answer Sheet, takes on a more specific topic and considers how the education reform movement has misunderstood the Civil Rights Movement:

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

For a more poignant and on-the-ground look at how race and class affect education, the New York Times ran two stories by college freshmen at Yale and Harvard who are both from Jackson, Mississippi. Justin Porter, at Harvard, writes:

Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

His friend, Travis Reginal, at Yale adds:

For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

And to top the day off, I encourage you to watch this amazing video from Ta-Nehisi Coates. In it, he discusses the historical realities that have made things like the George Zimmerman verdict possible. It’s worth 40 minutes.

Beliefs Without Consequences

I’m currently reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography Living for Change. Grace Lee Boggs is an activist in Detroit. She and her husband Jimmy Boggs were important organizers in the 1960s during the unrest in Detroit caused by the Civil Rights Movement and Ms. Boggs stays active today.

In her autobiography, she has an entire chapter on her husband. The chapter is an amazing look at how a political-minded person with a heart for love can create real change. She writes:

…Jimmy was always taking care of others. If he looked out the window and saw someone trying to start his car, he was out there like a flash offering his help. He filled out income tax forms for people in the community and for his coworkers, white and black. They trusted him more than they trusted H&R Block and brought their friends and relatives to him. I especially recall Mike, an old Italian retiree with a throat ailment that made him barely audible. Playing the numbers was Mike’s only recreation. One year, after Jimmy had done his taxes, Mike concluded that Jimmy had the inside dope on which number would come out each day. Jimmy didn’t want to disillusion Mike because having someone to talk to every day obviously meant so much to him. So every evening until Mike died, he would call and they would go through the ritual of Jimmy telling him what number had come out that day and giving him a number to play tomorrow.

Jimmy was especially caring toward young people and elders. We watched three generations of young people grow up on Field Street, where we lived for more than thirty years. He called them “my girls” and “my boys,” kept track of how they were doing in school, and was always ready to help them with their homework or with advice about a summer job or how to get a student loan.

Today, I was registered to take the English certification exam in Michigan so that I would be able to teach English there. But I slept through the exam. I slept through the exam.

I was making plans to go out tonight when the Zimmerman verdict came in.

And it’s just… what am I doing? What am I doing that it’s okay that I slept through an exam? What am I doing that it’s okay that I spend my weekends trying not to think about anyone but myself?

TFA really pushes us to create a sense of urgency in the classroom. If my students feel that every lesson I teach is the most important thing they have ever learned, then they will be hooked. That’s the goal. And I guess I’m coming to the realization that my life lacks any sense of urgency. I slept through an exam this morning. Who does that? If I really believe that the world needs changing, then what am I doing about it?

Grace Lee Boggs writes elsewhere:

I never ceased to envy and marvel at the fluency with which Jimmy wrote and the speed with which his pen would travel from the left side of the page to the right. When he came home from work, he would lie down on his stomach on the living room floor with a yellow pad and start writing. He would wake up mornings and dash off letters to the editor before breakfast.

That’s the kind of urgency I want. I’m tired of beliefs without consequences.