40 Credits & A Mule, Part VI: Return of the Jedi
This is part 6 of 7 - some recap seems in order:
Who gets to be a ‘full’ American? Who gets suffrage, representation, and due process?
Land-owners were the initial default. Land provided opportunity, American Dream-style. It was a universal measure of personal responsibility and capability. It inculcated virtue, and perhaps won supernatural favor. And, finally, it gave you a vested interest in the success of the young nation.
What began as a checklist for civic participation became the default measure of a man. What was intended to protect representative government from the incompetent or slothful became an anchor on those who didn’t fit certain checklists as of 225 years ago. You are unworthy. Not quite a full American – and thus not quite a full person.
The issue became your state of being rather than whatever rules you had or hadn’t mastered, or whatever goals you hadn’t met. It was self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. It became circular:
Presumption: You provide for yourself and your family, so you are worthy to help run the country. You own land and do responsible things? Here’s your ballot.
Evolution: You provide and are provided for - because you are worthy. You own land because you’re so responsible - here’s your halo.
I suggest we’re doing something similar with education today – both public and higher.
Consider Alyssa – a wonderful young lady in AP classes from a two-parent Methodist family. She works hard, makes good grades, stays out of any real trouble, and wants to be a neuroscientist. Obviously she deserves some credit for her accomplishments. She’s demonstrated great capability, and made good decisions.
She’s also from the right family, and – more importantly – the right ZIP code. She goes to the right school, has the right social circle, the right economic status, and the right looks. She’s the right amount healthy and she was born at the right time for her particular skill set to shine. None of these things are entirely in her control.
She’s our 'white homesteader.' She’s done nothing malicious in making her ‘land’ productive. She does tend to wonder what’s wrong with students who don’t do the same – not out of racism or vanity, but simply because it’s bewildering to her that anyone would not want to do well, or not be able to do well. It’s just not that hard.
Compare her to Dionne – another wonderful young lady, but one from very different circumstances. Her life might be happy enough, or it might be reality-show dysfunctional, but in any case does NOT unfold in the same universe as Alyssa's. All of the rules are different and their experiences mutually exclusive.
Dionne’s AP Chem grade (or the fact that she’s not even taking AP Chem) reflects many things OTHER THAN her capability or choices. Her ability and agency matter a great deal as well, but they're not sovereign.
Dionne is a beautiful black girl, descended from freedmen. Plenty of Black Americans ‘bought in’ to Anglo-American values – they sought land, self-sufficiency, education, progress, etc. But they weren’t merely denied the resources to join such a culture – they were actively punished for making progress along those lines.
This didn’t stop the dominant culture from belittling them for not matching their successes, of course. It doesn’t prevent belittling those today who at some point simply changed their priorities and dropped out of that particular value system.
In Dionne’s case the issue is not emulating prior conditions, but overcoming them.
Anders is a kid who doesn’t want to be in your class – or anyone’s class – at ALL, near as you can tell. He’s not particularly defiant, but he’s also rarely tempted to give much. It would take three of him to make one passing student. His test scores put you on lists and you’re constantly asked to send him work he’s already ignored. You go to meetings about him called by his counselor; the parent chair is always empty.
Anders is my Amerindian, although he might be Hispanic, or White, or Black, or whatever – there are racial issues wound up in these, but they’re not exclusive or always definitive. Many Amerindians had no interest in the Anglo-American value system or way of life, but they were forced to partake - and stakes were high if they failed. They lacked buy-in, but they also were denied good tools, seed, land, etc. It’s not much of a stretch to think a comparable state exists between many teenagers and whatever public school system holds them captive in 2015.
Pick something your kids spend time on that you totally don’t understand – video games, soccer, angsty music, whatever. Something you at least partly despise. Master it. Spend the hours it takes to really get decent at Call of Duty. Practice soccer until you’re good enough to compete. Consume YouTube until you want to run hot skewers into your eyes and ears to make the bad things stop!
That’s how Anders feels about Grammar, and Physics. He may be right.
I’ll add a Zack – they’re always named something like ‘Zack’ – who’s surviving AP Chem and otherwise getting by even though he’s NOT particularly bright and doesn’t have a great work ethic. He’s charismatic, knows how to play the game, and while not exactly a charlatan, succeeds more through people skills and an instinct for edu-bureaucracy than anything. He’s probably destined for administration.
Which of these are worthy? Which deserve to be a full American? To get a full ride to an elite university? Which are making the best use of the opportunities presented to them, however flawed they may be?
You’re so thankful for Alyssa – students like her give you the energy to get through the day. But how often is Alyssa essentially rewarded for her upbringing and Dionne marginalized for not ‘working hard enough’? How angry does Anders make you even though he doesn’t really do anything to you other than not be taught? Zack’s an annoying little turd, but he’s passing and no one’s mad at you because of him so… whatever.
Anders has been given very little reason to adopt the same values and goals as the rest. For all our talk of nurturing kids’ individual strengths, his just aren’t on the curriculum map - and there’s nothing you can personally do about that. Dionne may have tuned out, but no wonder – even when she does ‘buy in’, she lacks many of the proper tools and supplies, literally as well as figuratively.
And Zack… well, there’s always that kid who just does OK for reasons you never quite understand, yes?
Changing the nature of American public school won’t be accomplished by ‘higher standards’ or tougher testing. We can argue about this set of standards or that for another ten years if you like, but – and I hate to be the one to break this to you – for the vast majority of kids not currently ‘succeeding’ in our schools, it just doesn’t matter one tiny little damn.
We have a culture fundamentally shaped by our past – that’s how history works, it’s why we study it. We have generations of mostly well-intentioned peeps whose views of one another are shaped by that history. Our psyches are riddled with logical fallacies and vestigial reactions we don’t even recognize. It’s not rational, it’s not fair, and it’s sure as hell not standardized.
We have a rather narrow definition of what sort of learning is valued and tested and college and career ready, and that means a rather narrow idea of just what kind of education we’re willing to begrudgingly and inadequately finance. Our definition ignores more reality than it includes.
Meaningful change might INVOLVE academic standards and teaching strategies, but it won’t be founded on them. It’s going to be people-heavy and cliché-light. It may not even begin in school. That's what I'll tackle in the next and final post on this topic.
It’s taken me six parts to try to unwind my version of the problem. That leaves me exactly one last segment in which to resolve it. I’m not optimistic.
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part I - This Land
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part II - Chosen People
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part III - Manifest Destiny
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part IV - The Measure of a Man
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part V - Maybe Radio
Related Post: 40 Credits & A Mule, Part VII - Sleeping Giants