Saturday, September 08, 2007

Give Me Your Poor, Tired and...Unschooled

In the past week, I've come across of a few articles that describe well the nature of poor people and how the current public education system keeps them that way. Beyond the obvious flaws in the philosophy that dominate pedagogical thinking in our schools, some blame can go towards the oppressive design of the school buildings. Fellow blogger Scott Walker describes the schools he works in as prisons, a surprisingly accurate description of spaces organized for maximum visual control and security. This a particular quality of mediocre urban schools, where more attention is given to keeping track of kids and their whereabouts than actually teaching them anything. There is a reason that many public schools, particularly at the high-school level, are not planned like those leafy college campuses we all remember fondly. One recalls how attendance was rarely recorded, students often slept in, no one cared what you did in between courses and somehow at the end of four years, you learned a lot more than four years at the public high school.

I had the misfortune of attending a public high school that was quickly degenerating into another mediocre urban school. It had become clear to me that the authorities were more concerned about enforcing rules and security policy than celebrating academic achievement of any kind. Although I was among the top 5 in my entire class, I was sent to in-school detention twice for forgetting to wear my ID badge that I left at home. "In-House", as it was called, was a classroom where these supposedly terrible transgressors were prevented from attending class throughout the day so that a clueless and bored "teacher" would monitor you to make sure that you couldn't do the things that students are supposed to do. Worse, they treated in-house inmates as chain-gangs working to clean up the cafeteria after the last lunch period. Couple that humiliating experience with random pat-downs and metal detector screenings and it became clear that I had to get out of that school as soon as possible. I finished high-school one year early and treated myself to an exchange year abroad in Germany, attending the "gymnasium" (elite level high school over there), where the academic content was college level, the students wandered freely in and out to town and some even smoked like chimneys confidently in front of everyone on school grounds.

My old high school would abandon the ID badge policy a year later, citing its ineffectiveness in preventing strangers from infiltrating the campus.

It seems that things haven't improved at all if this post is any indication. Overcrowding has become a big issue in my old school district, and more an more resources are being diverted to effectively control the crowds and make schools an effective detention facility. This of course favors ever-expanding bureaucratization and thus prevents any meaningful educational reform. As an alumnus of such urban schools, such a progression towards high-security over useful learning was anticipated. Apparently, that has become the default state of affairs in suburban public schools as well. Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and computer start-up expert, recounts his experiences attending his local suburban public school from the point of view of a nerd. In initially trying to explain why nerds aren't popular, he goes further into identifying pathological problems of public schools in the modern era. It's one those few essays I've read that truly turned on a switch in understanding the experiences I had in public schools that I'd rather forget. Graham provides some hints as to how to improve secondary education, and correctly notes that many of the problems that afflict adolescents should not be passively accepted. His essay is definitely a must-read, and I recommend checking out his other insightful essays.

Still, I find that Graham writes from a perspective of relatively privileged upbringing and doesn't take into account enough the baggage students from poor families bring with them. All sorts of debilitating character traits afflict the poor and handicap their ability to be minimally schooled. The lack of character also seems to make them terrible agents for any kind of business transaction as well. Michael Lewis, a professional in the financial sector, sarcastically remarks how the media coverage of the current sub-prime lending crisis focuses almost exclusively on the careless wrongdoing of the lenders but ignores the responsibility of the poor engaging in reckless borrowing (hattip: instapundit). Before accusing him and myself on 'beating up on the poor', I would contend that much of the intractability of poverty comes from our unwillingness to do precisely that. For as long as we all frame the image of the poor as mere victims, no significant improvement of their lot can be expected. The transfer of government wealth in alleviating poverty seems to have the opposite effect, since all it does is infantilizes an an entire class of people. Employers who manage poor workers often find that they have to treat them like children, looking over their shoulder on every assigned task and taking out extra time to go over their work and frequently re-doing it. A very close friend of mine works with many workers coming from the lower class, and is constantly frustrated in trying to hand them any modicum of responsibility. She has been told that one tried and true method in getting these people to successfully complete tasks is to complement in them in the same exact that she complements her two-year old son. So far, it apparently works, but it is quite a sad indictment on the poverty of character among the poor.

Other than not having much money, there seems to be little that likens the protagonists of the "Grapes of Wrath" to the masses of illiterates that populate today's urban schools. Poverty has become institutionalized, and rather than excusing it as a by-product of an inherently unjust capitalist system, we now are guilty of excusing the cultural rot and the lack of character that accounts for much of poverty today.

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