Sunday, October 14, 2012

More on the non-golden age of the 50s...

This is not directly literacy-related, but it supports and confirms what I was talking about in my last post, so I'll just mention it quickly.  Richard Rothstein, who has for years and years been doing a great job of patiently and repeatedly dismantling the idea that schools and teachers are the best way to overcome poverty, has a wonderful, entertaining and painful article in The American Prospect. I'll give the basic story here, but it's worth reading the whole thing.

I. Joel Klein's non-evidence-based BS
Joel Klein--who represents better perhaps than anyone else (see footnote) the idea that if only we put billionaires in charge of our schools and gave them a free hand to hire, fire and generally wreak havoc, then public education will be able to cure all of our country's social ills (which are now largely the result of incompetent, undisciplined teachers who have read too much Paulo Freire)--Joel Klein is always citing his own life story to show that all you need are good teachers to lift you out of inner-city poverty and public housing.  According to Klein, he himself grew up poor and in public housing, in a family that offered him no support for reading or other cultural activities, but his public school teachers held him to high standards, and he went to Columbia and on to a successful career, so therefore poverty is not an insurmountable impediment, and his story shows that "you'll never fix poverty in America until you fix education."

The most obvious problem with this story is that one anecdote does not prove much of anything.  A larger problem is that the nation's schools were not, by any objective measure, any better overall in the 50s or 60s than they are now. But the biggest problem with the story is one you wouldn't know unless you did what Richard Rothstein did and actually looked into it: Klein's account of his own childhood is essentially untrue in every particular.

Klein was not in fact poor: his postal-worker father and bookkeeper mother probably made significantly more than the national median household income.

Klein's family did offer him culture and literacy.  In fact, Klein was inspired to become a lawyer because his father would take him to the federal courthouse in Manhattan to watch cases, and if his family was like many other middle-class Jewish New York families of his era, education was probably valued as much as life itself.

Klein did grow up in public housing, but it was in no way like public housing as we have become accustomed to think of it.  The words "public housing" for most evoke notions of crime-ridden wastelands, subsidized permanently by the government, inhabited by single parents and terrified children who are mostly people of color.  The public housing Klein grew up in, by contrast, was not rent-subsidized, and in fact could be seen as a bastion of white middle-class privilege: the application process excluded single-parents, anyone with a criminal record, anyone with an out-of-wedlock birth, anyone with a history of drug addiction or mental illness, and most people of color (there was essentially a quota system intended to keep the neighborhood balance the same as it was before). In other words, the social problems, as Rothstein puts it, were "weeded out by the Housing Authority."  This is not what most people think of when they hear "public housing."

So Joel Klein's biography does not actually provide any evidence that a poor kid growing up in a dangerous and unhealthy neighborhood with little family support can be saved by a good teacher.  Instead, it reinforces the obvious truth that a middle-class kid growing up in a safe and healthy neighborhood with significant family support will do well in school and will appreciate a good teacher when he gets one--as Klein appreciated his high school physics teacher.

II. Parallel Childhoods
One of the strengths of Richard Rothstein's article exposing Klein's BS is that Rothstein and Klein turn out to have had parallel childhoods.  Like Klein, Rothstein grew up in a middle class neighborhood in New York with a postal worker father and a bookkeeper mother, went to public school and went on to an Ivy League college. The two men even had the same physics teacher. But while Klein complains about not having a Mitt-Romney-like childhood and pretends that schools in the fifties were so great as to make up for his deprivation, Rothstein is aware that it was his family support that made the difference.  Rothstein even tells us that when he wanted to apply to Harvard, his high school refused to process the application (because "boys from here don't go to Harvard") until Rothstein's father took the day off from work to come in and talk to the Principal.  So much, as Rothstein says, for the golden age of the 50s.

For most people, as for Rothstein and probably Klein, education in the 1950s was no better than it is now.  Then, as now, there are lots of kids from middle-class homes and parents without college degrees who are pushed and supported by their families and go on to great academic success.  My father and stepfather are both examples of this: both grew up in stable middle-class homes, with parents who hadn't been to college; both were pushed and supported by their parents.  My father, who went to a small rural high school in the midwest, was one of two kids in his high school class to go to college, but he ended up at MIT.  My stepfather grew up in a Mitchell-Lama building in Washington Heights, with parents who hadn't gone to college, and he went on to be valedictorian at Bronx Science; he also went on to MIT.

Neither my father nor my stepfather would ever say that their 50s and 60s public schools were responsible for their success.  Their schools were OK, but most students in those schools did not achieve such dramatic success. Instead, what allowed my father and stepfather to excel so remarkably was the support and encouragement of their middle-class parents, the fact that they were not surrounded by miserable poverty, and probably the fact that they themselves were pretty gifted.

III. Rothstein's concluding peroration
Again, it's worth reading the whole article, but here are a couple of paragraphs from the end of it:

"It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.
"A few superhuman teachers may lift a handful of children who come to school from barely literate homes, hungry, in poor health, and otherwise unprepared for academic instruction. But even the best teachers face impossible tasks when confronted with classrooms filled with truly disadvantaged students who are not in tracked special-progress classes and don’t arrive each morning from families as academically supportive as mine. Instead, they may come from segregated communities where concentrated and entrenched poverty, unemployment, and social alienation over many generations have been ravaging."

IV. My own conclusion: the subtext of Klein's and others'  master narrative
(I don't have time to write this in an articulate way, since I have to enter interim progress reports, but I'll take ten minutes and make an attempt.)

Klein's story is obscene, but its obscenity is not unique to Joel Klein; in fact, it is part of a larger cultural phenomenon, the anxious attempts by our ruling classes to assert that they deserve their own extraordinary privileges,  and I think we need to understand the current emphasis, by these ruling classes, on education and education reform as a part of this larger cultural phenomenon.

This need to deny one's own cultural advantages can be seen not only in Klein's absurd story, but in the absurd assertions by successful aristocrats like Mitt Romney that they are self-made men ("I inherited nothing").  Our society is in many ways less a meritocracy than it was 50 years ago, but the ruling classes want to pretend that it is.  (This is, I believe, the thesis of a book I haven't read, The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by the estimable Christopher Hayes.)  The ruling elites know they are smart and have worked hard, and they want, perhaps understandably, to pretend that their success is due to their own efforts.  The elites' emphasis on education has to be seen in the light of this pretense.

Every time a politician pays lip service, as Obama did in his disastrous debate, to the idea that education is the best way to rebuild our economy and create jobs, we should remember that this is a self-serving argument, and one that implicitly blames the poor for their own condition. When we see articles that say that even high-priced colleges are a great investment, we should consider that college, for many students in a country whose top college major is "Business", may be as much a matter of what I think Jane Jacobs calls "credentialing" and what I always think of as analogous to a guild system; that is, a college degree functions as a class marker, and the four years of hard work or debauchery at an expensive campus is less about education than about your parents trying to ensure that you remain in the upper middle class.

What we are living in is less meritocracy than plutocracy, and saying that our educational system is failing is a way of displacing blame for the increasing inequality whose effects are all around us, if we only have eyes to see. (This is not to say that education doesn't matter, nor to say that individual teachers can make a difference--and in fact I am trying my best, but we teachers can't do it all by ourselves.)

Footnote: Joel Klein's career

Hired in 1998 by billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, Joel Klein was for years the Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country despite having no prior experience in education (he was counsel for a huge corporation); after resigning in 2010, Klein now works for two other billionaires Rupert Murdoch (Klein is trying to sell media to public schools) and for Eli Broad (Klein is in charge of Broad's massive effort to put "reform"-minded (anti-union, pro-privatization) superintendents in place across the country).

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