Monday, November 28, 2005

To Get to the Other Side, Part the Second

Recently in a bookstore I picked up a young adult novel (YA novels have been a reading staple since I graduated from college, increasing since I started working at an educational publishing company) entitled Confessions of a Tenth Grade Social Climber. Upon scanning its back cover, I found that it was set in a thinly disguised version of my high school in New York (thinly as in, while its name was changed, direct and factual references to its exact geography within Brooklyn Heighs were made--at least one of its two co-authors is an alumna, and it's recognizable in about two seconds to anyone who knows New York private schools. I'm grateful it was at least satirized in a favorable light, as another recent scathing NY-private-school novel, Admissions, offered no such courtesy), and settled down immediately to read it. Only seconds before, I had purchased at the same bookstore Jonathan Kozol's latest, The Shame of the Nation. I spent a couple of weeks reading that and plan to spend many, many more weeks digesting it, but here we are.

For years Kozol has worked as a professional firebrand on the subject of urban, segregated education. Some of his books focus on quality of life and hope in the face of bleak living situations, some on quality of school facilities and education, some on public policy with regards to education, and most on some combination of these elements. His first book, Death at an Early Age, was published in 1967, and he's done the same work for justice with the same energy since that time. Which impresses me. Kozol lambasts the limited social responsibility the affluent feel with regard to education, the "not in my backyard" philosophies, the resistance to racial integration. He decries political circumlocution, is able to create timetables regarding when efforts toward integration turned around, to identify possible causes, and to suggest courses of action. I would love to be that impressive of a human. I can't help feeling, lately, like I was inadvertently part of the "not in my backyard" crew. I don't hold my parents any more responsible for this than I hold myself, but the success and importance of private school--in New York City in particular, I think--can't help contributing to the demise of, at least the lack of focus on, public education.

The more work I do in underserved public schools, the more difficult it is to be proud of the elementary and secondary education I received. I attended the same progressive private school in Brooklyn Heights from kindergarten through twelfth grade. My graduating class of 83 students was the largest in the history of the school. I had never gotten grades until I started college; instead, teachers sent full written evaluations at the end of each semester. The facilities, while limited in scope compared to many other New York private schools, were leaps and bounds above those that Kozol describes. No lead paint, no asbestos, no proximity to nuclear waste. I was on scholarship for a couple of years, but for the most part my family could afford it. My school had, and continues to have, a progressive educational philosophy I still espouse and take pride in. The way Mel explains it is that with grades, an intelligent student figures out soon enough exactly how much work she must do to get an A. Since there's nothing higher than an A, she'll never do more or better work than that, even if she could; what's the point? If, however, she isn't given a limit on what her work could be, she'll keep going until she's satisfied. Obviously this isn't a no-fail system; students have to be relatively self-motivated in the first place for this to work. I saw students fall through the cracks of this philosophy, just as students fall through the cracks of every other practical application of any other educational philosophy. But I love it, and I'm proud of it, and it cannot belong to the culture of getting to the other side. Why? Because no one really tells you what the other side is. It's your job to find it. Your social development is part of that discovery, your intellectual development, your practical development. You learn that actions have consequences, which matters to any good education, but you also learn that those consequences are not always exactly what outsiders dictate that they will be. An honest progressive education acknowledges that there is not only one other side. We will all become part of the same society (or at least that's the hope of progressive education), but each of us will be a unique part of it.

There were aspects of my high school that were based on its regionalism--its being in New York. This, ultimately, is the thesis of Confessions of a Tenth-Grade Social Climber: that the values that create popularity are moral and reasonable among wealthy progressive New Yorkers in a way that they are not among wealthy Texans. Which I'm more than willing to believe and to honor. I'm pretty sure I believed it already. I honor the choice to live in major urban areas with arts scenes; we've seen a post on this already. I also honor a book that makes wealthy New York girls something more than the shallow, conniving image popularized in such YA serials as Gossip Girl or satirized on Sex and the City. That culture exists, there's no fighting it; it exist and continues to exist at my school as well. But while the book was ultimately relatively shallow, it provided a realistic picture of high school as I lived it (not that I was one of the popular girls at the center of the novel, but the way in which education and social life were approached around me) and said that living in a manner untrue to yourself was more of a danger to the adult you would become than drinking, smoking pot or some casual truancy are. Which is not a bad message for young adults to receive. I certainly prefer it to Admissions, a less well-constructed and much more dismissive satire whose character development is purely situational, not managing to give us a genuine hook. While Confessions of a Tenth-Grade Social Climber didn't necessarily deliver everything it promised, it did manage to recognize the limitations of the world it was writing about, which made it okay that that was the world the story was about. And that would be fine, but I'm coming to feel that in the YA genre, that world receives a disproportionate focus.

Kozol writes without regionalism. His focus is on major urban areas because that's where he finds the greatest and most concrete disparities in educational funding and quality, but he's written about a lot of smaller place where students suffer disproportionately based upon their race: East St. Louis, for example, and Camden, New Jersey. But he makes it very clear that he's talking about a national problem, a crisis and a shame that belongs to all of the United States.

The points at which I find Kozol weakest are those when he laments "why can't we care about learning for learning's sake?" Off a conversation with Mel the other night and some thoughts I've had for a while, my answer to him is: because stopping there is tautological and useless, as is "art for art's sake," and really anything for the sake of itself. All it means is that you have not, in the first place, defined the thing. Learning makes us better at living our lives, at living lives that satisfy us. Different individuals need different levels of learning to satisfy them--but that's based on differences in individuals, not racial differences. The motto of my university is "Crescat scientia vita exlocatur"--let knowledge grow that life may be enriched. I mean, I'm not positive that "life being enriched" is any less abstract than "for learning's sake"--but a lot of what Kozol's going after is how schools that serve poorer minority children are these days designed to make future cogs in the capitalist system, supposed to be training them for workplaces, to be a functional part of the economy. Only wealthier white kids, as Kozol explains it, are encouraged to have emotional lives and believe those emotional lives to be of value. "Vita exlocatur" is the acknowledgement that one's life includes but is not limited to one's wage-earning actions. It is more concrete than "for learning's sake," because it doesn't isolate learning within learning. Learning is part of our lives--I mean, I'd say learning is nearly all of our lives, but that itself is not something I'd attempt to take up with a first-grader. I would say to a first-grader that what you learn will always change who you are. That's not for learning's sake, it's for your sake. And that's an argument that can successfully be made in this culture of aggressive individualism, without doing any harm to any of the parties involved. I think "learning for learning's sake" does do harm, because it makes Kozol dismissable where in most of his arguments he is not not not at all.

I can't apologize for my own education or regret it, because I like how I think and who I am, things that stem both from the households I was raised in and the schooling I received. (A school in itself, as many have argued, cannot make its students' current, day-to-day household or neighborhood conditions any better, which is entirely true and entirely irrelevant.) But I was taught in the course of this education to figure out what mattered to me and to work towards it. It's my responsibility, therefore, to somehow work to change the conditions of the school system. I have to figure out what's the best way to do it. I don't know how it will change, no matter what I do; therefore, this is not a question of Getting to the Other Side. That's the real thing about that culture, is that it assumes that with a cookie-cutter education all kids will come out the same on the other end. And that's just not true, and the truth is that the policy-makers know that when it comes to their own children. The culture of To Get to the Other Side is based on an untruth, at least what is an untruth at this point, that people's minds can be *controlled* (rather than formed, which obviously they can be). That is the thing that Confessions of a Tenth Grade Social Climber captured honestly andAdmissions really did not: that there are things about change you cannot determine, that everything contributes to the formation of a student as a person--the school, the school culture, the people she knows, the people she's related to, the people she chooses to surround herself with. Standardization beyond a certain level therefore Does Not Work. With the knowledge that you, yourself, cannot change a student's family situation or neighborhood, and the knowledge that each of your students comes from a different experience, it is unethical not to adjust your teaching to the students before you, and it's reasonable to do that if you're also teaching the standards of the society they aspire to be part of. (I was trying to cover every educational theorist I've ever dealt with there, from the Bush administration to Lisa Delpit to Kozol. I'm not sure I succeeded.)

Which leaves another question being, are there people to whom such issues honestly *don't* matter, people who aren't just deluding themselves or wearing blinders? And if there are, is it acceptable that they don't feel any social responsibility? This would be a longer question for a longer day.

My own responsibility seems an easy answer, and, like all easy answers, it therefore has to be flawed. But maybe it starts there.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

I haven't even seen the fourth Harry Potter movie yet--R-boogie and I are headed there late tonight--but already I'm pissed off at reviewers. The following sentence appears in David Edelstein's review in Slate, one of my favorite periodicals:

"Emma Watson's Hermione . . . continues to demonstrate that humorless know-it-all valedictorian grinds can be madly attractive provided you have the right casting director."

Are we *still* a society shocked by the notion that intelligent women can be attractive? How on earth is this worth mentioning in a review? I mean, never mind the fact that Hermione *isn't* humorless, that a substantive portion of her character development has focused on her increased humor and ease both in the books and in the third movie (no character development happened in either of the first two movies, period). That nonwithstanding, I feel like I've read sentences of that genre far too often in recent reviews, sentences claiming that an attractive actor is alone responsible for the intelligent, pugnacious female character's appeal (the New York Times review of Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice leaps to mind, but I know there have been others). And while stereotypes about the attractiveness of intelligent males still exist, unquestionably (see Beauty and the Geek), it's not a surprise worth mentioning every time an intelligent male in a film is attractive. Not so here, not so here at all.

As the old film adage goes, and as films from Strictly Ballroom to Hell Comes to Frogtown (no, for real, it exists) have proven, guys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses. One of the most admirable things about the Harry Potter serial, while it has innumerable gender issues (Connor, ?!, R-boogie, mxzzy and I, among others, are or have been part of a Harry Potter discussion group), is the fact that Hermione's intelligence has not been compromised or altered as she matures and develops romantic appeal. Rather, her intelligence has started extending to other realms--she remains bookish, but is able to use her book smarts in various areas of her life--and it is this, a maturity she's found within herself based on complex friendships and the obstacles she's faced because of them, that gives her romantic and sexual (yeah, they're fourteen in this movie and sixteen in the books, but those are the ages of the kids I teach and I'll say no more) appeal. Nor is it just Ron, her close friend for so many years, who can see it: Viktor Krum, a stranger and a professional athlete, spots it and acts on it first. Hermione's maturity comes to everything in her world. I've never liked Emma Watson's take on the character particularly, though working with a decent director did wonders (I LOATHE Chris Columbus, a man whose every thought is coated in treacle). She never seemed to like her character, has never seemed to grasp the journey. But Edelstein's take on Hermione is even more offensive. The only thing that could possibly make this character appealing, he claims, is casting a "madly attractive" fourteen-year-old girl. In response to which, having yet to see the film, I can only offer a FUCK OFF.

Friday, November 11, 2005

High Profile

This is not a terrifically useful post. It's not about Alito, or about the debacle that Bush's second term is rapidly becoming, or the fact that no one's talking about the earthquake in Pakistan that caused even more devastation than last year's tsunami, or my curiosity about whether this number of extreme natural disasters in less than a year should be cause for concern--I mean, .0005% of the world's population at least has been wiped out by two natural disasters of grotesque proportions in the last nine months, should we talk about this? It doesn't sound that substantial, but nor would it take that many more years, all things considered. I want to write about all those things, but I've been so clogged with being busy that only things that hit me on a personal level have gotten in. Personal as in either things I've read or events that have happened to me.

So, spoilers for this post are Grisham's A Time to Kill and Kozol's The Shame of the Nation.

I work in South Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago's far West Side, a not terrificaly safe area most of whose residents are African American. I've worked there for a year and a half, three school semesters, and for two of those three I have regularly gotten off the Forest Park Blue Line and walked from my stop to the school where I work, about a ten-minute walk. Unless another instructor from my after-school program is present at the time, I'm generally the only non-black person I encounter on that walk. It's a walk I take with street smarts, obviously; I grew up in a city, and I'm careful and conscious of what my presence on streets is. When I lack in confidence, when I look lost or upset, I know, and when I know my route I am never any of those things. On Thursday, a cop car containing two white cops and somebody in the backseat who was obscured by a huge, puffy tan jacket with a fur-trimmed hood stopped as I waited to cross the street, and the driver rolled down his window to ask me, "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine," I replied in a rather huffy fashion, a little too startled at knowing what was happening to respond better than that (I'm still kicking myself over that).

"Okay, just checking."

"Thank you, goodbye." They drove on and I continued to school, feeling about as dirty for being a white woman as I have ever felt in this country.

I would like to think of myself as the kind of person who would have told them off directly, who would have given an answer like, "You mean, am I all white?" But clearly I am not such a woman, or I was caught too much off guard to be. I made some things clear with my tone, and for that I commend myself, but I should have responded directly to the reality of the situation. This has happened to a number of my friends, not in my school's neighborhood but close to Cabrini-Green, a once-sprawling and now-isolated set of housing projects set between some relatively affluent (or, in one case, very affluent) neighborhoods on Chicago's near North Side. One of the bordering neighborhoods is Wicker Park, a hipster neighborhood that most twentysomethings in the city visit for some kind of arts fix. I've had several white friends stopped by the cops in the process of walking to the Red Line train, for which walk you'd have to pass the Cabrini-Green buildings, asked if they knew where they were going and what they were about to pass (in some cases yes, in some cases no), and given a ride by said police officers. I've heard this story often enough from enough different people talking about enough different times that there must be a beat that does that and that alone--officers must honestly be assigned to keep white people away from Cabrini-Green. And a cop car that had probably just *arrested* someone--I mean, who was in the backseat?--honestly thought itself obliged (note the synesthesia, by the by; I'm aware that the car can't think) actually believed it was a priority to keep a white woman out of South Austin. What the hell *is* this place? Who the hell are these people? Where the hell do I live?

The practical conservative aspect of the argument would, of course, be that this neighborhood simply has a higher crime rate than most, is on the CPD list of the top five most dangerous wards to have your beat (so I was told by a cop who's dating an acquaintance of mine), and that a white woman, being an anomaly in the neighborhood, might simply be in greater danger. And/or, being so anomalous, it could be that she was headed here to engage in some illegal purchasing activity. On some level, it's just a police officer's job to notice what's unusual and to respond to it. Can I answer that, can I argue with it? I think it may be one of the fundamental disagreements, one of those points where you either think it's wrong or you don't. In this case, I'd say the two sides are those who take "better safe than sorry" as an absolute and those who don't. Walking into a high-crime neighborhood probably carries greater risk to your person than walking in a neighborhood that is not high-crime, although there are about sixty gazillion statistical factors to qualify that statement. Being of an anomalous race in a high-crime neighborhood may carry even more risk, though I'm not sure about that. But I can't help feeling that the driving thought is "working- to lower-class black people shouldn't be around white people, there's just something fundamentally wrong with that situation."

It's more complicated than that, too; it has to be. Racism and xenophobia are no kind of inborn instinct; they're based on anthropological conventions. I mean anthropological in both senses of the word--in terms of classical anthropology and in terms of observing ourselves as a culture with cultural conventions. Classical anthropology and anthropologists, like Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski, for the most part concerned itself/themselves with "savage" or "primitive" society; they did not acknowledge the possibility of their own bias or social training having an effect on their ostensibly objective observations. The discipline of classical anthropology, while important, is the most extreme example of the "othering" currently notorious with the left. In Time and the Other, an amazing critique of classical anthropology, Johannes Fabian argues that the real problem with "othering," with the concept of "primitive," is that implies that you, as an anthropologist, exist in a different time from those you study. The very word "primative" implies that they, the other, came first, and then with evolution and advancement gave rise to you. And if that's not the case, which obviously it isn't, then we must be able to examine ourselves with the same kind of detail and critical eye that we examine other societies. So . . . our racism stems from classical anthropology and its predecessors, and is a trait of our society rather than a necessary instinct. In our painfully individualistic society, it is possible for people raised and/or trained in similar contexts to believe in very different social truths.

I was raised one way, and those police officers were trained in another. As far as I'm concerned, the training those officers received is inimical to my opinions and values; in this day, age and region, I doubt they would say the same about mine. But who's to say.

I don't intend this to mean that I'm not somewhat racist; I can't see outside myself far enough to be so presumptuous. I think it's a fair statement that I'm much less racist (overtly or otherwise) than those police officers, but while I can pat myself on the back for that it's not exactly an accomplishment.

The day after this racial profiling (I know it didn't have anything near the practical or psychological repercussions that people who are actually members of racial minority groups experience after an incident of racial profiling, but profiling it was), which would be today, I finished John Grisham's A Time to Kill, which I'd picked up at the Evanston library book sale for fifty cents. Being a University of Chicago graduate and raised, to some degree, to be a literary snob, I have a hard time admitting to my love of thrillers and crime drama. But I'm working on it. I remembered a long-ago conversation with my father about the film, so I knew the book's basic scenario, but I didn't know the end and devoured the book, even on my schedule, in less than two days.

Grisham's a decent prose stylist, nothing more on the artistry front. He's good at crafting plot and suspense, but leaves a disappointing amount both unresolved and un-unresolved, if that makes any sense. We never learn who the KKK informant was or what motivated him, which is frustrating to me (and would never happen in Thomas Harris), and yet we are all assumed and expected to be okay with the outcome of the trial; there are no lingering questions in the prose that believe the story's not resolved. Disaster comes from racially charged cases, no question; in the end, you win, and if you won because the jury said if the races were switched every (white) one would do what the (black) defendent had done, you are right. And because he won, the lawyer is happy. And the prosecutor, who condemns vigilante justice, is a jerk. There's a couple of other people who condemn vigilante justice, but they've kind of dropped out by the end of the book. I mean, you kind of get the sense that Grisham allowed this verdict in one sense simply because he didn't *want* to write about Rodney-King-style riots in Mississippi, and another sense that we must believe vigilante, revenge-style justice really is okay.

Which last is, in many ways, another form-content debate. I react viscerally to vigilante justice, of course, because who the hell wouldn't, but I feel like the content doesn't acknowledge the form. This is going a little bit down the everything-including-society-is-an-art road, but I think that's the road I live on. I sympathize with Grisham's Carl Lee Hailey, though he ain't our protagonist, and never having been to Mississippi, certainly not in the late '80s, I pretty much have to take as truth everything Grisham tells me about the social conditions there. If a white man would not even have been indicted for viciously murdering two black men who raped and viciously beat his ten-year-old daughter, I'm prepared to believe that the same courts shouldn't indict a black man for viciously murdering two white men who raped and viciously beat his ten-year-old daughter. But I'm not prepared to believe that the lack of indictment is right in either case.

And I *know* that by nature I'm one of those weird, slick, uncomprehending Northerners the book is always jabbing at. I know that an eye for an eye's an important and prevalent philosophy in a lot of places,

I guess maybe the point of the ending of Grisham's 1989 novel was to give us some hope. In a book written and set in the late '80s, an all-white jury voted to acquit a black man who killed, in a premeditated fashion, the white rapists of his daughter. His lawyer was white; his lawyer's weird, disbarred, alcoholic mentor was white and a card-carrying member of the NAACP. Maybe there's hope for the world yet, quoth Grisham.

And obviously I believe there's hope for the world. I would be entirely useless if I didn't. But the more Jonathan Kozol one reads, the harder it becomes to believe our society can be both salvagable and ethical.

This is the third-and-a-half Kozol book I've read (before this I read Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, and parts of Ordinary Resurrections). He's written I think twelve of them, all on the same general themes: he's a white, Jewish '60s radical and former teacher intent on exposing racial injustice. He does it well, and even on the occasions where he doesn't (he lapses into the maudlin, the manipulative), he's an *incredibly* important writer and observer, somebody who really achieves the synthesis of directness and honesty. The Shame of the Nation is the best book I've read so far--it's about facts, it's about action, while still acknowledging that personal stories are a part of what requires action. In a lot of his other works there are pleas for sympathy, appeals to pathos that don't really work out, but it isn't what he's doing here. Kozol's sentimental to some degree, as I think anyone who works with or thinks about children has to be, but he's taking on inevitable facts about the racial divide in American schooling, down to calling it an apartheid system. Maybe that's not a fact per se--the existence of a black middle class would have been impossible under South African apartheid--but the vicious divisions in public schools are clear enough, and the inequalities in the distribution of resources cannot be denied with a straight face. But that, too, goes back to anthropology: there's no excuse for what's going on, and other than the assumption of limited capacities there's not even an explanation. The assumption of limited capacities is exactly what Fabian attacks in his work, that people who aren't us are behind us somehow. I think that can happen a lot when you're working with people, kids in particular, who come from less money than you do. And while there's some fairness to it, it leads to a lot of weirdness when I or my teaching partner or guests to our class assume that our kids couldn't access the internet at home, haven't been exposed to certain ideas, etcetera. We assume they're behind the curve, we assume they don't know what we know because they don't have access to ways of forming the knowledge. And with technology that *can* be true, and yet and yet. Where does one draw the line between that and Kozol's Hispanic students who have the grades for honors but are tracked into sewing and vocational classes because the school isn't equipped to do otherwise, assumes its students will all enter the service industry?

I think in the end Grisham's approach is just dishonest, as overweening idealism can sometimes be. I'm going to write a longer post on Kozol soon, so I'm not going into too much detail now, but we shall not overcome with one major fictional criminal trial on the subject of vigilante justice alone.

And now our Mr. Bush is attacking Southern Illinois University for having fellowships that are available only to female and/or minority students. This from a president who has done for minority students what Reagan did for the homeless and the mentally ill, not to mention the HIV+.


I don't think I've said anything cogent about racism in this post, aside from the fact that it's always more present and more insidious than we think it is. I don't quite have the energy to tie everything together as I usually do in posts like this; it's just threads about where we are on racial judgements. Look for more on Kozol as soon as I can breathe again.