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.


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