Parents, don’t trust your children’s education to the schools — even to good, suburban schools. That’s one of the key messages in John Ogbu’s book, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb. In FrontPage Magazine, Peter Wood looks at Ogbu’s study of black students’ lackluster school performance in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Educated black parents wanted their children to do well, but didn’t supervise homework or participate in school events, the Berkeley anthropologist found. Middle-class black students said they don’t work hard in school. Wood writes:
The student who complained that the school failed to “motivate me” speaks volumes in those two words. No school, no person, no “role model,” no society can assume the responsibility to “motivate me.” . . . Teachers cannot supply motivation for the resolutely unmotivated, or even for those empty vessels that have shifted the responsibility to others. “Motivate me” is the command of someone who has already abandoned the essential educational project. A community or a culture that fosters that kind of expectation has put itself in opposition to educational achievement.
Black parents “did not perceive themselves as active agents in the education process,” Ogbu writes. They assumed teachers would pour knowledge into their children.
The Black parents simultaneously uphold an attitude that educational achievement is important and a contradictory attitude that the locus of responsibility for academic achievement lies outside the students and the family. When this learned helplessness begins to erode their children’s commitment to the hard effort need to succeed in high school, both the black parents and their children reach for the well-trod rationalizations that it is somebody else’s fault: the teachers that don’t “care,” the White community that denies real opportunities, or the society that oppresses Black culture.
Middle-class black parents are fighting a culture that tells their children that black identity is rooted in defiance, flash and isolation from the white mainstream. Parents must create a family culture that relentlessly preaches the old motto we used to mock in my youth: work, study, get ahead.