If white, middle-class teachers understand class differences, they can connect with their low-income, minority students and offer them the chance to learn the values and habits necessary for social mobility. That’s the promise of Ruby Payne, an author and lecturer who’s become wildly popular with teachers. But Payne’s work is condemned by some academics, writes Paul Tough in New York Times Magazine. Critics say she stereotypes the poor, assumes middle-class values are superior and “blames the victim” for poverty.
By teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in â€œclassismâ€ and racism. Her work is â€œriddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes,â€ charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, in a paper on Payneâ€™s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payneâ€™s central text â€œconsists, at the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address poverty and education by â€˜fixingâ€™ poor people instead of reforming classist policies and practices.â€ (â€œLeftyHenry,â€ a recent poster on a political blog, was less subtle in his criticism; he called Payne â€œthe Hitler of American academics.â€)
Critics are mad that Payne doesn’t acknowledge that “the American economy and American schools systematically discriminate against poor people,” Tough writes. Well, I suppose poor people could wait for society to change in their favor. It might be a long wait, however.
Payne clearly believes that low-income students can choose their futures.
â€œWhat Iâ€™ve learned to say to kids is this: â€˜You know, I respect you so much that you can handle this situation. I donâ€™t know that I could. But if you donâ€™t want to live that way the rest of your life, then I can give you the tools that will help you do things differently. Itâ€™s your choice. I canâ€™t change your situation right now, but I can certainly give you the tools to help you change.â€™ And I think thatâ€™s the gift we bring. Itâ€™s a huge gift.â€
I can’t imagine teaching if I believed students couldn’t do better than the lives to which they were born. If they’re doomed — barring a social revolution — why bother?