One purpose of education

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that if we – as a society — undertake to see that every child is educated, then part of the reason we do this is to secure a happy and productive life for those children. (What is likely to be more controversial is whether we, in fact, do undertake to see that every child is educated.) Part of having that “happy and productive” life, you might think, is to belong. Back in the day, when society wanted to punish you, they threw your sorry tush out into the wilderness and forbid people to speak to you. You were cut off. You did not belong.

It’s a tricky thing, of course, belonging to a society of 300 million. (Let’s not get started on Indians, Malaysians, or Chinese.) You’ll never belong to American society in the same way you belong to your family. Even if you were President and were on television every day, you might get marginally closer to that strong sense of familiarity and attachment, but it’s not ever going to be even remotely the same.

The reason I bring this up is that I’m about to link to two must-read blog posts that, in and of themselves, don’t have a lot to do with education. But they do have to do with belonging to our larger society and culture, and how it is that poorer people aren’t just deprived materially, but are in a sense cut-off from full participation in society. Of course, a lion’s share — heck, a pride’s share — of the hand-wringing that gets done about education in this country is about how to “fix” schools that are serving poorer communities. We look at the lives of the people emerging from these schools, and we say to ourselves, “Something’s gone terribly wrong here.”

This post of mine isn’t about providing answers. It’s about framing issues. Here’s the first post to which I want to link, “The Logic of Stupid Poor People”, by Tressie McMillan-Cottom. You should go read the whole thing, but here’s the abbreviated guts of it — I apologize for quoting at length:

I remember my mother taking a next door neighbor down to the social service agency. The elderly woman had been denied benefits to care for the granddaughter she was raising. The woman had been denied in the genteel bureaucratic way — lots of waiting, forms, and deadlines she could not quite navigate. I watched my mother put on her best Diana Ross “Mahogany” outfit: a camel colored cape with matching slacks and knee high boots. I was miffed, as only an only child could be, about sharing my mother’s time with the neighbor girl. I must have said something about why we had to do this. Vivian fixed me with a stare as she was slipping on her pearl earrings and told me that people who can do, must do. It took half a day but something about my mother’s performance of respectable black person — her Queen’s English, her Mahogany outfit, her straight bob and pearl earrings — got done what the elderly lady next door had not been able to get done in over a year. I learned, watching my mother, that there was a price we had to pay to signal to gatekeepers that we were worthy of engaging. It meant dressing well and speaking well. It might not work. It likely wouldn’t work but on the off chance that it would, you had to try. It was unfair but, as Vivian also always said, “life isn’t fair little girl.”

I internalized that lesson and I think it has worked out for me, if unevenly. * * * * Respectability rewards are a crap-shoot but we do what we can within the limits of the constraints imposed by a complex set of structural and social interactions designed to limit access to status, wealth, and power.

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child?

If I can paraphrase and expand on her point, what is being highlighted here is not just an issue of power (which you can see at play in the description of what might happen with the principal), but also an issue of belonging. We help those who belong to our “tribe”. We look after each other’s interests. I’m not an anthropologist, but it strikes me that this might be the primary reason (evolutionarily speaking) that social groups exist in the first place.

The second piece to which I want to link is called “Poor Choices” and is by Canadian academic Melonie Fullick, whose blog is called Speculative Diction. She’s expanding on McMillan-Cottom’s notions, and attempting to bring out some salient points with respect to higher education, and the life of poor people with respect to the institution of the university. The main idea doesn’t come out until the last few paragraphs, which I’ve substantially edited (by deletion only) for your easy consumption, though I once again urge reading the whole thing:

You may wonder why I’m writing about work and money and opportunities, instead of education. * * * * All the things I just described are things that some students may be experiencing or may have experienced in the past. They’re all factors that affect people’s perceptions of the value of things, including education – and the risks we’re told we have to take to access that value. When we talk about student financial assistance, “debt aversion”, the job market, “entrepreneurialism”, and most of all “risk”, we are making assumptions not just about income and privilege but also about mindset.

* * * *

There’s so much hue and cry about the diminishing opportunities for those who were previously part of the middle class – as if a problem only matters when it happens to folks who had better things in mind. But for some people this has always been their mode of living, their understanding of the world. When we hold out the promise of a better life as the result of higher education, not everyone can believe in that promise. When pundits bemoan the “high expectations” of an entire generation, they’re forgetting that not everyone had the expectation of magical prosperity either from education or anything else. If we took loans, it wasn’t because we truly believed we could repay them; it was because we saw no other option, because we were told our chances of survival were even lower without the coveted Bachelor’s degree. It was because not having a degree was presented a threat to our future employability, and the fear of debt was overshadowed by the fear of other forms of uncertainty. That doesn’t feel like a “choice” – it feels like coercion, and it’s something we need to start thinking about when we engage in debates about policy and accessibility.

I think I generally agree with her description of what’s at play in these situations, though I would probably stress that the situations only feellike coercion. Those feelings are real, and if students have them, we should take them into account. But I would hesitate to ring the alarms of structural social injustice over perceived, but not real coercion. The fact is that lots of students choose to walk away from college. Perhaps they also feel coerced, but perhaps feeling like you have no choices is just part of having a fixed personality. (Hume thought something similar to this — that to have perfect freedom would be insanity, and that our natures bind us deterministically.)

I want to take these themes and invite you, the readers, to apply them to the project of education more broadly. How do we initiate students into our society, give them a sense of belonging? It’s probably not going to happen by giving them a few worksheets or subjecting them to a battery of standardized tests. Those tests are just measuring whether they can read and add — and those basic tools are just the means, not the ends, of education.


  1. I think that we underestimate the importance of people knowing that they are competent. I currently teach high schoolers at a homeschool co-op. I’m pretty much teaching the same material that I taught at community college, at times using the same books. I love my students, and in both environments the students are usually respectful.

    My interactions with them, though, have some important differences. Most of my high schoolers, and my CC students who had been in the military or had completed degrees and were taking my class to broaden their knowledge, treat me like a boss who knows more than they do. They know that I know more than they do about the subject and ask questions, but they’re not intimidated by me. The also seem to believe that, if they work hard, they can learn all of the material.

    Some of my CC students, though, seemed very intimidated by me, saying that I was really smart. I point out that I spent years learning this material (I have a PhD). It take a lot of cajoling to convince them that they can put it all together. They’re always really proud of themselves at the end of the semester, when they realize how much they’ve learned and that they can put it all together. I would imagine that a lot of the students who drop over the course of the semester fall into this category – they got overwhelmed early and quit.I don’t know the difference between the ones who make it and the ones who don’t, but the differences in mentality are dramatic. I often felt like I served the dual roles of teacher/grader and also cheerleader, trying to convince them that they could do it. It seems like it would be a lot easier to teach this before they get to college.

    • Agreed; this is something that should be instilled in k-12, with increasing student responsibilities by grade – especially in HS. It’s called being challenged and meeting challenges requires reading, doing problems, active listening, note-taking and other study skills. If everything is easy and/or spoon-fed (lots want this) and if failing is not an option, those skills aren’t developed. Returning to the recent discussion of the needs of gifted kids, I think that most ES-MS schools fail to challenge this group, as well as far too many high schools.

      • The flip side of this is that students who are overwhelmed need to be worked with until they master things. Too easy is one problem, but never feeling like you quite understand seems to cause students to quit expecting to fully understand. One of my most rewarding teaching experiences was to have some of the timid students be absolutely thrilled that they could actually do the work, explaining every step. They might have gotten by with a B or C in the past, but they didn’t ever think that they were smart enough to truly master something. Their excitement when they did was absolutely amazing, and hopefully gave them the confidence boost to do it again.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    The first story applies eveywhere. Richard Hamming (IEEE has named an award after him) once gave a speech titled “You and Your Research” where he said this:

    Another personality defect is ego assertion and I’ll speak in this case of my own experience. I came from Los Alamos and in the early days I was using a machine in New York at 590 Madison Avenue where we merely rented time. I was still dressing in western clothes, big slash pockets, a bolo and all those things. I vaguely noticed that I was not getting as good service as other people. So I set out to measure. You came in and you waited for your turn; I felt I was not getting a fair deal. I said to myself, “Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time’. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they’ll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven’t mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn’t dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn’t dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly. The moment I did, I got much better service. And now, as an old colorful character, I get better service than other people.


    You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.

    Presentation matters. And not knowing how to play the game has the same result as refusing the play the game.

  3. Hi Michael!

    I was reading this and thinking, this doesn’t sound like Joanne Jacobs and then I realized it was you.

    I also enjoyed the piece by Tressie McMillan-Cottom.

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts.

  4. The themes of both belonging and coercion lead quite quickly to the heart of many dilemmas in state schools, which are aggravated now that these schools are being nationalized.

    Those with a socialistic bent are fond of using images of the caring family or, here, the tribe in their imagining of the state. Since I belong to a tribe that has a long history of being at odds with the state, this will never ring true as a desirable goal for me. My tribe will always take its bearings from sources about which the state is at best ignorant and toward which it is at worst hostile.

    The question of coercion by the state, including its schools, was once fundamental and for many it remains so. I hear education leaders proposing more and more coercive methods to improve the graduation rate, and they seem tone deaf to talk of liberty–the idea that a 16-year-old has a right to walk away from authorities who would prescribe whatever they can get away with prescribing, including his attitude toward them.

    Such problems would be better managed if schools were in fact operated by our several tribes rather than by a state, which at bottom is coercion.

  5. “How do we initiate students into our society, give them a sense of belonging?”

    You begin by restoring the family. No easy task I grant you, but an essential first step. It’s going to take changes in the law, changes in society, and changes in expectations.

  6. “Returning to the recent discussion of the needs of gifted kids, I think that most ES-MS schools fail to challenge this group, as well as far too many high schools.”

    “The flip side of this is that students who are overwhelmed need to be worked with until they master things.”

    The answer to both of these problems is tracking…sorting students by ability level. However, tracking is absolutely forbidden because of the unpleasant demographic realities it produces.

    • Exactly. I was about to make the same response to lulu” second post. Expecting all kids in the same age cohort to thrive and learn the same things, in the same amount of time, in the same classroom makes about as much sense as mandating that all kids of the same age wear the same size shoes. One size does not fit all.

  7. I think some others have said this too. This needs to be introduced much earlier in a childs schooling. High School is too late. I dropped out in grade 9 and to this day I don’t ‘understand’ the pomp and circumstance of higer education (University). I went to night school and then community college for adults. This served me well for years – but now that it’s an employers market I wish I could go back in time to get a degree. People my age (48) are now going ‘back’ to University after finding their careers stalled from the lack of that higher education – even with years of experience under their belt. Makes me wonder what kind of ‘magical’ 😉 teachings I must be missing 🙂

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Kids don’t get “the society”. Hardly anybody gets “the society” on an emotional level. Intellectually, sure. Sometimes.
    You start with what are known as intermediating institutions. Smaller groups. Family. School. Town.
    Read an article years ago suggesting we change our structure to a nation of “shires”. That is, semi-sovereign entities consisting of what might have been half a dozen counties. Their own flags, and, iirc, customs at the borders. Nonsense, of course, but the point was that most people can get their heads around a shire as described, but nothing larger. I suppose the article was meant to provoke discussion of something or other.
    Given certain recent issues, the power of the county sheriff in some states has become interesting. Nobody knew that existed until various fed intrusions got to be too intrusive.
    And tyranny seeks to destroy the intermediating institutions, to atomize the individual. If one is alone, one has no power, no feeling of loyalty to anything, nobody one can trust.
    Identifying with, for example, the for-all-intents professional football team of a college one graduated from fifty years ago is kind of nuts. But it indicates the human need for an intermediating institution of some kind, any kind.
    Then we work our way to “the society”, by which I suppose we mean the nation.

    • There are tribes–Front Porch Republic – — comes to mind–who are reimagining how place and localism can work in this vast, soulless “society.” Unfortunately, I see little work in that direction going on in the official world of public education.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      That strikes me as mostly right, Richard, and I’m glad you said it. But I still think that there are attenuated ways in which a person *can* belong to a larger society. They are not as intimate, salient, or (perhaps) meaningful, but they exist.

      • At one stage of the American journey, considerable thought and effort was put into making students Americans–Longfellow is especially notable. The civil war of the sixties took direct aim at all that–in a debunking spirit that is now dominant in public schools. It was successful with a significant part of the population. Unity isn’t a word that would come to mind to describe Americans today.
        I agree there are ways people can be related in a larger society that the tribe, but I think they are ways our school system is dedicated to opposing, in this age of both multiculturalism and radical individual autonomy.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          It’s probably wrong to say that schools are opposed to ways of being related to larger societies… although it’s at least arguable that certain strands of thought in the education world today are opposed to the traditional ways you discuss.

          • The main strand that’s opposed to Americanism is progressivism, which is the tribe to which most teachers belong. The schools are not official opposed, but lots of classroom teachers reflexively balk at patriotism, assimilation, tradition and religion. :Howard Zinn is the presiding spirit of their sense of our past.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Several years ago, traveling out west, we stopped in Richfield, UT. Big sign on a restaurant, “Welcome back, xxxxth FA” I asked the waitress what about that and found it was a Guard artillery battalion. They’d been at Ft. Lewis for annual training. Any town can have Infantry. Having your own arty battalion is class.
            Which reminded me that, of the reserve component, the actual Reserves are odds and sods, training units, combat support and combat service support. For heavy combat units, you go to the National Guard. Which are owned by the states. Local guys.
            Just sayin’.
            Five years ago, I’d have looked at that as a “huh, how about that.”.
            Said it before, long before, going around on the intertubes with a couple of history teachers. Why, I asked, if the colonists were divided into thirds, did so many more show up for the rebels than the loyalists–who had Brit backing and funding and so forth. Lame answers and when I tried to ask about the lameness, they decided I must be a patriot. Which was not a good thing.
            While I don’t think there’s a conspiracy–couldn’t prove it–somebody once remarked that Pavlov’s dogs didn’t conspire to salivate.
            But see ALA on porn in libraries and kids.