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.