Bankrupt Cultural Capital Claims: Beware the Roadbuilders, pt. 3

Mathematics may well be simple, but the complexities of race and culture are often irreducible. They cannot be wholly addressed in a single essay or book or television show or movie.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

The Department of Education Reform (DER) at the University of Arkansas (and funded by the Walton family) is apparently no longer content with pretending to be educators and researchers. Just in time for Halloween, they are pretending to be sociologists*—and continuing to do all of this quite badly, except for the masking.

First, shame on the journal of Sociology of Education, and next, shame on the DER for continuing to hide culturally insensitive claims behind the veneer of conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Continuing their tradition of perpetuating racism/classism and stereotypes while claiming to address the needs of minority children (supporting “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains such as KIPP), the DER now claims:

“We found that, when students are primed through some initial exposure to a cultural institution, this interacts with indicators of students’ disadvantaged status that are associated with low cultural capital and produces higher gains in attitudes toward future cultural consumption,” Kisida said. “Cultural mobility is likely driven, in part, by disadvantaged children becoming activated to acquire cultural capital, thus compensating for family background characteristics and changing their preferences.”

The problem? Here, as I have outlined about how we use deficit perspectives to marginalize impoverished children and blame their parents, this study focuses on “cultural capital” in a way that is bankrupt in terms of cultural sensitivity because the claims include that impoverished children, once again, lack something valued in society and that their parents, once again, are to blame (thus, fix the children mis-served by their inadequate parents, but nothing about the social forces placing both those parents and their children in poverty).

Behind the masks of experimental research and publishing in selective research journals, we find deficit views, stereotypes, and enough shades of the Great White Hope narrative to fuel yet another horrible Hollywood film on the renegade teacher brave enough to take poor or minority children on a field trip to the local museum.

Deficit perspectives and reducing children to “cultural capital” are tone deaf, bankrupt insensitivities that discredit whatever research claims to measure when conducting “a large-scale experimental study” and publishing in “the highest ranking educational research journal.”

Once again, the DER has offered us not objective research but more evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s warning about bias (and privilege, ironically): “The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees, in every object, only the traits which favor that theory.”

This study of “cultural capital” is just that—a privileged quantifying of how the world is and should be (“primed” and “activated” children for “future cultural consumption,” for example), a version ultimately deforming, not informing.

This Halloween, then, beware the roadbuilders coming to a school near you.

See Also

The Strangest Academic Department in the World, Gene Glass

It’s Privilege (and Race), not Effort

* This year’s costume: Pierre Bourdieu!

Although one might imagine Bourdieu’s concern about this research:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (Acts of Resistance, pp. 7, 32)

Academic Fraud and Scholastic Sport (Again)

Writing about the newly released investigation of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina, Barry Petchesky opens with:

We knew that UNC’s Department of African and Afro-American Studies offered sham classes. After the release of today’s independent investigation we now know it went on for nearly two decades, and involved thousands of students—nearly half of them athletes.

Let’s get the moralizing out of the way up top before we dive in: just remember, as you read this and are tempted to point out (accurately) that every program has joke classes, that the entire basis for amateurism relies on the idea that these athletes are paid with an education.

I want, as Petchesky requests, to reject using this report to bash specifically UNC athletics or academics, but I also want to note two claims here: “every program has joke classes” and “athletes are paid with an education.”

First, however, I must stress that I have made the case before that there simply is no credible connection between academics and athletics; thus, the obsession with scholastic sport in the U.S. is itself the problem. Every time we persist in using sport participation to entice and/or blackmail young people into committing to academics, we are corrupting both sport and academics.

In literature (see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example) and research in behavioral science and economics (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity, for example), we have ample evidence that individual and collective behavior is often profoundly impacted by larger (and often interrelated) norms.

Not to overstate, but historical human scars on history such as the Holocaust or U.S. slavery are powerful narratives of how otherwise good people tolerated and even participated in barbarism—significantly because those actions appeared “right” in the context of an inexcusable set of cultural norms (eradicating Jews as the “Others,” enslaving blacks as the “Others”).

On a much smaller scale, then, if “every program has joke classes,” as Petchesky claims, then we must see UNC’s academic fraud as reflective of the utter failure of all scholastic sport.

By any credible measures, UNC is an elite academic institution and athletic program; thus, UNC has everything to gain from not stooping to academic fraud, and far more than most to lose by sinking into the norm of “every program has joke classes.”

And this, I think, leads to “athletes are paid with an education.”

While “paid” is a foundational concept in the U.S., it certainly is problematic. Once the payment gains more value to a person that the act itself, whatever leads to the payment becomes tarnished; this is the essential problem with external rewards.

Humans, again perfectly decent people in most all circumstances, are often apt to bend the rules of ethics as long as the payment keeps flowing—or the payment increases. As long as an education is merely “payment” for most college athletes, academics and athletics will both be corrupted. (My point here is that education and athletics should remain their own rewards—neither reduced as a means to the other.)

And this is particularly true because this claim—”athletes are paid with an education”—has another serious problem: For both athletes and non-athletes in the U.S., education is in fact not a terminal payment, but a means to terminal payment (while this claim is mostly misleading, we also bribe all students to commit to education by showing them charts correlating higher educational attainment with greater life-long salaries, despite evidence that race and class are greater indicators of attaining work and level of salary).

The ugly truth is that some or even many athletes see no value in formal education; an even uglier truth is that some athletes and non-athletes are correct when they do not value formal education because their lives and avocations will be just fine—or even exemplary—without formal education.

Athletes—like artists, musicians, or actors—may have gifts that are not traditionally academic and thus bribing them to participate in academics in order to play sport is creating the exact environment in which “every program has joke classes” becomes inevitable.

Those involved in academic fraud at UNC, or anywhere, in pursuit of athletic success should not be ignored, but if we once again punish and then ratchet up accountability and oversight because of this scandal, we are ultimately to blame for the next scandal because this UNC academic fraud case is an indictment of the entire scholastic sport machine, a machine that ultimately chews up and spits out the exact young people it claims to support.

It’s Privilege (and Race), not Effort

In the tradition of Mel Riddile (see here and here), I want to assert: In the U.S., it’s privilege (and race), not effort.

The U.S. has a powerful addiction to a false myth, the myth of meritocracy—that success comes from hard work and that failure comes from laziness. Against that myth consider the following:

  • Matt O’Brien reports: “Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.”
  • Matt Bruenig concludes, based on data from the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project: “So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated….Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.”
  • Drawing on the report Young Invincibles, Susan Adams explains: “African-Americans college students are about as likely to get hired as whites who have dropped out of high school.”
  • Bruenig also notes: “Black families with college degrees have a mean wealth of $162.8k, which is effectively the same as the mean wealth of white families with less than a high school education.”

The evidence refutes the myth, then, since race and the economic status of any child’s home are far more powerful influences on success than effort. As long as we cling to the false myth and fail to dismantle privilege, however, meritocracy will never become a reality.

Our Enduring Deficit Gaze: Misreading Poverty (Again)

In Why important education research often gets ignored, Dennis Hayes notes that “[t]eachers’ professional development is ‘fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research'” in the UK, concluding (with some snark), “It will come as no surprise then that this report is likely to be ignored, like much of the research available to teachers.”

“A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods,” wrote Lou LaBrant, although her point was made about education in the U.S.—and in 1947.

Little appears to have changed, then, since LaBrant’s recognition of the “considerable gap” also examined by Hayes, but complicating the failure of research to reach the classroom is how research is distorted by the media, which disproportionately covers think-tank reports (often not peer-reviewed) compared to more rigorous university-based research (see Molnar and Yettick).

One enduring failure of research and reporting on research is the persistent claims about the language deficit among the poor. However, even when that claim is challenged in the mainstream press, the source of that misconception continues to be embraced as credible.

For example, Douglas Quenqua reports in The New York Times:

It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

That “landmark study” is by Hart and Risley from 1995, but despite the newer research highlighted by Quenqua, this article remains uncritical of Hart and Risley’s claim that children in poverty can be distinguished from the wealthier peers by the quantity of language they are exposed to in their homes.

Two significant problems are revealed in Quenqua’s article: Hart and Risley’s research maintains its credibility and the new research remains within a deficit perspective, one that marginalizes people in poverty while keeping the gaze of judgment on the impoverished.

Absent in Quenqua (or any media consideration of language acquisition by the poor) is that Dudley-Marling and Lucas have discredited Hart and Risley for perpetuating stereotypes and overgeneralizing claims from a skewed perspective.

Inevitably, when the media and educators address language acquisition and children in poverty (and often minority students), Hart and Risley is cited directly, and a deficit view of language and poverty is presented as fact—despite those claims being baseless stereotyping and debunked mischaracterizations of language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

[Hart and Risley] are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

This brings us to the second problem with Quenqua’s piece on shifting from quantity to quality of language when teaching children in poverty. While this newer study seems to refute Hart and Risley, the broader assumptions remain trapped in the same deficit gaze that places all the focus and blame on impoverished children’s parents.

We, then, are faced with a shift from “quantity” to “quality” as no real change at all because the message persists that impoverished parents lack something that is thus passed on to their children, who must have that lack filled (once it was more words, now it is higher quality words).

In other words, we are not willing to turn our deficit gaze away from the victims of poverty and toward the systemic conditions creating that poverty—and consequences such as differences in language among social classes that reflect not failed people but a failed society.

Yes, education seems too often implementing practices in the classroom without proper attention to research, but we also must admit that our education system is just as prone to falling for research claims as long as they conform to our stereotypes, those “common-sense renderings” exposed by Dudley-Marling and Lucas—a much more damning concern we must confront if research is ever to matter in the schooling and lives of children.

The State (SC), Letters: We should reject spanking

We should reject spanking

I was disappointed with Ron Prinz’s incomplete and misleading guest column on corporal punishment (“The truth about spanking,” Sept. 26). Prinz claimed he was “getting past myths,” but there is in fact no debate about the correct use of corporal punishment.

Elizabeth T. Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, in analysis for the American Psychological Association, has concluded: “Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use.”

Few, if any, parents are qualified to know the line between mild and harmful corporal punishment, and the research is clear that all corporal punishment is ineffective. Just as we do not justify any man hitting any woman, we should reject any adult hitting a child.