“Other People’s Children” v. “They’re All Our Children”

Optimism, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—these are not my proclivities.

And while I wallow in the self-delusion that I am a Skeptic, the truth is that I have long ago slipped over into the abyss of cynicism.

There are moments, however, when I hope.

One such moment was during the Sandy Hook school shooting tragedy—when I wanted desperately to believe that President Obama’s call for seeing every child as “all our children” would resonate against the recurring din of gunfire killing children—but not only the uniquely American slaying of school children but the daily loss of mostly black and brown children and young adults to gunfire in the homes and streets of U.S. inner cities.

But that has not happened. Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, Brown’s body left callously in the street—adding to the seemingly endless cataloguing of similar tragedies. And those tragedies are daily magnified by our collective refusal to see each death in the same way we would see the death of our own children, our collective refusal to see how “other people’s children” live, learn, and die is just as precious as if they were “all our children.”

So my cynicism is driven by the stark realization that if we cannot come together as a community over the shooting of “other people’s children,” how will we ever come together about the less dramatic but just as tragic conditions such as what we allow for the education of “other people’s children”?

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Lisa Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

Delpit’s call, however, must be distinguished from not only traditionalists but also popular but flawed programs such as those provided by Ruby Payne, who promotes uncritical teaching of middle class codes to impoverished students. Not grounded in research but driving professional development of teachers in many states across the U.S., Payne’s self-published workbooks and workshops speak to and perpetuate stereotypes of people in poverty and racial minorities. And as Monique Redeaux clarifies:

At first glance, this seems to be the message conveyed by Payne: poor students of color need to be explicitly taught the hidden rules or codes of the middle/upper class in order to be successful in school, work, etc. When examined more closely, this could not be further from the truth. Both terms, the “culture of poverty” (Payne) and the “culture of power” (Delpit) locate the problem in culture—but in different ways/places [emphasis added]. Although Payne and other “culture of poverty” advocates see the problem as residing with the cultural attributes of those living in poverty, the “culture of power” perspective suggests that the middle/upper class hold the power and key to institutional success, partly through their monopolization of educational skills, and that they do all they can to make sure that they and their offspring maintain that power.

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

The key distinction between Delpit and Payne is the reason why [emphasis added] they believe students should be taught the “hidden rules.” Payne argues that their educational and economic success depend on their being able to conform to the rules of the middle/upper class. While Delpit, too, makes this argument, she does not believe that students should passively adopt an alternate code simply because it is the “way things are,” especially if they want to achieve a particular economic status. Instead, Delpit asserts that students need to know and understand the power realities of this country with the purpose of changing these realities.

We are confronted, then, with the continuing rise in programs funded by the government and supported by a wide range of political, public, and media ideologies and interests that submit only “other people’s children” to teachers produced by alternative pathways (such as Teach For America, but also copycats) and to school structures (usually charter schools, labeled “public” but functioning within a market dynamic) and policies driven by “no excuses” ideologies (such as KIPP, but also numerous copycats) demanding “grit.”

Yet, affluent children, mostly white, find themselves in classrooms with low class size, experienced and qualified/certified teachers, and rich curricula often not linked to the standards-of-the-moment or high-stakes testing—and do not find themselves disproportionately retained, suspended, expelled, or shot while unarmed walking down the street.

Our education dilemma is a subset of our greater cultural dilemma—one that pits our traditional commitments to the rugged individual, Social Darwinism, and consumerism against our potential moral grounding in community and cooperation.

No child should need to depend on the choices her/his parents make, and no parents should be faced with making choices about those foundational things that all humans deserve—one of which is access to the exact same conditions for learning and living that the privileged among us have before them.

Today, the U.S. remains a dog-eat-dog culture that perpetuates and allows one world for “other people’s children” that would never be tolerated for “my child.” A great moral lapse of our time is that we refuse to act in ways that prove “they’re all our children.”

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

“Education as Great Equalizer” Deforming Myth, Not Reality

In the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons,” viewers watch yet another clash between the essentially soulless main characters as they interact with the very white and privileged “real world” surrounding them in the sitcom. The crux of this episode revolves around one couple having a baby, and then what occurs when reality clashes with civility:

Jerry: Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?

Elaine: Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like the Pekinese.

Jerry: Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. (They sit) And, you know, the thing is, they’re never gonna know, no one’s ever gonna tell them. (See transcript here.)

Setting aside what this scene (again) reveals about Jerry and Elaine, an important message we can draw from this tension is that most people genuinely do not want to face the harsh truth, especially when that harsh truth contradicts their beliefs.

As I have examined before, the U.S. is overwhelmingly a belief culture, committed to our cultural myths even and especially when those myths have no basis in evidence.

When I have approached the overwhelming evidence that poverty is destiny, I receive angry challenges from people all along the spectrum of ideologies Right and Left, but I also have people who align themselves with me send pleas that I stop such nonsense: Rejecting hard truths has no ideological boundary.

However, in the U.S. both poverty and affluence are destiny, and those who shudder at that reality are confusing verbs: Yes, poverty should not be destiny, but false claims will never allow us to achieve that ideal.

So this leads me to a parallel harsh truth: Education is not the great equalizer (and, again, education should be the great equalizer, but making that claim when it isn’t a reality is inexcusable.)

As I have highlighted numerous times, Matt Bruenig, using “data from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project about social mobility (I,II),” presents a stark reality and draws a disturbing conclusion:

One convenient way to describe what’s going on is that rich kids are more likely to get a better education, which translates into being richer and wealthier as adults. It is certainly the case that richer kids are more likely to get a college degree, and it is certainly the case that getting a college degree leaves you much better off on average than not getting one. But this does not explain the full picture of social immobility. Take a look at this super-complicated chart, which I will describe below….

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. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

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.

In the U.S., powerful mythologies drive a faith in social mobility (connected to working hard, being well educated, and achievement coming to those who merit that success), but also foster counter-narratives that are essentially ugly and unwarranted: those who are poor or fail are lazy, underserving (read Scarcity for a powerful and evidence-based look at how poverty overwhelms people instead of poverty results from flawed individuals).

The evidence is overwhelming and growing, however, that education is not the great equalizer and that poverty/affluence remain essentially destiny, as reported by Juana Summers at NPR:

Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.

“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.

But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.

In The Long Shadow, Alexander, Entwistle, and Olson “followed nearly 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for a quarter of a century, and discovered that their fates were substantially determined by the family they were born into,” Rosen explains, discovering:

  • Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds. “That’s a shocking tenfold difference across social lines,” Alexander said.
  • Among those who did not attend college, white men from low-income backgrounds found the best-paying jobs. Although they had the lowest rate of college attendance and completion, white men from low-income backgrounds found high-paying jobs in what remained of Baltimore’s industrial economy. At age 28, 45 percent of them were working in construction trades and industrial crafts, compared with 15 percent of black men from similar backgrounds and virtually no women. In those trades, whites earned, on average, more than twice what blacks made. Those well-paying blue collar jobs are not as abundant as during the years after World War II, but they still exist, and a large issue today is who gets them: Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts.
  • White women from low-income backgrounds benefit financially from marriage and stable live-in partnerships. Though both white and black women who grew up in lower-income households earned less than white men, when you consider household income, white women reached parity with white men—because they were married to them. Black women not only had low earnings, they were less likely than whites to be in stable family unions and so were less likely to benefit from a spouse’s earnings. White and black women from low-income households also had similar teen birth rates, but white women more often had a spouse or partner, a relationship that helped mitigate the challenges. “It is access to good paying work that perpetuates the privilege of working class white men over working class black men,” Alexander said. “By partnering with these men, white working class women share in that privilege.”
  • Better-off white men were most likely to abuse drugs. Better-off white men had the highest self-reported rates of drug use, binge drinking, and chronic smoking, followed in each instance by white men of disadvantaged families; in addition, all these men reported high levels of arrest. At age 28, 41 percent of white men—and 49 percent of black men—from low-income backgrounds had a criminal conviction, but the white employment rate was much higher. The reason, Alexander says, is that blacks don’t have the social networks whites do to help them find jobs despite these roadblocks.

The realities of class and race in the U.S. are far removed from simplistic slogans.

In the U.S., African Americans with some college have the same economic power as white high school drop-outs.

And the relationship between education and opportunity proves to be again and again, misleading. The SAT remains a powerful gatekeeper for college, despite SAT scores being less effective than GPA (actual merit) for determining who attends college.

More disturbing, however, is that access to education provides cover for the what truly matters in the U.S.: as The Long Shadow and Bruenig document, the coincidences of birth—money and family (and not merit).

While I maintain that hollow slogans (“education is the great equalizer”) prove to be “myths that deform,” [1] and thus work against our ideals, I am not calling for some sort of callous fatalism.

The first step toward “poverty is not destiny” and “education is the great equalizer” is naming the current failures in order to establish actions and policies that would shift the existing, and ugly, realities: poverty and affluence are destiny and wealth/family trump merit (such as education)—all of which are magnified by lingering racism.

Next, we must confront our assumptions about who is wealthy and who is impoverished, coupled with ending cultural demands that the impoverished work twice as hard and that the disadvantaged conform to higher moral and ethical standards. As Oscar Wilde eloquently argued:

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this….[I]t is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease….

And in this recognition, Wilde rejects those “remedies”:

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor….

It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair….

Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal.

It is, then, ours to reject both “exaggerated altruism” and base fatalism; instead, we must commit to the following:

  • Name and recognize inequity without stooping to demonizing people. In our current commitments to meritocracy myths, we demonize the poor; but it does no one any good to simply shift who we demonize. Our enemy is inequity, and solutions to inequity rest in changing powerful social dynamics and not with “fixing” flawed (or promoting idealized and false portraits of “successful”) individuals.
  • Stop promoting false myths to children because as they grow up, they come to see the myth as a lie, and thus, the entire promise of the American Dream is tarnished.
  • Commit to social and education policy grounded in equity, and not in competition or market forces.

We need a new way to speak to our children. And we must begin here: “We have not yet created the country we want, and we must admit life continues to be too often unfair. But things can be better, and we are here to help because you can live in a world more fair than the one we have given you.”

Success in the U.S. is not the result of “grit,” not the consequence of some people being more determined (“better”) than others. Many people worker harder than others, but remain impoverished, have less access to opportunities. None of this should be true, but it is.

Ultimately, however, we must put our money and actions where our words take us. Otherwise, as John Gardner warned, equity, fairness, and justice become “cheap streamers in the rain.”

[1] “[A]s we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” (Freire, 2005, p. 75)

Freire, P. (2005). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare to teach (D. Macedo, D. Koike, & A. Oliveira, Trans.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.

“No new federal spending” Equals “This really doesn’t matter”

New York Times columnist Mykoto Rich‘s lede sounds promising in her Obama to Report Widening of Initiative for Black and Latino Boys:

President Obama will announce on Monday that 60 of the nation’s largest school districts are joining his initiative to improve the educational futures of young African-American and Hispanic boys, beginning in preschool and extending through high school graduation.

But the most important point comes in the fourth paragraph:

No new federal spending is attached to the initiative. The new efforts, which will also seek support from the nonprofit and private sectors, are being coordinated by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban school districts.

In the U.S., “No new federal spending” equals “This really doesn’t matter.”

Can you imagine no new federal spending being attached to any military initiative?

What about no new federal spending to bail out the banks?

Of course not. But the U.S. has made a clear choice: Fund the interests of the rich and powerful (for them, the dirty money of government isn’t so dirty) and leave the fortunes of the impoverished and victims of inequity to the Invisible Hand of the free market.

We may want to note that at least the Obama administration has made a somewhat bold move to acknowledge the crippling disadvantages faced by African American and Latino boys in the U.S.—and here we should pause and make sure we acknowledge that as the civil rights issue of our time. And because of that acknowledgement, the NYT makes a rare concession to these facts, as Rich explains late in her piece:

Black and Latino students have long experienced a pattern of inequality along racial lines in American schools. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students and attend schools with less-experienced teachers. Many also attend schools that do not offer advanced math and science courses.

Boys in particular are at a disadvantage. Black and Latino boys are less likely to graduate from high school than white boys, but also less likely than African-American or Latino girls. And in elementary school, they already fall far behind their white counterparts in reading skills: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of standardized tests administered to a random sampling of American children, only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys scored proficient or above on the fourth-grade reading tests in 2013, compared with 42 percent of white boys and 21 percent of both black and Hispanic girls.

But without government spending, initiatives are nothing more than rhetoric and distraction—further evidence of our commitment to capitalism first and possibly to the exclusion of democracy and equity, as I have examined before:

More difficult to confront than either mendacity or foma, it appears, is the hard truth that the human pursuit of equity must come before merit can matter and that in order to achieve that possibility, the human condition must commit to a spirit of community and collaboration, not competition.

Regretfully, most in power are apt to continue to not let that cat out of the bag.

Capitalism and the free market, however, are not the domains of ethical and moral social action. The human experience in the U.S. has shown us time and again that left unfettered, that market feeds itself on the workers in order to fatten the owners.

The lives and faces of African American and Latino boys in the U.S. are the regrettable portraits of our failures as a people. We are now confronted with an option to embrace our collective power and shared humanity—that which is government, the public sphere, the Commons.

There is often a reason a cliche becomes a cliche—the wisdom of all that is True becomes repeated until we have cliche. In the U.S., our new motto should be: Put your money where your mouth is.

Until then, we remain malnourished by the empty calories of rhetoric.

NOTE: For an alternative view, please read Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The stories themselves, literally, are powerful and engaging or George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would not have endured as they have as literature people read again and again—and possibly should read again and again.

However, ultimately, 1984 is not about the future (especially since we have long since passed the future Orwell may have envisioned), and The Crucible is not about the past (although Miller built his play on the very real and troubling history of Puritan witchcraft hysteria). These works are about the complicated present of both authors’ worlds as that speaks to the enduring realities of the human condition.

All of that may seem weighty stuff to step into a look at what appears to be a children’s book, but the paragraphs above should be more than a hint that looks can be deceiving—and enlightening.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and wonderfully illustrated by Lane Smith (whose It’s a Book I cannot recommend highly enough), is a fanciful and satirical tale that proves in the end to be an allegory of scarcity and slack—a perfect companion read to Ursula K. Le Guin’s allegory of privilege, “The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Realizing that the Human Heart Is Capable

“Ever had a burr in your sock?” sets the story in motion—one sentence centered on the page over a giant question mark. It is an opening worthy of a child and all of us who cling to the wonder of childhood.

While Le Guin is often described as a science fiction writer, in her work I recognize the blurring of genres that joins science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy; it is that “other world” about which Le Guin and Margaret Atwood appear to argue, and it a stark but rich other world Saunders conjures and Lane pictures.

The story of Frip involves three houses for three families, all with children at the center. The houses are distinguished with primary colors—child-like blue, green, and red—but Lane’s artwork adds the ominous to Saunders’ seemingly simple narrative tinged with more than a bite of satire. The illustrations echo the haunting works about and for children found in Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton.

“Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea.” (p. 6) Artwork by Lane Smith

A child standing precariously close to the end of a slanted cliff over an angry ocean catches the eye on page 7 and then the crux of the story pulls you back to the text on page 6:

Frip was three leaning shacks by the sea. Frip was three tiny goat-yards into which eight times a day the children of the shacks would trudge with gapper-brushes and cloth gapper-sacks that tied at the top. After brushing the gappers off the goats, the children would walk to the cliff at the edge of town and empty their gapper-sacks into the sea. (p. 6)

Gappers, orange burr-like creatures with many eyes and the size of a baseball, come to represent throughout the story the power of the systemic inevitable: The presence of the gappers determines the lot of the families (and their goats), but most of the people in the tale remain unable to see beyond their own fixed and mostly misguided world-views.

“A gapper’s like that, only bigger, about the size of a baseball, bright orange, with multiple eyes like the eyes of a potato.” (p. 2) Artwork by Lane Smith

When the gappers cling to the goats of all three families, there is an ironic appearance of equality among them. But when the fortune of one family shifts, the gappers fulfill their name by creating the gap:

So that night, instead of splitting into three groups, the gappers moved into one very large and impressive shrieking group directly into Capable’s yard. (p. 12)

Before this shift in how the gappers behave, of course, the three families are not equal because Capable is an only child living with her father and who has lost her mother. Capable works as all the children are expected to work (removing gappers in a daily Sisyphean nightmare of chores) and seeks to serve the needs of her grieving father, who along with his grief is a prisoner of nostalgia:

“I myself was once an exhausted child brushing off gappers. It was lovely! The best years of my life. The way they fell to the sea from our bags! And anyway, what would you do with your time if there were no gappers?”

This nostalgia masking an unnecessarily burdensome childhood, however, is but one ideology weighing on Capable because as soon as the other two families are relived of gappers on their goats, those families reveal themselves to be very much like the people of Le Guin’s Omelas:

“It’s a miracle!” Mrs. Romo shouted next morning, when she came out and discovered that her yard was free of gappers. “This is wonderful! Capable, dear, you poor thing. The miracle didn’t happen to you, did it? I feel so sorry for you. God has been good to us, by taking our gappers away. Why? I can’t say. God knows what God is doing, I guess! I suppose we must somehow deserve it!” (p. 17)

Capable becomes the sacrificed child, and despite her misfortune, the relieved families read the events as their merit (and of course the ugly implication that Capable and her father deserve the burden of the gappers).

What follows from this shift in fate is the central story of Frip with Capable as our main character. The message becomes clear, and Saunders and Lane make the ride one you’ll want to visit again and again. If you are lucky, the book could become one of those read alouds requested by son or daughter, or by a classroom of children.

And while I will leave the rest of the story to you, I think it is necessary to note here that this allegory is both a cautionary tale about how we view children and childhood as well as a brilliant call to reconsider how we view education and education reform.

George Saunders’s Allegory of Scarcity and Slack

The U.S., like the characters (except for Capable) in Saunders’s story, is tragically blinded by a belief in cultural myths that have little basis in evidence: That we live and work in a meritocracy, that competition creates equity, that children need to be “taught a lesson” about the cold cruel world lest they become soft, and such.

As a result of these beliefs, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for children—or to be more accurate, schools often reflect and perpetuate rather harsh environments for other people’s children, as Capable personifies.

Here, then, I want to make the case that The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a powerful allegory of scarcity and slack as examined by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

Mullainathan and Shafir detail that the conditions of poverty, scarcity, so overburden people psychologically, mentally, and phycially that their behavior is often misread (poor people are lazy, poor people make bad decisions, etc.). In Saunders’s story, scarcity and its burden are portrayed by the gappers, and readers witness how the coincidence of the onslaught of the gappers changes the families involved. In other words, the behavior of people is determined by the environment, and not by the inherent goodness or deficiencies of any individual.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip goes further, however, by showing that one person’s scarcity (Capable) allows other person slack: privilege is built on the back of others, and those conditions are mostly arbitrary. While Mullainathan and Shafir argue that the slack enjoyed by those living in relative privilege provides the sort of cognitive space needed to excel, Saunders speaks to more than the slack enjoyed by the two families relieved of gappers and the compounding scarcity suffered by Capable (her lot in life and the addition of the gappers):

“And the men succeeded in lifting the house and moving it very very close to the third and final house in Frip, which belonged to Sid and Carol Ronsen, who stood in their yard with looks of dismay on their nearly identical frowning faces.” (p. 23) Artwork by Lane Smith

  • Capable represents a counter-narrative to claims that impoverished children lack “grit.” As her name suggests, this child is more than capable, but the world appears determined to defeat her.
  • Capable also embodies Lisa Delpit’s confrontation of “other people’s children”—that those with privilege (slack) are willing to allow one set of standards for other people’s children (often living and learning in scarcity), standards they will not tolerate for their own.

As I stated in the opening, allegory seeks to open our eyes by diversion, creating an other world that helps us see both the flaws with our now and the enduring failures of humans to embrace our basic humanity, a failure Capable teeters on the edge of making herself but cannot:

And [Capable] soon found that it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.

That is, it was fun at first, but then got gradually less fun, until it was really no fun at all. (p. 70).

In the end, it is this sort of charity, this sort of recognition of the community of humanity, a call for the kindness found in Kurt Vonnegut’s similar mix of dark humor that Saunders appears to suggest we are all capable.

Companion Reads for The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde (1891)

“The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” Lisa Delpit

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit

“NPR Whitewashes ‘Grit’ Narrative” 

Competition: A Multidisciplinary Analysis, Wade B. Worthen, A. Scott Henderson, Paul R. Rasmussen and T. Lloyd Benson, Eds.

REVIEW: An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Toward the final pages of Roxane Gay‘s An Untamed State, the primary narrator, Mireille, admits about her response to the earthquake in Haiti in the wake of her own personal horror of being kidnapped and repeatedly raped and tortured over thirteen days of captivity: “We sent money instead and it was then I felt like a true American” (p. 345).

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

When Margaret Atwood writes about Canada, she is also writing about the U.S. When Atwood writes about women, she is also writing about men. And in both dualities, Atwood writes about the intersections, Canada/U.S. and woman/man—as Classen and Howes explain:

From Atwood’s perspective, Canada has traditionally occupied, and internalized, the position of the female in relation to the dominant, male land to the south (Atwood 1982: 389), and so the figure of the female is well suited to represent the Canadian character. As Rosemary Sullivan writes in her biography of Atwood, within Canada “national identity and gender were both predicated on second-class status” (Sullivan 1998: 128).

In fact, in many of Atwood’s poems and stories, the context for the exploration of dualism and borders subtly shifts back and forth from the personal or the interpersonal to the national (Hutcheon 1988).

In Gay’s novel, readers find a parallel to Atwood’s dualities as Gay confronts both Haiti and the U.S. through a personal hell experienced by Mireille who personifies some deeply ugly Truths: when poverty and privilege intersect, violence occurs; when males and females intersect, violence occurs; in both dynamics, as Mireille concludes, “Girl children are not safe in a world where there are men” (p. 344).

An Untamed State: Of Mind, Body, and Nation

My entry point to Gay’s writing was “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We.” The story reached out from the computer screen and demanded that I find more by Gay to read so I ordered An Untamed State the same day after exploring Gay’s web site.

That first story struck me with Gay’s use of voice, genre manipulation, and tone; I was lost much of the story until the end, which pays off brilliantly.

My experience with the novel confirms my initial attraction to Gay’s gifts, but the novel presents a paradox: The story is so brutal, it is nearly unreadable, unbearable, and the story is so brutal, I never wanted to put the book down until I reached the last word.

I am prone to placing books on my bookshelves in ways that honor how I feel about those books. I will slip An Untamed State beside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy because at their cores these works are about what Mireille (again at the end of the novel and after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti) proclaims:

There was an earthquake….It was a new sorrow, a fresh break in an already broken place. The tents are still there, providing no shelter. Women are in even more danger. There is no water. There is no hope. My parents survived and for that I was grateful, in spite of myself. My father’s buildings stood strong while the rest of the country fell. I imagine he is proud of his work, these standing monuments of his resolve. (p. 344)

The most powerful motifs of the novel are weaved into the passage above, exhibiting a simplicity that masks the weight the novel carries from the very title itself. “An Untamed State” speaks to Haiti as country, especially as that contrasts with the U.S. and as privilege and poverty are dramatized in Mireille’s parents (their gated estate in Haiti) and Mireille’s captivity once kidnapped, and to the fragility of Mireille’s mental and physical states.

“Forgive me for my father’s sins”

Gay’s narration mixes time and perspectives with both a suddenness and grace that left me as conflicted about the style, structure, and point of view as I was about the content, Mireille’s kidnapping, the repeated scenes of rape and torture, and the tension Gay creates with her characters and her themes. For example, what am I to do when the kidnappers and rapists express valid confrontations about the violence of inequity?

Within the first few pages, the dominant motif is established, as Mireille offers the first flashback embedded in her coming to consciousness in captivity:

We sat on our lanai, illuminated by paper lanterns and candles, all of us drunk on the happiness of too much money and too much food and too much freedom. (p. 10)

This passage echoes for me the opening of Chapter III in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champaign and the stars. (p. 39)

But in Gay’s novel, the opulence and decadence are framed against Mireille’s story of being grotequely tamed, her nightmare of awareness germinated in her native Haiti: “There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew” (p. 11).

Also in those first few chapters, I came to recognize that the chapter numbering was tallying—I, II, III, IIII, IIII …—a subtle technique that reveals the fact of Mireille’s many states of captivity: captive to her father’s privilege and arrogance; captive to her native Haiti; captive to her existence as a woman; captive to her life as a Haitian married to a pale American; captive for 13 days to kidnapping, rape, and torture; and then captive to her history for the entirety of her life.

An Untamed State is a compelling novel and deserves your time if you love to read well crafted stories and characters, but the work is also a brave and piercing spotlight on the violence of this world bred by socioeconomic and gender inequity. Gay focuses those messages, in part, on Mireille’s father:

My father does not understand obstacles, doesn’t believe they exist. He cannot even see obstacles. Failure was never going to be an option. He often says, “There is nothing a man cannot get through if he tries hard enough.”

He built skyscrapers….My father said, “There’s no telling how high a man can reach if he’s willing to look up into the sky and straight into the sun.” (p. 32)

The father’s discourse is steeped in the sort of rugged individualism mythology at the core of the U.S., is paternalistic and chauvinistic, and is ironic in its embracing of a concluding image of self-induced blindness.

As a Haitian embodying the Great American Myths, Mireille’s father embodies the “no excuses” and “grit” ideologies found in current education reform discourse and policies in the U.S.:

Growing up, my father told my siblings and me two things—I demand excellence and never forget you are Haitian first; your ancestors were free because they took control of their fate.. When he came home from work each night, he’d find us in our corners of the house and ask, “How we you excellent today?”…If he disapproved, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, so wearied by our small failures. He would say, “You can be better. You control your fate.”…

It was easy for my father to overlook the country’s painful truths because they did not apply to him, to us. He left the island with nothing and returned with everything—a wife, children, wealth. (pp. 35, 36-37)

In the wake of her father’s arrogant idealism, however, is the living death of Mireille—reduced to a shell of herself, sated only by hunger like a Kafkan nightmare, and left always a captive, mostly of her being a woman and the unfortunate child of privilege in a violently untamed state.

Readers are not left only with these tragedies, although the counterweight to the consequences of the sins of the father don’t quite equal out despite the novel’s final word being “hope.”

Mireille and her mother-in-law form over the course of the novel a compact built on basic human kindness; in fact, the word “kindness” rises to the level of refrain throughout the last third of the novel.

But it is a kindness shared by battered women risen from the ashes of a man’s razed world.

The reader learns of Mireille’s last moments with the Commander, the lead kidnapper who brutalizes her, in the final chapter of the novel when Mireille utters to him, “‘Forgive me for my father’s sins'” (p. 363).

Heavy with this novel, I put it down recognizing that like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Mireille’s father, a man of privilege, and Mireille’s captor, a man of poverty, walk away from their carnage, but I fear Mireille’s plea rings louder in my ears than in the ears of either of these men, these sinners.