Confessions of an Outlier in the Aftershock of Ferguson

This is a reposting (slightly revised) from Daily Kos (16 December 2011), and offered in the context of the media and political demonizing of Michael Brown after he was shot, although unarmed, by a police officer. Political, public, and media framings seek ways in which to highlight individual effort (“girt”) as the key component of success, and thus keeping the gaze on individuals. These framings, of course, keep our attention away from large social forces and imply race, class, and gender superiority and inferiority that perpetuate white/male privilege. The whitewashing of Steve Jobs is one the most powerful and disturbing examples.

Confessions of an Outlier in the Aftershock of Ferguson

Megan McArdle has confronted Gene Marks’ “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” and drawn a much different conclusion:

Sum it all up and the answer is: if you grew up as a poor black kid, you’d be making decisions under the same constraints, which probably means you’d make the same decisions.  The fact that different decisions could produce different outcomes is important–but to state this is not to state an obvious solution.

The online discussion and debate spurred by Marks and bloggers such as Amanda Ripley (both of whom I have addressed here) have some important patterns that occur in many education and education reform commentaries presented by Diane Ravitch, Nancy Flanagan, and Deborah Meier—as well as a much longer list of teachers and scholars who make the case for addressing poverty and social inequity as a central element in education reform.

Like Marks and Ripley, many who comment at these online commentaries rally to support “top students,” choice, “no excuses” ideology, competition, and the call for all children simply to try harder. As Marks implores, “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

It seems that the root of success of any kind, but specifically educational success, lies in individual effort—both by students (regardless of the lives they have been dealt) and teachers (regardless of the conditions in which they teach).

These patterns have caused me to wonder about these robust and powerful refrains about effort. So let me offer first a confession.

Confessions of an Outlier (Sometimes)

I graduated high school eighth in my class, and then proceeded through undergraduate and graduate school to achieve a doctorate, almost exclusively making As along the way and being regularly praised for my academic ability. But let me pause for a moment about those K-12 years.

To this day, I cannot recall really trying in school—not time spent studying or finding anything asked of me being that difficult. In fact, especially when I took standardized tests, I always felt I was doing something wrong; it felt like cheating to zip through tests and score in that rarefied air of the 99th% percentile.

But during those same years, I worked diligently and incessantly—I tried very hard—at basketball and golf. I wanted to be an exceptional athlete. I had a large poster board on my bedroom wall throughout high school with every day of the year outlined, detailing my daily workout regiment that always included jumping rope several hundred times each night with ankle weights on (ankle weights I wore throughout every day most of junior high into high school).

The result of this tireless effort (paralleled with my minimal-to-absent academic effort)? I sat on the bench nearly my entire junior high and high school basketball career.

To this day, many of the things I excel in take little effort; they challenge me almost none at all. And to this day, I participate by conscious decision in athletics because cycling does force me to work very hard just to be not quite as good as the other more talented cyclists with whom I enjoy riding.

Despite what the rugged individual myth claims in our culture, despite what the winners repeatedly claim about that narrative, I have come to recognize what Malcolm Gladwell explains well in Outliers: The identified winners in our culture have achieved that status primarily due to fortune in that their innate proclivities match the expectations of success in our culture; once these winners see that possibility, then their effort appears to further the sorting begun by their fortune.

Culturally, however, the winners are perpetuating a grand arrogance and lie about effort that both reinforces the belief that the winners deserve their status (they are better than you and me because they made that decision to try) and that any one of us could reach the same heights if only we’d get off our lazy asses and try.

Social Darwinism, Capitalism, and the Winner’s Creed

I recommend that everyone take the time to read the opening links I mention above and focus on the comments posted by readers. Social Darwinism, an idealized conception of competition, and a manic faith in rugged individual have all blinded many Americans to the nature of cooperation, democracy, and equity (especially as equity contrasts with equality).

Capitalism requires humans to think and live as consumers, to compete and artificially sort the winners from the loser so that we all remain like rodents on a running wheel—too busy to pause and confront the inherent flaws of competition or the manufactured lies of the ruling elite.

Measuring, labeling, and sorting are the mechanisms of oppression, tools for creating and maintaining hierarchy and centralized power. Competition pits human against human to the detriment of humanity.

The U.S. sits in 2014 a country that rejects Darwinian evolution but lives, breaths, and worships Social Darwinism—which contrasts many people’s claim of Christian and democratic ideals.

Promoting and requiring rugged individualism is not cherishing individual autonomy; rugged individualism is the antithesis of individual autonomy.

The great irony of the education reform debate that simmers inside the larger social debate in the U.S. is that we have idealized choice to the point of rendering the word meaningless. We have allowed the 1% to narrow our eyes on each person to the extent that we no longer recognize each human is, as the words reveal, not fully human unless a part of humanity.

Choice is not a province of each individual, but a dynamic of individuals within the mechanisms of society. To decontextualize choice or any human endeavor is to distort what it means to choose or be human.

So I’ll end and clarify my self-proclamation that I am an outlier.

Yes, much of my life has resulted in my being identified as an outlier, a success, a winner. I know that most of that has come from the accident of my birth—my wonderful home life as a child and my proclivities as a human that come from somewhere deep in my mind, soul, and bones that I had no part in creating. I know that when my proclivities match the social norms, I succeed (often regardless of my effort), but I also know that when social norms expect behaviors I do not find easy, no amount of effort will change that (I’ll never—and never could have—competed in the Tour de France).

As the late and complicated Kurt Vonnegut would explain, we as Americans could do with a huge dose of humility (especially from the outliers), a renewed commitment to kindness (especially to children and those who are not finding life equitable or easy), and a serious reconsideration of whether or not we wish to be a democracy (a people who embrace the ethics of community) or a consumer-based oligarchy.

Ironically, the choice is ours:

…I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. Eugene V. Debs

3 comments

  1. Joan Kramer

    Thank you Paul Thomas. Coincidentally I am attending my 50th high school reunion in two weeks. It is bringing up all the insecurities I suffered as a child, a child of poverty and persecution. Most of my classmates were from wealthy families, drove their own cars, wore their twin cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I purchased my clothes at a near-by thrift shop. At the time I had books to keep me sane — I read voraciously, though I was not a good student. But my closest friends were at the top of my class. So many reasons for me to feel inferior. Had I known some of this at the time, would it have helped me? It might’ve helped if my teachers understood. They didn’t. One saving grace — I was left-wing even in Junior High. And while that isolated me further, it gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t drop for a drop drill (bomb drill) or leafletted the school for a demonstration against de-factor segregation of our city schools (in Los Angeles). I have always felt as Debs expresses it. Thank you again.

  2. soggydonkeyChandler

    As a high school teacher, this rings soundly true. And the worst part? In the 15 years I’ve been a teacher there, my school has radically diminished the number and breadth of proclivities it offers students the opportunity to experience. A number of students who could succeed in 2008 could never do so now, because program/curricula have disappeared. In fact, if I were a high school student in 2014, I doubt I would make the cut (according to the only measure that seems to matter now — Common Core).

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