The Real American Success Story

In the early 1990s after we had moved into our first stand-alone home (having lived in an owned townhouse a few years), my wife and I bought a Honda Accord—a typically American milestone of having finally risen above our station as Honda Civic owners.

As I was dong the paperwork for this car, I realized that the sale price was the same as what my parents had paid for their house in 1971 (a house, by the way, that still is more square footage than any house I have ever owned): $22,500.

I am one generation removed from the white working-class idealists who are my parents, both having been raised in the South during the 1950s—my mother the daughter of a mill worker and my father the son of a gas station owner.

Buying that Honda Accord, however, did not at that moment fill me with pride or a sense accomplishment. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I even called my father and told him about the coincidence of the prices of a car for me and the house my parents had worked themselves nearly to death to own.

My parents’ house sits on the largest lot of a local golf course, their having bought it as the course was being built and then scraped and clawed until they had the $1000 downpayment. Their monthly mortgage payment was also less than many of my car payments.

And while most people—especially my parents—would hold me up as proof of all that is Right with the U.S., I have to raise a hand of caution.

Yes, I have worked hard, but most of my success has come in academic settings—being a top student, and then working my way through undergraduate and graduate degrees while also having two careers, first as a high school teacher and now as a professor. To be perfectly blunt and honest, my success has been built on tremendous privilege—being white and male—and what appears to be hard work to many has in fact not been that hard for me at all.

Success in education depends a great deal on reading and writing—two behaviors that are for me both a joy and mostly easy to do.

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In his Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, Paul C. Gorski notes “that many of us were raised to believe that the United States and its schools represent a meritocracy, wherein people achieve what they achieve based solely on their merit, so that all achievement is deserved rather than rendered” (pp. 14-15).

Historically, this American success story has been “tied to the Horatio Alger myth (Pascale, 2005) and the notions of rugged individualism and an ethic of self-sacrifice,” Gorski explains—what we often reduce to as “pulling ones self up by the bootstraps.”

However, this myth is nothing more than a twisted fairy tale—one that normalizes outliers and depends on a very ugly and false characterization of people in poverty: The impoverished, the subtext goes, create their poverty through their laziness.

The mostly false American success story keeps the accusatory gaze always on people in poverty so that little attention is paid to the larger forces of inequity in the U.S.

Gorski warns, “[M]ost of what poor people have in common has nothing to do with their culture or dispositions [ie., charges of laziness]. Instead, it has to do with what they experience, such as the bias and lack of access to basic needs” (p. 26).

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Social forces—many of which are created and then perpetuated by privilege—drive conditions of scarcity (poverty) and slack (privilege) that are then reflected in the conditions surrounding and behaviors by individual people (see Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much).

Therefore, we must confront the real American success story, the one that is typical of life in the U.S. and not one that misrepresents outliers as the expectations for everyone.

In the U.S., the floors of the penthouse of the wealthy are incredibly secure and stable, the few cracks are nearly as tight as they are rare. The best road to success in the U.S. is to be born wealthy.

As well, the ceilings on the basement of poverty are incredibly secure, allowing only a rare fortunate few through by superhuman efforts.

Instead of Horatio Alger, then, we must look to our own former president George W. Bush, who regularly joked about his C-student status, and whose SAT score both reflected a score higher than his GPA and fell below most of his peers accepted in Ivy League educations (an ironic two-fer that exposes the SAT as mostly a measure of wealth and privilege as well as showing how connectedness, being a legacy, is a privileged version of affirmative action).

George W. Bush has been very open as well about his struggle with alcoholism and his relatively unimpressive efforts at adulthood until he was nearly 40. Despite those hurdles and signs of laziness, he acquired part-ownership of the Texas Rangers and then became governor of Texas and president of the U.S.

I must, then, conclude that in the U.S., we have two Americas, and the one George W. Bush represents is the real American success story that exposes the key to achievement—not the content of ones character, but the coincidence of ones birth.

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Writing in the New York Times, Susan Dynarski reports:

Rich and poor students don’t merely enroll in college at different rates; they also complete it at different rates. The graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap.

These sobering facts come from a longitudinal study and a connected report. And the data are stunning, but clear:

vantage of wealth in college

Source: Department of Education: Education Longitudinal Study

edu attainment distribution SES

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), Base Year and Third Follow-up. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, table 104.91.

Further, Dynarski continues, and then concludes:

Academic skills in high school, at least as measured by a standardized math test, explain only a small part of the socioeconomic gap in educational attainment.

Here’s another startling comparison: A poor teenager with top scores and a rich teenager with mediocre scores are equally likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. In both groups, 41 percent receive a degree by their late 20s.

And even among the affluent students with the lowest scores, 21 percent managed to receive a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 5 percent of the poorest students. Put bluntly, class trumps ability when it comes to college graduation.

Poor students are increasingly falling behind well-off children in their test scores, as recent research by Sean Reardon at Stanford University shows.

That is, any poor children who manage to score at the top of the class are increasingly beating the odds. Yet even when they beat the odds in high school, they still must fight a new set of tough odds when it comes to completing college.

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Steph Curry has gained a well-deserved high level of recognition as the NBA League MYV in the 2014-2015 season. Like Grant Hill, Curry is the black son of a successful and wealthy professional athlete.

Curry is recognized as a hard worker—practicing at rates and amounts that most people cannot comprehend.

An ideal role model for black males in the U.S.?

Not according to high school English teacher Matt Amaral, who recently posted Dear Steph Curry, Now That You Are MVP Please Don’t Come Visit My High School and asked of Curry: “But I have to ask you to do me a solid and make sure you don’t ever come visit my high school.”

Amaral is making a concession I have argued above.

Curry is an outlier, and the personification of a potentially corrosive promise: You can be anything if you just work hard enough.

Well, no, that isn’t true.

So those of us who are parents and educators are put in a truly ugly position.

I love to inspire and encourage young people. I dearly and deeply love young people.

But I also cringe at the adult proclivity to lie in order not to face themselves the ugly truths they create and perpetuate—often by refusing to face them.

There is tremendous value in hard work and effort for the sake of hard work and effort.

And, yes, the world should be a meritocracy, the world should be fair.

Pretending it is while it isn’t, wrapping our young in shallow feel-good slogans and stories—these are sure ways never to achieve the equity we say we love in the U.S.

If we do not want to tell students the real American success story—the one about winning the birth lottery—we damn well better do something to create a better story instead of continuing to lie to children and ourselves.

Because, as you know, it is entirely within your power to make things different, right?

See Also

UPDATED (Again): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

Telling Poor, Smart Kids That All It Takes Is Hard Work to Be as Successful as Their Wealthy Peers Is a Blatant Lie, Taylor Gordon

3 comments

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    Reblogged this on Lloyd Lofthouse and commented:
    This is what resonated with me: “Success in education depends a great deal on reading and writing”

    My story is one of two brothers who were born into poverty and raised by the same two parents who both dropped out of high school at age 14. To earn money, our mother worked, off and on, baking artistically decorated cakes at home and a variety of odd jobs including working in the laundry at the City of Hope. Our father worked in construction, was an alcoholic and a gambler (he loved the horses and often got off work early to make the last two races at Santa Anita).

    My older brother (12 years older) grew up illiterate and worked hard all of his life at back breaking jobs that require3d physical strength that paid mostly poverty wages. Richard would contribute to the birth of seven children that we know of and most of them would turn out illiterate like him and also end up struggling to survive.

    By the time I was seven and my brother 19, Richard, still illiterate, had already spent his first stint in prison for being involved in an armed robbery. Before he died at age 64 a broken man who was a heavy smoker and alcoholic, he’d spend 15 years of his life in prison but he bragged that he never lived off welfare. That’s not entirely true. His 2nd wife could read and write and she applied for food stamps and other forms of child support linked to welfare programs but my brother never saw that money. Whatever he handed his wife or kept in his pocket he earned the hard way.

    At seven, my mother was told I would never learn to read or write. On the way home from school in the car, she cried and said I would learn to read—that she wouldn’t make the same mistake with me that she made with my brother Richard when she heard that same verdict from some education expert (not a teacher) who based that judgement on a test when he was in 1st grade—probably the same flawed test they gave me years later. I wonder who created that test and profited off of it.

    My mother, with advice from my 1st grade teacher, taught me to read at home. At times it was brutal. She used corporal punishment pain to force me to learn out of fear, and I did. I even became an avid reader who ended up loving books, libraries and book stores. That is where my path through life diverged from my brother’s. Instead of going to prison like he did, I ended up in the Marines and fought in Vietnam after barely graduating from high school. Out of the Marines, I went to college on the GI Bill and if I had not been an avid reader who had read hundreds if not thousands of books while a child and teen, I would have never made it through college. Learning to write took decades of effort on my part. We were both born into poverty and we both had severe dyslexia. Without my mother’s heroic effort that she would probably be condemned for today due to her use of corporal punishment, I’m convinced that I would have entered that same school to prison pipeline my brother was shoved in by those so-called test experts who contributed to his ruined life.

  2. psmagorinsky

    Just a note that Steph Curry is mixed race. Historically, that has meant black when one parent has black blood, but I think that people are more likely to consider themselves mixed race these days than previously. The Big Five racial classification system was never valid, and is less so with increasing interracial marriage.

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