Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

In an effort to understand post-truth Trumplandia, this is one explanation:

However, this fails to confront that the rise of Trumplandia is but an extreme and logical extension of a mainstream media and political elite existing almost entirely on false narratives—the denial of basic reality.

The bootstrap and rising boat narratives, black-on-black crime, the pervasive threat of terrorism, the lazy poor, the welfare queen, and the relentless “kids today” mantra—these are all powerful as well as enduring claims but also provably false.

With Trump’s election, the post-truth reality now focuses on lamenting the plight of the white working class (also provably false) and masking racism and white supremacy as “alt-right.”

The media simply report that Source X makes Claim A—but never venture into the harder story that Source X is making a false Claim A—especially when false Claim A rings true within the Great American Myths that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie powerfully warns about:

I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.”…

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Adichie artfully shares more examples in her talk, but her message from 2009 rings much more horrifying today in post-truth Trumplandia, where the elected leader of the free world can say damn near anything one minute, deny it the next, and remain safely cloaked in the lies that endure as the “one story” many in the U.S. believe despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The one story of black men as criminals that allows police to disproportionately execute those black men in the streets.

The one story of the lazy poor that allows political leaders to avoid their moral obligations to provide social services, including health care even for children.

The one story of objectified women that allows rape culture and the democratically elected leader of the free world to boast about his own cavalier behavior as a sexual predator.

And so: “Stories matter. Many stories matter,” Adichie concludes:

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

For Adichie, “now is the time” to confront post-truth Trumplandia, and the media are on notice:

Yet a day after the election, people spoke of the vitriol between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. No, the vitriol was Trump’s. Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one.

Post-truth Trumplandia is creeping toward yet another of the very ugliest stories of a people claiming to embrace life and liberty but denying basic reality instead.

The question before us is whether or not we have the capacity for changing that arc of history toward, as Adichie expresses, the possibility to “regain a kind of paradise.”

See Also

Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Political Will: A Meditation

In my introductory foundations course in education, we have been watching Corridor of Shame and discussing the historical negligence of some schools, some students, and some communities in South Carolina for generations; in this case, “some” means “black” and “poor.”

The maudlin and melodramatic documentary is grounded in a court case that has taken the state two decades to settle—and then to proceed to do exactly nothing.

As we waded into a class discussion of this political negligence, I stressed a refrain I am moving toward more and more often: political will.

The godawful Truth of the matter is that public schools in high-poverty black communities—notably those along the I-95 corridor—are underfunded, marginalized, and essentially left to chance exactly because this is what we want in the state.

Nowhere in the U.S. at the state or federal level is there a lack of money, resources, or expertise to do anything we wish to do. What we choose to do and what we choose to ignore are exactly what we want.

In 2014, I wrote this poem:

It is a poem about political will, about the tyranny of the privileged and the consequences of that tyranny for marginalized groups; I highlight women and children, but this is also about black and brown people, people in poverty, religious minorities, foreign nationals, transgender people, gay people—anyone not of the centered community that is white, male, straight, and a certain kind of superficial Christian.

A former student of mine, Lucas Patterson, posted a Nikki Giovanni poem on Facebook, “Allowables,” and I felt my heart sink:

allowables

In fact, I felt sick physically and in my soul because of this:

Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby, identified as the officer who shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Friday night, has offered her side of the story in the fatal encounter.

In dashcam and helicopter video released by police, Crutcher appears to have his hands up moments before he is shot by Shelby. Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, maintains that Crutcher refused to follow more than two dozen commands and that he reached into the open window of the car before Shelby perceived a threat and shot him….

Shelby believed that when Crutcher attempted to reach into the car, he was retrieving a weapon, Wood said. In her interview with homicide detectives, she said, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” according to Wood.

Just as people who call themselves Christian and patriots will without a thought crush a spider under the soles of their shoes, those people will and have created this world and allow it to be exactly as they want it to be.

A world where black men’s names become hash tags as inconsequential as court cases being settled.

A world of unwarranted privilege at the expense of the Other.

The world was exactly as they expected, exactly as they knew it to be.

And mostly not as it could have been, or should have been.

Education’s Diversity Dilemma: What Can Be Done

My 18 years as a public high school teacher and current 15 years as a university professor have one dilemma in common: diversity.

At the K-12 level, many schools struggle to recruit and maintain a diverse faculty; while universities often face a lack of diversity in both faculty and students.

The teaching staff at the rural South Carolina school where I taught was nearly all white, working-class, and essentially all Christian. Once we hired an outstanding woman to teach science; she happened to be a native of India and Hindu.

The culture in the school was so toxic to her diversity, that she left—or better phrased, she was run off by the implicit and direct messages of the people and the culture of the school.

My university has recently confronted the low percentage of women faculty as well as concerns about faulty and student diversity.

At our opening faculty retreat focusing on diversity and inclusion, a female faculty member expressed concern over the time and energy needed to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to gender identity and/or gender expression.

Concurrently, several faculty expressed surprise that complimenting black faculty or students for being “articulate” is racist and offensive.

More pervasive, however, was the demand that we not proceed with diversity initiatives without defining diversity, and that always included concerns about reducing diversity to race. Both of these strategies bound to the norms of academia, in effect, marginalize the power of privilege (many whites have been and are hired because they are white) and the realities of race in the diversity dilemma.

Parallel to these strategies were responses to a gender study at our university, a study that was refuted by several white male faculty because it didn’t (in their view) meet the standards of high-quality research—too much anecdote, and thus, a code for too many voices from those affected, from those normally without a voice.

All of these situations point to the toxic nature of centered communities that derive from both individual and systemic forces—even when many or most of the people consider themselves not bigoted, racist, classist, homophobic, or sexist.

Individuals often embody and express bigotry despite their own intentions not to be bigoted or intolerant due to a lack of critical consciousness, and thus, as lack of critical sensitivity.

Over the decades from when I graduated high school and through my career teaching at the school, the community saw a significant decrease in blacks, resulting in a relatively white community. The faculty of the schools stayed almost entirely white—even as schools sought more teachers of color.

My current university has worked diligently—as have many universities—to increase student and faculty diversity, with little to show for all the effort.

This is the diversity dilemma that remains—and may be nearly impossible to correct. Therefore, many diversity and inclusion initiatives become bogged down in and/or eventually abandon diversity efforts because of inadequate outcomes related to goals.

The failure to increase diversity of faculty, for example, may be a lack of political will—as Maybeth Gasman argues:

While giving a talk about Minority Serving Institutions at a recent higher education forum, I was asked a question pertaining to the lack of faculty of color at many majority institutions, especially more elite institutions.

My response was frank: “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” Those in the audience were surprised by my candor and gave me a round of applause for the honesty.

But one missing component of diversity and inclusion initiatives is certain: working toward culturally relevant communities that acknowledge the sensitivity and privilege afforded centered people, that work to spread that sensitivity to all members of the community, and that decrease and erase the privilege afforded centered people.

“Culturally relevant,” as envisioned by Gloria Ladson-Billings [1], in educational communities must foster awareness and sensitivity to culture and race as well as to gender, sexuality, social class, and religion—among faculty, staff, and students.

In schools and colleges, the question is not if we have the time and energy to address pronoun preferences to be sensitive to transgender people, but how we can assure that all members of the community are educated on the power of gendered language to center and oppress people.

For example, schools and universities can adopt “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun as a simple policy move, but also infuse the gender politics of language throughout the curriculum and in faculty development.

The paradox of course is multi-layered: education has a diversity dilemma that quite possibly cannot be addressed well directly, but may be ameliorated by education itself, education that is purposefully culturally relevant and systemic.

Diversifying a toxic community is unlikely to be as effective as creating an inclusive community that invites diversity.

Diversity initiatives that fail to realize that the latter can and must be done are making a regrettable mistake that may jeopardize the best of intentions of all involved.


[1] See her definition:

I have defined culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition (1992c) not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment.

The Political Crisis Machine and Education Reform Ad Infinitum

We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:

Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.

As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.

In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.

Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.

At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).

If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.

And thus: No Time to Lose How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State:

This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.

This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.

The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:

The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.

Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.

Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.

This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.

Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.

So, what about the reform solutions offered here?

Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:

  • “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
  • “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
  • “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
  • “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.

Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! [1]), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:

As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.

If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.

No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.

Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.


[1] In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

Reporting in Education Week, Evie Blad explains:

Having a growth mindset may help buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement, researchers found in a first-of-its kind, large-scale study of 168,000 10th grade students in Chile.

But poor students in the study were also less likely to have a growth mindset than their higher-income peers, researchers found.

Similar to the popularity of “grit” and “no excuses” policies, growth mindset has gained a great deal of momentum as a school-based inoculation for the negative impact of poverty on children.

The binaries of growth and fixed mindsets are often grounded in the work of Carol Dwek, and others, who defines each as follows:

According to Dweck, “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.”…

Alternatively, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment,” writes Dweck.

However, the media, the public, and educators often fail to acknowledge two significant flaws with growth mindset: (1) the essential deficit ideology that focuses all of the blame (and thus the need for a cure) in the individual child, and (2) the larger failure to see the need to address poverty directly instead of indirectly through formal education.

First, then, let’s consider deficit ideology [1], as examined by Paul Gorksi:

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Any person’s success or failure can be traced to a number of factors, but in the U.S., our blind faith in the rugged individual defaults to ascribing credit and blame at least initially if not totally to the individual’s character traits such as “grit” and a growth mindset.

Student X is successful because of Quality A, and thus, Student Y’s failure is due to a lack (deficit) of Quality A; therefore, formal education must instill Quality A into Student Y.

This formula is compelling, again, because of our cultural myths, but also because the formula is manageable and seemingly efficient—and since efficiency is at the core of how we design and run schooling, the media, the pubic, and most educators fail to step back critically in order to reimagine how to deal with students holistically and generatively instead of through the traditional deficit model.

As a simple but representative example, most of us have taken a paper-and-pencil test in our schooling, one on which the teacher marks answers wrong with an X and then calculates our grade at the top of our papers—as in “100 – 30 = 70.”

This process is the deficit ideology that starts with every student having 100 and then defines that student’s learning on the test by what is missed, what is lacking.

One way to flip this ideology is to recognize that all students actually begin each assessment with 0 (no work has been done), and then the grade should be built on what learning and understanding the student demonstrates: simply checking the accurate responses and then giving credit for those positives.

The entire traditional approach to formal education in the U.S. is a deficit ideology, but the hyper-emphasis on children living in poverty, and black/brown students and English language learners, has increased the power of deficit approaches through growth mindset, “grit,” and “no excuses.”

Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow set aside those lives when they magically walk into school and behave in ways (growth mindset, “grit”) that few adults do who are also burdened by forces more powerful than they are.

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

But research also refutes the claims of growth mindset and “grit” that achievement is primarily the result of the character of the individual. The same person, in fact, behaves differently when experiencing slack (privilege) or scarcity (poverty).

As Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir detail extensively, living in scarcity (poverty) drains a person of mental capacities the same as being sleep deprived; therefore, the solution to “buffer students from low-income families from the effects of poverty on academic achievement” is to address poverty directly instead of trying to “fix” the students who are victims of that poverty.

In other words, if we relieve children of food insecurity, home transience, etc., we are likely to find that those students in poverty who appeared to lack “grit” and growth mindset would then demonstrate those treasured qualities.

We are currently misdiagnosing growth mindset and “grit” (as deficit ideologies) as causal characteristics instead of recognizing them as outcomes of slack (privilege).

The deficit ideologies of formal schooling—particularly those (growth mindset, “grit”) targeting impoverished and black/brown students—are the entrenched indirect approaches to alleviating poverty criticized by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

Ultimately, teaching disenfranchised and struggling students growth mindset and “grit” come from, mostly, good intentions that are tragically trapped in deficit ideologies.

The great and tragic irony of growth mindset advocates is that they are also victims of deficit ideologies—as they focus their “scornful gaze” on poor children and children of color.

And just as we have allowed coded racism such as “thug” to replace the now taboo racial slur “nigger,” we are embracing deficit ideology cloaked as scientism to label students as lacking growth mindset and “grit” to mask the very ugly suggestion that these children are simply lazy.

Let us embrace instead as educators a redirected focus—as Gorski implores:

Hegemony is a difficult thing to break. In order to break it, we must consider our own complicity with it and our socialization for compliance. We must avoid the quick fix and the easy answer. We must bare the price of refusing compliance, knowing that by looking up, by training our gaze toward the top of the power hierarchy, we might strain our necks, not to mention our institutional likeability, more so than we do when we train it downward, where we pose no threat to the myths that power the corporate-capitalist machine. But if we do not break hegemony, if we do not defeat deficit ideology, we have little chance of redressing, in any authentic way, its gross inequities. This, we must realize, is the very point of the redirected gaze: to ensure and justify the maintenance of inequity and to make us— educators—party to that justification and maintenance.

The social and educational inequities in the U.S. must be our targets for repair—not our students. And thus, we are left with a dilemma confronted by Chris Emdin: “The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student.”


[1] See also Dudley-Marling, C. (2007). Return of the deficit. Journal of Educational Controversy, 2(1).

The Khan Moment: God, Family, Country

As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

“‘[N]ext to of course god america/ i love you,'” opens e.e. cummings’s satirical sonnet about the hollowness of political pandering to love of God, family, country—a staple of stump speeches by both major political parties in the U.S.

The speaker turns to war toward the end:

why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead

Late in the presidential election cycle of 2016, this poem resonates in a way that should leave every American resolute to defend the ideals we claim are at the core of a free people.

As summer creeps toward fall, we are not just about to elect a president, but are faced with a test; it is pass/fail and there are no re-takes.

The test is the Khan moment, when a grieving Muslim family spoke out at the Democratic National Convention to confront the rising and emboldened bigotry that is personified by Donald Trump but endemic of the Republican Party.

For decades, the Republican playbook has included a wink-wink-nod-nod approach to very thinly veiled courting of racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobes. Trump has now taken that playbook to a new level—with outright Islamophobia and xenophobia at the center.

Like Pat Tillman, Humayun Khan proudly embraced his service to his country, according to his mother, who was directly slandered by Trump:

My son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, died 12 years ago in Iraq. He loved America, where we moved when he was 2 years old. He had volunteered to help his country, signing up for the ROTC at the University of Virginia. This was before the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. He didn’t have to do this, but he wanted to.

Tillman’s and Khan’s service and deaths share being politicized for partisan purposes—adding additional layers of insult to injury.

But both also are about far more than partisan politics; they expose that cummings was right: Political pandering to God, family, and country as well as the public’s cheering for that pandering is ultimately hollow.

Both Republican and Democrat politicians are warmongers, elites willing to fight wars on the backs of the “heroic happy dead.”

The Khan moment, however, raises a blunt question: Which party, which candidate, Trump or Hillary, are racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, and/or xenophobes supporting?

And there is the damning truth because Trump and the Republican Party are the voices of bigotry.

Many, myself included, believe the war in which Humayun Khan died was yet another senseless war, a waste of human life and valuable national resources.

Many also recognize that the Khan family as well as others scarred by these wars have no political party unsullied by warmongering.

Yet, as a pacifist, I must acknowledge that many marginalized people choose to join, serve, fight, and die in the U.S. military.

Black, brown, gay, female, and Muslim—these soldiers may be guided by higher ideals than the calloused and hollow political leaders waging those wars.

What, then, would these marginalized people be fighting for?

The Khan moment stands before us a test about religious freedom.

A young Muslim man may have seen far more promise for religious freedom in the U.S. than in other countries—until after his sacrifice his parents had to sit by and listen to Trump call for religious intolerance, to watch as a major political party nominated this man in the wake of naked hatred.

Religious freedom for some, but not others, is not religious freedom.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The Khan moment is not about limited government, taxation, crumbling infrastructures, or hundreds of legitimate but ultimately mundane issues about which people can have partisan political disagreements.

The Khan moment is about the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and the continuing inability of people in the U.S. to live the ideals instead of simply mouthing them.