A failure of institutions
Ta-Nehisi Coates bumps a comment from commenter Sorn into a full-post. It’s well worth the read. Sorn talks about his experience in the military, how it first gave him a sense of what was possible for him in the wider world – something that life prior to military service did not teach him. His conclusion:
I am a big believer in institutions, and that the best way to educate people is to bring them into the institutions that will equip them for success in whatever field they desire to go into. I look at what my military service, and my time at college have done for me and I am amazed, because in reality sometimes I still feel in the back of my mind that I’m a poor white dude from the reservation and that I don’t deserve any of the good fortune that has come my way. Yet whatever success I have had, or may have, in this life has not been due to my own hard work, but because I had the dumb luck to choose association with institutions that provided me with a decent cultural education.
I don’t know if there is an answer to the current state of American schools somewhere in my personal narrative, but I do think that part of the key lies in taking students who never believed that their lives would be anything more than a re-hash of what their parents and friends experienced, and exposing them to the people, instutions, and possibilities, that teach the cultural habits necessary for success. The key to a good education isn’t wholly in skills, or wholly in culture, but in finding some way to merge the two. If somehow intelligent poor-kids could be made to understand that their intelligence coupled with a work ethic properly applied is a ticket to a better life earlier than I did, then maybe something more could be done with the state of education in this country. However, the job is harder than it seems, because in seeking to educate the whole person one isn’t teaching math, or science, or reading, but striving to impart a world-view. It’s true that if johnny can’t add he won’t amount to much, but it’s also true that if Johnny is reading college-level history texts for fun and doesn’t have a model of someone who has actually "made it pay" the odds are equally against him.
The fundamental problem with failing schools is not a failure to attain proper test scores. Really, a failed school, a failed student – these are symptoms of other cultural and economic factors. The Navajo Reservation is near to where I live, and traveling through it one becomes aware quite quickly what poverty and this lack of knowledge about what is possible can do to society. An impoverished community is more than simply poor – it is hopeless. And failing schools are merely the surface of this deeper problem. In some ways, even the economic poverty is somewhat symptomatic of a deeper cultural poverty, a poverty of hope but also a poverty of meaningful institutions – a poverty with no chance of change.
In any case, I know that when I briefly flirted with the idea of joining the military I met several Navajo recruiters who quite sincerely believed that getting kids off the Reservation and into the military could be the difference between a life defined by poverty and a life defined by choice and possibility.
All of which reminds me of the excellent documentary, Chiefs, about a basketball team on a Wyoming reservation and the struggles of players both on the court and in the real world. I think what plagues not only many Native American communities but all sorts of communities in this country is this place between institutions: old institutions that we have relied on are in crisis or gone altogether and no new institutions have risen up to replace them. This is true both economically and culturally. For many Native Americans those institutions were often forcibly wiped out, not just their traditions or their land but the very languages they spoke. This was achieved at least in part by forcing Native American children to attend boarding school (see picture above) and occurred well into the 20th century.
What do you call the genocide of a language*? How does a people recover from that?
In any case, do read the whole piece at TNC’s. The problems facing our education system are far more complex than test scores. More than being globally competitive rests in the balance.
(* Actually the genocide of a language is called ‘linguicide’ and is one of the most pernicious acts of cultural tyranny I can think of.)