31 August 2009

Poverty and Education

This summer I went to Idaho with my mom and had her tell my children about some of her childhood experiences as we passed her old neighborhoods. She noted that in the 1950’s she changed schools seventeen times in seven years because her dad was a migrant farm worker “like the Mexicans are now.” In other words, it was her father’s profession which was the subject of “Harvest of Shame” by Edward R. Murrow which was, perhaps, the first shot of the “war on poverty” during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.

Money was thrown into educational programs with the justification that educated people could overcome poverty. The trouble with the philosophy comes in understanding what specific knowledge, skills, and traits actually contribute to financial stability. The Vocational Education Act of 1963 took steps towards acknowledging that classical education could not fully provide for the needs of an increasingly specialized workforce. However, as is seen in present day statistics on socioeconomic status, education is only as effective as respective cultures will allow them to be. Regardless of race or sex, there is a culture of poverty which perpetuates the conditions which social activists have fought so fervently against.

There are endless statistics on the relationship between education and poverty, but I think we lose sight of real people when we focus on those things. My grandfather was never a wealthy man, but he was a hard worker. His diligence and effectiveness helped him move into positions of responsibility and increased pay. No government program or handout benefited him.

My mother graduated from high school and entered a two-year junior college then transferred to a four year university. She left just short of graduation because her new husband got a job teaching in another state to provide for her and his newborn son. Thirteen years later, she returned to school and completed her degree. Statistically, she was a poor daughter of uneducated parents, but they taught her more than the school system ever could. It was their work ethic and religious training which gave her the strong sense of self (despite being born with a major facial deformity, being rejected and misunderstood by peers, and misdiagnosed by the state as being mentally retarded, despite above average intelligence) that gave her the desire to pursue education.*Those who have no desire to learn cannot be benefited by compulsory programs and government initiatives. Those who have no will to act upon the knowledge they have been given are no better than those who have had no such opportunity.

Those who value their food stamps, TANF, WIC and disability disbursements will protect the circumstances which qualify them for such programs. To be clear, I have used these programs in times of economic distress, however, I saw them as a stepping stone, not a long-term condition. I did not expect myself to be poor forever. *The war on poverty is, in truth, the imposition of standards of education which may not reflect, or may even be in direct opposition to, cultural values. To this day, Native American school participation and performance is lowest on reservations. Textbook authors describe the cultural conflict as one of linguistics and learning styles (Webb p. 206 5th ed.). However, I think values are the core of the issue. It is not that learning and wisdom are not valued, but that white man’s learning is not wisdom.

In fact, within memory for many living on tribal lands is government policy which, between 1953 and 1973 “terminated the legal status of various tribes, ended services to them, and refused to recognize their treaty rights” (O’Connor p. 150). It could be concluded from a cultural perspective that the 1966 passage of Title VI of the ESEA including programs for Native American children could be construed as another attempt to control and devalue Native culture.

The elders, who are traditionally respected in Native culture could be expected to perpetuate this interpretation of events to the younger generation. As a result, Native American children may not see “white man’s” book learning as having any relevance to their lives. Remember that children must relate new information to their existing knowledge base for it to be effectively retained and recalled.

The deeper questions are: how important is it for them to assimilate? What is the value of national standards if they undermine cultural values? Why are the tribes not given more jurisdiction and input over the education of their own children?

If members of all subcultures had control over (or at least significant input into) the education of their own children, how different would education be? Would children finally be able to excel? Could they do so, not despite their racial and ethnic differences, but because of them, in fields which are of genuine value for themselves and their communities? There would certainly still be socioeconomic classes, but each group would be living by the standards they value.

Native American children may not see book learning as having any relevance to their lives. Remember that children must relate new information to their existing knowledge base for it to be effectively retained and recalled.*It is not the government’s job to dictate what class a group belongs to, nor to compel them to leave it. The only thing which will eradicate poverty is the sincere desire of everyone living in it to get out. When the individual takes the initiative to change his own circumstances, he develops the capacity to learn how to do it. If he does not want to learn how to get out of poverty, he will continue the behaviors which perpetuate it. A man (or child) cannot be compelled to be happy.

(This is an argument about compulsory curriculum and individual/micro-social agency, not so much about who should be poor.)

One student in the class for which this assignment was posted was a proponent of the programs enacted in the War on Poverty during the mid to late sixties despite concluding that poverty still existed. I responded:

The fact that poverty still exists suggests to me that the programs did not effectively address the underlying causes of poverty. Perhaps you have seen the title of the purple covered book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kyosaki. It is about his mentoring by a minimally educated but highly successful property developer in Hawaii who taught Kyosaki how to actually make money and be successful in life. His dad, on the other hand, was a "poor" college professor who insisted that the key to success was getting a good education. But there was no prosperity in his father's life.

If the goal of education is to get children and families out of poverty, then we need to verbally address the issue of their desire to change their own circumstances. Then they need to have more vocationally oriented freedom to explore or reject courses according to their personal interests. Right now, children are being taught to sit in desks and accept assignments rather than being taught to take initiative and personal responsibility for their own choices. That is the opposite of "accountability" to national standards, which are driven by perceived lack of achievement of average American students compared to other nations and the need to maintain a competitive edge in the global market.

The premise of that philosophy is flawed in that modern education fails to address the actual demands of the global market. The thing about competing in the global market is that the market is infinite. Because the global market is so vast and diverse, its demands cannot be consolidated into a concise curriculum. Therefore, the key to our success lies in diversifying, not standardizing what children are able to study. Those who have the desire or capacity to excel should not be held back from achievement under the crippling guise of equality in education. And they should be able to learn it a lot more efficiently than the current 18+ year model. College should not consume the most productive years of youth.

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