"Can Education Help The Rat Get Away From Poverty?" Returning to Allen Jones and Mark Naison's The Rat That Got Away
I was recently asked to revisit my 2009 review of The Rat That Got Away, and create a longer essay on how it speaks to current issues in U.S. politics and public policy. I took on Jones' story again, but this time reading it against today's fierce debates over public education and community development; the fissure in policy over how to address poverty; and the academic battle royalty over the validity, utility, and relevance of the "culture of poverty" concept. Below is the new piece. Please feel free to share thoughts and feedback in the comments section, and also to look at the earlier review as well.
When President Barack spoke those words during his 2010 State of the Union address, it marked a profound shift in how education and poverty is handled in the United States. It highlighted what has become a catch-phrase for researchers and practitioners over recent years--“best practices.” The President made clear (here and in several other remarks and speeches) that poverty reduction was best sought through academic attainment and achievement.
Yet, Obama’s statement followed in the footsteps of a prior political, ideological, and policy approach to poverty. It parallels President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society and “War on Poverty” platforms for economic improvement; and as Johnson did, puts education at the center of its social project. When campaigning for the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Johnson said before Congress, "Poverty has many roots, but the taproot is ignorance."
Since Obama’s State of the Union, education and poverty have been two of the most hotly contested, often-discussed topics in 2010. To understand the ways in which it has been talked about would require a lengthy “who, what, where, why, how” explanation. The nascent, and most pervasive, themes though have been: who receives the highest quality education in this country, and how does poverty stay entrenched in certain places and certain people for so long.
Bluntly though, the conversation truly focuses on: why do so many schools in poor Black and Brown communities perform so poorly by most testing and assessment measures? Why do so many urban Black and Brown neighborhoods experience overwhelming economic poverty seemingly across generations?
Two heroes have emerged as the answer to these vexing issues: charter schools and the Harlem Children Zone.
Charter schools have been at the center of a long, protracted battle over the nature of schools---both their educational purpose and organizational structure. Its history is intrinsically linked to the desegregation of public schools; battles over community control of school boards and operations; arguments against and for vocational education; and the politics of mayoral control. Charters enter the educational debates of today through what have been two polarizing, divisive topics: teachers and their unions; and the privatization of public education.
And so for the first time since 1983 and the publication of A Nation At Risk, education reform has been a central issue in public life. It shook up media mainstream network media: NBC hosted a Fall Education Summit, devoting a week of on-air programming, webcasts, and town halls to focusing on education reform. Education has become such a rallying cry Oprah dedicated two shows in one week to the topic. Casted as protagonists this time have been “crusaders”; advocates that are characterized as tough and taking no prisoners like school superintendents Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and proactive elected officials such as Newark Mayor Corey Booker. There are the wealthy entrepreneurs (i.e. Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg) and business moguls (i.e. Bill Gates) who’s money and clout raise the profile of affiliated schools and educators; and entertainers such as R&B artist John Legend who attempt to engage the debate through social commentary and urgency, while also providing clout, publicity, and finance similar to Zuckerberg and Gates. Legend has stated widely that “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and its CEO Geoffrey Canada have become among the most recognizable faces in this “poverty-fighting” work, with its most important affirmation coming from President Obama, who during his 2008 Presidential campaign said Harlem Children’s Zone is “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck antipoverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children.” So convinced is Obama, he included it in his 2010 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal, with $10 million dollars set aside for twenty cities to replicate HCZ’s “Promise Neighborhoods” model. Within the HCZ model, charter schools named Promise Academies push the organization’s academic agenda and are at the center of an important question provocatively put forth in a recent Brookings Foundation report: do social programs make a difference in educational outcomes? Simply, should we spend federal money on them?
Thus the academic performance of Promise Academies and other charters are linked to arguments over what should be the social investment a country, a government, makes in addressing inequality and inequity. Does a “rising tide lift all boats”? Do we need an activist government to engage and interject in these issues, or is there a need to recalibrate our politics?
Academics take on these questions in a number of ways. Theoretical concepts are abound to think through these issues, and also serve as analytical tools for looking at how societies and specific institutions and actors handle them. Civil society, participatory democracy, and neo-liberalism are a few of many that come to mind.
But among the world of pundits, experts, public figures, practitioners, and theoreticians, within the sphere of activists and advocates, there is continuous need to temper what we think, what we can abstract, and what we can extrapolate, from what literally is happening. Of course journalists are charged with this role and we depend on their periodicals to inform us. An ethnographer provides a similar service, and perhaps pushes our understanding further through analysis and intellectual rigor (provided their account incorporates those things in the first place). And to not limit our resources, the same can be provided by artists, performers, photographers and an array of others.
What has happened? In many regards this questions becomes paramount when looking at the context of a particular social issue. While poverty, “anti-poverty,” and education have been weaved together as a framework for lifting up those at the "bottom," the weaving still resonates with less comfortable connotations: namely, deficiency and pathology.
Indeed a work that can inform our understanding of this matrix of social, political, and economic issues is imperative. Especially a work that shines light on the contours of populations much discussed about, but not heard from in their proper context. James Baldwin has wrote that, "History is not a procession of illustrious people. It's about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about." To not keep them anonymous, and to recognize that they are not voiceless, the elimination of “silence” has been an important project of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The attention we pay to their lives, how we appropriate their stories, and the way we incorporate they themselves into discussions and thinking on poverty, education, and other social issues is what must be considered.
What’s striking about The Rat That Got Away is the tangential way formal schools and institutions touch Jones’ life. He was dismissed or transferred from several South Bronx public schools throughout his secondary education. Interestingly though, two things stand out from Jones’ writing. One, he does not blame his teachers, or any of the school’s staff, for his short comings. There weren’t “inadequate” or “inefficient;” he does not suffer from “blame the school” syndrome. Second, and most interesting, is how a series of enrichment programs and out-of-tine educational activities supported him. Indeed it was the people who ran these programs and facilitated those activities that are the greatest influences in his life.
Jones and a majority of those in his neighborhood were not “Waiting for Superman.” Their life-chances were not determined by “The Lottery.” But a comprehensive, concerted set of programs and activities staffed mostly by people from the local neighborhood provided skills and exposure Jones uses later in life to negotiate structural inequalities and social stratification. Disorganization was not a hallmark of his community, and formal education was not the sole reason he avoided poverty in adulthood.
How we analyze life outcomes; how we understand life trajectories; the ways we formulate indicators, best practices, and solutions; these are three areas that must be given careful consideration. There will not be any one solution to poverty. Indeed any approach will need to be comprehensive and concerted. Schools are vital and education is invaluable; knowledge and learning are critical to understanding, improving, preserving, and accepting a complex set of issues within our society. This is something that often cannot be seen in a two year demonstration. It cannot be quantified and assessed by analyzing inputs and outputs; and a cost-benefit analysis cannot evaluate all benefits that can and will be gleaned. Allen Jones’ life implies this to us. Not a few years at a time, but over the course of time--the course of a lifetime. How we problem-solve current issues while keeping sight of incremental improvement needs to be interjected in our present discussions on educational reform.
“Place” situates the geographic dimensions of our experiences. Urban neighborhoods with larger Black and Brown populations are colored with particular dimensions, which temper the Black urban experience. Indeed it is different, and how we handle difference requires careful consideration. Jones describes South Bronx neighborhoods and a Patterson Houses’ community that in the 1950s and 1960s were multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural; with two-parent families; and residents that were poor, working-poor, and working-class. This mosaic composition is counter to popular generalization about urban poverty and urban communities. Further, it should provide an important intervention for more diachronic analysis of urban neighborhoods: again, what’s happened over time? While discussions over evolution, diffusion, and the like may seem either cliché or too bounded, the importance of theoretical framework must be emphasized. Memoirs such as Mr. Jones’ are important for historical accounts; ethnography, journalism, and all types of “recording” and “capturing” become the archive. The research though, must not betray a commitment to systemic analysis. Place is an important lens because it gives specificity and location, which allows us to measure internal and external dynamics; it is an important variable in social reproduction, and an important site for the study of social relationships. This addresses one of the most pressing questions for policy-makers and others concerned about poverty--causation. What causes poverty? Why are people poor? The considerations mentioned above must be incorporated into this topic, and also into how we research, think, and analyze these questions.
Finally, we need to examine cultural explanations, and how the culture concept is discussed and conceptualized. Accepting that our society is pluralistic does not relegate us to accepting relativism. Nor does seeking to understand behavior and thought imply or require being reductional, normative, or heterogenizing. Egalitarian notions of multi-cultural harmony must be tempered and critiqued, but need not be dismissed. Difference and power have the ability to bound and separate. But a polemical stance of unity and togetherness should not be characterized as immature. Does not the work on identity politics, social movements, and human rights provide insight on how to carefully analyze these issues, while still providing some sense how the actors involved see and negotiate the complexities?
As culture of poverty begins to reappear as an explanation of poverty, it is paramount that these issues of handling difference, boundedness, pluralism, and relativism be thoughtfully and rigorously interrogated. Pathology may be ill-equipped for explaining human behavior. But we must not be afraid to seek answers to the question why; to look for causes; to provide explanations; to strive to solve the problems of contemporary society, and in this case urban neighborhoods with high poverty and poorly performing schools. We also must not fetish “difference” to the point where it prevents us from looking at a politics of togetherness. And we cannot be so vulgar in solutions that apathy, paternalism, and deficiency mar our way forward.
December 15th, 2010