Response to the Column on Culture and Poverty by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post

Bravo for the rejection, by @eugenerobinson of the @washingtonPost, of Rep. Paul Ryan’s assertion that culture is to blame for poverty in the U.S. It is what I have been trying to say in my book, Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, but Robinson has said it better. Such proclamations do, indeed, provide an excuse for doing nothing. Such thinking also provides fodder for corporate reformers of education who want to privatize our schools and minimize the amount of influence a local community will have over the schools their children must attend.

Ironically, when traditional educators challenge such corporate reform agendas they make the same excuses by claiming that poverty is the cause of the problems with public education in America and, yes, I know this sounds counter-intuitive. Blaming poverty gives educators license to lower their expectations because “there really isn’t anything of significance we can do until our government effectively addresses the problems of poverty.”

I wish I could go back and add Robinson’s comment on culture, in the section of my book where I say that the problem with education in America is not poverty, it is the hopelessness that so often accompanies poverty. That hopelessness and powerlessness also contribute to a cultural devaluation of education on the part of a growing population of Americans; citizens who have become effectively disenfranchised and have given up hope that a quality education can create a better life for their children.

I wish I had done a better job of saying that the problems of poverty and educational failure are not the result of the many subcultures of American society; whether African-American, Hispanic-American, or other ethnic groups.

Why can we not recognize that this cultural diversity is not a weakness of American society but rather a strength that adds rich textures, flavors, sounds, and perspectives to a pluralistic democracy.

Blaming poverty for the problems in education, like blaming culture for the existence of poverty, is convoluted logic that blinds us to pragmatic solutions and is nothing more than an excuse for continuing to make the same mistakes we have been repeating for generations. Until we change this thinking our schools will continue to chew up and spit out huge numbers of American school children.

Even though this cultural devaluation is prevalent in many African-American communities in cities and poor rural communities throughout the U.S., it transcends race and exists anywhere that people have given up hope and no longer believe that they can exert control over the outcomes in their lives.

Poverty and the problems with education in America are symptoms of the same pathology as is the cancerous, cultural devaluation of education. They are all functions of hopelessness and powerlessness. The operative question becomes, “why don’t we attack hopelessness relentlessly.”

In my book, I suggest that education not only provides a barometer with which we can measure the severity of the problem, education also provides our society with the best opportunity to alter this reality. Make no mistake, if we continue to allow the spread of hopelessness it has ominous implications for the future of America. This is particularly true given the emergence of whole new economies that are challenging American supremacy in the dynamic and highly competitive world marketplace of the Twenty-first Century.

We must transform the educational process in America from a system that is focused on failure to one that acknowledges the cavernous disparity with respect to the level of motivation and preparation that young children carry with them on their first day of school. We must have a system that puts teachers in a position to help their students learn how to be successful rather than the current system that sets up huge numbers of children for failure and humiliation. And, then, we wonder why they begin to lose hope that an education provides a pathway to better opportunities.

We must urge Americans of all backgrounds and economic circumstances to believe that we are anything but powerless to change the outcomes that flow from our society’s shortcomings.

Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge for Twenty-First Century America, offers a blueprint for change that outlines thirty-three specific action strategies for transforming American public education and also for infusing hope and faith in the American dream in the hearts and minds of every American man, woman, and child.

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