The Vague and Distant Goals of School

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats addresses the struggles that young black men growing up in impoverished neighborhoods face in the street, and also in the classroom. Growing up, Coats dealt with fear and insecurity which created an atmosphere of anxiety and stress that was not alleviated at school or in the classroom. Part of his struggle had to do with the challenges of seeing the benefits of school and how the learning strategies and control of the classroom failed to inspire him.
We like to imagine that our schools operate in a way that inspires ever child and encourages every child to grow, expand, and become a better version of who they can be, but not every child has this experience. It is foolish for us to think that every child will have the same experience and that every child will succeed in any given school environment. The human mind is incredibly varied and with different backgrounds, skills, an abilities, we react differently to different environments. We have too many children in schools to be able to customize an individual education for each child, so any system we implement will necessarily not resonate with some kids. Unfortunately for Coats and many other black students, our education system did not connect with him, and racial discrimination creeped into his school experience. The system that Coats found himself within as a school child failed to inspire him and instaed reiterated the idea that being poor and a minority in our country was a bad thing.
Not having the right cultural understanding when entering school can put a child far behind and cause teachers and other adults to look down on the child and his or her family. When students are not culturally aligned and adults avoid them because they are different, we isolate those children and find a way to tell them that their education is not really important. We also set up a system where a lack of parental involvement leads to a failure of children to fully participate and engage in their schooling, which can frustrate children and teachers. Beyond this frustration, we evaluate our teachers in a standard model that does not seem to fit well with low income students and families, driving the cycle of disappointed teachers and the doubling down on the negative imagery of the poor minority child.
In his book Coats writes, “the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?” His cultural experiences did not align with the education he was being provided and the distant future he was told to work toward was never clear and never something he could see. Without role models, without inclusive visions of success, we shut young people out and tell them to strive toward something that they are never meant to reach. When education does not align with the way our children think and the actual skills needed to grow and develop in our world today, we are telling them to run toward success, but we are not giving them a map and we are not giving them the things they need to run quickly and smoothly.
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Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Challenges Today

In Cory Booker’s United, the U.S. Senator relives moments from his past that shaped him and his politics. In his book he shares the story of a night when he and his father were out for drinks, and heard gunfire on their walk back home. Booker rushed toward the sound of the gunfire, arrived as one of the first people at the scene, and attempted to stabilize a man who had been shot. He explains the almost shock-like state that he was in following the incident, and examines a thought that he and his father wrestled with after the shooting.

Booker’s father was born in 1936 to a poor family. He was bright and hard working and rose to be a regional sales leader for a large company. Booker’s mother was also a trail blazer, running up the ranks in another company, and together Booker’s parents moved from poverty to wealth and to a suburb in New Jersey that had been almost exclusively white. Booker’s parents pushed to give their children new opportunities and pushed to make the United States better for black people, but the thought which challenged Booker’s father was this: “All this work, advancement, and progress, yet a kid like I was faces more challenges today than ever before. How could it come to this?”

It is very popular to write about the death of the American Dream and many people feel as though current generations do not have the same opportunity today to live better lives than their parents. Throughout American history my sense is that people believed their lives would be better than the lives of their parents, but this seems to no longer be the case, and seems to contribute to the sense that the American Dream is dead or dying. My personal sense is that this is especially true among black and minority families. The pressure we put on minority youth and the social decisions we have made regarding our responses to crime, education, and support have created a system where the American Dream is not equally encouraged and provided to everyone, but instead limited and offered to only a few.

I don’t want to say that any single factor has contributed to the sense that American across the country share regarding the death of the American Dream, and I don’t want to say that minority populations have a greater claim to the feeling of despair than others. I think we must take a more nuanced approach to the way we think about the opportunities we provide to children today, and recognize areas where we can make a difference. There is indication that we live in neighborhoods today that may be less racially segregated in the past, but are far more financially segregated, and research supports the idea that economic segregation leads to a stagnation in social mobility. There is also research suggesting that there are fewer social groups and community groups proving services, help, and support to people in local communities today, and this may further the isolation that so many people (especially young people) feel.

What is important to do in regards to our nations racial challenges, our sense of the decline in the American Dream, and the thought that Booker’s father wrestled with is to recognize that we are united, that we share a common future, and that we will be in that future with other people from our community. We must recognize and try to understand how people are thinking and feeling, even if we think their thoughts are misplaced. By learning to listen and understand others, by pushing past the urge to tell someone that their feelings and interpretations of the world are wrong, we can connect and begin to help and aid people in personal ways, even if that is just by listening and acknowledging the challenges they face.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.

Personal Responsibility

How we think about personal responsibility seems to be a driving factor in the decisions we make about society. We are a group of individuals working in our own best interest, but with our interests moderated through a social union to ensure that as we pursue our best interest, we do not unreasonably impede others or damage their health, resources, or wellbeing. For many, our success is seen as a result of our own effort, attitude, and determinism, and without taking responsibility for our individual actions we can never reach our full potential, and we will never uphold our end of societal success.

Senator Cory Booker addresses the role that personal responsibility has played in his life in his book United, detailing the lessons learned from his parents. He writes, “My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day” (emphasis in original).

Booker continues to give examples of his mother teaching him about excellence and how he learned the importance of always doing our best work, because someone was always counting on us to do our best. His family provided him lessons with actors from the Civil Rights Movement as models, giving Booker a powerful message to endure challenges and struggles and to take personal responsibility for actions and decisions because it is in the best interest of society.

The quote above, in Booker’s emphasized section on attitude, reflects stoic principles outlined by Marcus Aurelius in his writing, Meditations. Aurelius wrote about the ways in which our attitude changes our constitution and our demeanor for the day. If we choose to leave the comfort of our bed knowing that we will meet people who do not hold our standards, but that we ourselves are not lessened by those who do not hold to our ideals, then we can move forward with an attitude that lifts all. If we reflect on our perception we can identify the challenges we face, and turn our obstacles into pathways toward success, bearing nobly that which others see as poor fortune.

Recognizing that societal growth and progress requires our best is a powerful motivator for us to strive toward greatness. Our full potential is the only thing that can carry forward others, open new doors for ourselves, and lay the stones to create paths for other. When we choose to see this, we have a reason to contribute to society rather than to expect society to provide for us. Reflecting on our attitude and deciding that we will approach each day and each decision in a positive light will help us advance and grow for the betterment of all.

A Relationship With Yourself

When we think about relationships, thinking about ourselves is easy. What do I want, what kind of person will make me happy, why is my partner acting this way toward me? We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and about what we want, but all this thought rarely leads us to actually reflect and get to know ourselves better. We spend a lot of time with our impulses, desires, and the things that satisfy us, but we don’t often take the time to truly know ourselves. Author Colin Wright believes that we must focus beyond our desires and what makes us happy to understand who we are deep down in order to become better people for the world and better people in relationships. At the end of his book Some Thoughts About Relationships he writes,

“Your most intimate relationship is, and should always be, with yourself. Acknowledge and maintain that foundation, then reach out into the world and help others do the same. Ensure that your sense of “me” is mighty so that your sense of “we” can follow suit.”

Inward reflection helps us understand our impulses, emotions, reactions, and expectations. When these remain hidden from us, we act in ways that are guided by thoughts that we do not always understand, and our life is likely to be out of alignment as we strive forward based on ideas and pressures that impact our lives without our knowing.  Getting to know these parts of ourselves helps us make better decisions and act more rationally in any situation.

Knowing who we are also means reflecting on the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world so that we understand not just the positive side of who we are, but also the negative side. The end of Some Thoughts About Relationships aligns with previous work from Wright. In Considerations he wrote, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait. It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.” The better we become at working through the negative parts of ourselves, the better we can empathize with others and connect with people facing the same challenges. In this way, our obstacles help us grow and help us aid others in their growth. A strong relationship with ourselves helps us better know humanity, and helps us connect with others on a more personal and meaningful level.

Trying to Change Others

Author Colin Wright has an interesting perspective of the efforts we make to try to change other people in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. For Wright, trying to change the person in our relationships is a very selfish act, limiting the growth of the other person and of ourselves, and preventing both of us from expanding who we are. He writes, “Finding someone you intend to change means you’ve decided that who they are, what they want, and how they live is inferior to who you are, what you want, and how you live.” By trying to change another person you are forcing them into a mold that you have preselected. You are not working with them to soften your own rough edges, and you are not allowing each other to grow according to independent desires, interests, and shared commitments and connections .

 

This selfish type of relationship is never going to be based on reality as you force another person to be an incomplete version of what you think a successful partner looks like. The other person won’t be able to fully express themselves, and you will only know a false version of them. There are parts of ourselves that we know well, parts of ourselves we don’t know well, parts of others we know well, and parts of others that we don’t know well. Assuming that you can change another person into what you want assumes that you fully understand yourself and the other person, something undoubtedly impossible.

 

Wright continues, “approaching relationships this way means you’re partnering with someone who you consider to be a block of raw material that you can chisel into whatever shape you prefer. You want to whittle away who they are so that they become the person you want them to be, or whom you feel you should want them to be. This typically results in negative complexes and disappointment on both ends.”

 

When you set out to change the other person in a relationship you are setting out to force them to be an incomplete version of themselves. Because we can never fully understand even ourselves, we can never predict and prescribe who another person should be. Development as an individual, both within and outside relationships, is filled with value judgements about relationships, about other people, about ourselves, and who we think we want to be and be with. Allowing both ourselves and the other person in our relationship to be complete human beings allows for growth, both personal and as a pair, and working together to understand this growth is the only way you can help develop another person.