Have you ever had that experience of learning a new word and then, like magic, seeing that word everywhere? I was struck by that thought in relation to an idea, not a word, when reading the guest op-ed column in Sunday’s New York Times by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gates, of course, is the well-known author and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. (Full disclosure: he’s also a member of the Board of Advisers of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media) Gates’ column explored what he called the “silence” of black leaders about what he said are actually widely held sentiments in the black community—the importance of good parenting, hard work, academic achievement and responsible choices. His comments took off from the powerful ideas of the rising political star and Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama at the Democratic Convention. Gates also referenced what he called the “huge flap” over Bill Cosby’s remarks in the spring that emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and working hard in school. (See letters on Gates’ column in NYTimes of Aug. 5th.)
But it would help if educators reinforced that perspective by having the same high expectations for African American kids (and poor kids and Latino kids and immigrant kids) as their elders do. A column in the Baltimore Sun on Tuesday (Aug. 3) focused on Maryland state Delegate Tony E. Fulton, who spoke of the expectations of his father, a railroad cook, that his son would get a good education. “We’re committing educational fraud in this town,” Fulton said, referring to news that one of Baltimore’s high schools had graduated students who hadn’t taken required courses. “If they looked at other schools, I bet they’d find the same thing happening. Every year, I try to get a bill passed in the legislature to stop the social promotion of kids, and it never gets anywhere. It’s been going on for years. We promote kids who can’t read and write, and won’t be able to compete in the world. Why would we do such a thing?” As Sam Freedman points out in his column in today’s (Aug. 4) New York Times, many education activists have railed against the Bloomberg Administration’s crackdown on social promotion. Freedman visited a summer academy for third graders with low test scores who are in danger of being held back, to see how the catch-up effort was proceeding. Rather than express anger, the parents Freedman spoke to expressed gratitude for the extra help and emphasized the need for their children to work hard if they’re going to get ahead. I remember hearing similar sentiments from black parents in South Los Angeles and Pasadena who sent their kids to private, after-school tutoring sessions to study SAT vocabulary. While they told their kids they had to work hard in school, the kids quickly figured out that they could get by (and get good grades) without even trying, just by showing up.
It’s not only newspapers where these ideas crop up. I’ve been reading the novels of Washington, D.C.-based crime writer George Pelecanos. The books are violent and graphic, depicting a horrible, revenge-driven, social underworld. But one point Pelecanos makes in every book is that the D.C. public schools are failing their communities. I’m now reading Walter Mosley’s newest, Little Scarlet, which takes place around the time of the Watts riots in 1965. As in many of his previous books, Mosley insists on the importance of education, even as he explores the evolving racial attitudes of Los Angeles. Mosley’s central character is Easy Rawlins, a philosopher-detective-apartment building owner who also works as a building supervisor in a Los Angeles middle school. Rawlins’ adopted son, Jesus, dropped out of school, in part, he says, because his teachers didn’t think a Mexican kid was worthy of their attention and left him to do little more than warm a seat. Rawlins has a younger daughter (also adopted) who reads aloud to him from her school books in the evenings when Rawlins is not out on the street fixing peoples’ problems. In this fictional world, Rawlins is doing what a lot of parents do in the real world, trying to hold his family together by working two or three jobs. And, like flesh-and-blood parents, he’s also trying to help his kids do better than he did, by making sure they get an education.