(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Good write up in the WaPo wonkblog on Robert Putnam’s new book. Obvious resonance with Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. In fact Murray had some “scissor graphs” of his own:
This bit from the WaPo article was especially poignant:
Lola and Sofia, as Putnam names them (all of the ethnography subjects in the book are anonymous), have navigated life without coaches, pastors, tutors, friends’ parents, counselors, neighbors, community groups, parents’ co-workers and family friends. They feel abandoned even by the one group of adults we like to think poor kids can always count on — their teachers.
“In junior high,” Lola, the older sister, explains to Putnam’s team, “the teachers actually cared.”
“In high school, teachers don’t care,” Sofia says.
“The teachers would even say out loud that they get paid to be there,” Lola says.
“Just to be there,” Sofia says. “Just to babysit.”
“Yeah,” Lola adds, “that they’re there just to babysit, that they don’t care if we learn or not.”
They believe the honors classes at their high school got all the good teachers, but they don’t understand how students were chosen for those classes. Only the smart kids, they say, were told about the SATs. They tried to join after-school activities — the very venue where they might find structure and mentors — but Lola was told her reading wasn’t good enough for a reading club, and Sofia that her grades weren’t high enough to play volleyball.
Through their eyes, coaches and teachers were gatekeepers who extended opportunity only to chosen students.
Their view of the world around them is a deeply lonely one. And it exposes an inverse reality among the privileged that Putnam admits he did not previously see even in the lives of his own children: Take away the parents who drive you to soccer, the peers you know who went off to college, the neighbor who happens to need a summer intern — and childhood is bewildering. A task as simple as picking the right math class becomes another trapdoor to failure.
The privileged kids don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.
Meanwhile, for a child like Sofia, “she’s just completely directionless, because life happens to her,” Putnam says. “What she’s learned her whole life is that life is not something you do, it’s something you endure.”
Before you rush off to use poverty as a blanket excuse for the failings of the public school system, let me note the following: many of today’s poor children had multiple generations of ancestors who had the opportunity to attend public schools that were funded generously compared to schools around the world. Ideally public education serves as an agent of class mobility, but obviously we have been getting far less of this than desired. The costs of the failures of our social institutions-including but certainly not limited to our educational institutions-seem to be compounding over time.