Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

(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.



3 Responses to Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

  1. pdexiii says:

    These two young ladies could have been in my middle school class; in fact, I’ve taught these two young ladies year after year for two decades. One of my biggest frustrations is what they voiced; they leave the caring confines of middle school to high schools of inconsistent commitment, indifference, or insidious impediment to their learning and growth. It’s not a badge of honor to be told that your 8th grade math teacher was ‘the best I ever had’; our children have suffered substandard education for decades, and if not for the pressure of choice we may be even worse off.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Joel Klein gave a press conference when he was NYC chancellor and said something to the effect that people tell him all the time that we will never do anything about education until we do something about poverty. He said he tells them they have got it wrong, that we will never do anything about poverty until we do something about education.

  3. This Is Just One of the Symptoms says:

    Having seen what’s happened with many in my age group, I submit that it’s not just the kids that are lost, it’s the parents.

    In many cases the parents are themselves coping with:
    – unexpected ‘systemic’ unemployment at what would have been their peak earning years, owing to offshoring, RIFs, intrusive and punitive gov’t policy, etc.;
    – abrupt and wide-ranging cultural changes and impositions, thanks to an immigration policy based almost entirely on lack of enforcement and gov’t-led ‘social engineering’ mandates;
    – loss of “standby” jobs owing to tech. change, massive unrestricted immigration, and employment-adverse gov’t economic policies;
    – increases in health-care costs;
    – tax increases;
    – housing cost increases (particularly at the rental level);
    – massive increases in education costs so that further career training or retraining is not affordable;
    – across-the-board loss of traditional support structures (family, community, industry, company, church, schools at every level).

    If Mom and Dad can’t make sense of the world around them anymore (and increasingly, they cannot) or even just dig themselves out of the hole they’ve been thrown into (and increasingly, no amount of even *successful* effort will accomplish this), then the kids are even less likely to even try to participate in what used to be a productive society. If they do try, they are far less likely to be successful at that participation.

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