all i want for Christmas is a nice fresh myth: on class and education reform

The New York Times yesterday featured an op-ed on education entitled “Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?

The authors, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, noted “New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.”

That statement covers most of the problems with education. And it reinforces at least half of them, including the persistent notion that complex societal outcomes fall pretty much squarely under the purview – and responsibility – of the educational system.

This notion comes to us straight from myth. By myth, I don’t mean anything false, necessarily: a myth is a guiding narrative, a story that both directs and justifies a culture’s ways of being.

Humans need stories. And we get most of our stories from culture: from our homes, from our ethnic origins, perhaps, if they haven’t been fully absorbed into the dominant, from media, from school and peers, and from cultural narratives about how the world works.

But when our myths are no longer resonant with or equal to the circumstances we find ourselves, the decisions we make on the basis of their guidance become destructive.

Our educational narratives are some of the most outdated myths still in popular circulation.

Myth #1: Education Creates an Equal Playing Field
Our contemporary education system was founded and built on the cultural narrative that public education can and does “level the playing field” of opportunity. This myth provides the shock value for the NYT piece: if it is newsworthy that children from low-income families do not achieve the school success of children from high-income families, then there must be an expectation that schools CAN do that.

I don’t think they can, not in the way we expect. At least not anymore.

There was a time, I think, when the myth may have had some validity. In an early industrial England in which children were frequently put to work in sweatshops, the idea of mandatory public school was relatively emancipatory. Trade twelve-hour-days in soot for learning to read! Definitely a move in the direction of increased equity for the least privileged.

And a few generations later, when Americans married this narrative of public school as the great equalizer to their personal pet myth of a classless society, it created a powerful juggernaut of cultural narrative that has been passed down through the generations as a precious truth.

But schools never actually bore responsibility for making everybody highly educated: to fulfill the myth all they had to do was open doors for the most talented and well-suited among the poor. For a few generations, they did. Now, that promise rings more and more hollow.

Myth #2: Education = Opportunity
We no longer live in a time when an education – even a university education – guarantees a good job. This is less about any particular failure of the education system than it is about demographics and the nature of work in a post-industrial globalized economy.

For the early Baby Boomers, the paths were relatively clear and open, particularly for males: if you did well in school, you could go to university cheaply and largely be guaranteed employment at the end. No matter what you studied. My father, born in 1947 to a working-class auto-mechanic and a homemaker, was the first in his family to go to university: his parents had upwardly-mobile aspirations and he was a quick learner. He studied biology, and paid for his studies by working through the summers. Tuition was minimal. He got a degree in 1968, and was immediately hired by a local school board as a teacher, despite having absolutely zero teaching credentials. He was a Director of Education for his district before he was 40.

Not all families in the era before social welfare programs like Medicare and Employment Insurance had the luxury of making upward mobility a priority. My father-in-law, born a few years before my father, had equal aptitude but very different financial responsibilities at a young age. He joined the military at seventeen, did a stint in Cyprus, and returned to his small hometown when a smelter opened. He worked hard, was responsible. He was a senior Manager before he was 40.

My own school cohort – my high school and college friends – turned 40 this past year. A huge proportion of us have multiple degrees. Some are still paying for them. Some of us are still in school. Many are freelancers, business-owners, or working in retail. Almost zero are in directorships or senior management positions. The Baby Boomers are for the most part still IN those damn jobs.

School taught both my father and my father-in-law some basic principles for success: get there on time. Do what you’re told. Stay on task. This is a lot of what the education was – and still is – structured to teach. It didn’t EVER actually equal the playing field, per se, but did absolutely help to condition children to take up hierarchical roles within a hierarchical society. Family circumstances and structure still shaped the trajectories available: my father’s opportunities were far more open than those of my father-in-law’s. But paths to success were available to both.

Those paths and principles haven’t been a guarantee of much for a generation or more. Increasingly, the passivity that schooling can inculcate can be a liability in a freelancer’s job market. But the generation for whom they succeeded still control a great deal of the narrative around success, because they are still in the positions of institutional power within our culture.

The reality is that success in school today isn’t worth much, job-wise, without real-world business and institutional contacts and strategies, and preferably the economic freedom to take unpaid internships, etc. These are precisely the things that kids from families without experience or success in these realms DON’T have. Good grades mean very little if you don’t know how to leverage them.

Myth #3: Class Is About Money
I know this statement isn’t popular in many circles, but class? Is not solely or even primarily about money. Nor does talking about class reinforce hierarchies. In fact, pretending it doesn’t exist reinforces class prejudices by presenting classed practices as mere individual choice. If “those people” just did things like we do, goes the complex mythology that pretends class is merely monetary difference, all would be well and the deserving poor would get their due. Everybody else? Consigned to Jerry Springer or Real Housewives of New Jersey, depending on income.

Bourdieu talks about habitus, or practices that determine belonging to a group. I see class as far more related to habitus than it is to mere money. The types of behaviours skewered by sites like People of Walmart, for instance? Aren’t actually about full-on poverty, as people AT Walmart spend significant amounts of money. They’re about class as habitus (Bourdieu also has some nice stuff on how we get our sense of ourselves through distinction, or identifying what we are NOT, aesthetically. Hello, People of Walmart. Hello, hate for hipsters.)

For a lot of us who work in education, the idea that class has links to educational outcomes and opportunities is…um…not new. As in, it has formed at least part of the backbone of the reading list of most of the B.Ed, M.Ed, and Ph.D in Ed courses I’ve taken – and taught – over the past, oh, eighteen years.

Kids who come to school with the values and literacies that school rewards do well. By literacies I don’t necessarily mean formal literacy: nobody has to teach their child to read at home in order for the child to succeed in school. That IS one of the jobs of school. But a child who comes from a home where books and text and information are part of the habitus valued and modelled by adults? Who has experience focusing on task A in order to get to result B? Will have a far easier time in most classroom situations.

And the disparity in the way homes value and practice these skills and literacies with children tends to fall along class lines, not purely in terms of economics, but in terms of habitus.

So, we have an educational system built on reinforcing already outdated industrial-model work behaviours, and we expect it to provide truly equal-opportunity learning to children who come from vastly different family circumstances and values, while making them ALL highly-educated citizens because our culture no longer has any real place for those who are not highly-educated (and even then, security’s a whole other myth these days). And, we’d like to do this all without talking overtly about class and the advantages and disadvantages it confers, because in doing so we would undermine our cultural justification for having the education system we do in the first place?

We don’t admit class matters, New York Times, because for generations we have grown up not knowing how to talk about class at all. And because most of us who work in education have bought into the idea that we are here to level the playing field, and we don’t know how to imagine our way out of the tangle of narratives and myth that we’ve built our system on because they’re still passed around like truth.

I want to believe we can revision the concept of public education so that it remains true to its principles and goals of increasing equity and opportunity in a disparate, pluralistic society. I think the first step in getting there might be admitting, once and for all, that it is not currently succeeding on that front at all. Not because the system or the teachers or even the parents are failing, but because the task and the society no longer fit the narratives driving our policies and our practices and our purposes for learning.

What education needs for Christmas is a new myth; a new vision. Maybe a whole stocking full of them. Any ideas?