Student Well-Being Opinion

Teaching Non-Cognitive Skills Blames the Victim

By Darnell Fine — August 20, 2013 3 min read
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Darnell Fine

James Heckman, proponent of non-cognitive skills, states that, “The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.” Likewise, according to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, middle-class parents that teach their children these non-cognitive skills produce “successful” results both in education and in life. The suggestion is clear: Because the lower-class deviates from middle-class culture, the education gap persists. Those affected by the problem are assumed to be the matrix of the problem, and proponents of non-cognitive skills choose the ideological blue pill of victim blaming. In other words, lower-class students are disadvantaged as individuals because they haven’t gotten with the middle-class program.

But why must lower-class students change? Our priorities shouldn’t center on changing the attitudes of children in the lower-class. They should center on changing the institutions of America so ghettos don’t exist anymore. And we don’t need schools to compensate for families’ “failure” to teach non-cognitive skills at home—what we need is a restructuring of schools so that home cultures are accepted, valued, and incorporated into the curriculum. Do not reduce a child’s upbringing to the simple algorithm “give child X, and you get Y.” They shouldn’t have to obtain middle-class’s X to receive Y. They should be able to maintain their cultural values while still having an equal opportunity in America’s so-called meritocracy to receive Y. Why not make schools and workplaces more inclusive of cultural differences instead of assuming students to be culturally deprived or maladaptive? To assert that they must change assumes their culture to be inferior.

In advocating for non-cognitive skills, Tough says that “the real advantage that middle-class children gain come from more elusive processes: the language that their parents use, the attitudes toward life that they convey.” This suggests that students from lower-class backgrounds must silence the language they use at home and dispose the values of their own culture just to get on an equal playing field. Yes, the way in which kids from low-class backgrounds “are raised puts them at a disadvantage in the measures that count in contemporary American society,” as Tough writes. But, how they were raised is not the problem. Do not blame them for being disadvantaged; blame the system that offers advantages to a culture other than their own. Educationally speaking, they are in “deep trouble.” But why are they blamed for being in this hole? Had the markers of academic success instead been one’s ability to stay alive in the ghetto or to master Black English, how deep would a middle-class student be in the educational hole?

The teaching of non-cognitive skills pushes a socialization process that homogenizes students into the mainstream culture if they want to “succeed.” These skills send cultural messages on how a student exhibits “good behavior.” They are built upon mainstream beliefs and values that could prove to be culturally irrelevant. Are low-income students therefore “bad” when they don’t assume mainstream society’s cultural ethos?

It is not enough to teach a handful of individuals how to “overcome” poverty by developing non-cognitive skills. Poverty must be eradicated as a whole so we don’t have to keep teaching individuals how to “overcome” it. Social institutions cannot be taken as givens but as systems whose norms must be challenged when examining inequality. The lens for looking at the education gap must be refocused on systems of oppression and not students’ lack of non-cognitive skills. Let’s alter our eyes from parenting practices and start addressing the true reasons inequality exists and persists.

Darnell Fine is a multicultural educator who facilitates creative writing and education seminars, as well as social justice workshops, across the country.

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