College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Are the Poor Too Free? On the Perils of Paternalism

By Anthony Cody — March 06, 2013 2 min read
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Paul Thomas asks a provocative question this week.

Are the poor too free? Are our schools providing students with tools and skills to foster their independence? Or teaching them to be compliant cogs in a machine whose levers of control they will never touch?

Thomas describes the paternalism that has become central to modern education, as well as efforts to “reform” it even further. He quotes David Whitman, a true believer in this approach:

These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance....Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that "clients already believe," Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Whitman is quoting Lawrence Mead, who claims in The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty: “The problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free.”

Please read Paul Thomas’ postto see where he takes this concept, in thinking about what freedom is all about, and how this intersects with race and class in our schools.

I want to take it in a somewhat different direction. A couple of years ago someone connected me with a teacher named Jim Owens, who, upon retiring, had been voted by his students as the one they wanted to hear speak at their graduation ceremony.

There is a lot there, but related to this concept of freedom, I want to revisit this passage:

Let me tell you a story, a short one. Thirty-three years ago Marco graduated from high school. He DIDN'T go to college. He took a job with a tree trimmer as a helper. He applied for a lineman's position with Clay Electric, and when a position opened up, he jumped on it. He trimmed trees, on his own, on the side, after work and on the weekends. He saved his money and bought ten acres in the woods. He set up a sawmill on it. Nothing fancy, just a big saw and a shelter to keep it out of the weather. ALL those tree trunks his clients DIDN'T want, he cut into lumber. He got an architect to draw him the plans for a house. On a tree-trimming job he met a contractor who was building a barn for the same client. Marco showed the plans to the contractor. The contractor redlined the structures that were problematic. Marco offered the contractor $20 an hour to help him on the weekends. After work, Marco worked on the house by himself or with his wife. He used the BEST lumber; he had LOTS to choose from. He spared no expense on labor; it was primarily his own. Within two years, he and his wife had a two-story, five-bedroom, 2700-square-foot house. They've raised four kids in it. A couple of months ago he showed me an album, two of them actually, that his wife had put together of photos she had taken of every stage of the construction. The house is a beauty, the workmanship only a Wall Street banker could afford, and the albums are a HISTORY of their ADVENTURE. They NEVER had a mortgage. They NEVER paid interest. Their investment was NEVER in jeopardy. Their home has appreciated several hundred percent over the years, and it's worth far, far more than that to them, because they built it with their own hands, TOGETHER.
Primarily through testing, we have spent the last thirteen years undermining your confidence and stifling your ingenuity. I'm pleased to report that we have not been entirely successful. I have seen signs of intellectual life, more than I've seen in several years, among several of you. There are lots of ways to learn, and testing suits a very small percentage of you, actually. I don't know how Marco would've fared on an AP physics test or the FCAT science test, for that matter. All I know is that right off the top of his head he can think of a dozen ways to load a tree trunk of several tons onto a trailer ALL BY HIMSELF; and if the situation is unique and none of those twelve ways work, I'm willing to wager he'll come up with a thirteenth way that does. I said, "Marco, how did you learn all this?" He looked at me like I was crazy. He's not what you'd call a METACOGNITIVE thinker. He doesn't spend much time thinking about his thinking. In fact, he doesn't spend any time on that at all. He said, "I don't know. I just watch somebody do it, and I try it myself." I said, "But what if it doesn't work?" He said, "I keep tryin' until it does."

Our schools have defined success largely as graduating from a four-year college and moving into some sort of career based on that education. We are all about preparing 100% of our students for that particular path. However, as Jim Owen points out elsewhere in his speech, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that 60% of those who have graduated from college since 1992 are either unemployed or working in jobs that do not require college degrees. And only about 30% of our students graduate from college, in any case.

As Paul Thomas suggests, there is far more latitude found in the schools of the privileged. I found evidence of this when I went to the web site of the Lakeside School attended by the children of Bill and Melinda Gates, where it says:

Each student's curiosities and capabilities lead them to unique academic challenges that are sustained through a culture of support and encouragement. All students will find opportunities to discover and develop a passion; to hone the skills of writing, thinking, and speaking; and to interact with the world both on and off campus. Lakeside trusts that each student has effective ideas about how to maximize his or her own education, and that they will positively contribute to our vibrant learning community.

This is a far cry from the test-driven culture found in most schools attended by the poor.

The most valuable thing students can learn is to be independent and self reliant. College may help - so long as they do not incur too much debt. But there are lots of pathways to self sufficiency, and lots of ways to make a living and keep a roof over your head. Rather than assume middle class college graduates have cracked the code to success, and attempting to impose that pathway on everyone else, maybe we would do better with a broader view of what success might look like. This might lead our schools to be more diverse - some might emphasize the construction trades, while others might be focused on community service or creative expression. I think a big source of discipline problems and dropout comes from students’ alienation from the goals and norms dictated to them by our schools.

The students themselves should have a lot more to say about what they learn, and how they learn. The trouble with paternalism is that it assumes that the parent always knows what is best for the child. And the less money those children’s families have, the more structure and “guidance” the children must receive.

Jim Owens closed his speech with this advice:

What MORE do you need to know? THINK about it. Draw your OWN conclusions. You will NOT be tested on this material. School is OUT, my friends. Let your education BEGIN.

What do you think? Is a paternalistic approach the best way to give poor students the values and structure they need to succeed? Or should we seek ways to give students greater autonomy?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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