Lives On The Boundary
(Penguin USA, $12.95)
Anyone familiar with Mike Rose knows better than to look for him center stage. Combing a crowded room for the author, you would most likely find him in a quiet corner—watching, listening, and then wowing you with a keen observation, some pearl of wisdom. His gentle spirit both encourages confidence and invites reflection. This same spirit animates Lives on the Boundary, Rose's immensely personal exploration of our education underclass. How is it, Rose wants to know, that in such a prosperous nation so many children are relegated to the precarious edges of our educational system?
Part memoir, part analysis, Lives on the Boundary gracefully interweaves the story of Rose's experiences growing up in Los Angeles with those of the similarly alienated and unprepared students he later taught. I wish I could report that the problems described in the book have been addressed since its publication a decade ago, but lagging student achievement in our urban schools suggests otherwise. All too many of our young people remain stuck on the boundary.
In his preface, Rose writes: "This is a hopeful book about those who fail. It is a book about the abilities hidden by class and cultural barriers. And it is a book about movement: about what happens as people who have failed begin to participate in the educational system that has seemed so harsh and distant to them."
While I admire such optimism, I find it takes a great deal of courage to be hopeful at a time when the dominant political response to underachievement is punitive. Across the country, local and state policymakers are striving to hold students accountable for rigorous academic standards. On one level, this is a good thing. Democracy depends upon a literate populace. But the popular battle cry for the standards movement—Higher scores! Harder classes! More homework!—is all wrong. Rose pointed this out years ago.
In America, he writes, "we live with so many platitudes about motivation and self-reliance and individualism—and myths spun from them, like those of Horatio Alger—that we find it hard to accept the fact that they are serious nonsense. To live your early life on the streets of South L.A.—or Homewood or Spanish Harlem or Chicago's South Side or any one of hundreds of other depressed communities—and to journey up through the top levels of the American educational system will call for support and guidance at many, many points along the way." Now more than ever, voters, lawmakers, and education leaders need to hear this message. Standards may be an appropriate response to underachievement, but until we support every student, they won't leverage big change.
In Rose's life, inspired teaching made the difference. "There is much talk these days about the value of a classical humanistic education, a call for an immersion in the humanities, a return to great books. These appeals raise lots of suspicions, for such curricula have traditionally served to exclude working-class people from the classroom. It doesn't, of necessity, have to be that way. The teachers that fate sent my way worked at making the humanities truly human."
Rereading these words today, I get goose bumps. This is the kind of teacher I try to be—guiding reluctant scholars to the richness that is theirs for the taking in The Odyssey, Hamlet, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, lending a hand when they falter, cheering when they succeed.
Shouting "Higher! Harder! More!" is never going to solve our many problems. What will is determined leadership committed to real student achievement. In Lives on the Boundary, Rose warns that focusing on quantification—on errors we can count, on test scores we can rank—will divert us from, rather than guide us toward, appropriate solutions. "Numbers seduce us into thinking we know more than we do," he writes. "They give the false assurance of rigor but reveal little about the complex cognitive and emotional processes behind the tally of errors and wrong answers."
In today's political climate, where test scores are the measure of both teaching and learning, we have never needed such wise guidance more. Mike Rose, the quiet man in the corner, has much to say to us still.
Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 56-57Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as Lives On The Boundary