Friday, June 05, 2015

As Important or More Important Than Upbringing

When I graduated from high school in 1966, my senior class was larger than my home town.

Yet the number of us who took either the SAT or ACT could fit in a portion of the library.  The number who took both, as I did, was even smaller.

No prep in those days: you took these tests “cold-turkey.”

In 1966, I was one of 2.6 million students graduating from high school and that fall, I became one of 1.3 million enrolling in colleges including 709,000 who were male.

Back then, the proportion of Americans earning a high school education or higher was less than half what it is today but twice what it was when my dad graduated from high school on the eve of WWII.

But it really wasn’t just what I learned in school that gave me a leg up.

From the patterns I read about, there is reason to believe that the obsessive pressure we place on educators today is misplaced as a means to increase upward socio-economic mobility.

When that metric ground to a halt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, less than 1-in-5 Americans had a college degree and only about 60% had a high school or higher education level.

Part of the reason is that we drank the cool-aid conservatives were serving about smaller government which turned out to be investing far less in upward mobility.

But there is another reason.

I realize now that the grooming that motivated me to take those college entry exams in 1966 came not just from school teachers or parents or even grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins.

It was slowly incubated and nurtured by scout masters, church members, neighbors, coaches, friend’s siblings and parents, part-time workplaces, and even somewhat from reading the newspaper and watching television.

This is what sociologists, such as Dr. Orlando Patterson at Harvard call a “procedural education,” a nuanced socialization that is at the root of how the middle class reproduces itself.

In his new book, Cultural Matrix, which he co-edits and contributes, Patterson notes that the environment of procedural education I experienced “is as important as how parents bring up their children.”

It, or the lack thereof, is also, he notes, at the heart of why the black middle class overall is not reproducing itself, even though the parenting, even among single parents is just as good, even stricter.

A friend and I worked closely together in the mid-1990s to bring attention to officials in Durham, North Carolina where I have lived for two and half decades now, the closing achievement gaps among various groups as a metric.

We worked with a researcher to look at socio-economic status as a factor.  One day he shared something that didn’t make sense.  On average, the test scores of back students in well-educated middle class homes were falling off.

Patterson quotes studies that support the conclusion that “the reproduction of middle-class status is not simply a product of cultural capital” and “good upbringing” which he finds is comparable in both black and white middle class homes.

But studies show that “the hard cultural work of middle-class childrearing and socialization is not enough.”

Rather, the environment I describe above is equally if not more pivotal.

But it can’t be delegated to schools either.  Everyone, regardless of socio-economic level, learns these “rules and procedures” for success in school grades K through 12.

While schools can teach them, it is the surrounding environment including neighborhoods, extra-curricular activities, places of worship, endeavors such as scouting as well as friends and their siblings and parents that make the difference.

Mainstream media today imparts these values as well but they are overwhelmed by so-called scripted reality shows, even sports.

More often, news media merely reinforces the notion that somehow institutions are the problem, making us less responsible as individuals.

Institutions are important but by nature too brittle to provide a nuanced and interactive “procedural education.”

Patterson notes that ethno-segregation can work somewhat for whites, it isn’t as effective as integrated neighborhoods.

But studies reveal that it backfires on black middle and working class families, even when have moved to more integrated neighborhoods.

According to studies, this is due to the long reach of “disconnected” peers, a tiny sliver who avow a “street culture.”  It is this cultural but perverted peer pressure, glamorized by mainstream media, that perpetuates poverty and perpetuates violence.

I can’t recommend enough the book Cultural Matrix

The late Dr. John Hope Franklin, a friend, is quoted as saying that “the past could lead America to a new future.”  So in addition to his classic book entitled, From Slavery to Freedom, I recommend it be read in tandem with the following books.

One option but with a political analyst’s viewpoint is entitled, Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur by Ron Christie.  It is in the black conservative tradition of The Content of Our Character by Dr. Shelby Steele.

But having just put it down, I believe a good book to read in tandem with Cultural Matrix is the just published book by Dr. Scott Ellsworth, a Duke alumnus, entitled, The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph.

The game took place in Durham but the book offers insight into the era between Jim Crow and Desegregation, a period when the cultural influences of segregation extended and even deepened the impact of slavery.

It is no mistake that except for Ellsworth, these recommended books are authored by people who happen to also be black and span the diverse ideological spectrum and history of African Americans.

Nor is it a mistake that two are sociological and the others historical in nature.

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