Approaches to Education Reform: Privatizing Poverty

Part of the sordid side of our American history includes Native American boarding schools.  In the 18th and 19th century, these schools were established as a means of assimilating Native Americans into white culture.  As Wikipedia tells it, “Children were usually immersed in European-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their Native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new European-American names (in order to both ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’). The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, they were encouraged or forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.” (Emphasis added)

The assumption was that these children had to be separated from their parents, from their history, from the context of their support system of religion and culture in order to properly assimilate to white standards of “success.” And this needed to happen because all of the Native American cultural characteristics were of a lower standard than the dominant white culture. in 1892, Army officer Richard Pratt said“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

With the passage of time, it’s a little easier to see the racism, arrogance and violence inherent in this idea. And I know it seems like ancient history, but it isn’t.  The numbers of native Americans in boarding schools peaked in the 1970’s.  Not really that long ago.

The framing assumptions underlying this movement were that of the deficit model.  That is, by standards of the dominant white culture, these Native Americans just weren’t “measuring up.”

Is this beginning to sound familiar?

The problem with  history is that it always replicates itself now, albeit in somewhat differently nuanced forms.

And that bring us to a brand new, shockingly contemporary version of the above in Phil Power’s recent editorial in The Bridge, “Could A Boarding School Model Work in Detroit?”

Powers gives an overview:

“I had thought boarding schools for poor and vulnerable children did not exist until I learned of something called the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., which does just that. …

Children are chosen for admission by lottery, which means their participation is entirely by family choice, not imposed by some exterior authority. Kids stay on campus during the school week, returning home for the weekends.”

Let me be clear- I do not begrudge parents who choose to send their children to these schools one iota. Children are chosen by lottery, it’s not imposed without choice, and for many I’m sure it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I wish these parents and their children well. This is an important difference to note between SEED and the Native American boarding schools. My problem is not with them, it’s with Power and others who privatize the problem of poverty and assume education is the answer, rather than assuming that addressing poverty is actually the answer to problems with our education system.

I give Power some credit, as he does recognize there are issues with this model,

“Beyond the purported educational advantages, there are obvious and important social and moral questions about such a system.”

But then he continues,

But for kids in enormous need of a stable, sustaining home environment that encourages good learning, a public boarding school model might make all the difference in the world.”

The implicit assumption is that the problem lies within home environments rather than in the structural conditions of inequity that lead to difficult conditions in the first place. And this implicit assumption is the red herring directing attention away from the social context that learning takes place within, and replacing that with the individualistic notion that overcoming poverty simply entails pulling yourself up by the boot straps. You know, “they” need just a little “grit.”

In a story on the Native American boarding schools from NPR, their purpose is made clear.  “…the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out.’Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything,'”  Why?  Their culture didn’t measure up.  And we can see the ghosts of this approach in Power’s piece. Kids need a “stable, sustaining home environment….”  The problem from Power’s frame, is not the conditions of poverty, but the home environment.  One more, subtle and tricky way of blaming the poor.

In addressing the false myth of individualism, which Power subtly propagates in his privatizing of poverty, Paul Thomas writes:

“The U.S. is trapped in our false myths—the rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our pervasive cultural ethos is that all failures lie within each person’s own moral frailties, and thus within each person’s ability to overcome. We misread the success of the privileged as effort and the struggles of the impoverished as sloth—and then shame those in poverty by demanding that they behave in ways that the privilege are never required to assume.”

I’m reading William Deresiewicz’s  Excellent Sheep, in which he asks the rhetorical question, “Can we address the problems of education without addressing the broader problems of societal inequity?”  Hmm..

Phil Power seems to say yes.

I say it’s pretty to think so, but absolutely not.

Power finishes his work with this sentence:

“The compelling moral argument is that ALL kids deserve a quality education.”

I say this doesn’t go far enough.

The compelling moral argument is that no one deserves to live under the dehumanizing conditions of poverty. And, because education is inextricably tied to the conditions it exists within, attempting to “solve” education without addressing poverty is a waste of time.


4 responses to “Approaches to Education Reform: Privatizing Poverty

  1. Great piece of writing. I wholeheartedly agree that ignoring the family life and educational context of structural poverty and pinning the problem on the individual or the culture is absurd. Thanks, Bill, for making this point in such a sharp and clear way. And I’m thinking, in Detroit, it’s the closing of local public schools (end effect, removing kids from neighborhoods/communities) and the grotesque and faulty computer-based learning experiments done at the expense of the EAA students (like Native Am haircuts).

  2. Thank you for raising this very important question. If we ignore the poverty, the issue will never be solved. This is why charters, vouchers, and privatization are not the solutions.

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