Mighty, Maybe Not Whitey

I’ll readily admit that my little book (available for 99 cents or free, and not bad even if Amazon rejected it for its Kindle Singles series) is in a well-trodden genre: the White Teacher Goes to Teach in a Ghetto School genre. Some of these are sentimental and earnest, like Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age. Some are full of details of lesson plans and projects, like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children. Some are self-congratulatory and narcissistic, like Ron Clark’s The Essential 55 or Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts. Some are very funny, like James Herndon’s The Way It Spozed To Be or Gary Rubinstein’s Reluctant Disciplinarian. And most I haven’t read, like My Posse Don’t Do Homework, the book that became the movie Dangerous Minds. 

Despite their differences, the books tend to have in common a lot in terms of structure, with some variation:

a) Idealistic teacher begins school year full of hopes and dreams.

b) Idealistic teacher is horrified by the physical conditions of the school, the social context of the neighborhood, and the apathy or racism of the other teachers in the school.

c) Idealistic teacher is stymied by some combination of student misbehavior, societal apathy, and administrative intrusion.

d) Idealistic teacher perseveres through some combination of intelligence, passion, contempt for administrative authority, and love for his or her students and belief in their possibilities.

e) Idealistic teacher’s students Show What They Are Really Capable Of.

f) afterword: Idealistic teacher tells the world What We All Can Learn from his or her adventures.

The Mighty Whitey genre, therefore, is really a combination of three older styles of books- the Bildungsroman of how a Boy Becomes a Man (with the teacher taking the place of the Boy here), the travel narrative (with the ghetto school and its neighborhood taking the place of far-off Tokyo or old Bombay), and the American political memoir (with the teacher, like a good politician, using their experiences to say What America Is and What America Should Be.)

It seems that the Mighty Whitey genre has fallen largely into disrepute, however, to be replaced with the Not-So-Mighty Whitey genre. In this new iteration, the teacher does not persevere over the obstacles in their school and over the divisions in our society, they are undone by them. The conclusion is that only (pick your policy- school integration, cash transfers, black teachers, pre-K, etc, etc) can Heal the Wounded Land, can Solve the Problem. But I don’t think this new format will last. Part of the problem is that in the past you could call for More Money (if you were liberal) for schools or Bold Thinking (if you were more conservative), but in the last twenty or thirty years we’ve gotten plenty of both; teachers more-or-less are now living in the policy regime advocated for by Bold Thinkers and (in large part because of federal Special Education and English Language Learner mandates) spending per kid has gone up and up and up. So a certain sense of exhaustion has set in.

My recommendation for aspiring writers in the genre, instead, is one or both of the following:

a) Be black, or failing that, Hispanic. There probably is plenty of room for someone to argue that teaching’s racial balance, which doesn’t reflect the racial balance of contemporary kids at all, is the real problem, and there’s a bit of evidence for it. Then the teacher can go through the same structure as above, but with a sufficient twist to make it memorable.

b) Incorporate more depressing history. Ta Nehisi Coates became America’s Foremost Public Intellectual in large part by incorporating downbeat history of redlining and post-Reconstruction violence into his analysis of contemporary events; there’s plenty of room to do this in an ordinary teacher’s analysis of ghetto schools’ problems, and it’s even largely true. The advantage of historical arguments, as Coates has discovered, is that they don’t require the test of success or triumph when adopted; the past is never dead, it isn’t even past, as Faulkner said, and who are you or I to overcome the bloodshed and conquest that marred and made our country? So make your teaching story more tragic, more doomed, less optimistic, if you want to fit into the spirit of the times.

In the meantime, of course, American kids- most of them low-income, most of them non-white- keep showing up in school, having an okay time, most of them, learning some of what they’re supposed to know, most of them. Maybe their schools are even getting better! It’s hard to know, since test scores aren’t really going to tell us. But don’t let good news get in the way of a good story: turn that smile upside down, and get to work.

8 thoughts on “Mighty, Maybe Not Whitey

  1. Race has so thoroughly dominated education, it’s almost impossible to bring in other factors other than the generic “poverty”- which always just turns back into race.

    I was asked by an education consultant to give my thoughts on identity/race-based educational programs/training for teachers this summer. Here’s some of what I wrote:

    “…….One problem that I see with these kinds of programs and initiatives is how they view things through the lens of race that may very well be as much about class. Academics in particular are ill-suited to understand the role of class, as academia at all levels tends to select for people whose personal experience and background is sheltered from much of the meat-and-potatoes workings of the economy (that “privilege”), particularly in the blue collar realm. One result I’ve found is that this tends to skew a lot of Social Justice-oriented teachers, and narrows their idea of what Justice is.
    There used to be more respect for working-class society than there is now. Why that no longer is the case is a subject to itself, so I’ll just limit that topic to its role in schools. I’ve watched as many in education have come to see college as all but mandatory as a future goal and harbor an unfortunate attitude that blue collar and technical paths as being less-than -dignified. The result is what I consider to be the great undiscussed issue in education: the devaluing and disappearance of vocational programs- and a loss of understanding the very valuable social benefits that they bring.
    I suspect that many schools are grasping and finding a kind of “glue” that holds together students as a learning community, but brings together the unformed virtues that we hope an individual student will form internally.
    To illustrate where a lot of people miss what’s right in front of them, I’ll give the example of my previous school. First, the community profile: it was a white working class demographic until 25 years ago. Since then, demographic shifts, some rezoning, and the introduction of the English as a Second Language Program made the student population one like I had never encountered- still mostly working class, but ethnically all over the place, with 32 languages represented, including 6 or 7 Mayan Indian languages that haven’t really been written down.
    I loved my time there. There were a lot of problems, of course, such as declining parental and community support and problems with trying to assimilate such a broad base of students, but for the most part it worked, and the kids enjoyed themselves. A lot of the staff had grown up in the community and gone to school there, so there was some continuity. What was key to keeping things together was that the school had a vocational program and a very strong ROTC.
    As I’ve mentioned earlier, schools are less equipped to help provide important social glue than before. Vo-Tech and ROTC were two holdovers of “old” schooling that provided that glue in a way that sports couldn’t. Both programs had an excellent cross section of the student population- a quality that is often missing in schools that often segregate by AP and Honors courses. There was no stigma attached to being in these more “proletarian” programs, and it was not uncommon for the smart kids to be in them.
    The ROTC and Vo-Tech programs, thus, were citizenship-building mini-schools, where students worked together, learning some of the ropes of forming a common social and economic polity, which I presume is what one of the goals of education should be. Unfortunately, this goal is so greatly neglected that it isn’t even on the radar of discussion in pedagogy.
    I think it was miraculous how our school became the assimilation center for children from wildly divergent societies like Guatemala, Somalia, Bosnia, and Sudan in the ESL program, and keep top notch ROTC and V0-Tech programs in a relatively small school with 70 percent of the population on free and reduced lunch. Yet we couldn’t catch a break from a district that focused on one end with wealthier suburban and magnet schools, and the traditionally African American inner city schools on the other end. We couldn’t get the school fixed (I wound up doing my own plumbing in my lab). The superintendent browbeat our leadership down until they replaced them with some of their cronies, including a principal who said when he arrived that he had a low opinion of vo-tech. Central Office did a lot to essentially wreck the school, and there was nobody to really stand up for us, and one of the reasons for that is because too many were looking through a strange paradigm of what a school should be like- which had them viewing our school with contempt, while the upper class progressive school across the river got the accolades for their “diverse, innovative curriculum”, and thousands of dollars and federal program money went to a single high school because it was “traditionally African American”, though its poverty level was no worse than ours.
    Some may argue against having these programs in high schools as being obsolete, or in the case of ROTC, a pipeline to conformism and militarism. Simply dismissing them, however, misses their value in learning teamwork, getting kids exposure to kinesthetic learning, a sense of the future, responsibility, and citizenship. My response is that edu-reformers have yet to come up with an effective replacement, and I really don’t see one on the way anytime soon.
    Schools should be a place where students can affirm themselves and come to an understanding of one’s place in their community. The issues of race and class can certainly be a part of that understanding, but they should also be a place where they learn to help create that place. Some of that lies in new thinking, but a good bit of it can be found with some fundamentals like citizenship, community service, vo-tech, Socratic dialogue, and other tried and true parts of the school’s mission that has been neglected for far too long. You could call this community competency…..”

    A bit long winded, but I really want to start seeing a broadening of the discussion. Avoiding things like class, community cohesion, and economics really impoverishes any real progress. A lot of this has to do with the weak social skill sets of academics at all levels (Charles Murray’s bubble test would be useful here).

    Liked by 1 person

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