Monday, January 23, 2012

"If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?"

I always have troubles trying to start a blog about something that completely pisses me off. When I rant, I usually start in the middle of the story since I'm usually talking to someone who knows everything that has been going on. However, with this, I know I need to start at the beginning. But where is the beginning?

Perhaps the beginning would be the beginning of this semester and the first book I read for my senior colloquium class. On the first day of class, I learned I would be helping tutor low-income children in Asheville, NC through the I Have a Dream Foundation. Before this, I knew that this foundation gives children a chance to go to college by paying their way if they graduate high school. I figured this was simply because the children, nor the parents, have any way of paying for it themselves. Little did I think, little did I know, and little do I still know about the real circumstances behind these children's lives.

Keep in mind, I never had any reason to think about what low-income children go through in school. I was raised by middle-class parents who have been together since marriage, grew up in church, lived in the country, went to decent schools out in the country, and my college experience is paid for, without too much strain on their financials, by my parents. I knew about places called “the ghetto,” but didn’t really understand the concept of low-income housing. When I moved to Asheville, I still didn’t understand the concept of low-income housing, despite these housing opportunities are scattered throughout (mostly) west-Asheville. I only began to learn when I started working at McDonald’s, where many of my coworkers used to or still live in either Pisgah View or Hillcrest Apartments. My knowledge of public housing deepened further when I started dating someone who lived in Pisgah View. I knew I was taught to be extremely cautious around areas like these when I was younger, but I didn’t know why until about a year ago. All I’ve heard about are fights, gun shots, muggings, murders, etc. The first good thing I’ve heard about that community is the I Have a Dream Foundation.

Without the knowledge that I have of low-income housing opportunities, Jonathan Kozol’s book The Shame of the Nation wouldn’t have affected me as much as it did. In fact, the state of public education Kozol preaches about probably wouldn’t make much sense to me. It may make me sad for some of these children, but my main reaction would either be along the lines of “Surely, things can’t be this bad” or “Why should I care?”

Kozol focuses mainly on inner-city schools in places like New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. His concern is that children of inner-city schools are deemed by the state “cheap children” because they come from low-income backgrounds. Because of this viewpoint, less is spent on these children’s education than children from higher-income families. It just so happens that most children in the decent schools that come from middle- and high-income neighborhoods are Caucasian. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it just so happens that most children in the schools that Kozol points out are either black or Hispanic. Because of this coincidence of the different races having unequal educational experiences, Kozol blames the majority of the problems on the racial aspect of the children.

I agree that no child should have to deal with rotting buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and standardized teaching (no teacher should have to either). However, I don’t think this can be blamed simply on the race of the children. The problems go back way farther than this. The problem most likely starts at the cycle of poverty that started back before the Civil War.

I’m sure you’ve all had a history lesson at some point in your life, but just so you can see it as I see it (and I’m sure my history and current politics needs much brushing up on, but this will hopefully at least get the point across): African-American slaves were brought over to America and bought by white people (not just in the south either). The slaves were freed thanks to good ole Abraham Lincoln. However, many of them had no place to go, so they stayed in a system called sharecropping, which isn’t much better than slavery. Fast forward through history. I’m not really sure how the concept of public housing was started, but they did start. People of low-income status, or poverty, went to public housing as an affordable option to live in. Those who tried to move to a suburban area soon found their white neighbors moving away because they were afraid that their property value would decline (or so they said). So that area would soon most likely become an area of public housing again. Getting out of poverty isn’t easy, especially when race is a factor that no one will admit is a factor.

Fast-forward to today and just imagine for a moment: your great-grandparents were in poverty, your grandparents were in poverty, your parents are in poverty, and now you as a child are in poverty. After generations of your family being in poverty, along with all the families around you being in poverty, and not having the education to get out, it isn’t hard to imagine why the crime rate would go up: people get desperate to feel better and to have more, even if they can’t achieve it by natural means. So they go to drugs and alcohol, which can easily lead to violence. They steal the things they want.

This reminds me of a little piece of Thomas More's Utopia, which I first heard mentioned in the movie Ever After. Fast-forward to approximately 6:30 on this clip:

The children of inner-city schools end up going to an institution in which they are treated as no different than anyone else. They came from poverty, they will stay in poverty. They have no special knowledge and no special talents. They barely get to learn the basic skills that most people in America deem necessary. Without a decent education, the likelihood that they will get a decent job is diminished, leaving them in poverty and low-income housing. It simply continues the cycle.

While I agree with Kozol that the state these schools are in is horrible to the children, I have to say that it’s also damaging to the society in which these children live. Also, the solution does not start within the school systems, but with the ways in which public housing and property taxes are set up. Perhaps if public housing is spread throughout middle- and high-income neighborhoods without the fear that the property value will go down, the children will be exposed to decent education, leading to decent jobs, which could lead to the ending of at least on poverty cycle.

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