About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Young and Ready for Work


A slightly different version of the following commentary was published in the Los Angeles Times on Labor Day, 2014 as "Dreaming of Meaningful Work." It is currently reposted on the "Work in Progress" blog of the American Sociological Association's Organizations, Occupations, and Work Section. 

***

A high school senior, Carlos is already a promising carpenter. He is volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity site, assembling the frames for the bedroom walls, the boards for one frame laid out neatly in front of him. He measures the distance between them. Measures again. Then he drives one nail, then another, stopping occasionally to check with his eye or a framing square the trueness of the frame. I ask Carlos about this precision. He says that when the frame is finished, “I know it’s going to be straight and well done.” He pauses and adds: “That’s the way I am.”

In the midst of the economic analysis and political speeches on this Labor Day season, we should stop and think about the personal meaning of work and whether we are providing enough opportunities for young people to discover that meaning for themselves. This is especially true for the many members of the younger generation who are planning to enter the workforce right out of high school or after attending community college.

We tend to view their relation to work in strictly functional, economic terms. Yet they – just like their peers headed toward the baccalaureate – are newly realizing how important work will be in their lives, how it will shape who they are and what they can do in the world. They are desperate to be somebody, to possess agency and competence.

For close to 15 years, I’ve observed and interviewed young people as they prepare for an occupation through high school or community college programs. I’m often struck by the value and hope they place in securing a solid job that will engage them.

Of course, their economic motive is strong.  Many are from low-income backgrounds and yearn for a steady salary, for a car and a decent place to live, for some cash to enjoy themselves. As one young man in a construction trades program bluntly said, “I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.”

But these future workers also talk about feeling secure, having a stable life with their feet on the ground. Those who desire a family — or already have one — want to be able to provide their kids with a good education. They want work that draws on their talents and teaches them new skills. They hunger for what we all want from our work.  “There’s so much to think about,” one student excitedly related. And some, like Carlos, find self-expression in work.

A teacher connected Carlos with a construction company, but many in his shoes are not so lucky. Youth unemployment is perilously high, more than double the national unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, with the numbers even higher for the vocationally oriented group. Those who do find work often land in unstable minimum-wage jobs with limited, if any, mobility.

The Great Recession negatively effected youth employment opportunities, but the trend toward a tougher employment market for young people began before the recession hit in 2007. Compared to a generation ago, business and industry provide fewer in-house training opportunities, and formal apprenticeships have been in decline for some time. So, too, has funding for government-sponsored youth work programs and grants.

Policymakers are aware of the gravity of the problem but often seem to squander the chance to address it when confronted with the perfect platform. In late July, for example, President Obama gave a speech at Los Angeles Trade-Technical Community College on workforce development.  He spent more time berating corporations that seek offshore tax havens than he did addressing student debt or his new job training program.

The setting for a political speech is often simply a stage for a message aimed at a larger public, but it was a lost opportunity for our most visible national figure to speak to the minds and hearts of the many thousands of young people across the nation enrolled in occupational programs like those at L.A. Trade-Tech.

Public leaders should take advantage of their bully pulpits to remind the country about the personal and societal goals that are realized when young workers take those first steps into the adult workforce. By giving public voice to what work means for our young carpenters and welders, chefs and hairstylists, nurses and first-responders, our leaders can champion the creation of employment opportunities that draw on the full range of these students’ skills and aspirations.

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Monday, August 25, 2014

A Tribute to Historian Michael B. Katz

            My friend Michael Katz died this weekend. Michael wrote brilliantly about the history of cities, of poverty, and of education. His books are meticulously researched and argued; they sharpen, and often change, the way you think. Among my favorites are: The Irony of Early School Reform, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, The Undeserving Poor, The Price of Citizenship, One Nation Divisible (with Mark Stern), and there are others, all wonderful.

            He helped me immeasurably over the last twenty years with my work. Immeasurably. And a few years back, we got to collaborate, editing a series of essays on school reform. As I’m sure his many students would verify, Michael’s feedback was something. He was tough-minded and didn’t hold back, though he provided the hard news in a way that made your writing better. And when you got praise—and he was generous with praise—well, you could take it to the bank, for Michael was not a bullshitter. I will always remember and celebrate his intellectual integrity. I am going to miss him very much.

            I reprint below a post I wrote in October, 2013 when a revised edition of The Undeserving Poor came out. It’s a phenomenal book, and it couldn’t be more timely.

***

            Sometime in the early 1990s, I found historian Michael B. Katz’s book The Undeserving Poor, which had been published a few years before. I still remember sitting in my small back bedroom—a makeshift study—scribbling notes all over the pages of the book as Katz described and analyzed the ways Americans have defined and discussed poverty. He had me hooked from the first sentence: “The vocabulary of poverty impoverishes political imagination.”

            The Undeserving Poor was not so much a history of poverty in the United States as a history of ideas about poverty, and the ideas were complex and, for the most part, troubling. I began to understand how it is that poor people are so often categorized and characterized in such one-dimensional and insidious ways: as shirkers, or passive, or morally defective, or stupid—as people responsible for their poverty because of some damning personal or cultural quality. I also began to understand the reasons behind various interventions aimed at poverty—or refusals to intervene. I had never read a book quite like this, one that demonstrated just how much the ideas and language in the air matter in the construction of public policy. As someone who had a background in literature and in psychology, I certainly was trained to appreciate the power of language, but Katz helped me see the intimate connection between words (and the ideas driving those words) and specific social attitudes, political positions, and legislative initiatives. The book was eye-opening, and it would have a profound effect on my own way of understanding social issues and writing about them.

            The Undeserving Poor has just been reissued by Oxford University Press, and Katz has used the occasion to revise the book in major ways, not only updating it but adding a good deal of new material to it. Let me admit that Michael Katz is a friend, and we have recently written together, but my initial impression of The Undeserving Poor was formed years before I met him. I thought it was a hugely important book when I first read it, and I think this new edition is hugely important as well. Especially now. We as a nation pretty much ignore poverty as a public policy issue. The ideas in the air regarding poverty in the U.S. are, to use Katz’s 1989 phrase, “impoverished.” The solutions that have political sway are either market-based (during the last election some conservatives were suggesting that the poor needed to start their own businesses) or involve educational or social-psychological interventions, such as helping the poor develop mental toughness or “grit.” There is no serious talk about jobs programs or housing or expanded social services or restoring the safety net. Within such comprehensive policies, educational and market-based interventions would make more sense and have a chance of succeeding.


            More than any book I know, The Undeserving Poor helps us understand why Americans talk about poverty the way we do and why our public policy—sometimes noble, sometimes mean-spirited—takes the shape it does. It is one of the important social science books of our time.

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