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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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Writing about Inequality


            This post is a reflection on the writing I’ve done over the years concerning economic and social inequality in our country. A slightly shorter version appeared in the May 16, 2014 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review.

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For close to thirty-five years I’ve been writing about a cluster of issues that involve social class, education, and work: literacy, intelligence, academic underpreparation, and the purpose of schooling. Looking back on it all, it seems that I’ve been using writing for a long time to try to understand and portray the ways opportunity and inequality play out in American life. One of the challenges I’ve faced is rendering the kind of complexity I have found in the lives of the people I’ve interviewed. They bear witness to the damage wrought by inequality but also to the resilience and intelligence of those affected by it. Let me offer an example from close to home.

Several years before my mother died, I interviewed her about the waitressing she had done for much of her working life. She was pretty sick by then, but she liked to reminisce about her work and had keen recall of the details of restaurant service. We would clear off the kitchen table, and she would demonstrate taking orders and delivering them, talking about the way she would organize the flow of work and the memory tricks she’d use to remember who got the steak and who got the chicken sandwich. She could still balance plates along her right arm while holding tight to two cups and saucers. As well as I knew my mother, my interviews with her would reveal a more complex set of feelings and beliefs about work than I had imagined.

            Waitressing was physically punishing but provided my mother, a woman with a 6th grade education, a way to exercise some control over her life—she knew, she said, that she could always find work. A customer might be rude and insulting, but she defined such behavior as ignorance and mocked it with her co-workers. My mother grew up destitute and isolated in the domestic labor of her household, and waitressing enabled her to “be among the public,” a source of pride and enjoyment for her. That social exchange helped create an educational setting: “There isn’t a day that goes by…that you don’t learn something.” For all its constraints and demands, the restaurant provided the occasion for my mother to display a well-developed set of physical, social, and cognitive skills. It was her arena of competence.

            The interviews with my mother became the most personal part of The Mind at Work, a study documenting the significant cognitive content of physical work. The dynamics of social class and occupational status as well as our enchantment with high technology blinker our perception of the mental acuity involved in blue-collar and service occupations, waitressing to welding. I wrote what I called cognitive biographies of people like my mother, for so often our depiction of the inner lives of working-class people, and certainly of the poor, might give us fortitude or courage or, conversely, conflict and despair, but not a fuller picture of their intelligence and everyday creativity.

As I tried to capture this fuller picture, I drew on a range of disciplines—cognitive science to labor history to sociology and economics—consulting experts in each of these fields. Each discipline provided a different line of sight on inequality, brought into focus a particular aspect of it. I remember listening years ago to a lecture by an economist on the devastation of neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, an area I knew well, having grown up there and written about it. The economist was right on many levels: local industries were long gone, unemployment was high, street crime and gang violence plagued the area. But as he spoke, I kept thinking of the side streets where houses had mowed lawns and flowerbeds, where people had turned an empty lot into a community garden, where small churches distributed food and clothing. None of this negated the economist’s analysis, but could have enhanced it, an ethnographic portrayal that suggests a pulse of rejuvenation amid the terrible problems his analysis revealed.

            One of the likely differences between me and the economist is that we have different goals. He was presenting a quantitative summary of key trends for an audience of other scholars or of policymakers. In quite a different way, my work, I hope, also reaches some in those audiences. But I have another audience in mind as well: those affected by inequality. Two high school girls from South Central are watching a feature about their neighborhood on the evening news. The camera pans an empty street as the newscaster says this is like a Third-World country. The girls are more than aware of the poverty and danger in their neighborhood; they were just talking about it before the newscast. But they’re taken aback by the reporter’s characterization. “This isn’t the Third-World,” one says. “This is where we live.” My goal is to write in a way that combines the economist’s analysis with a more anthropological investigation of those side streets, a combination that might assure those girls that they and their community are more than the sum of economic indicators or a stigmatized catch-phrase, yet also get them to consider the broader forces impinging on their lives.

            To achieve this end, along with the use of multiple disciplines, I attempt to blend genres, to weave together analysis with narrative, descriptive detail with exposition. This experimentation began while writing Lives on the Boundary, a book about academic underpreparation in American schools and colleges and, therefore, about education and social class. I present, for example, vignettes of students struggling to make sense of a lecture in psychology or philosophy or to write a paper explicating a poem, and, as with the cognitive biographies I mentioned earlier, I try to convey not only these students’ backgrounds and the feelings triggered by their academic struggles but also their thought processes, the reasoning behind an error, or previously learned reading or writing strategies that don’t work now, or insight that gets lost in confusing syntax.

            These vignettes are set within a discussion of the history and sociology of underpreparation in higher education. I think that embedding such vignettes into an examination of the conditions that lead to them gives a conceptually more substantial account of underpreparation than would vignette or disciplinary analysis alone. Also, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems that this blend of genres resonates with students who themselves struggled in school. The pairing of vignette and analysis helps make the analysis come alive, humanizes it. Equally important, a story or descriptive portrait doesn’t stand alone, but connects to explanatory ideas. The people being portrayed aren’t lone actors, aren’t odd or unusual—there are reasons for their circumstances.

            Inequality has caught the public's attention, and it is the writer's job to hold that attention when so much else competes for it. How do we find the words to capture the brutal magnitude of the problem and the political and social forces that created it? At the same time, how can we portray the minds and hearts of the residents of a beleaguered neighborhood, of young people struggling in school, of workers on the factory or restaurant floor, of those on the street with no work at all? There are many ways to analyze and write about inequality. I try to look for the trend and the life lived within the trend. 

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice essay Mike. I think that this should be read by ed reformers before they set out to save people in communities affected by poverty.
ken