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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Friday, October 10, 2014

Lives on the Boundary Turns 25: Further Thoughts on Writing about Inequality*

            September, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the publication of a book of mine titled Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles of Achievement of America’s Educationally Underprepared. Some of the readers of this blog are familiar with it. Lives on the Boundary is by far the most personal of my books, for the first third or so is the story of my own childhood hardship and less-than-stellar time in school. In my last year of high school, I was fortunate beyond belief to land in the class of a young English teacher named Jack McFarland. He turned my life around and directed me toward college.

            In the balance of the book, I go on to tell the stories of academically underprepared students I would later teach, from elementary school children, to incoming college freshmen, to returning Vietnam veterans and other adults in preparatory or remedial education programs. So Lives on the Boundary is a coming of age book, a teacher’s tale, and a collection of stories of students who are not doing well in school but, in a number of cases, do become academically successful. The stories have a purpose beyond their particular events and characters: to question educational practices that don’t serve underprepared students well, and, more broadly, to explore the complex relation between education and social class in our country. Many of the students I write about, myself included, come from poor and working-class backgrounds. Nothing predicts achievement in American schools as strongly as parental income.

            The book has had a very fortunate publication history, and sections of it have been widely anthologized, especially a chapter titled “I Just Wanna Be Average,” which portrays my high school woes and my fortuitous encounter with Mr. McFarland in Senior English. In some ways, the success of the book is puzzling. It was summarily turned down by 12 publishers in a row, for it is, after all, an account of one person’s educational journey, hardly the stuff of a best-seller. (In today’s market, it most likely would not get published at all.) Other potential liabilities: The vocabulary and syntax are not simple—I’m a big fan of the embedded clause. The book is peppered with references to cultural events and artifacts of my youth and early adulthood and to the books and ideas being introduced to me. Finally, though it is driven by stories, those stories are woven into an argument about social class and educational inequality. As a read, it is not a day at the beach.

            Yet, from its publication in 1989 to the present, I have been getting letters and, now, emails about it—or about “I Just Wanna Be Average”—from a wide range of readers: immigrant university students from North Africa and the Middle East, older folks who send reflections of their own hard times in school, people from well-to-do families who were placed in special education courses. A good deal of the correspondence comes from first-generation college students, students who, not without conflict, are trying to find their way in higher education. A number of these first-generation students are in remedial English classes, demonstrating a point I make in Lives on the Boundary: If a reading has meaning to students, they will rise to the occasion, regardless of the text’s difficulty.

            My world and experience was, in many ways, quite different from an Egyptian Muslim woman in her early twenties or an African American or Latino guy in a Chicago community college, but something apparently clicks, and for a long while I’ve been thinking about what the source of that click might be. Some things are obvious: the feelings of academic displacement and inadequacy, the struggle to make sense of school. But I’ve come to think there’s something else as well, and I tried to articulate it for a new afterword I wrote for the book in 2005.

Based on what readers tell me, I think that Lives on the Boundary makes particular and palpable the feeling of struggling in school, or not getting it, of feeling out of place, but conveys that welter of feeling within an overall narrative of possibility. This possibility is actualized through one’s own perseverance and wit, but also through certain kinds of instruction, through meaningful relationships with adults, and though a particular set of beliefs about learning and teaching. The book conveys the sense that a difficult life in school is not unique to you, not odd or freakish, that there are reasons for such a life, that though difficult, the difficulty is not necessarily of your making. You are a legitimate member of this place, and your struggles and successes are important. Your efforts and your mind are taken seriously. There are, apparently, few accounts of education in popular or academic culture that convey this message to the students who most need to hear it.

These observations lead me to a related topic, and that is the way working-class people’s academic lives are portrayed in our media. Some portrayals are fraught with stereotypes and deficiency-laden assumptions about intelligence and motivation. But even some of the best portrayals exhibit a problem of a different kind.

Right before Christmas, 2012, there was a powerful story in the New York Times by welfare reporter Jason DeParle, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall.” The story is built around three young women who excelled at a low-performing high school in Texas and then went off to college with big dreams. All three have had a very rough time of it, and four years after high school, only one is close to getting a degree. DeParle is a nuanced writer, and everything he uses the women’s stories to illustrate is accurate: from widening economic inequality, to institutional barriers, to the individual women’s lack of institutional savvy.

 But reading the story, I was struck by how many of these kinds of accounts we read about poor people and school, stories of insurmountable obstacles and dashed dreams. There is occasionally another kind of story, the polar opposite: the kid from the South Bronx or South Central Los Angeles who is studying something like robotics at Harvard. These are powerful narratives with a long history in our society.

 There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately, they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic, but they are hugely important. They are stories of people who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but they succeed. Not infrequently, they have benefitted from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of people who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.

 If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We have to have stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements—the rise from mean streets to a robotics lab. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic, but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life. All of us need to read these stories, but especially the students who are living them.

* See blog post from June 12, 2014

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Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this excellent book it still relevant today....we haven't made much progress!

BobbiK said...

I attended your initial book signing in Los Angeles, and it was exciting to celebrate your achievement. When I read your work, I was impressed by your bravery with the memoir element and the depth and freshness of the research. Congratulations on this 25th anniversary, and your latest blog is inspirationa!
Bobbi Kornblit

Nancy Meredith said...

I've only recently "discovered" your books. Just finished Lives on the Boundary and starting Back to School. I'm an adult ed ESL teacher interested in why and how immigrants with with interrupted schooling go through the processes of learning English, getting a GED, and entering college or a certification program. Your narratives speak to my interests and to my everyday teaching. Thank you.