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, November 20, 2014

Seeing the Invisible Poor

            Following is an interview published in the Fall, 2014 issue of The Hedgehog Review. If you are not familiar with this fine magazine, you might want to give it a look. It comes out of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and bills itself as offering “critical reflections on contemporary culture.”


The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written very eloquently about the challenges facing people who live and work at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder, and one of the things you’ve noticed—something you claim is greatly complicating their plight—is how many, if not most, of them are becoming invisible to the rest of society. What do mean by this? How did it happen, and is it getting worse?

Mike Rose: Well, they’re not literally invisible, of course—there are at least forty-five million people in the United States living at or below the poverty line. But they are close to absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the socioeconomic status index—or as a negative generalization: The poor are dependent on the government, the “takers,” a problem. Consider Congressman Paul Ryan’s recent comments about generations of men in the inner city “not even thinking about working.” Neither the abstractions nor the generalizations give us actual people trying to live their lives as best they can.

Because of the various layers of segregation in our society—from work to schools to places of worship—those of us who are relatively socially mobile have few opportunities to live and work closely with people who are at the bottom of the income ladder. We don’t know them. And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, the poor easily become psychologically one-dimensional—intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us.

THR: Despite the growing gulf between the poor and “the rest,” you’ve been pretty successful in staying in touch with what might be called the invisible class. What’s given you this access, this connection?

MR: Well, I wouldn’t want to claim any exceptional access or broad-scale knowledge. There are many poor communities—most, really—that I don’t know much about at all. I grew up poor—my father was chronically ill and my mother worked long hours as a waitress—so I have a personal, intimate sense of economic hardship and insecurity. And a significant amount of work I’ve done over the years, both my own teaching and mentoring and my research, has involved people who are behind the economic eight ball. That work has taught me a lot. It has also enabled me to develop some relationships in which people have opened up parts of their lives to me. And I suspect the knowledge I gained from my family’s own difficulties helps foster those relationships.

THR: How do we almost reflexively diminish the capacities, ambition, imagination, and determination of the poor—and thereby add to the distance that separates the well-off from the less well-off?

MR: It’s a complicated business, to be sure, but I think our separation, our increasing economic segregation contributes to the diminishment. With segregation comes ignorance and apprehension. Part of the way we establish our shared humanity is by what we imagine goes on inside the head and the heart of others. If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts—an entire interior life—that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate. And it’s from those attributions we develop both our personal and public-policy responses to poverty.

THR: How do we even begin to break down barriers, or bridge the gulf, between the poor and the rest of society?

MR: There are so many structural impediments, from residential patterns that have developed partly out of housing policy to income inequality and the shredding of the social safety net. So, for starters, if we want to address the isolation I’m talking about, we need to do things that simply help poor people live a decent life: a higher minimum wage, tax credits, jobs programs, childcare, housing and transportation assistance. It’s hard to participate in society when you’re scrambling for your next meal or being booted out of your apartment. I’m not optimistic, given the focus on austerity and the terribly ungenerous cast to so many public policy deliberations.

We also need opportunities for people to develop and grow: educational and cultural programs, apprenticeships and job training, civic organizations. I’m thinking about places or occasions where poor people become more fully present actors on the societal stage, where their thoughts and feelings play out in ways that can have a positive effect on the direction of their lives. Social movements for civil rights or economic justice provide such a space. Cultural projects do as well—in churches and community centers, women’s shelters, prison art programs. And, in my experience, second-chance educational programs and institutions—literacy centers, adult schools, many community colleges—can also play this role.

But these are complex institutions. Given the intricate relation in our country among social class, educational resources, and academic achievement, the adult school and community college reflect educational inequality and can contribute to it. A lot of students never complete a certificate or degree. Some institutions do better than others with similar populations, so the quality of governance, services, and teaching matters. These institutions are among the few places in mainstream society where poor people can become more publicly visible and display to their advantage multiple dimensions of their lives.

THR: Can you tell us how some of your own experiences in these places led to new understandings of the poor and their various plights?

MR: Let me give you a recent one. I spent several years studying a community college that serves one of the poorest populations in Southern California. Many of the students are older, coming back to school once their children are grown, or after a series of dead-end jobs, or having spent time in prison. Those coming straight from high school typically went to underperforming schools. Most students have to take remedial English or math. The majority of students are on financial aid and are burdened with health, housing, or transportation problems. They’ve got a lot on their shoulders.

One of the things that struck me—and it happened in stages, as I saw one example, then another, then another—was the powerful desire being at the college unleashed in these students. Parents wanted to improve their economic prospects and do better by their kids. People who hadn’t been in a classroom in decades spoke passionately about wanting to learn math this time or to become better readers and writers. Burly, trash-talking guys in a welding class were complimenting each other on welds being “beautiful” or “pretty,” and, in their math class, were arguing about the correct solution to a problem. From physics to fashion design, students were beginning to redefine themselves, to envision a future of possibility. As one young woman said, “You will grow in a way that you never in your mind would imagine.”

Of course, not all students at the college are affected so powerfully, and too many leave out of discouragement or because of financial burdens. But to witness repeatedly the mental vitality, the hope, the redefining of one’s sense of self, makes you realize what is possible when the conditions are right.

THR: So, in addition to its practical economic value, college for these students yields other benefits as well?

MR: Absolutely. Even for the most occupationally oriented students. One of the things that concerns me about current education policy aimed at students like these is its strict economic focus. We need to get more people into college to enhance their economic prospects and to secure the nation’s economic future. Fine and true enough. The students want an economic boost, too. As one guy said bluntly in an orientation session, “I’m here because I don’t want to work a crappy job all my life.”

But so much else typically happens along the way. Students comment on how good it feels to learn new things, or to overcome old insecurities, or to have new intellectual and social as well as occupational avenues open up to them. If we don’t acknowledge and try to foster this rich dimension of their education, then we’re just repeating a long and troubling tendency in American education policy. Working-class students get a strictly functional education, heavy on job training and thin on everything else.

THR: Could you say something about another important, but often overlooked, institution that is important to people with relatively few resources? I mean the public library.

MR: When I was visiting public schools in small rural communities, I was struck by the role played by the local library. In addition to housing books and some films and music, it’s an information resource, a meeting place, an Internet outlet. And in places where the population is sparse and widely distributed, the traveling library is a godsend. I spent a week at a one-room schoolhouse in Montana’s Beaverhead National Forest , and there was a tiny library attached to the school, the only library around. It was the place kids got their books—and there were several intense readers in the class of fifteen, always hunched over a book. What a resource!

Rural or urban, libraries are a national treasure, and it’s easy in these days of connectivity and constantly streaming media to forget how important they are to so many who can’t afford all the technological bells and whistles. It’s shocking, I think, that libraries are being forced to reduce hours and staff and close local branches. And this is at a time when two-thirds of the nation’s libraries provide the only free Internet access in their communities—and when government and employment information and forms are increasingly going online.

THR: There’ve been many debates over the touchy subject of intelligence, what it is, how we measure it, and how such conceptions and measurements affect life chances and opportunities.  How does what you call “a reductive view of intelligence” stand in the way of appreciating the inner lives of individuals who are often dismissed as society’s less able or less gifted—and who are undercompensated as a result?

MR: As a country, we seem to be obsessed with intelligence, with measuring it, with boosting our kids’ intelligence through products like Baby Einstein, with getting “smarter” workers into the new “smart” workplace. But the odd thing is that we tend to rely on a fairly narrow way of determining intelligence: We identify it with a score on a standard intelligence test and with the traditional school-based task.

If one does well on an intelligence test or in school, that clearly indicates some kind of cognitive competence. But if one doesn’t do well—and, historically, poor performers include many low-income people—then the meaning of the score is much less clear. To do well tells us something about intelligence—and, usually, schooling—but not to do well provides much less information about intellectual capacity… though that poor performance may speak volumes about educational opportunity.

What struck me as I did the research for The Mind at Work was the number of instances of reasoning, of problem solving, of learning and applying that learning, that fell outside what gets assessed in an intelligence test or the traditional school curriculum. There is the waitress at rush hour prioritizing on the fly a number of demands from customers, the kitchen, and the manager. And the plumber diagnosing a problem by feeling with his hands the pipes he can’t see behind an old wall. And the hair stylist figuring out the style a customer wants through talk and gesture. This kind of brainwork surrounds us, yet might not be considered when we talk about intelligence.

THR: You’ve talked about some of the ways the lives of the poor are made harder by their growing “invisibility,” but how is the rest of society, including the better off, made worse—and even impoverished—by the “disappearance of the poor”?

MR: Poverty represents a society’s moral and civic failure. It also constricts our collective intelligence and creativity as so many people’s potential is squelched. Thank goodness the notion of an “opportunity gap” is finally making its way into public discussion. That gap hurts all of us.

One more thing. The marginalization poverty begets keeps from the mainstream entire categories of experience and points of view that can enrich our culture and the way we understand and try to solve a whole range of problems. I don’t want to romanticize the kinds of students I spent time with at that community college or claim that as a group they have superior gifts or insights. But some of them, because of their backgrounds, ask different kinds of questions, draw on fresh illustrations, come at problems in unusual ways. Nurturing that kind of intellectual and social diversity benefits us all.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Soldiers in the Classroom

Back in the early days of this blog, I posted a short essay on teaching veterans. This is an updated version, drawn from the new edition of Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us. I post it for Veterans Day, 2014.


What the classroom full of veterans wanted most was, as one of them put it, “to help our families understand what we went through.” The course was in communication, and it was part of an educational program for veterans of the Vietnam war. The teacher— my colleague in the federally funded program—had asked them what they most wanted to learn, and that was their primary answer: to explain to those closest to them the hell they endured.
Our newest generation of veterans is returning to a warmer welcome than those who served in Vietnam, but the kind of war these veterans fought is similar, and their needs are as great. By one count, over 50,000 have been wounded, some severely, and over 350,000 have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury. These and other vets could experience terrible distress as they try to find their way with family and community, the economy and education.
What kind of support is our society providing for them? As a young man, I taught English in that program for Vietnam veterans, so I got a sense of life after service is over, after physical wounds are healed, after the ceremonies—if there were any—and handshakes have receded into memory. Then soldiers have their lives to pick up or to create anew.
Advocates brought to public attention the inadequate funding and delivery of health care for recent vets; less public—until the deliberations surrounding the new G.I. Bill—were the limited resources for education and the many problems young veterans face as they try to reenter school. The rising cost of living combined with rising costs of tuition, textbooks, and supplies dash many hopes, but even those who can make it financially typically face significant academic and social problems.
The program that contained the communications class could serve as a model for how to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, a number of colleges are responding to this new generation of veterans with a range of support services: financial aid assistance, counseling, orientation programs, and social clubs. These are valuable resources. But my sense is that returning soldiers would be better served through a program that includes significant coursework as well as services. One such effort is the laudable SERV program at Cleveland State. But there are few others. The programs I’d like to see could run through some part of the first year or function as a preparatory or bridge program that precedes but is linked to further matriculation.
The key idea is to treat a complex educational issue in a comprehensive and integrated way. To respond adequately to academic needs, the program has to address psychological, social, and economic needs as well. And, hand in glove, some social and psychological problems—inability to concentrate, feelings of intellectual inadequacy—don’t fully manifest themselves unless one is in a classroom, immersed in English or math or poli sci.
The Veterans Special Education Program was a twelve-week crash course in college preparation. The veterans called it academic boot camp. The curriculum included representative freshman-year courses in English, psychology, communications, and mathematics, so students got a sense of what lay before them—a reality check—and were able to begin college with some credits, a leg up. The courses also addressed fundamental cognitive and social skills: critical writing and reading, mathematics, human relations, and communication.
The courses were supported with tutoring. A number of the veterans had poor academic backgrounds, so some needed a good deal of assistance with their writing, with reading academic material, or with all the strategies for doing well in school: managing time, note taking, studying for exams. But the tutoring also made the academic work more humane, no small thing, for many of the students carried with them a history of insecurity and anger about matters academic.
They were being asked to write essays analyzing poetry or comparing sociological or psychological theories and to read more carefully and critically than they had before. The challenge stirred strong feeling. Some of the students shut down and withdrew, and others erupted. One marine scout I was working with got so frustrated that, in a blur of rage and laughter, he bit off the corner of his paper before handing it to me.
It wasn’t enough for us to do our work within the confines of the classroom. The staff would follow up when a student missed a few days, making phone calls, driving over to an apartment or hotel room, finding someone in awful shape. We had a rich network of referrals for psychological counseling—the nearby VA hospitals but also local agencies and civic organizations. And for those who needed it, we had referrals for financial counseling as well. Finally, the program included assisting the students in selecting and applying to appropriate colleges and universities. With help from our counselor, the fellow who sank his teeth into that essay got into UCLA, majoring in sociology and East Asian studies.
All this created a sense of community, something the veterans often noted. For all their social and political differences, they shared the war, and now they were preparing for reentry into the world they left behind. The staff put on social events, but the real community, I believe, was formed through a course of study that was intensive, generous with assistance, and geared toward the next phase of the veterans’ lives.
We have been awash with “support our troops” and “thank you for your service” rhetoric, and politicians use it as a patriotic trump card. One grand irony in all this is the shameful level of health care some veterans have been getting and the resistance a number of conservatives and the Pentagon itself displayed in the face of legislation for the new G.I. Bill.
Rather than patriotic talk, I’d like to hear about programs that are comprehensive and address the multiple needs our troops have when they return home. Programs that provide knowledge and build skill. Programs that are thick with human contact. Programs that meet veterans where they are and provide structure and guidance that assist them toward a clear goal. Programs that build a community while leading these young men and women back to their own communities.
Educational programs for special populations tend toward single-shot solutions: a few basic skills courses, or tutoring, or counseling. But the best programs work on multiple levels, integrate a number of interventions. Such programs emerge from an understanding of the multiple barriers faced by their participants, but also from an affirmation of the potential of those participants. This is a huge point. The richness of the program matches the perception of the capacity of the people who populate it.

This is how really to support our troops. And it is how we should think about an education that, of necessity, has to go beyond the classroom.
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