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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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Thinking Harder about Soft Skills

           Before we had grit, we had soft skills.  From Department of Labor reports to testimonies from business groups, experts for several decades have been underscoring the importance of qualities such as punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others. Though employers certainly mention hard or cognitive skills – from literacy and numeracy to occupation-specific knowledge – soft skills continue to be much discussed and desired as crucial work skills for our time.
            The emphasis on soft skills makes sense, of course.  We all value them in our children, in those we work with, in ourselves.  But let us acknowledge at the outset that soft skills do not play out in a social-economic vacuum.  Showing up on time or managing one’s time, for example, can be affected by unreliable transportation, untreated medical problems, family emergencies, or pure and simple exhaustion.
            There are further limitations with the way we think about soft skills.  One is the very separation of hard and soft skills themselves, as though they are neatly distinct and fixed. But, they are, in fact, intimately connected. You can’t very well manage your time, monitor your own performance, or help others if you know little about the field in question. As part of the research I did to write Back to School, I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding. While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively acquired competence, soft skills developed apace. Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.
            Furthermore, soft skills are affected by the setting we’re in. I stay focused and persevere when writing something like this blog, but my diligence, not to mention my literacy skills, collapse with tax forms. I witnessed a striking example of the powerful effect of context a while back when I was visiting a high school carpentry program. On the bus over to a Habitat for Humanity construction site, a young man was as obnoxious as could be, mouthing off and insulting other students; several times the instructor who was driving the bus had to tell him to cool it. But the minute he walked onto the job site, his behavior and demeanor changed profoundly. His arrogance and nasty streak disappeared. He was focused on the tasks in front of him, politely raising questions to the instructor, and considerate of the students working with him. The demands of work he cared about brought out the best in him.
An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.  That work has to have some kind of meaning to those involved.  And it has to provide enough security for them to get to work on time.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Reprise of Rags to Riches, Republican Style

            I suppose it is a good thing when even Ted Cruz is talking about economic inequality.
            Politicians of all ideological stripes are acknowledging the growing financial gap between the very few haves and the many have-nots. The solutions posed, however, fit a predictable pattern. The recent Republican budget, for example, contains a series of cuts to social programs while proposing tax cuts that will yield big benefits to the wealthy, who, the one-percent logic goes, will grow the economy and create jobs.

One strand in the GOP economic narrative is the celebration of individual initiative as the key to social mobility—and one favored public illustration of such initiative is the Republican politician who has risen from modest means: John Boehner, Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and the newly elected senator from Iowa, Joni Ernst, who on the campaign trail told of a childhood when she had to put plastic bags over her worn-out shoes. Senator Ernst’s family might well have had a hard time of it—so, too, the families of Messrs. Boehner, Perry, and Walker. The problem lies—as commentator Timothy Egan trenchantly argued a few weeks back [see article here]—in these politicians’ romanticized rendering of their family histories and the harsh public policies they justify with that rendering.

            Ten years ago, President Bush was successfully spinning rags-to-riches narratives in his nomination of two men for positions in his cabinet: Carlos Gutierrez for Secretary of Commerce and Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General. I wrote the commentary below for Salon, and I revived it for this blog during the last presidential campaign season, for it remained relevant.  Well, here we are again, entering a campaign that will be humming with talk about economic inequality and mobility.  Excuse me for reprising the essay, but, well, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

            I edit the commentary where I can to reduce some of the 2005 specifics; as you read it, substitute a contemporary political figure—let’s say Governor Walker or Speaker Boehner—for the two Bush cabinet appointees mentioned in the first few paragraphs.  You’ll see why I can’t help but replay this record.
         In Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger's novel about an enterprising bootblack, one of the author's fictitious benefactors offers the following rosy observation of upward mobility in America: "In this free country poverty is no bar to a man's advancement." The belief that individual effort can override social circumstances runs deep in the national psyche. It's in Ben Franklin, in Alger's immensely popular 19th-century novels – and most recently in the official speeches and well-publicized personal stories of two of George W. Bush's Cabinet nominees, Carlos Gutierrez and Alberto Gonzales.

         Indeed, Republican strategists have long sought candidates and nominees with up-from-the-bootstraps personal histories – an observation made nearly 50 years ago by New York Times columnist James Reston – and in Gutierrez and Gonzales, they have two exemplars. At Gonzales' Senate confirmation hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter called the judge's life a "Horatio Alger story." By now, his and Gutierrez' stories are well known. Gonzales was born the son of migrant farmworkers, one of seven siblings living in a two-bedroom house with no hot water and phone. He took his first job at 12, eventually went to Harvard Law School and rose through Texas politics to become Bush's White House counsel. Gutierrez, a Cuban refugee who was 6-years-old when his family fled to the States with little money, learned English from a Miami bellhop.  He began his business career selling Kellogg's Frosted Flakes from a van in Mexico, and nearly 25 years later ascended to CEO.

         Gutierrez and Gonzales are clearly exceptional men, and their inspiring stories are served up as evidence of their character and worthiness to serve the nation. [Gonzales would later resign over controversies involving surveillance, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and politically motivated firings of U.S. Attornies.] Yet Bush's selection of them for Cabinet posts, shrewd on several levels, also warrants examination as cunning political strategy. In choosing them, Bush appeals to Cuban-American and Mexican-American constituencies. And in celebrating these rags-to-riches stories, Bush offers the promise of upward mobility. When Bush named Gutierrez, he called him "a great American success story" and "an inspiration to millions of men and women who dream of a better life." By association, the administration counters the perception that the GOP is the party of privilege, and suggests that with Republicans in charge, even people of modest means can prosper and ascend to power: Cabinet member as Everyman. This message is hugely important as the Republican Party continues to court lower and middle-income voters.

         But there is duplicity at the core of the message. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the nation has witnessed a rolling back of the social protections of the welfare state, a carefully orchestrated opposition to safeguards against inequality and, with that, a widening income gap. The rich – the very rich, especially – are getting much richer; the middle stagnates, and the poor fall off the charts. Opportunity is championed while unions are threatened, workplace health and safety regulations eroded, and an increase in the minimum wage stonewalled.

         And yet, one of the most striking things about rags-to-riches, Republican-style tales is that they are accounts of hardship with almost no feel of hardship to them. They reflect a kind of opportunity that exists only in a reactionary fable. (And here they differ significantly from the Horatio Alger originals.) Obstacles receive brief mention – if mentioned at all – and anger, doubt, or despair are virtually absent. You won't see the female cannery worker with injured hands or the guys at bitter loose ends when the factory closes. You won't see people, exhausted, shuttling between two or more jobs to make a living or the anxious scramble for minimal healthcare for their kids.

         The GOP stories present a world stripped of the physical and moral insult of poverty, not just sanitized – a criticism often and legitimately made – but also distilled, a clean pencil sketch of existence without complication. These tales appear in the Republican rhetoric surrounding any issue dealing with poverty, such as public housing, entitlement programs or health care. This erasure of poverty's afflictions makes sense. To do otherwise is to make palpable the dark side of capitalism and the injuries of social class. And conservative strategists have been working very hard, and effectively, to bleach an understanding of class from the public mind.

         Along the landscape of Republican rags-to-riches stories, characters move upward, driven by self-reliance, optimism, faith, responsibility. Though there will be occasional reference to teachers or employers who were impressed with the candidate's qualities, the explanations for the candidate's achievements rest pretty much within his or her individual spirit. The one exception is parents: They are usually mentioned as the source of virtue. Family values as the core of economic mobility.

         In the Alger originals, the lucky break, the fortuitous encounter is key to the enterprising hero's ascent. There's little play of chance in the contemporary Republican version. Luck's got nothing to do with it. Nor, it seems, does raw ambition and deal-making. There is not a hint of the red tooth and claw of organizational life in these tales. And you surely will not hear a whisper about legislation or social movements that may have enhanced opportunity, opened a door, or removed an obstacle. It would be hard to find a more radically individual portrait of achievement. It should be said that social and economic mobility is possible in the United States, though it has been stalling for decades. But does it happen as depicted in the Republican success stories?

         The stories of mobility I know differ greatly from the Republican script. To be sure, there is hard work and perseverance and faith – sometimes deeply religious faith. But many people with these same characteristics don't make it out of poverty. Discrimination is intractable, or the local economy devastated to the core, or the consequences of poor education cannot be overcome, or one's health gives out, or family ties (and, often, tragedy) overwhelm.

         The people who do succeed – and their gains are typically modest – often tell stories of success mixed with setbacks, of two steps forward and one back. Such stories reveal anger and nagging worry, or compromise and ambivalence, or a bruising confrontation with one's real or imagined inadequacies – "falling down within me," as one woman in an adult literacy program put it. This is the lived experience of social class. No wonder that these truer stories typically give great significance to help of some kind, both private and public. A relative, a friend, or a minister lends a hand. Family and community social networks open up an opportunity. A local occupational center provides training. The government's safety net – welfare, Medicaid, public housing – shelters one from devastation.

         It is the Right's grand ambition, as political journalist William Greider observed several years ago, to roll back the 20th century, to take us back, in policy terms, to the McKinley era. That was a time before the protections of the New Deal and the Great Society, a time of unregulated corporate power and a Social Darwinist view of the social order. The conservatives would keep government out and let the market determine the order of things.

         This is the ideological back-story to the feel-good celebrations of Republican leaders’ rise from hardship. Rags-to-riches stories have always been one part possibility, two parts fantasy. Perhaps as antidote, following Greider's lead, we should reread The Jungle or The Shame of The Cities, placing those early-20th century accounts of industrial brutality and urban squalor alongside Republican narratives of success. People like those I grew up with and have worked with over the years will be terribly hurt in the world the GOP is trying to create, the ladder of success kicked out from under them.

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