Saturday, June 23, 2018


      American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones writes about the racial segregation and inequalities of schools in contemporary USA. There are many things about the American case that are unique to that society, but there are also many inequalities there that are mirrored elsewhere. In a 2017 interview, Hannah-Jones spoke about something that was deeply moving. She had placed her daughter in a public school that is perceived as a terrible school even though she has the means to place her in a different, 'better' school. A lot of people thought she was making an odd choice. But for her, it is a moral issue—what is at stake goes beyond her child's well-being. If she put her child in a private school, she would be doing what many middle and upper-middle class parents are doing—undermining the integrity of the public school system with their flight. She puts it this way: "It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it's also upheld by individual choices. ... As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children... we're not going to see a change."
      A lot of my research and writing in the past decade have been about institutions and policies. I have talked primarily about how we need to rethink the principles underlying our policies if we want to see more equal outcomes. I still believe that if we want to see significant change, we need to have collective action, we need to work to alter big structural things—rules, regulations, criteria, principles underlying policies. But doing this more recent research, I am also continually reminded that life is lived at the micro level, at the level of everyday decisions, everyday interactions, everyday exercise of power and agency and responses to constraints and restraints.
      Nikole Hannah-Jones is a tough act to follow. She is right to say that inequalities are also reproduced by the individual choices of those who have the power to make choices. This implies an extremely uncomfortable conclusion for those of us in positions to make choices: the choices we make, even when we think are just about us, are in fact also about others.
      We who have the power to make choices disproportionately shape outcomes and limit options for people who don't have the power to make choices.
      It follows that if we don't share the power to make choices, we will never see a change to those things we say are bad or unacceptable to our society. When those of us who have the means maximize our own children's and our own families' advantages, we are contributing to strengthening norms about achievement, success/failure, that undermine our fellow citizens' well-being. Everyone may say "I want my children better than me," but not everyone can see this to fruition nor have the same impact on standards and norms when they do.
      As parents, we must therefore think very carefully about what we are doing when we demand that teachers assign more homework, when we ask questions about what standard our kids' peers are at, when we micro-manage our kids' lives, when we pay for tutors, when we fight to get our kids into certain schools.
      Equally if not more important, we must ask what we are allowing to perpetuate when we do not resist a system many of us can now see is deeply problematic. If those higher in the social hierarchy, ahead in the pack, refuse to pause and change their ways, the call to extend assistance to the low-income or to 'level up' will continue to ring hollow.

      Embedded in what I have said lies inherent conflict in class interests as well as the potential for class solidarity. Regardless of class, everyone is subject to state policies on education. It is becoming increasingly clear that a high-stakes, examination-oriented education system exerts costs on parents and kids across the class spectrum.
      We should care because we are losing potentially valuable human resources. We will all grow old in societies populated by other people's children; our well-being depends on their capabilities (economists such as Nancy Folbre have thus argued for seeing children as public goods. See Folbre, 1994). We contribute to public education precisely because there are collective returns on this expenditure. To enhance our shared well-being, we have an interest in ensuring that all kids growing up in our society can fulfill their human potential.
      The circumstances and experiences of low-income families reveal the deep inequalities embedded in our education system—the focus on narrow definitions of abilities, the demand for precocity, the reliance on parental involvement and commercial services, together undermine the democratic promise and potential of mass education. As a society, we speak loudly and proudly about meritocracy and equality of opportunity. As a matter of ethics and morality, we should all care about the undermining of these promises, and we should fight to resist this erosion of our shared ethos.
      The requirement of narrow ways of being, of precocity, are not easy to attain for any child. The financial costs, the time expended, the harms done to familial relationships, the stresses exerted on our children—these are significant. In the long run, all of us must ask: to what end? Is it worth it?
—reproduced from This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn

Ask me and I will lend it to you, or if you'd like, I will buy you a copy.

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