Sunday, April 7, 2013


It's often hard for me to remember that I'm actually a grown-up.  I've heard that this common for many people from ages 20 to 102.   I wonder who decided I could be trusted with my own children.  I can't remember when I became old enough to make major life decisions.  I am often relieved when there are grown-ups around in case anything should go wrong. (That may be part of the oldest child syndrome.)

On the other hand, I have been so frustrated with parents, church leaders, and other people who were supposed to be "the grown-ups."  And they let me down.  They didn't prepare me for the world of 2013.  They didn't know about globalization, multiculturalism, or religious pluralism.  They didn't tell me that racism and inequality were rampant in our society, and not just a "little problem in the past."  They have no idea how to use social media.

That is totally unfair of me to say, though.  I'm starting to get that.  For example, I actually don't always know how to use social media totally until my younger siblings fill me in.  Maybe I can roll with it faster because I'm not so much older than they are, but that doesn't change the fact that I am now officially what or who I have both loved and despised...  a grown-up.

I'm starting to realize that maybe my pastors,  parents, and most teachers didn't tell me about racism, among other things, because they didn't know either.  I mean, there was a time when I didn't know, and then someone told me.  So I learned.  I guess I have the sense that the grown-ups should have known before me.  I shouldn't be the one telling them because they're the grown-ups and I'm the... okay, not a child anymore. Growing up is useful for perspective, if nothing else.

And then I have to remember that grown-ups did other things for me that were really important.  For example,  grown-ups kept me alive for the first years of my life, as in, I would have died if they hadn't fed me and kept me from running in front of a car.  In the later years of my life, grown-ups were mature enough to give me a place to live when I had nothing but sass and rebellion to give back. Grown-ups did their best to tell me everything they believed was important for life.  They gave me their beliefs and ideology because that's all they had to give.

I should recognize that whatever knowledge I have now is because of the grown-ups who have taught me, or even failed to teach me.  My parents, pastors,  and teachers got some things right and they got some things wrong. But even the things they got wrong caused me to look for different answers.  So really I should be thanking them for being screwed up. (Don't tell them I said that.)

It's also a little staggering to realize that now I'm imparting all my beliefs, prejudices, errors, and mistakes on my own children.  Awesome.  In all fairness, I guess I hope they don't hold it against me too much when they realize all the things I didn't know to tell them, all the ways I screwed them up when I was really trying to help.

I also hope that when my kids come to me with new ideas or new ways of doing things, that I will listen to them.  I hope that I don't shoot them down right away or tell them that they are being brainwashed by their college professors.   I hope that I'm open to change, even if it's uncomfortable or not the way I would have done things.  In all my learning and changing, I can't ever forget that my knowledge is limited without others who are older and younger to help me fill in the gaps.

Monday, April 1, 2013

"Culture of povery" and achievement ideology

"The problem is not that lower-class children are inferior in some way; the problem is that by the definitions and standards of the school, they consistently are evaluated as deficient" (MacLeod, 2008, p. 101)

Jay MacLeod  (2008) so brilliantly lands on this conclusion more than 30 years ago in his epic ethnography "Ain't no makin' it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood." MacLeod followed two groups of boys for a year, the "Hallway Hangers" (White teenage boys) and the "Brothers" (Black teenage boys).  He was then able to catch up with this same group of men 8 years later, then 20 years later, offering a rare longitudinal qualitative study in the realm of education and sociology. 

MacLeod offers a counter-narrative to the overly simplistic rationale of a "culture of poverty" by analyzing the underlying logic of the two groups of boys. From their perspective, it seems that there are only two options for the youth in this impoverished East Coast neighborhood: resist the achievement ideology put forth by the educational institution and fail quickly, or accept the achievement ideology and fail slowly.   

For the Hallway Hangers, "the possibility of upward social mobility is not worth the price of obedience, conformity, and investment of substantial amounts of time, energy, and work in school" (MacLeod, p. 106).  A loss of agency and self-esteem are at stake for these boys, as well.  The Brothers, on the other hand, seem to have internalized their own oppression, what MacLeod calls "anticipatory socialization." Regardless, with one exception, at 20 years later neither the men who had "tried hard" nor the men who had "given up" had managed to escape their social class.

Simply put achievement ideology that says if you work hard, you will succeed.  There are many stories of social mobility, but people generally achieve relatively modest gains or losses in the grand scheme of the whole social order.  The true "rags to riches" story rarely happens. MacLeod's narrative contributes further to the idea that divisions between racial groups only serve to solidify the position of all the lower class at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. 

MacLeod's work does not downplay the devastating effects of poverty on families, individuals and entire communities.  If anything, he gives a compelling and realistic picture of poverty. However, the picture he paints is far from simplistic; the interaction between structures and human agency is complex and profound. 

 Overall, he argues against the idea that young people in poverty fail to achieve because of their inherited "culture," and instead contends that the structures and ideology upholding a rigid class-system in this country are the very same forces that inhibit social mobility. 

This work also forces me to remember that social construction of "race" through laws and institutions was always about the preservation of the upper class.  While "race" has become the most salient aspect of our identity, class is surely only a few steps behind.  Regardless of a person's racial identity, we are more or less bound to the class into which we were born, although "race" certainly impacts the "more or less."  

It seems that the larger community of educators was not truly listening to the theoretical framework and powerful stories put forth by MacLeod because we are still having conversations surrounding the "culture of poverty" and its impact on educational achievement.  The role of the educational system should not be underestimated in how it promotes social reproduction by privileging one set of cultural values and linguistic codes, while disadvantaging others. 

"Whereas force and coercion often have ensured the cohesion of societies and the maintenance of oppressive relationships, ideology is more important in fulfilling this function in contemporary America" (MacLeod, 2009, p. 113). 

So it seems there are layers upon layers that reify the hierarchy that keeps the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer. 


MacLeod, J. (2008). Ain’t no makin’ It: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (3rd ed.). Westview Press.