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The Epitome Of Class

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The BBC has taken it upon themselves to redefine class. ‘Well of course’ you say ‘and we do love Downton Abby, Call The Midwife and Mr. Selfridge.’ Yes, those decadent and indulgent shows are lavish examples of the British class system in play. But I refer instead to the questionnaire the BBC posted online that over 160,000 completed. Ignoring for a moment the completely unscientific method of this ‘survey’ and also putting aside the very stark reality of who completes online surveys, let us instead consider this tricky terrain.

The British have always been quite transparent about their views and demarcations of class. What (and where) one is born into is often where one stays. There are examples of upward mobility in British society (beyond that of Eliza Doolittle.) But for the most part, where you started is where you’ll stay. If for no other reason than the British are wonderfully observant of clues. (Hello? Sherlock, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, anyone?) The slightest hint of a flat ‘a’ or the improper wearing of wellies, and they’ve got you pegged. They have graciously exported this gift to previously colonized locales. You could probably travel the globe and identify where the United Kingdom has ruled simply by observing the (seemingly) arbitrary ‘you’re in’ you’re out’ class systems.

Americans have always prided themselves in eschewing this structure. We still like to fancy ourselves the little rebels who fled from the tyranny of such structure. The truth is that what we do is less honest and more destructive. We pretend that social class doesn’t exist. Oh, we’re happy to discuss real dollars and sense. We take great comfort (or distress) in determining if we economically fall into the middle-class. Politicians love to talk about the middle class. We don’t talk of the lower class or even working class anymore however. No, we call it ‘working families.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s just one person in that ‘family’ or twenty. It’s funny how liberal we can be discussing families in terms of poverty levels but not in terms of legal union.

Taking pains to never associate class with anything but money creates problems. To discuss class in terms of values and cultural proclivities is anathema to Americans. We discuss education and achievement in terms of poverty which is often a thin guise for race. We discuss poverty and race as if they have anything whatsoever to do with achievement, which of course they don’t. There is nothing about any race that impacts learning. There is nothing about how much money a household has which impacts learning. Underfunded and improperly staffed schools impact learning, as do households in which learning is not a priority. We avoid discussing public health and lifestyle behaviors in terms of class. We think nothing of imposing middle values on lower class people, but we’ll never admit that’s what we’re doing. Our entire social and child services structure is built on that very premise.

It’s important to Americans to ignore the real differences of class. But yet we’re wedded to creating a very us vs. them culture. We’re much more comfortable attributing our opposing outlooks and proclivities to religious or political ideals. Sociologists (versus online questionnaires) often explore the gravitation of like-peoples. (Think: lunchroom table configuration studies.) Much more often than not the ‘like-people’ means people of our own religious and ethnic group. But outside of laboratories and research studies what you’re most likely to find in the real world, is that people gravitate towards those of their own class. Being of the same racial/ethnic/religious group is less of an indicator of our shared values than that of class. Would the Rothschilds understand the seder at Sadie’s on Orchard Street? Of course, but after the seder (at 2:00 AM) what in the world would they talk about? If you take a look around at the people with whom you feel most connected they are those with similar values and cultural proclivities. They don’t have identical incomes, they don’t worship in the same way, and their complexions vary in hue. But you all share a similar outlook and a view of the world. That’s class.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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And Pre-K For All

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“Pre-K for all!” As rallying cries go it’s a bit sweet and conjures up some pretty adorable images: Tiny people with finger painted signs toddling their way to Capitol Hill. It’s an expensive proposition but one that is difficult to argue. “It’s for the children!” “Children are our future!” You know the rest. But beyond the sentimentality and cynicism is the truth. The world has changed tremendously and we need to catch the hell up.

It is no longer the norm that small children spend their days with a parent, and it hasn’t been for quite some time. Childcare can be expensive and uneven in quality. Some toddlers are deposited in front of a television set for 8-10 hours and some are learning Dvorak on miniature violins. Of course these childcare discrepancies always existed. But there was a time when 5 year olds from every background arrived at kindergarten to start from zero together. Kindergarten (often held for 1/2 days) was for cutting, pasting, coloring, letter learning and learning to stand in line and raise one’s hand. There was story time and maybe some music and snack. Today’s Kindergarten is a bit more serious and most likely an all-day affair. The academics start much earlier than years past.

The day is spent learning letters, numbers, science, social studies, and yes, standing in line and hand raising. What was once an entire year consisting of an easing away from the home and into the world is now much more like the real thing. It’s understandable, there’s an awful lot to learn after all. In the past Kindergarten might have been the first time little people spent their day with other little people. (Socialization is serious business.) It makes a great deal of sense to beef up this precious year of public education. We know that early education makes an impact on life long learning (the good people of Sesame Street ran with that ball 40 years ago.) We also know that children come from vastly different backgrounds and opportunities. Those who can afford it or are fortunate to live in states with it, are already sending their tykes to pre-Kindergarten. Public education, despite its ideals, is not equal. Some schools are far superior to others. Some parents are far savvier than others. Any moves we can make to democratize education and prepare children for life long learning should be supported and applauded. I join those little people carrying the finger painted placards in setting down my juice box, and putting my hands together for universal pre-K.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Grand Old Ivy

Families around the country are (hopefully) beginning to wade through college acceptance letters.  The conversations are getting a bit strained, and perhaps a few bedroom doors have been slammed.  For the teen, deciding on a college feels excruciatingly personal, and one that her/his parents should really not influence.  For the parent (who may be footing the bill) the decision feels as important (if not more) than any 17/18 year old is equipped to tackle.  If we open our windows and listen very carefully we can probably hear strains of; “Fine! Then I won’t go to college at all.”  “Don’t think you’re going to live here (we’ve promised your room to your 30 year old brother.)”  Okay, you probably didn’t hear that last part, but it was implied.

A million years ago, the school selection ritual was a bit easier.  High school students applied to less than a handful of schools.  What they could afford dictated where they applied.  Schools differed in their disciplines and robustness of research, but not on their housing and dining and extra-curricular activities.  Support services (of any kind) were few and far between.  Parents often never even saw the school of choice until graduation.  It was a different time.  Today there are so many choices and so many people involved in the decision.

Complicated aid packages, unlimited special interest programs (i.e., public service, study abroad, merit scholars, etc.) luxurious living accommodations, and multiple support services are just some of the changes that parents may not recognize.  These same parents are expected to visit the school (before enrollment) and sit through Q&A designed just for them.  They are expected to deliver their child to school and stay for days for an orientation designed just for them.  No sooner do they get home and gas up the minivan, than they are expected back on campus for “Family Weekend” (previously known as “Parents Day.”)  And that’s just the first two months of freshman year.  For better or worse (and who are we kidding?) parents are also attending the college their child chooses.  Just walk through any campus bookstore (or online store.)  There is as much apparel and paraphernalia for parents as there is for students.

Adding to this dramatic change in the landscape is that many students are attending college who might not have fifty years ago.  As a group, freshman are not as self sufficient or mature as they once were, but there are also many freshman with specific qualities that need to be addressed and supported.  Students with; learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional disabilities, chronic diseases, and eating and substance abuse issues, may have stayed closer to home in the past.  Many colleges have invested in a multitude of support services, but there will always still be reason for concern.  Sending a child away to an institution with new academic and social demands and little behavioral oversight, can be a treacherous formula.  Parents of these students have every reason to be very involved in every step of the college process.

So once the tempers subside, and everyone comes out of their respective rooms, it’s time for rational decision making (caution: charts might be involved.) Might I suggest a framework for the discussion:

  • What are the student’s interests/goals
    • Rate the school as to its ability to successfully deliver the student to the next step (i.e., medical school, engineering job, stage and screen)
  • What are the financial needs (include traveling to and from home and any and all fees for supplemental programs)
    • Rate the school separately as to their contribution and the student/parent contribution (e.g., “A” for grants “A” for loans, but “F” for no work-study program)
  • What are the support/living needs the student has
    • Rate the schools accordingly

An attractive, and perhaps color-coded chart should result.  Of course this analysis is only relevant if plenty of homework is done.  Hhmmm, who amongst those sitting around the dining room table, is well versed in homework?  The student should have done as much (if not hopefully much more) legwork before this discussion can occur.  Yes, it is all quite confusing and complicated, and even the most well executed chart is no guarantee.  And yes, this is all very expensive and important, but there is no race.  Leaves of absence, transfers, community colleges and the like exist for a reason.  We learn from experience and from our mistakes, but making informed decisions, makes the learning much more profitable.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Education

 

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Mind The Gap

As the college visit tours wind down and collected brochures, flashdrives, t-shirts are filed, many family’s thoughts turn towards next steps.  Never before have so many high school seniors had so many choices.  For all our national bemoaning of the flaws of higher education, we have in fact an embarrassment of riches.  I have no doubt that the majority of ambitious and motivated teens will find themselves just where they need to be.

But what of those teens who may not have much support, and/or exposure to a world larger than their own?  Across this country there are teens; in foster care, in chaotic homes, in shelters, in insular communities and in survival mode.  What’s to become of them?  Four centuries of public education in this country, speaks to a collective consensus that educating our society is a good idea.  Most of us would agree that a high school degree is not what it used to be (either in substance or in currency.)  And despite the plethora of college choices and amounts of students attending, it is still its own unique experience.  Being a college student is actually quite different from being a high school student.  The choices alone are mind boggling.  What school?  What major?  Where to live?  How to pay?

As daunting as these choices are to many, they are a luxury that teens in survival mode rarely have.  We have all heard or seen stories of the teacher, case manager, caring adult, who intervenes and changes a teenager’s life.  It happens, it does.  But the reason these stories make for (potentially) compelling television or film, is their rarity.  We do not have a national systemic approach to caring/mentoring/guiding teenagers post-high school.

So what if we instituted a national mentoring system?  Adults could volunteer to be trained and then serve as mentors.  The “corps” would be comprised of; financial advisers, education experts, life-skill advisers, counselors.  (I picture a “peace corps” experience for retirees.)  Identifying at-risk teenagers is a bit more challenging.  Certainly high schools would be a good place to start.  Like anything, the earlier we catch the problem, the better.  But mimicking our military should not be ruled out.  Clearly we already have a national program that has mastered outreach to a segment of our young population.

Politics aside, we really can’t afford to have any ‘child left behind.’  For every teen who ages out of our current support system, there is potentially one less adult contributing.  The waste of human potential and the implied economic toil should not be acceptable.  Most health insurance policies now cover dependent children until age 26.  What I propose is not that much different and potentially much more impactful. Done in a thoughtful manner, this “gap” program would draw attention to inequities and systemically combat them.  It might not be the sexiest of administrative programs, but I believe it could change our world.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Education

 

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Home Economics 2.0

Recently I’ve wondered what has become of Home Economics.  Not the actual classes I was subjected to (more on that later) but the concept itself.  I’ve tossed the query out to various friends and acquaintances and have received murmurs of “budget cuts” in reply.  Hardly empirical data I know, but today’s opinion piece provides confirmation of our suspicions.

Now I would never extol the virtues of tedious sewing projects which only resulted in tears and an ancient teacher so frustrated by my stellar ineptitude, she used the my arm as a pincushion in an attempt to make her point.  I would never suggest someone else endure the humiliation of laboring over one simple skirt for an entire semester while the rest of the class created the equivalent of the Spring Line of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School.  I would never wish upon anyone the hollow sense of accomplishment that comes with an end of year unveiling of a skirt that no longer fit.

But cooking, and nutrition?  Well that’s a horse of a different color.

I think we can all agree, we’ve got a little weight issue in this country.  There is nothing like learning about the origin of food, nutrition, and cooking to aid in the decision process involved in eating.  If that weren’t reason alone to re-imagine Home Economics classes, consider for a moment the inherent math and science lessons to be had in growing and preparing food.  Chlorophyll, banana cultivation, baking chemistry, weights and measures…Years of lesson plans are just waiting to be delivered in the most entertaining (BAM!) delicious ways.

There has never been a better time to consider this curriculum.  My family (of origin) sat down to dinner together every single night.  Lunches were consumed at home, or were packed in a brown bag (note: mashed banana and peanut butter on whole wheat really needs the protection of a proper lunchbox) weekend breakfasts were a family affair.  There was no junk food (except for birthday celebrations) and nutrition was often discussed.  Again, without any scientific proof, I’m willing to say that the majority of children are not experiencing their meals in this manner today.

Unlike technology in the classroom (we’ll save debating the return on investment of teaching students power point, for another day) the teaching of Home Economics need not be an astronomical financial investment.  Yes, the title “Home Economics” is a bit cloying, and does conjure apron-y imagery.  But with the modern interpretation of say; Domestic Engineering, we can begin to imagine how making education (specifically math and science) personal, makes all the sense in the world.

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Education

 

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