The genius (?) of “grit”

As far as mainstream news is concerned, I read and listen to NPR. Not a great choice for getting news stories unfiltered by corporate sponsorship (try We Act Radio as an example of a better option from a progressive, anti-neoliberal perspective), but it’s better than nothing and it works with my morning routine. Last week, I came upon a story relating to education, a topic that has gotten a lot of press with the Common Core standards receiving both accolades and criticisms from school districts across the country. While the NPR spot didn’t discuss the Common Core, it did focus on another educational trend that may offer help to our country’s struggling students: “grit.”

No, “grit” is not the stuff you pick out of your shoes when you walk in pebbly places or the grime you wash out of your hair after a long day out in the world. “Grit (personality trait)”, according to its Wikipedia page (note: the author is fully aware of the flaws in this information resource as well – perhaps I’ll write in the future about media literacy), is “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or endstate coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” Because this personal characteristic refers to perseverance in the face of opposition, rather than cognitive facility (intelligence), it is seen by its proponents to be both non-academic while still a powerful determiner of a person’s success both in and out of school. The NPR story presented “grit” as a new term coined by Dr. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor from University of Pennsylvania who has won a McArthur Genius Grant for her work, and a new offering in the endless struggle in education to improve American schools, curricula, and teacher and student performance. Dr. Duckworth stated that “grit” seems like an ‘American’ way of doing things, that is, struggling against all odds to accomplish a goal. (You might wonder whether any other countries could claim a similar ethic; however, as the American mythos very much centers on a sense that any individual’s success can be attributed to his/her hard work, a.k.a. meritocracy, this language guarantees a home run in selling American audiences.)

Here’s my problem with Duckworth’s seemingly new idea. Firstly, claiming that something as obvious as perseverance – excuse me, “grit” – impacts a person’s success in life (insofar as this person measures success against external standards) seems almost tautological. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed to find a person who says that all the achievements of the great thinkers of the world were complete accidents and that sustained focus on the goal at hand had nothing at all to do with this. My point is, Duckworth’s revolutionary idea appears so obvious that we are tempted to smack our heads and say, “Of course, she’s right – and she’s a genius for reminding us of this!”

But there are bigger problems with attempting to apply a theory of such universal appeal.  If we delve deeper, we can find plenty of examples of successful people who may have worked hard and stuck to it, yet who also began their journey quite a bit ahead of others. Children born to wealthy, high-status parents all over the world typically have a much broader range of advantages – competitive edge, by capitalist terms – with which to pursue whatever goals they set out to reach. Many of the most widely recognized “success stories” of our time were in fact raised in middle- or upper-class families by parents with strong educational and professional backgrounds. In short, they were raised in environments where success and social and cultural achievement were the familial norm. There is plenty of research in cognitive science, education, and other fields to support the assertion that family wealth, education, and emphasis on social achievement help to shape a young person’s ability to access opportunity, through what Jean Bordieu termed cultural capital. And the converse proposition is true, i.e., that students who are low-status (because they are poor, immigrants, people of color, and/or living in underserved and marginalized communities) without such advantages often struggle more and have limited access to social goods. The modern conversation about educational and, later, social inequity often includes discussion of thesocial programming inherent to the class-based curricular differences in wealthier school districts versus poorer ones and of biases against children of color starting at a very young age, and those of us with a sense of intellectual and political responsibility must consider that social, environmental, and cultural factors work at systemic as well as local levels to maintain status quo and cultural norms. So the question is this: how does “grit” address inherent biases of teachers, administrations, policies, and communities as a whole?

NPR’s article does offer contrary perspectives on Duckworth’s suggestion that “grit” is the overwhelmingly important characteristic children need to succeed against all odds: that the educational system itself in its current state contains a variety of “pedagogical and curricular problems,” according to writer Alfie Kohn, that cannot be corrected or even addressed by a single concept like “grit” that focuses only on student learning and behavior; or that espousing a seemingly neutral personality trait as a predisposing factor in personal success could in reality act as a form of moral prescriptionism within schools (i.e., if you behave in an “pre-approved” way that accords with certain sociocultural and educational norms, you will be awarded with social success). It is important to state that Duckworth’s research is limited by its psychological orientation; while psychology has brought us a plethora of advancements and insights into the human mind, in education, the psychologist’s view is one which disarticulates a learner from his/her environment and focuses more on the individual in spite of the group. When Duckworth talked about how “grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate” in her TED talk last year, she mentioned that this occurred regardless of students’ family income, standardized test scores, or feelings of safety in school. This seems so attractive, and yet suspect. I would suggest that perhaps the self-reporting – the means by which she gathered this information from students – might have veiled some more complex problems that students themselves were unaware of or could not articulate.

Finally, there is the issue of being clear about what we mean when we refer to that very loaded and overused term “challenges” that children are meant to face and overcome in schooling. John Dewey wrote 100 years ago in Democracy and Education (read a free copy here) about the way students might build the ability to work through stumbling blocks: “A difficulty is an indispensible stimulus to thinking, but not all difficulties call out thinking. Sometimes they overwhelm and submerge and discourage.” (p. 151) If we accept Dewey’s point about differentiating difficulties, we find an important issue to keep in mind when critiquing Duckworth’s plan to apply her “grit” theory to public education. Students with a stable housing situation, food on the table, parental support (which implies parents that have the time and background and abilities needed to be supportive in a school-oriented way), etc. – in short, feelings of social and biological safety – are better able to face academic challenges with lower stress levels and stronger cognitive capabilities than students who are not. Students who drop out of school, who do not continue on to college, who get lower-paying jobs after graduation, are struggling with a host of factors outside of school that may in fact impact their self-view as well as their perception of how to deal with school-based difficulties. How would “grit” be helpful when a student’s stress levels are such that s/he can’t focus on classwork and can’t interact in a way that the teacher finds acceptable? Would the same teacher perceive a student with lower stress levels – giving him/her greater advantages cognitively and socio-affectively – as harder working, more focused, and “grittier” in contrast? The much more powerful and complex difficulties American students face in ecological terms – meaning all the environmental, socio-affective, cultural, socioeconomic, ethnolinguistic, and sociopolitical dimensions of the relationships between all of us – seem to bring up many more questions than we have answers for.

In short, I am suspicious of this not-so-new concept of “grit” as a silver bullet waiting for the right gun and the right hand to fire it. I think it bears further analysis and much more critical thinking; I also believe we should also be careful to interrogate the greater success of wealthier, white children from families of high levels of social achievement to identify any correlations of “grit” with social status as a whole; if these high-power children demonstrate “having more grit” and outstripping their low-status counterparts in school-based success, then perhaps the whole thing should be scrapped so we can make room for the next genius idea coming down the line.


Selective abortion, cultural lenses, and the universals of family existence

I recently watched “It’s a Girl,” a documentary made in 2012 about the sociocultural phenomenon of female feticide and infanticide, both of which take place in parts of India and China, where the preference for a boy baby – “son-preference” – is derived from traditional patriarchal views of girls as “burdens” on their families. In older times, girls offered less benefit to their families as laborers for the family good, as they were physically weaker and/or were often not allowed to work; when they reached marrying age, they left to join their husband’s families, unable to help continue the family line or traditions and leaving their parents to manage their older age alone. Adding to these culturally sanctioned charges against girl children, the traditional dowry system in India demanded a hefty and often unaffordable payment to the family of the girl’s husband.

Though technically illegal, the dowry system is still in effect in parts of India today, bringing families to consider aborting female fetuses or killing or abandoning female infants as an economic decision necessary for survival. “A thief has come,” quotes the movie from a traditional Rajasthani proverb warning about the portentous birth of a girl into a family. Though the practice of female infanticide seems (according to the movie) to be more common in rural areas than in urban, cosmopolitan ones and may be on the decline, the decision to terminate a pregnancy that would result in a girl child being born still takes place in surprisingly high numbers. Through developments in and access to medical innovation in the second part of the 20th century, sex-selective abortion has resulted in large numbers through the use of pre-natal sex determination, and while such testing is currently illegal in India and China, some doctors continue to use these techniques to inform pregnant women and their families of the sex of their unborn children, which over time has contributed to a dangerous disproportion between females and males in these countries. Organizations such as Seneca International fight this deep-rooted cultural practice of female feticide and infanticide, arguing that the continuation of such practices may likely have strongly negative impacts on the countries “whether seen from a purely moral, or a purely pragmatic point of view.” With smaller proportions of girls and women in countries that continue to prioritize males over females, rape and sex trafficking are on the rise alongside the continued practice of eliminating female fetuses and infants (for more information about this, read The Washington Post’s 1993 article entitled “The Burden of Womanhood: Third World, Second Class”). Considering these developments in addition to the heavy social and economic costs levied by restricted access to education and opportunity on girls and women in countries where this continues to occur, it is clear that a perpetuation of females as “second-class citizens” in their own families and communities is far from over.

For those of us who live in places where such events are unheard of, if not unthinkable, learning of these cultural practices and their accompanying beliefs causes sorrow at knowing of the devastation of so much human potential, and the suffering that the women of these societies must face. Knowing that they, their daughters, their sisters are seen as a “burden” to their families is, to those of us who have grown up in a country that espouses equality between the genders and at least plays conscious catch-up to make such an ethos true, overwhelming, and resounds with many other terrible stories of the day-to-day, normalized abuse, oppression, marginalization, and prolonged servitude of women all over the world.

Reflecting on this, I realize first of all that I am permitted my cultural bias in having such a reaction (which I did) and also being immediately aware that I have great luxury in being able to access this information using my Netflix account and watching it from the comfort of my middle-class American home (which I did); being aware of the sociocultural lens I apply in addressing any cultural practice outside my own set of values is important to being, well, maybe not more objective, then at least less unilaterally subjective. Ironically, however, I ended up considering some ideas that worked counter to these selfsame beliefs, at least on a theoretical level. And while I’m pro-abortion rights, it did bring me to some interesting conclusions.

When I heard the word “feticide,” it occurred to me that as an alternate term for “abortion,” the word carries the distinct implication of “killing” (from the suffix –cide, as in “fratricide” or “homicide”), rather than the association of “abortion” with a more neutral sense of disruption and termination of a pregnancy (which may or may not occur as a result of choice by the mother). Why is a term such as “feticide” chosen? Of course it’s used to create a stronger association between the choice the woman and man who conceived a female fetus make and murder, thus creating a more compelling case for stopping the practice altogether. This I can understand, though I also believe there is a subtle decision being made here in order to send certain messages (as happens with the spinning of stories in the media every day, a.k.a. propaganda, which simply means the presentation of information from only one perspective).

Thinking the concept of sex-selective abortion – and selective abortion in general, whichaccording to the BBC takes place in part because “having a child causes a crisis for a woman” – it is interesting to consider how much we can be shocked by what happens in other countries while seeing what takes place on our home turf as a simple extension of social norms that we take for granted. The term “burden” for me is key, because it creates a parallelism I had not considered before. In some traditional communities in India and China, girls are seen as “burdens” and having a girl is considered a struggle, a potential hardship brought upon the family. Yet how different is this from the “burden” some families in America cite in deciding whether or not to continue with a pregnancy that will result in the birth of a child with a disability?

Economic considerations are often cited as a reason for not having a child with an intellectual or physical disability, and though it is not generally discussed in casual conversation (the loss of life requires, after all, a modicum of delicacy), any American family that decides to selectively abort a fetus identified as having future disabilities could do so without suffering criticism or censure. Even non-economic rationales are tolerable in such situations, as families may choose not to have a baby with disabilities because it would ‘take over their lives’ or ‘be too hard.’ In a country where we so value independence and freedom as our daily mantras, the limit on one’s economic or personal freedom is considered a barrier to be eliminated if at all possible. Perhaps this is the reason why selective abortion of a fetus with Downs Syndrome or cerebral palsy might be seen as…well, an option.

I am not advocating the banning of all abortion (or feticide, depending on the term you choose to use), nor am I implying that girls equate to people with disabilities. Rather, I ask the question of what qualifications we accept in defining what is “burdensome” – and how far culture goes to define this for us – and what is considered intolerable to any family, regardless of country of origin. Is it economic hardship and limitation, a loss of any chance for a good life for its members? If so, then we might consider that the problematic view of girls becomes slightly more understandable, if perhaps not morally acceptable, in the socioeconomic context of life in rural India. We must, after all, resist the urge toward cultural imperialism, sweeping our hand across another less powerful country to wipe away practices we despise without a care for the how or why of their part in the complex cultural fabric of the place. At least, we might review our indignation that this could ever take place and tilt the looking-glass back towards ourselves, in all our equality and cultural superiority. We might, indeed, ask ourselves about how it is that we define, whether consciously or not, certain members of our society as “burdens” to our own ways of life.

Paradigm paralysis and civic imagination

In preparation for my doctoral studies this fall (location tbd), I’ve been reading the work of Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux, two public intellectuals whose work on social class, education, labor and employment, neoliberalism and other topics has commented on the hypocrisy and violence upon which much of our country’s preeminence in the world depends. Both writers’ work, along with “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture” by Angela Davis, evoke a concept I just discovered recently, called paradigm paralysis, and its relationship to civic imagination in modern America.

Paradigm paralysis refers to one’s inability to perceive alternatives to the dominant paradigm, its dictates, beliefs and attendant behaviors. As a psychological concept, paradigm paralysis appears to be involuntary, a simple response to the overwhelming incongruity of present reality with other possibilities that would alter our given set of assumptions beyond the bounds of what is “acceptable”; the classic example is the rejection of Copernicus’ heliocentric model in the 16th century, a notion so radical that he was accused of impiety, along with Galileo and other “heretical” thinkers whose scientific work was spurned as anathema to religious dictum. While later on such academic developments were found to replace earlier models of thinking, their initiators suffered social pariahdom or worse and often never lived to see their work received as it might have been.

The reason this concept fascinates me is that I think many of our public intellectuals – and those of us who hope one day to join their ranks – struggle with the immobility of the common person even in the face of widespread, flagrant abuse of human rights in the name of corporatism and laissez-faire capitalism in many spheres of modern society. We speak easily about the 99%, we accept that the protection of corporations as people is absurd, we believe that the bailout of the banks during the Great Recession of 2008 robbed all of us to pay the thieves who stole from us twice over, we see the huge profits by private prisons through government-sanctioned occupancy quotas…yet we offer little more than a flip grumble on Facebook and let it be done.

Have we become passive, even lazy to some degree when it comes to civic discourse? Is the torpor of obsessive eyeballing of our electronic devices setting in to the point that we can’t see past our little iPhone designer case edges? I believe that this may be true, but only to a point. It’s important to consider ideas expressed by Aronowitz such as what he calls the Great Fear, which he says self-proclaimed progressives buttress against with “comfortable berths in the professions, the unions and the universities” or by regressing into cozy nostalgia for better times. Aronowitz considers that in an atmosphere of political suppression and economic vulnerability, radical independent thinking and expression are often attenuated by the anxiety about consequences both undefined and highly publicized, as in the case of well-known whistleblowers all over the world, should one speak out against the powers that be.

Giroux adds to this important point by discussing how the notion of freedom, of democracy itself has changed as a result of the preeminence of market values over the importance of a social contract, which dictates that the common good and the individual good function as correlates in a healthy society. According to Giroux, “[F]reedom, which is essential to any notion of democracy, now becomes nothing more than a matter of pursuing your own self interests,” reflecting the movement of capital-is-king values from the 1980s increasingly into mainstream discourse. If we are being ushered into a space of rewarded individualism, in which excoriation lurks around the corner for those who do not play along with the system, we use our new playground – that of consumption and spectacle and me-me-me – to purge our built-up angst about what’s really going on.

Giroux moves on to discuss what he terms the problem of “dis-imagination” in schooling in an interview with Bill Moyers entitled, “Henry Giroux on Zombie Politics”, which especially for educators like myself becomes a profound warning. Giroux laments the loss of the arts, of opportunities for creative and critical thinking, of the exploration of tradition and older texts, which used to occur as schools focused on “educating the imagination” of children in supporting their development as future participants in civic reality. As administrations work to impose new standards and testing year after year, while making cuts to budgets and teacher support, it is clear that the need to compete, to fight to survive as funding for education dries up all over the country, reflects the same anxiety and prioritization of self over others that occurs on an individual level. As schools’ success is defined by ‘demonstrated measureable outcomes’ (read: metrics like standardized tests), what opportunity exists to explore unclaimed social, cultural, artistic, and theoretical territories, political and economic systems yet untested, or alternatives to the hegemonic values that describe and bizarrely validate our current situation?

So how does this tie in to Angela Davis? The book that I referenced above focuses on the Americans prison-industrial complex as a modern chapter in the oppression of citizens and foreign nationals in the U.S. and the continued impact this has on our democracy. The reference to “civic imagination” (12) was made in discussion of Davis’ reading of W. E. B. DuBois, a major critical thinker and political philosopher in the early 20th century who explored, among other topics, the convict leasing system that existed in the Reconstruction era to perpetuate the enslavement of black Americans. The phrase “civic imagination” struck me as I articulated what most concerns me as an educator, a presumptive academic and public intellectual: What potential do we see in ourselves to make change? How do we go about doing so? How do we see ourselves vis-a-vis the current paradigms of sociopolitical consciousness: as agents or objects? What risks of comfort, of uncertainly, of obscurity or punishment do we face if we commit beyond talk? Can we even imagine what is possible beyond a world where possibility itself and the freedom to speak it becomes an indication of enemy combatants? What changes occur within each of us on a psychological level, as well as a collective one, when we become comfortable with the abridgment of our consciousness and our imaginations?

A last thought from recent news: A collection of photographs of street art by activists in the women’s movement in Egypt since 2011 has been released, in spite of attempts by the government to paint over their power. The voices and visions of these women may inspire, may shame, may educate us…or they may wash over us like another Facebook post. Civic imagination, like all calls for creative acts, begins with consciousness, with the dawning of an idea in a mind dark with waiting; we have to find this idea again, and begin to wake up.

The lure of popularity and knowledgeable inaction

Recently, I attended a talk at Harvard University by Diane Ravitch, a well-known voice in the field of education for over 30 years on tour promoting her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Ravitch’s name first became known to me during graduate school; her 1985 publication “Politicization and the Schools: The Case of Bilingual Education” averred that pro-bilingual education proponents ‘politicized’ public schools and sought to subvert the school system’s primary goals of educating American children with a myopic, “single-issue” mentality (p. 257). Ravitch indicted bilingual ed activists for their “ethnocentrism” (p. 258), a tack reminiscent of similar conservative responses to earlier movements to fight inequity in American public education; especially telling was Ravitch’s citation of the intervention by U.S. courts in the mid 1900s in the desegregation of public schools. I felt that these comments belied Ravitch’s latent beliefs that reflected a long-embraced cultural myth in American schooling: that schools and teachers are unbiased and apolitical.

Yet I had heard that with the years, Diane Ravitch had joined the more progressive perspective on bilingual education (one that I shared), i.e., that a learner’s native language and cultural understandings support an additive educational process, and that schools must address the achievement gap between low-status learners and their middle-class, white, Standard American English speaking counterparts. I decided to go with a friend from my graduate program and see what Ravitch had to say.

Sitting in Memorial Church on Harvard’s campus, we waited among several hundred other educators, parents, and other community members. My friend and I hoped that Ravitch would speak with fresh ideas about privatization in education, exemplified by the preeminence of standardized testing and the outsourcing of public schools’ performance to private companies as has occurred in Philadelphia and Chicago. We hoped to hear a strong, independent voice offering something far-seeing that moved beyond the comfort many in the educational field enjoy by adhering to status quo and embracing neoliberalism as the new religion that defines positivism, competition and the quest for profit as its foundational texts.

At 7:30, Ravitch came on stage to loud applause. She introduced her book and spoke about many of the “hoaxes” in the privatization movement in education today. These “hoaxes” included No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal programs that, she argued, have worked to destroy communities by penalizing low-performing students, teachers, and schools by withdrawing funding. These comments got cheers from the crowd, which I found surprising: most people in education (and many outside the field) have been aware for several years now that such programs tend to benefit wealthier communities known to have stronger school systems for various well-documented reasons. Why was she acting like this was a new revelation?

Ravitch described her book’s aim at “demolishing the narrative” around the many failures of the American educational system that justify privatization, a comment again met by vigorous clapping from the crowd of highly-educated residents of Boston. She reminded the audience that she was a historian, qualified to uncover the speciousness of this narrative, and stated that in fact American “test scores are the highest in 40 years,” that “graduation rates are the highest ever,” and that “dropout rates are the lowest ever.” That while the media puts the U.S. at the bottom of a list of developed countries with better reading and math scores than us, the truth is much brighter than that. And then the following line came:

“We’re America…we’ve succeeded because of nonconformity. We don’t want to be those countries…”

My reaction to this comment — surprise and disappointment that a reputable researcher in the field would stoop to populist commentary — was overcome by my second response: shock at hearing the audience break into loud cheers and sustained applause, some people even giving a standing ovation. Disappointed, I left the talk about five minutes after that, soon followed by my friend.

This event made me think a lot about movements for social change and those who claim to carry one of its many banners. While I didn’t stay for the whole talk, Ravitch’s comments disturbed me, and the reactions from her listeners saddened and scared me. I wondered: Why do we need to get together at pep rallies to cheer one of the “leaders” in the field for repeating the results of years of educational research, much of which we’ve read in our own graduate programs like I did? And why do we raise our fists and voices to support pro-American (read: nationalistic) comments offered, it seems, for emotional rather than rational reasons?

I believe there are two explanations.

First, in an era of great consumption of news media and entertainment, we prefer that celebrity define our role as admirers, rather than leaders of change in our own right. Which of the members of that audience — most of which was white, middle- or upper-class, highly educated, and a concentration of great social power and status — would be willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to contribute to real, sustained social change? While we critique standardized testing companies and federal policies, our individual positions are not changed significantly by them, at least not in contrast to the students in low-income, urban areas whose prospects for academic achievement, let alone the development of the agency and cultural literacies needed to contribute to our country’s democratic evolutions and revolutions, suffer permanent damage as a result. Saying that the policy makers and corporatism are the problems in education exculpates us and gives us an amorphous scapegoat to identify, rally against, and write books about, clearing our consciousness in a public forum.

Second, and underlying the first, is an issue that plagues our modern consciousness and increasingly informs our intellectual, social, and political development: that we worship popularity and seek to be allied with those who who have such status, rather than risk being isolated as “wrong” or, worse, not seen at all. Any risk we actually do take is mitigated by the desire to be recognized and shared around on Facebook and other social media: that is, the desire to be made important in front of one another for confirming the group’s concerns, joys, or ideas not acted upon. This limits our ability to see beyond the fishbowl of a reflected consciousness that rewards those who temper their commentaries by making sure there are lots of people already on board.

Thus, rather than be suspicious of Ravitch’s assertion of neoliberally rooted problems in education as new information, rather than take a critically minded perspective on why we need to invoke patriotic themes in a talk on the subjugation of low-status learners in our country to the machinery of privatization, we champion her as a speaker of truth who tells us that the fear, anger, and pain our country suffers is temporary and that we can get back what we’ve lost. We Americans are nonconformists, we tell each other in evening meetings in churches, yet we forget that our country punishes everyone who seriously challenges a system that benefits the few people in power over all others. A desire for conformity is in fact what rewards academics like Ravitch with popularity and audience members like us with in-group membership in service to this popularity, as we turn to one another and give ourselves credit for reading her book from the comfort of our masters degrees and and our cozy talks at Harvard.

We need to recover a desire not to embrace easy rewards in the form of status or of popularity. We need to ask questions of our leaders, but even more so of those who try to lead us into applauding our own positions of knowledgeable inaction. Resisting such behavior may help us to face the real truth about the comforts we derive from inequality and the sacrifices we’re not yet ready to make.

Instead of service: reflections on MLK Day

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and across the country, thousands of people participated in a day of service. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service for 2014 website reminded the reader that “Together, we can honor Dr. King’s legacy by volunteering our time. Serving is one way to build the ‘beloved community’ that Dr. King spoke of in his historic remarks.” Further down on the page was a well-known quote by King which asked the question, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”

What would Dr. King have thought about these days of service? Would he have felt that the question he posed was well-answered by volunteers spending the holiday with his name supporting a food drive, providing transportation services to seniors, or writing a letter to a soldier in Afghanistan?

On my day off yesterday, unlike colleagues, family, and friends, I did not do any of these things, because I see things differently. I don’t believe that taking one day to volunteer – a “day on” in place of the regular day off with marches and service – is the way for sustainable social change to occur, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest this. But I think doing so is becoming increasingly unfashionable, as it is to eschew a day of community service, at least in the non-profit world where I work.

What I did yesterday, rather than volunteer, was learn something new about the African-American civil rights movement in the United States in the mid-20th century. I watched a very interesting documentary called The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which uses recovered footage of Stokeley Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and other intellectuals and activists – who were incidentally demonized as “terrorists” and were harassed, jailed, exiled, and even killed – who drove our country to face the cultural mythologies, oppressive government policies, and hegemonic social practices in the U.S. that cloistered the Black community for so many years. I experienced feelings of ignorance, frustration at not knowing these stories, and quietly marveled at the bold, exhausted voices of these radical, independent-minded leaders: Aren’t they scared? Don’t they have children, husbands and wives, things to risk? How can they face such certain opposition from a government that can easily follow, corner, and erase them?

This discomfort is what I was hoping to feel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

A statement by Angela Davis from the end of the film brought home for me the legacy that fighters for social justice in the 60s and 70s were trying to pass on to their children, their community, and those like myself, even as we lose our ability to shout for lack of speaking at all: “And people need to know that, particularly in the 21st century, it is important, even under a black President, to bring the kind of pressure, to force the kinds of issues that will allow us to imagine a future without war and without racism and without prisons.” This is an incredibly powerful statement, not only because of the language itself, which reflects Davis’ luminous voice and vision, but because it expresses more than a unilateral desire to seek equality among people of all races. She references some of the major apparatuses of the state that are still in place to keep the White conservative neoliberal establishment in power – namely, the prison-industrial complex and the great extent of American military might throughout the world – and seems to ask us tough questions about what we have yet to do if we want to address and find solutions to the “issues” of our modern struggles.

Taken from this perspective, I found myself uncertain, and happily so: Where do I go to learn how to make change? Who do I read? What do I need to understand? How do I move beyond the 21st-century passive consumer mentality to an active 21st-century participant in our democracy and the defense thereof?

So I read yesterday. I’m writing now, and reading more after I finish. Engaging philosophy (Kant, Marx, Hegel, Feuerbach, etc.), history (20th century as well as earlier), and social theory (relating to capitalism, socialism, imperialism, [neo]colonialism, and so on) is a powerful way to commit to change, and while it will command a great deal more of my time than 24 hours (and also perhaps bring me to terms with the widespread allergy to political conversation in our country nowadays), the commitment will be worth it, as it will shape me to be a more informed, politically aware citizen with tools to engage in the inequality and violence of our society in order to make concrete change.

Ask me the question that King asked us all one more time and this is how I respond: I am doing what I can, to be more than I am, to take up tools in my hands for our future. My service is less visible, less laudable, but I hope it will be palpable beyond a single day.

Let’s face it: neoliberalism and samaritanism

Over the holidays, a friend of a friend posted a link to a video that she had found “moving” and wanted to share with her friends. The video was a CNN Money report called “How a homeless man learned to code” about Patrick McConlogue, a white computer programmer in New York who taught a homeless black man named Leo how to write computer code, a process which led Leo to later create a cell phone app. Heartwarming to my friend’s friend was McConlogue’s heroism in mentoring this gentle, secretly intelligent soul who “unjustly” lives on the street (see reference to McConlogue’s blog post below); inspiring to many was the journalist’s gentle, gruff-voiced voiceover describing Leo’s “infectious inner peace all the money in Silicon Valley just can’t buy.”

Paternalism? Absolutely. Racism, white privilege, classism? Definitely. Tokenism? Sure. (Incidentally, I believe my friend’s friend has since deleted the post, as it cannot be found on her page anymore.)

As we consume media stories, seeing reportage like this is good fodder for sharpening our critical thinking skills, a reason why taking the opportunity to read and watch news from the other side of whatever end of the narrow political spectrum our country permits is a good practice. We can explore the underpinnings of such stories in the form of American cultural myths, i.e., “Homeless people are where they are because they’re lazy,” “Hard work paves the way to everyone’s dreams,” and other judgments tacit and overt of the moral character of unsuccessful (read: disadvantaged and marginalized) people in the U.S. It is certainly deserved that McConlogue’s blog post title, “Finding the unjustly homeless, and teaching them to code,” was slammed for its implication that there are people whose homelessness is a justifiable punishment for their life choices or lack of values. Watching such stories go by can give us the chance to whittle our tongues and pen nubs to add to the myriad criticisms in the blogosphere.

The video gave me a similar opportunity, but one element of it struck home for me particularly as an educator. It came in the form of a single comment by the journalist who wrote the story: “Let’s face it: if Patrick was teaching Leo English, few would care. But coding is the language of a new American Dream.” Wince and growl from the language teachers in the crowd. Hang in there everyone: we have more sharpening of knives to do here.

Why is it, exactly, that “few would care” if Leo was ‘only’ learning English? I would doubt that it’s because any of us feel that language learning is unimportant. We hear plenty about immigrants and nonnative speakers of English needing to study ESL for their schooling, for work, for their lives in mainstream American society. I believe that what’s implicit here is another message: Learning English to participate in American society is important, but what will change your life, what will get you on that path to a new American Dream, what will make you viable, is learning to be applicable, to be hireable. That is to say, we’re hearing the expression of another cultural myth that has reflected a gradual shift in the political and economic climate in this country starting in the 1970s: “Follow the dictates of neoliberalism, find your place in the capitalist machine, and we will accept you.” Neoliberalism, the great juggernaut powered by market values while wearing the cloak of independence, fills our minds with promises of success for all, so long as our common-sense assumptions hold that the value of things is defined by their profit-making capacity. This includes human beings.

Consider this: Would this news story ever have been created if Leo had turned out to be an aspiring poet? Such a story would have no happy ending, because Leo’s contribution to society would have been questionable, if not wildly selfish and delusional. His “guardian angel” (a direct quote from the video, I swear), McConlogue, would have had little to do with an artist or – perish the thought – an English language learner. But someone who could be molded into a useful, applicable version of humanity – a computer code writer – who would be rewarded as such by market forces in the form of gainful employment…now that was a find. Add to this the fact that it was a black man living on the streets of New York who seemed spiritual and pitiable in his powerlessness, and well, we have a winner. A feel-good story for all that warms the heart and leaves the viewer feeling capable of seeing the (useful, consumable) humanity in anyone.

The moral of the CNN report is this: Be a spreader of neoliberal cheer to those around you, even (and especially) to those who seem to deny their potential by failing to live this new(ish) American Dream of viability in the job market. Find a homeless person and help this person gain a skill to get work, which is what we all really need to…what? Be happy? Be American? Who knows.

The point is, don’t question the system that put this man on the street in the first place. Don’t ask how inequities are perpetuated by the education system, systemic racism, the treatment of people with disabilities by the criminal justice system, or any factor that intersects with the reality of urban black men today. And certainly don’t ask why you should consider that posting this on Facebook may reveal less about your commitment to social change and more about your ignorance about what human dignity really should mean.