Monday, March 06, 2006

The Uses and Misuses of "Brilliance"

From the beginning, therefore, the American intellectual had chosen a paradoxical vocation: a social critic committed at once to the whole of the people and an elitist whose own mores and life situation would prove somewhat alienating from the very public he or she had chosen to serve.
--Fink (1998, p. 5)

I am increasingly convinced that we worship too much at the altar of individuality, of the independent, critical, creative thinker.

Inherent in this obesiance is a desire to make others over in the model of ourselves. The ideal of the heroic scholar or artist guides our lives, so of course it should also guide the lives of others.

I am not anti-individuality, nor am I opposed to efforts to nurture critical thinking and creativity in all children. Like others, I celebrate these goals as crucial for the development of an evolving democratic society.

What I oppose is our almost obsessive focus on individual achievement as the only relevant goal of education. The inescapable fact is that independence is a useful tool only for those who are more priveliged in our society. Only the children of the upper-middle-class (our children) will consistently be able to sell their skills dearly on the open market. Poor and working-class children will never be able to compete on any equal level with kids from comfortable suburbs for the limited number of slots available in better colleges and universities, or for the only slowly growing number of middle-class, professional positions.

In general, less priveliged people are empowered not as individuals but in collectives of various kinds. From the earliest years of childhood, middle-class people are encouraged to express their particular perspectives, while poor and working-class children are enmeshed in deep, personal ties with members of their extended families and local communities. The point is not that working-class people are somehow less “individual” than the middle-class; but they do tend to express this individuality differently—often in rich stories that embody their embeddedness in community at the same time as they provide opportunities for developing a unique voice.

When educational scholars speak about collectives, we almost invariably look to an essentially Deweyan model of collaborative democracy, celebrating the ways this fosters engagement and reverberation of individual perspectives throughout collective efforts. Again, however, this vision makes sense only from a position of privelige. It fits with our own experience of interactions in faculty meetings and professional settings.

Poor and working-class people are much less interested in expressing their individuality amidst collective action. They foucus, instead, on securing often quite basic services that might allow them to survive. Less priveliged people lack the extensive resources of time available to the middle class that might allow them to chat endlessly with each other, that might allow them to focus more on “process” than on “products.” They lean much more heavily in their engagements in unions and community-organizing groups on clear hierarchies, a few acknowledged leaders, and a broader mass of followers. These fundamental differences in middle-class and working-class approaches to collective engagement help explain why it is so difficult (and rare) for organizations from these different classes to work effectively together.

It is important to emphasize that working-class approaches to joint action are not necessarily any less democratic than those embraced by the middle class. But working-class leaders do generally depend on very different strategies for staying in contact with the desires and beliefs of their followers.

I am not arguing, here, for some vulgar form of vocationalism or a return to an approach to educational “efficiency” that involves slotting children from working-class families into working-class jobs. We must, of course, continue to struggle to help as many children as possible to succeed and to go on to college—the central defining characteristic of the middle class.

But this is not enough. If we truly believe that education can contribute to the development of a more democratic and equitable society, then we must also meet the less priveliged where they are. Simply denying reality because we don’t like this reality seems incredibly self-defeating. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, those at the economic bottom of society are “doomed” to fight their battles in the local, from their embeddedness in (increasingly fractured) mutual ties of support and need; few will ever gain access to credentialized, globe-hopping, and unrooted life of the upper-middle class.

What this means is that we need to think in much more detail about how schools might contribute not only to individual but also to the collective empowerment of poor and working-class communities. And success requires that we we move out beyond the restrictive walls of school. (It is not an exaggeration to say that schools, dominated by middle-class professionals, represent one of the least likely places in our society for scholars to meet working-class families as relative equals).

There is a desperate need for educational scholars to look beyond individual achievement and our cherished model of Deweyan, collaborative democracy to at least begin to understand and acknowledge the power of very different working-class forms of what I term “democratic solidarity.” At the same time, of course, we must explore how the very different strengths of our divergent visions of education and collective action might inform and support each other.

See, e.g.:
Bauman, Z. (2003). City of fears, city of hopes. London: Goldsmiths College. Retrieved June 1, 2004, from
Brown, D. K. (1995). Degrees of control. NY: Teachers College Press.
Fantasia, R. (1989). Cultures of solidarity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fink, L. (1998). Progressive intellectuals and the dilemmas of democratic commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lamont, M. (2000). The dignity of working men. NY: Russel Sage Foundation.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lichterman, P. (1996). The search for political community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lubrano, A. (2004). Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white collar dreams. New Jersey: Wiley.
Miller, P. J., Cho, G. E., & Bracey, J. R. (2005). Working-class children’s experience through the prism of personal storytelling. Human Development, 48, 115-135
Rose, F. (2000). Organizing across the class divide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Schutz, A. (2004). Rethinking domination and resistance. Educational Researcher, 34(2), 17-19. Journals/Educational_Researcher/3402/3402_Schutz.pdf
Shirley, D. (1997). Community organizing for urban school reform. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Wacquant, L. (1998). 'A black city within the white': Revisiting America's dark ghetto. Black Renaissance=Renaissance Noire, Fall/Winter, 142-51.

1 comment:

Sherman Dorn said...

Aaron writes, Poor and working-class people are much less interested in expressing their individuality amidst collective action. This is a markedly different world from the one I live in, where I read the late Octavia Butler, where my undergraduate advisor urged my classmates and me to take the intellectual work of ordinary Americans seriously as intellectual history, and where Mike Rose has made his life's work convincing educators to open up children from working-class backgrounds to the life of the mind. It is also a bit of a figment to suppose that the maintenance of privilege is an individual thing. It is collective, if hidden by the social networks that pass social capital so easily—the better schools, how to handle principals, and so forth.

In many ways, my difference with Aaron is one of emphasis. I don't deny the existence of collective strategies, but I think it's wrong to assume that such strategies are incompatible with individuality. One of the hallmarks of responses to high-stakes testing is the use of test-prep to further bifurcate education: My strong impression is that schools with high poverty tend to focus on decontextualised, deskilled test-prep as the response to high-stakes testing, while schools with higher proportions of privileged kids do their best to maintain some individuality. The suppression of creativity and individuality these days doesn't strike me as wise or likely to reduce the real advantages of the already privileged. Nor does recognition of the collective always advance wisdom. If collective strategies means taking Princeton Review courses together, count me out!