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September 20, 2005

Educational Inequality

Jonathan Kozol, in an interview with Campus Progress, touches on something I've been thinking a lot about:

Some young people will tentatively say to me, “well maybe I oughtta get involved.” Well I say, “You don’t have any choice; you’re involved already. Even if you never do anything about this, you’ve benefited from an unjust system. You’re already the winner in a game that was rigged to your advantage from the start. If we did not have an apartheid school system in America, what is the chance you’d walk into this college so easily? It would have been a lot harder because there would have been a far larger applicant pool of highly capable minority kids to compete with you.

This week, I graduated from college. My diploma will come from UCLA, I will have been in-and-out within three years, and it never should've happened.

I exited high school with a 2.0, enough letter D's to bring you a season of Sesame Street, and a big fat F where Algebra II should have been. I should barely have graduated, forget acceptance to UC Santa Cruz. But even with that sort of transcript, I got into a four year school.


As a kid, the only thing I was allowed to buy whenever I wanted was books. And so I did, going from comics to fantasy novels to philosophy. And when the SAT's came around, well, you don't want to know what I got on the verbal side. But the point is, I would have never gotten that score without a well-off, highly educated family that funded my reading habit. If my school system wasn't the sort where 90-some percent go on to college, guidance counselors would have long ago told me the SAT's were a waste of time and I should save the space for more likely applicants. Everything would've been different. And the only reason it wasn't was socioeconomic. But so much as being on the winning side of inequality saved my ass, it's still a stain, I remain undeserving, and, if you like how I turned out, you should be furious that more kids don't get the same nine lives. Read the interview and buy the book. It's an important subject that, like it or not, you're already a part of.

Update: One more quote for you lazy-asses who didn't follow the link.

While writing this book, I met a student in L.A. named Mariah, at a school with 5,000 people in it, who was forced to take sewing classes the previous year even though she wanted to go to college. This year they told her she had to take hairdressing. I said, “What would you rather take?” and she said she wanted to take an AP course in English; then she started to cry. “I already know how to sew; my mother works in a sewing factory. I want to go to college; I don’t need to know how to sew to go to college. I hope for something more.” I call it the cognitive decapitation of inner-city children. We’re locking them out of the competition for empowerment from the very beginning.

September 20, 2005 in Education | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 23, 2005 8:50:58 AM


I made comments on this issue of income distribution in Ezra's post below on John Edwards comments on poverty

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Sep 20, 2005 9:53:55 PM

No. It wasn't socio-economic. You're a Jew, Ezra. When your grandparents' grand-parents were poor as dirt, they bought books. When there was no food in the house and the children went in rags, the men in your family studied books. When their property was stolen from them and their houses were smashed and they were driven out and they came to this country without a penny, they brought their books. When they worked 80 hours a week, including the children, at sewing machines on the Lower East Side, they read books. Show some respect for your people, Ezra. Show some respect.

Posted by: JR | Sep 21, 2005 1:19:52 AM

Heh, you and I had rather similar high school records there. Only by shamelessly pimping out my SAT scores was I able to get into college.

The number of second chances I've recieved in the academic world is rather ridiculous, I often wonder about what my fate would be had I grown up outside of the comfortable middle class existence provided by my parents. Something along the lines of mopping floors or working in fast food, I would imagine.

Though I'm not sure if the real problem is a lack of these second chances for people of low SES, or if it's that they don't even get a first chance. It seems like there are two sorts of groups-the people from schools that are literally falling apart, from neighborhoods where drugs, gangs and violence are endemic, and the people who are more subtly kept down by The Man. It seems like the second group would be easier to overlook, since the main issue is a lack of encouragement, so to speak, a problem that doesn't tend to make headlines.

Posted by: Matt F | Sep 21, 2005 1:29:37 AM

Right on Ezra.

I'm confused and muddled by JRs post. ???

Posted by: Sandals | Sep 21, 2005 7:02:05 AM

Have all the libraries turned into Klan meeting houses under Cheney's reign of terror?

Seems to me even the poorest among us can read all the books they want(even watch most videos out there) if they get a library card. Most poor people, especially minorities, can get low interest loans, scholarships and grants if they apply themselves.

Anyone who works hard in this country can succeed. The reason it is harder for the people who grow up in a welfare household is cuz they have grown up in a situation where you get a check for not working at all. You may get a lot bigger check if you work hard, but it is easier to not work at all and still get by.

Another by-product of "The Great Society".

Posted by: Captain Toke | Sep 21, 2005 8:50:05 AM

True. Anyone who works hard and really, really wants to go to school can do so. Public schools, junior colleges, federal financing and grant programs abound for those who need the help.
What Ezra has pointed out is the importance of family values and it's lasting influence on individuals.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 21, 2005 9:07:17 AM

Those last two posts require huge symphonic arrangements of "I Am An American" behind them to really work.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 21, 2005 9:14:59 AM

That last post requires huge symphonic arrangements of "Dancing Queen" by ABBA behind it to really work.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 21, 2005 9:22:09 AM

DAvid Ehrenstein, you are the best! I tried for a while to write a long reasoned post but gave up because the partialitly and wrong headedness of captian toke and fred jones were too much for me.

But now I"m going to say something. Fred, Ezra's little essay does poitn to the immense importance of family values on individuals and the family's attitude towards education, politics, citizenship, etc...in forming children. However, that doesn't begin to address the very real problems that children from families without appropriate values *and* poor families face in getting out of poverty. ITs a description, but its not a pre-scription.
For example, Ezra's point is that its perfectly possible to have "good family values" but poor execution and still do well so long as you are well connected and in the right socio-economic strata. Look at Bush himself, and his children. Its obvious that the bush family kids don't have appropriate values when it comes to patriotism, education, or anything else but does anyone think that their children will suffer for it? No, family money will pull them through. Bush got into Yale without the appropriate grades, and into an MBA program and onto lots of boards without contributing anything. Show me the child from a poor background who can get a full scholarship to Yale and to Harvard's MBA program? Now show me again, and again, and again to cover all the children who would need such a hand-up? Is the money there? No?

Conversely, a child from an impoverished family, in an impoverished neighborhood, with libraries shuttered for lack of federal funds, with schools in dissrray and unsafe due to lack of funds, will have neither family money nor government money to pull them up and out of poverty.
How poor is poor? How impoverished and destroyed are some neighborhoods (and please don't bother trying to apportion blame for it, that just wastes all our time)Katrina or any drive through the meth wasted outlands or the inner city ghetto reveals that they are so poor that pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps lifts you a bare inch over the ground. Sometimes its even your own family values holding you back--the value that says don't abandon your family, stay in this hellhole until you can get them out.

Here's the thing "anyone who works hard and really, really, wants to go to school can do so..." is technically true, but if we want to have a functioning polity and society we are going to have to make GOOD schooling and pro-active TEACHING, and remedial HEALTH CARE available not just to the theoretical hard driving geniuses hidden in the lower classes but everybody because a kid who isn't hard working enough at seven won't get Ezra's second, third, and fourth chances farther down the line.


Posted by: aimai | Sep 21, 2005 9:48:41 AM

What Ezra has pointed out is the importance of family values and it's lasting influence on individuals.

And clearly, we should continue to punish those children who have the misfortune to be born into families where they can't buy as many books as they want. I mean, if your parents are lazy and shiftless and haven't bothered to get a better job than sewing in a factory, then you don't deserve to take AP English, am I right?

That is the point you were trying to make, isn't it, Fred?

Posted by: maurinsky | Sep 21, 2005 10:32:48 AM

Education is probably the greatest domestic concern.

Posted by: steve c | Sep 21, 2005 10:42:54 AM

Thanks aimai. As we've seen the "good values" of the Bush family have produced offspring who are (every last one of them) alcoholics, drug addicts and sluts.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 21, 2005 10:50:04 AM

Nice post, Ezra. Even better comment, aimai.

Posted by: Mr Furious | Sep 21, 2005 10:55:22 AM

Thanks aimai. As we've seen the "good values" of the Bush family have produced offspring who are (every last one of them) alcoholics, drug addicts and sluts.

Yeah, them Clintons and Kennedys are some classy folks!?!

Posted by: Captain Toke | Sep 21, 2005 11:06:31 AM

That is the point you were trying to make, isn't it, Fred?

Thanks for attempting to speak for me, maurinsky, but you are clearly not qualified. There is nothing negative about supporting environments that encourage and enable higher education.

I mean, if your parents are lazy and shiftless and haven't bothered to get a better job than sewing in a factory, then you don't deserve to take AP English, am I right?

I ain't buyin' what you are sellin'.
Pell grants, Student loans, night school, junior college.....and that's if you are WHITE! If not, there are additional prgrams such as private race scholorships, race preference in admissions, etc.

Another aspect of this is that you have assumed that every poor person is dying to go to college. Part of family values is teaching your children that education is important and encouraging them to go to school. If you wish more poor people to attend school and help better their lot, then you, too, should be encouraging family values among the poor.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 21, 2005 11:10:17 AM

Let's encourage family values among the rich first.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Sep 21, 2005 11:39:01 AM

Actually, Clinton is an excellent example of what you are (not) arguing. Lets not confuse right wing "family values" with actual, you know, "values" like "Moral values" or truth, justice, and the american way, respect for education, or anything else worth having. I don't hold Clinton or the Kennedy's up for their "classiness" but because in both cases some, but not all, of the same families have displayed a serious and determined love of country and willingness to work hard for others. Clinton had excellent "values" by your standards because he valued education and was smart enough and hardworking enough to work his way out of poverty. Interestingly, his daughter Chelsea has never, to my knowledge, been implicated in anything like drugs (Noelle bush), cheesy drunken parties (bush himself, jenna and not jenna), smuggling (Jeb's wife), prostitution (Neil). In fact, Chelsea and the Kerry daughters, certainly, have done very well at school and are showing every sign of heading for a productive life. Now those are some serious values, to my mind.

And for your response "I ain't buyin what you are sellin" to the fact that that poor girl was prevented from taking AP English which, in turn prevents her from getting into a good school, well, interestingly enough this isn't a matter of your opinion or your desire to "buy" what no one is interested in selling you. All of the things you'v elisted "Pell grants, student loans, junior college" are the result of the "great society" that you and Toke would get rid of if you could. So if we took your expert advice we'd get rid of the very things you brag about as enabling the american dream.

You want to argue that all individuals are self interested and want to better themselves, except for the poor (because their being poor is a sign that they are not intersted in bettering themselves). And you want to argue that its easy to achieve the american dream, but the self interested poor somehow can't. And so you want to argue that its not your problem. And you are right--its not YOUR problem because you don't care about the poor, family values or no. You just don't care about anything other than ranting on a more or less anonymous bulletin board. I'd advise you to get a life, but I'm sad to say that I think the one you'd get wouldn't be much fun.

Posted by: aimai | Sep 21, 2005 11:39:21 AM

There is nothing negative about supporting environments that encourage and enable higher education

I don't disagree with you, Fred. There is also nothing to be lost and much to be gained by supporting policies that encourage and enable all children, even those who *aren't* raised in supportive environments, to achieve a college education.

Posted by: maurinsky | Sep 21, 2005 11:54:33 AM

Yeah, them Clintons and Kennedys are some classy folks!?!

Compare and Contrast: Jenna Bush vs. Chelsea Clinton

I hesitate to blame parents when they have a child that turns out to be troublesome, but when a child grows up well, it was because almost invariably the parents did a good job.

And, at the same time, it's stunning, simply stunning, how Fred and Toke so completely missed the point of Ezra's post. I mean, what the hell is their problem? Are they illiterate? Honestly, one of the big lessons I've learned as I got older was that when I saw something tragic or I saw someone fail, I thought, "there but for the grace of God go I." I learned what all the advantages I had were, realized that I could take advantage of them, but also realized that many opportunities were there through no doings of my own, and I took advantage of them because that was how I was raised. Seeing other people suffer or fail doesn't cause me to immediately think, "they should have chosen better parents, the bums."

Posted by: Constantine | Sep 21, 2005 12:01:38 PM

There is also nothing to be lost and much to be gained by supporting policies that encourage and enable all children, even those who *aren't* raised in supportive environments, to achieve a college education.


Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 21, 2005 12:29:00 PM

Kennedys: Rape, Murder(Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel, Teddy), Bootlegging, Drunkiness, Lewdness, Voter Fraud(Chicago, 1960).

Clintons: Rape, Sexual Harrassment, Drug Dealing(Roger), Perjury, Voter Fraud (Hillary)

And those are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head.

Those are some first class American families!

Posted by: Captain Toke | Sep 21, 2005 12:36:40 PM

I don't see why the liberals are not outraged at the unfairness of the college admissions process because of it's inherent unfairness? Instead, they are outraged at anyone who thinks values count.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 21, 2005 12:46:22 PM

Fred Jones and Captain Toke's posts would make more sense IF I didn't have to tutor inner-city kids who weren't allowed to take their textbooks home with them.

In any case, I guess Ezra Klein's stint at "Not Geniuses" wasn't all that ironic after all :^)

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Sep 21, 2005 12:53:44 PM

Our trolls obviously came from poor families with lazy, immoral parents who would not support them. Look at them, sitting in front of a computer for hours every single day, digging another barb out of their asses, spouting off ill-informed, grammatically and logically flawed junk, as if nothing else in the world could possibly matter. Why don't they just get jobs, find a decent mortgage and start health savings accounts, you ask? Why, it's their lazy shiftless parent's fault! That's why!

Posted by: sprocket | Sep 21, 2005 12:54:17 PM

I think Ezra has some very good points here, although I don't particularly like the whole 'guilt' spin on this.

I think that we can, should, and must do more to address equality of opportunity for the poor (this is I think more a class than a race issue, although class is connected to race to a degree.)

I don't have any answers directly. A lot of the problems seem to be outside of Government control. While we might be able to offset parents that don't care about education for their kids, I don't know that we can, no matter what we do, make that much of a difference. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it probably does mean that a pretty creative solution will be required if we want to be effective.

One thing I am always concerned about though, particularly with grand quests, is the law of unintended consequences. For example, it is a positive good that parents work hard to give their kids a better life and more opportunities than they had. That is something I think we all aplaud. There is a danger of removing the incentive to do that when you try to make sure all kids, no matter who their parents are and what they do, get equal opportunity. This is especially dangerous, as their is a decent chance of destroying incentives, but not actually creating an effective substitute.

I think we should try, and I think we can improve things. I think though that we should be careful and cautious, keeping in mind that our grand theories seldom match the complexity of the real world.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Sep 21, 2005 1:27:41 PM

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