blacks tried to be like asians, but progressive education reforms got in the way

A frequently-asked question, but not to my face, is why blacks can’t be more like Asians. Previous posts have talked about the role of affirmative action for white people, or the actual efforts of black people to do model minority stuff. Along those lines, The Culture of Narcissism (1979) described how these efforts were undermined by liberal education reformers:

Black parents, it would seem, clung to what seems today an old-fashioned–from the point of view of educational “innovators,” a hopelessly reactionary–conception of education. According to this supposedly traditional view, the school functions best when it transmits the basic skills on which literate societies depend, upholds high standards of academic excellence, and sees to it that students make these standards their own. The struggle for desegregated schooling implied an attack not only on racial discrimination but on the proposition, long embedded in the practice of the schools, that academic standards are inherently elitist and that universal education therefore requires the dilution of standards–the downward adjustment of standards to class origins and social expectations. The demand for desegregation entailed more than a renewed commitment to equal opportunity; it also entailed a repudiation of cultural separatism and a belief that access to common cultural traditions remained the precondition of advancement for dispossessed groups.

Thoroughly middle-class in its ideological derivation, the movement for equal education nevertheless embodied demands that could not be met without a radical overhaul of the entire educational system–and of much else besides. It flew in the face of long-established educational practice. It contained implications unpalatable not merely to entrenched educational bureaucrats but to progressives, who believed that education had to be tailored to the “needs” of the young, that overemphasis on academic subjects inhibited “creativity,” and that too much stress on academic competition encouraged individualism at the expense of cooperation. The attempt to revive basic education, on the part of blacks and other minorities, cut across the grain of educational experimentation–the open classroom, the school without walls, the attempt to promote spontaneity and to undermine the authoritarianism allegedly rampant in the classroom.

That was certainly my dad’s attitude to education. My dad was in his 40s when I was born, and he was born in late 1930s Mississippi. In 7th grade, there was a point where the my school replaced pre-algebra with some kind of goofy “mathematical thinking” book that literally had pictures of everyday objects instead of equations. He complained to the school and made sure that idiocy didn’t ruin our math ability forever.

As Thoreau put it, “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”

When I was getting ready to head off for college on a “diversity scholarship,” I got a well-intentioned letter inviting me to use the university’s special minorities-only tutoring center. While I understand that, by the numbers, it was likely that I needed remedial classes, so do all college students. In The Culture of Narcissism, before I was born, a UCLA psychology professor reported “almost universal faculty concern about composition, the very poor essays and the tremendous amount of students who need remedial work.” 30 years later, I was a TA for the UCLA psychology department’s “write your first APA format paper” class. I’m pretty sure it’s only gotten worse. However:

The decline of intellectual competence cannot be accounted for, as some observers would have it, on the reactionary assumption that more students from minority- and low-income groups are taking tests, going to college, and thus dragging down the scores. The proportion of these students has remained unchanged over the last ten years; meanwhile the decline of academic achievement has extended to elite schools as well as to community colleges, junior colleges, and public high schools. Every year, 40 to 60 percent of the students at the University of California find themselves required to enroll in remedial English. At Stanford, only a quarter of the students in the class entering in 1975 managed to pass the university’s English placement test, even though these students had achieved high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. At private high schools, average test scores in math and English dropped by eight and ten points in a single year, between 1974 to 1975.

Such studies merely confirm what everyone knows who has taught high school or college students in the last ten or fifteen years. Even at the top schools in the country, students’ ability to use their own language, their knowledge of foreign languages, their reasoning powers, their stock of historical information, and their knowledge of the major literary classics have all undergone a relentless process of deterioration.

Here’s how things looked a lot more recently (The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement):

In 2007, a Harvard professor noted that, 20 years ago, “When a few students were sick and missed an exam…they used to be apologetic and just grateful that I would even offer a makeup. These days I have kids who think it’s no big deal to miss a test if they have any conflict and then they think they should decide when I give the makeup.” Some students say, “I need an A in this course,” as if an A were an entitlement rather than something to be earned. Others expect to get good grades just for paying tuition, even telling faculty members, “You work for me.” The most entitled have decided that they get good grades by arguing, saying things like “I’m not leaving your office until you change my grade to an A.”

A survey of college students published in 2008 confirmed these perceptions. Two-thirds of students believed their professor should give them special consideration if they explained they were trying hard (apparently missing the point that grades are given for performance, not just for trying). One-third believed they deserved at least a B just for attending class. And–perhaps most incredible–one-third thought they should be able to reschedule their final exam if it interfered with their vacation plans.

Let’s revisit the very old-fashioned ideas that are behind public education in the first place:

The model citizen of early republican theory knew what his rights were and defended them from infringement by his fellow citizens and by the state. He could not be fooled by demagogues or overawed by the learned obfuscations of professional wise men. Appeals to authority left him unimpressed. Always on the alert for forgery, he had, moreover, enough worldly wisdom about men’s motives, understanding of the principles of critical reasoning, and skill in the use of language to detect intellectual fraud in whatever form it presented itself.

This is, of course, why it was illegal for blacks to be literate for such a long time. At some point during the Bush administration, I remember feeling outraged because they clearly weren’t even trying, because they didn’t have to. They could assert the stupidest things and everyone seemed to accept them. I remember being in college and talking to a grad student about Iraq. Collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda seemed like a possibility worth considering to him. A great quote in The Culture of Narcissism is that teachers “have lost their common sense of what kind of ignorance is unacceptable.” I don’t remember feeling like I’d convinced him to see the light when I pointed that the Baath party was secular and Osama bin Laden was a Sunni extremist. Know your enemies…

This trend was also apparent before I was born:

Not only has the American economy outlived the need for large numbers of highly trained workers–a fact to which the rising levels of unemployment among PhDs and college graduates eloquently attest–but political power no longer seeks to surround itself with philosophical justifications. Even patriotism, the inculcation of which once constituted one of the school’s most important tasks, has become superfluous to the defense of the status quo. The deterioration of training in history, government, and philosophy reflects their increasingly marginal status as part of the apparatus of social control.

If you have a lot of time on your hands, it’s totally worth it to watch all of The Century of the Self. Something I find very telling is that rich people don’t seem cut off from the past in the same way. Just think about how long the Bush family has been a bunch of fascists:

Whereas the new rich share the prevailing confusion about the values parents should transmit to the young, the old rich have firm ideas about childrearing and do not hesitate to put them into practice. They try to impress the child with the responsibilities that go along with the privileges he will inherit. They do what they can to inculcate a certain toughness, which includes not only a readiness to overcome obstacles but an unsentimental acceptance of social differences. In order for the children of privilege to become the administrators and custodians of great wealth–chairmen of the board, mineowners, collectors, connoisseurs, mothers and fathers of new dynasties–they have to accept the inevitability of inequality, the inescapability of social class. These children have to stop wondering whether life is fair to its victims…

In dealing with their children, they insist not only on their own authority but on the authority of the past. Rich families invent historical legends about themselves, which the young internalize. In many ways the most important thing they give their children is the sense of generational continuity so rarely encountered elsewhere in American society.