OPEN UNIVERSITY MARCH 26, 2007
by John McWhorter
It can be quaint reading of ancient debates in Congress during the Depression as to
the wisdom of instituting what we now know as Social Security, Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families, and other aspects of our safety net. Certain thoughtful folk were
afraid such "handouts" threatened socialism, and so on.
I suspect that 70 years from now, the ambivalence among assorted educators,
administrators, thinking folk, and even parents over the extension of the public
school day will look similar. Despite the fact that, for example, Knowledge
Program (KIPP) charter schools are working wonders with the longer school day,
assorted Concerned Folk are actually musing over whether it's "fair" to give more
attention to disadvantaged urban students than middle class ones.
One wonders whether people of this stripe truly understand what barriers poor kids
face to learning how to read in a truly functional way. There are countless
communities in America where flyers are routinely full of major misspellings and
more than a few are only fitfully comfortable with e-mail. Life is fundamentally oral.
Students from places like this (which include Appalachia and the rural white South as
much as black and brown inner cities) get next to no reinforcement from home life in
acquiring comfort with the written word. Eternally dismal reading scores make it clear
that a school day ending at 3 is not alleviating the problem: For instance, two years
ago, every second black 8th grader was reading below basic level.
And reading is not the only cultural hurdle. In black culture, for example, the direct
question is hardly as central to normal communication as it is in mainstream culture.
(A useful source is this.) For many kids from
this kind of setting, just getting comfortable with being asked "When was the
Declaration of Independence written?" and answering in a clear, direct fashion takes
work. I have noted many black people of working-class or poor origins
spontaneously mentioning how ticklish this kind of interaction felt when they first
went to a decent school. In fact, direct questions as regular interaction are, in
general, largely an epiphenomenon of the printed page. Most humans on earth lead
fundamentally oral lives in the linguistic sense, and need to adjust to direct
questions. Middle class kids inhale them at the kitchen table at three o'clock. Poor
kids learn how to deal with them in school. It takes practice.
One objection at this point is that supposedly, disadvantaged kids in the old days just
sat down in school and learned what they needed to know, despite the school bell
ringing at 3 p.m. That is, to be sure, what grandparents and great-grandparents will
recount--but they were among the sliver of poor kids who even made it through
school. A century ago in 1908, only 14 percent of native-born American kids even
made it to high school--but then, only two percent of
Italian and Polish immigrant kids did.
Here is Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn on what poor kids' schools
were really like in 1908:
Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that
district around 1908 and 1909. Child psychology had not been heard of in
Williamsburg in those days. ... Few teachers had the true vocation for their work.
They taught because it was one of the few jobs open to them; because they had a
long summer vacation; because they got a pension when they retired.
Smith describes a petty hellhole where "three thousand children crowded into this
ugly brutalizing school that had facilities for only one thousand." The lesson here is
that few kids stayed around in places like this any longer than necessary--because it
wasn't; they could go get factory work or work in agriculture.
Today, however, the equivalents to these kids do need to stay in school through
twelfth grade. Even low-skill service jobs require a basic comfort with the written
word that people reading below basic level lack.
Whatever the motivations of those who are resisting the longer school day for the
poor, reasonable adjustment for the disadvantages of class stratification is not one of
them. These objections will not weather the test of time.