… all children develop an image of their niche in the adult world – in the ecological sense of niche. Their ideas about the ecology of adult `places’ may be distorted and usually pitifully partial. However, they seem to work out notions of their basic future and of the trajectory relevant to it, even if they cannot state these explicitly. And they act on thse ideas … depending on their sense of occupational destination. (Berryman, emphasis in original.)
In a metropolitan labor market such as New York City, this can explain why it is that young Blacks, on average, complete more years of formal education than their white or Latino working class counterparts. (Sullivan) They realize that their most significant opportunities for secure, stable employment reside in the civil service or quasi-civil service spheres and that jobs in those sectors require either specifc educational credentials or the successful passing of particular tests.
It can also explain, as I hope to show, why many young Blacks stay out of the regular workforce and stay out of schooling. I realize that I appear to be contradicting myself. Do they stay in school or do they not stay in school? The answer is both. I am talking about ambivalent human responses to quite difficult human circumstances. What I wish to emphasize, however, is that both responses are perfectly reasonable ones. Which one a particular young person chooses will, undoubtedly, be influenced by parents, other relatives, friends and perhaps, teachers.
John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham have argued that young Blacks disinvest from school because of their perception that schooling will make no difference in changing the job ceilings set for non-whites in local labor markets. (Ogbu; Fordham) This analysis has been echoed by Susan Anderson who has suggested that the dropout rate among Black adolescents represents more the effectiveness of a collective boycott of the schools than individual resignation to academic failure. This is a remarkable development in the history of the Black communities of this country for, as is well known, that community has usually made every effort to gain for its children an opportunity to become educated.
Down through the centuries, the Black community has preserved deep seated beliefs in the possibility of freedom. Its traditional culture has been sustained by an extraordinary eloquence of language – a language deeply textured with scholarship and learning. Within that context, Black folks have paid great attention to learning to read and write. We can recall the persistence of Frederick Douglass as he went about the business of learning to read and write by making friends with white children in Baltimore and having them help him read. Or we can recall, more recently, the diligence of the incarcerated Malcolm X to become a reader.
With some notable exceptions, the experience of Blacks in American schools has not been a happy one. In seventh grade, the then Malcolm Little expressed a desire to become a lawyer. But he was advised by a friendly teacher:
`Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person – you’d get all kinds of work.
I would suggest that many young non-white people have a profound ambivalence about their school experiences. (I don’t mean to imply that young white people don’t have their own ambivalences). On the one hand, they carry with them the legacies of many years of school failure with all the appropriate scientific and objective documentation provided by tests and more tests. In many ways, they believe that they indeed failed, that it was their own fault for not attending more regularly, or not paying attention more carefully, or for not doing homework more diligently. But, simultaneously, they recognize the pervasive racist contempt that the school personnel often held for them and remember, as well, their sporadic attempts to make some sense out of an experience that seemed all too often designed to frustrate the possibility of such sense making. (See Michelle Fine).
But this is not all. Young people, as Sue Berryman suggested, develop a remarkably realistic sense of the adult world that awaits them. While they may not be aware of very much of the long-standing institutional workings that produce differentiated labor markets with slots for variously identified racial and/or `ethnic’ groups overlaid with slots within those for men and women, they know the jobs that their parents and other family members hold and they learn soon enough which ones they can get.
On the basis of a realistic assessment, people make choices – about school, about child-bearing, about crime. Those choices may not always be wise ones and they may reflect a very circumscribed sense of the possible or desirable. But they are sensible enough – taking the world as it is for granted. Nonetheless, the choices and their consequences are often enough portrayed by social scientists and social policy makers as evidence of various pathologies located either in family or community structures. I would argue that that kind of analysis is shaped by profoundly conservative political perspectives and that it offers little guidance or hope to those who would like to help improve the lives of those young people.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that we should interpet people’s activity as simultaneously evidencing both rebellion against and accommodation to their circumstances. I am not suggesting that there are some who rebel and others who accommodate. Rather, most young people do both in distinctive, if not idiosyncratic, combinations. They don’t do so self-consciously and their verbalizations do not necessarily reflect what what they are doing. Thus, interviews and questionnaires, let alone aggregate statistics, reveal very little of the complexity of their motives or of the range of their possible next steps. However, while I draw a great deal of hope from the evidence of rebellion, I am quite aware that un-self-conscious rebelliousness often enough yields little in long-term progress and indeed its negative outcomes (for example, addiction, criminality and imprisonment) can often serve to confirm the apparent inevitability of the current state of affairs. So, I quite explicitly believe that we need to develop ways of tapping into that rebelliousness and encouraging its autonomous development into a self-conscious strategy. But, the development of such a strategy requires that we have a sophisticated understanding of exactly what it is we want to change. In this particular context, what I think we want to change are the institutional arrangements, customs and traditions reproducing racial inequality in US society.
It is important to remember that non-white people are engaged in a continual battle against those arrangements and traditions. For example, many in the Black and Latino communities are aware of the profound discrepancy between tests and job performance. And they are all too well aware of the way in which those same tests have been used to systematically thwart their prospects for promotion to positions of influence and relative power within various bureaucracies. What I believe is long overdue is a realization that gatekeeping tests in the job world are cut from the same cloth as those that are used throughout the US educational system and that all of them share the same profoundly anti-egalitarian deep structure. Focusing educational reforms on the goal of improved test performance serves to promote an uncritical acceptance of some of the most powerful caste-conserving functions of US schools. Often enough, the non-white communities themselves have looked to test performance as an indicator that they have been able to secure better treatment from school systems and personnel who they have every reason to mistrust. Tests have been seen as an objective, non-racist, way of evaluating school performance. Unfortunately, standardized tests are a terible choice for this task. They reflect very little of what we know about the acquisition and use of literacy.
Let me cite just two different ways of looking at literacy and language. James Gee has argued that literacy itself is the mastery of a secondary discourse. In that framework, discourse systems are indeed the ways in which people define themselves in terms of the many different communities they participate in and therefore are very much the stuff of the identitites that people imagine they might have. Recall, if you will, my earlier point about young people developing a `realistic’ sense of their possibilities. What I believe to be important is not to deny the insight embodied in that realism but rather to work against its fatalistic components and to nourish in young and not-so-young people the idiosyncratic and disjointed elements of their ideas and actions that work at cross purposes with a resignation to that fatalism and to suggest that those counter impulses can be crystallized to produce new discourses and new social identities.
Neville Alexander, writing about South Africa, has argued that language use is a primary determinant of identity. He suggests that tribal and `ethnic’ identities, for example, owe a great deal to the use of different languages across the region. Since he is, at the same time, convinced that those ethnic identities serve only to perpetuate the continued existence of white rule, he argues that new identities need to be crafted at least partially on the basis of a new language policy. (Alexander; skeptical readers are encouraged to read again the history of the Soweto revolt of 1976 which began as a protest against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in `African’ schools.)
What is needed in the United States is not an approach to literacy and language learning that further fossilizes old identities but rather one which nourishes the cultivation of new ones – with new notions of possibility and responsibility. This kind of identity shift has occurred before, and not always with beneficial consequences. For example, until the late 17th century, there were no `whites’ and no `blacks’ in America. There were `Englishmen’ and `Africans.’ The shift to `white’ and `black’ occurred as a consequence of the transformation of identured servitude for many regardless of skin color into chattel slavery only for those with dark skins. (See Bennett.) That shift was a profound one and we are still living with the consequences.
More hopeful shifts occurred a generation ago when `girls’ became `women’ as a result of the emergence of a women’s liberation movement and `queers’ became `gays’ as the result of the emergence of a homosexual rights movement. I cite these examples now only to provide a bit of evidence that identities are not given at birth and that changed circumstances can create new possibilities.
Not to belabor the point, I believe that our most enduring problems will be most satisfactorily addressed by the emergence and growth of a resurgent Black movement. No one, and certainly not I, can will that movement into being. But, we can prepare for it by establishing situations, within and without formal school settings, for individuals to expand their own political capacities. Those capacities include the ability to understand the relationship between personal action and social consequence, the ability to understand other points of view, the ability to articulate one’s own ideas to various audiences as well as the ability to work with others to achieve agreed upon goals.
Let me make clear that I am not talking about political propaganda or indoctrination. Indeed, I specifically reject that kind of approach although I realize that it has its adherents. Instead, I think we would be better served by creating opportunities for people to imagine themselves acting in different ways than they might be accustomed to. Literacy acquisition and use are well suited for that purpose. Part of the use of literacy in this context can allow for a re-discovery of forgotten chapters of the history of Black people in the United States and a renewed conversation with their parents and grandparents, leading perhaps to a new self-definition of the Black community. (See Heath on the significance of a community of readers for literacy.)
At the same time, I realize that this approach has its risks. There are ways in which many young people might imagine themselves acting that will dismay and frighten their elders. I see no way around that issue. There are choices to be made -either we continue with things as they are and bear the consequences or we attempt to create a different future – a course that will undoubtedly be more dangerous for those who step forward.
To return to an earlier theme, I believe that many young people are not especially open to acquiring very much of anything that school type situations have to offer. In other words, there’s a down side to the kind of embryonic resistance that I was praising. As I have said, resistance and accommodation co-exist in the minds and hearts of many young people and cynical resignation is often the resolution. I believe that the ambivalence has to be addressed directly.
But, there’s a problem. The schools that young Black people attend in this country are not often controlled by Black folks, let alone by Black folks who are interested in nurturing a new movement. The agenda of those schools is set by some very powerful interests in this society although it is very much a contested agenda. While those interests are currently preoccupied with changing the functioning of the educational system to achieve short-term goals more to its liking (such as improved basic skills and better attitudes towards work), they are not especially concerned with expanding political capacities. This confirms the need for educators to become active participants in the larger public discussions about the purposes of education. For, after all, only so much can happen in a classroom.
Alexander, Neville. “An approach to the national question in South Africa,” Azania Worker. Volume 2, No. 2. December, 1985.
Bennett, Lerone. Before the Mayflower. Chicago, 1969.
Berryman, Sue. Future Plans and Research in Human Resource Development. Presentation at the 43rd National Conference and Exposition of the American Society for Training and Development. June 22, 1987.
Michelle Fine. “Silencing in public school,” Language Arts. 64, 157-174.
Fordham, Signithia. “Racelessness as a Factor in Black Students: Pragmatic Strategy or Pyrrhic Victory?” Harvard Educational Review. Volume 58, No. 1. February, 1988: 54-84.
Gee, James. “What is Literacy?” Technical Report #2. The Literacies Institute. Newton: 1989.
Haley, Alex & Malcolm X. Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, 1966: 169-190.
Heath, Shirley Brice. Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. New York: 1983.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York, 1968.
Ogbu, John. “Literacy and Schooling in Subordinate Cultures: Case of Black Americans,” In Kintgen, et. al. Perspectives on Literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press: 1988.
Mercer Sullivan. Getting Paid. Ithaca: 1989.