By Anne Geiger / Public Policy Blogger
Refreshing to read Kathleen Parker this morning as she eviscerates the “big” idea of ever-pompous Newt Gingrich to give poor kids the work ethic he believes they lack by firing their school custodians and pay the kids to—- clean the floors, desks, windows and cafeteria tables, scrub and sanitize bathroom sinks and toilets, sweep sidewalks, shovel snow, bag and dispose of trash and garbage, clear clogged pipes, etc. etc. This, mind you, while putting aside their real job of learning every day.
To be custodians, they would need to come in early even though they stayed up late doing their homework the night before because they first had to take care of a younger sibling while their mom caught a few winks between her two jobs. And they would need to stay late after school although that’s usually when they interpret for their grandmother when she goes to the doctor or the grocery store, or move to a new apartment because the pipes broke and the landlord has gone missing. To add insult to injury, he apparently thinks these kids, unlike their more affluent peers, should clean their schools as their extra-curricular activity instead of participating in sports, student government, jazz band, art club or the chess team.
The underlying message is even more disturbing. He paints all families living in poverty as lazy and criminal. Never mind that jobs are scarce in the inner city and rural outreaches where most poverty is concentrated. That many are still learning English and trying to navigate obtuse paths into the American mainstream. That nutritional food needed for healthy brains and bodies is hard to come by in these communities. That those who have escaped through consistent education, a unique opportunity or sheer grit often leave and don’t look back, thus leaving kids with few examples of a more abundant life.
(I suggest Mr. Gingrich take his idea face-to-face to the kids and families. Look them in the eye. Tell them other kids in wealthier schools won’t have this “opportunity” to clean toilets and get paid for it. Just them. Tell them it will make them stronger. Better. Ask their parents why they’re all deadbeats and criminals. Tell them you don’t think they have the ability to inspire or support their children. But, you do. See what they say, Mr. Presidential Candidate. See what they say.)
Alas, Mr. Gingrich subscribes to the time-worn, simplistic belief of many conservatives, mainly Republican but not all, that those of lesser means got there because they don’t work hard enough. No work ethic. No fire in the belly. Prone to laziness and crime. Living in the South for most of my life, where this belief, this Ayn Rand ideology reigns, I’ve heard it over and over again. And I see the results. Persistently low rankings in education, health, nutrition and income. Society persistently stratified. A big tent it is not. An understanding of the complexities and brutal truths of poverty it is not. A path to opportunity and prosperity for all it is not. As Ms. Parker writes,
Republicans have always been wedded to the idea that Americans, given opportunity, can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. In fact, most people subscribe to this very American narrative to varying degrees. But missing from the vision of the coldest eye is acknowledgment that sometimes people have no boots. (My emphasis.)
With a degree of charity not apparent in Gingrich’s remarks, one can hypothesize what he may have meant, such as perhaps one can imagine becoming only what one has seen. How does a child who has never witnessed a doctor or lawyer in his everyday world imagine himself as one? Alas, Gingrich didn’t start there.
I’ve seen poverty up close and personal through the children I’ve mentored and schools I’ve served. Kids living in poverty don’t need to learn how to clean toilets. They need education, empowerment and empathy.
Education to level the playing field. Equivalent to any affluent school: Rich curriculum for building knowledge and enabling analytical and critical thinking; well-supported, well-educated teachers who are intuitive, innovative, dedicated; stable, consistent, dedicated administrators; safe, well-equipped buildings and classrooms; frequent, dynamic opportunities for team learning, hands-on learning, research, debate, leadership, community involvement. The horse is out of the barn with education “reform” built on standardized testing, school turnarounds and charter schools, and it’s most acutely affecting schools in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Despite what reform proponents say, it’s a very inefficient way to spend public dollars. It tends more to fracturing fragile neighborhoods than strengthening them. It tends to place priority in the wrong places— test scores as the primary measure for reward or punishment, disruption and choice as ends not means, and an influential private industry embedded in and profiting from the reform.
Too few see that in our market-based economy in which other sectors are declining, opportunities abound for business models that use the low-risk leverage of public dollars spent in every state, every county, every city to educate children. And if that education, on its current “reform” path, needs the capacity of the private sector to: create the software and textbooks for the standards, design, score and report the tests, train the teachers to prepare students to take the tests, provide managers to turn around “failing” schools that don’t reach score benchmarks, create and manage charter schools… well, it’s pretty clear where this is going. There’s always been a proper and helpful role of the private sector in public education, but we’re in whole new territory now.
Proponents of this reform like Mr. Gingrich (and our President, I might add) seem blind to its consequences to the low-income children whom they profess to care about. When we take teaching and learning, or in Mr. Gingrich’s case a work ethic, to the lowest common denominator or most simplistic form, we’ll never educate children to the level needed to survive, strive and thrive in our economy or society.
Empowerment to instill the language and currency of success in our competitive economy and society and provide paths to the opportunities that economy and society provide. Working with the awareness that “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Adults in classrooms and leadership consistently modeling, teaching and inspiring children and youth to establish good habits in studying, communicating, planning and reaching goals. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power. Acknowledging that most families living in poverty are doing their best, but often are worn out from the daily hurdles to a stable, sufficient life. That they too need support, information, access and empowerment to better provide for their families and be primary players in preparing their children for the “real world.” Together, schools, families and communities making sure that children in their care complete their education, make life plans and fulfill the quintessential goal to live a better life than their parents, taking the family one more rung up the ladder and empowering their own children to do the same.
Elites and ideologues like Mr. Gingrich look at those who struggle and assume laziness or ineptitude, and thus his brilliant idea to “let them clean toilets.” I must point out, too, that I’ve seen some liberals, a different kind of elite, who underestimate the intelligence and abilities of those living in poverty. As I told my successor on the school board, while sharing my experience serving the low-income neighborhoods in our district, the children and youth in these communities don’t need your pity, they need empowerment.
Empathy to shore up the honor and self-respect that all human beings need to survive, strive and thrive. Respecting their humanity, taking the time to understand their circumstances, trying to live a day in their shoes. Getting to know the young people who’ve come into our lives over the years, my husband and I learned a lot about ourselves, how we could make assumptions, underestimate, misunderstand and be fearful or uncomfortable. It takes time. It requires respect. Showing up. Being there. For the long haul. I’ve grown tired of current conservatives, and I have plenty of friends and family who are in that camp, who believe in the “pull up your bootstraps and get a job.” Like it’s that simple for those who don’t speak English very well, don’t have enough food to eat, don’t know how they’ll cobble together scholarships they need to stay in college or don’t know what it’s like to have a stable, permanent home.
Today’s conservatives say if you talk about our collective responsibilities to one other, then you must be a socialist. Bullshit. Human beings exist for each other. We live in cooperation to meet our intellectual, physical and emotional needs. We live in collaboration to solve shared problems and forge new paths. This kind of synergy, mutual dependency crosses cultural backgrounds, socio-economic status and level of education.
I purposefully used the word empathy instead of sympathy, a more remote behavior, because we share more than we often acknowledge. And empathy leads to compassion. The ability to see someone else’s suffering or difficulty, and jumping in to see how you can help ease the suffering or overcome the difficulty. That’s where the education and empowerment come in, and a lot of other kinds of support, too. We are a compassionate people. I don’t buy it that there is an Ayn Rand bursting to get out in each of us. We may be independent and feisty, but when confronted with a big challenge, we are much more inclined to assist one other than tell each other to pound sand. We do it because we care about each other, but we also know that the success of others impacts our own. Or at least that’s been the dynamic. Until now. The real and scary danger with the rhetoric coming out of current conservatives, so glaringly exposed in Mr. Gingrich’s “big” idea, is to tell newcomers and the younger generation that here in America, you’re on your own, baby. Just take care of yourself. Don’t count on the government. It’s bad. Stratified society is OK. Fractured communities are OK. Different rules depending on where you live, what you make, who your parents are. All OK.
But, don’t worry. If you struggle, there will always be plenty of toilets to clean.
Surely, most will see this as unacceptable. And un-American. Surely. I hope.