Friday, September 24, 2010

A Pox on Both Your Houses

The war against the poor is at once brutal, subtle, and rife with contradictions.

The life lessons that had the most effect on me came while I was in the field. None more profound than while on a recruitment tour for a new college my firm had bought and hoped to reform. The argument offered in our catalog was that essentially the administration of this new college has accepted the premises laid out in Donella Meadows publication, Limits To Growth.

If our new reality was that we were going to have to learn to do "more with less", then our curriculum was going to reflect a new set of studies, teaching methods, and evaluations. We imagined these reforms would afford our students a skill set that would serve them well in a world about to radically change.

For example we integrated studies, proposed team work as of the highest value, moved teaching staff from the front of the class to within the body of the learning community, and created courses that included problem solving, design and planning, even within the traditional humanities.

I brought my program to guidance counselors in high schools in MD, NY, and was satisfied with responses from students indicating they would apply. I had yet to meet with parents. I had family in Hartford, Ct and they agreed to host a gathering of prospective students in their home. On the given evening I greeted more than 50 parents and students in this suburban setting. The students were animated, asking tough questions, most of which centered on accreditation. (because of the changes we proposed, our accreditation was under review). There were a disproportionate number of lawyers in the group and this became apparent when the parents, having heard enough, rose up in revolt. Let me reduce it to one parent's statement that summarized the spirit in the room: "I am going to assume that all of your presumptions about the future are correct. More and more people are going to be chasing fewer and fewer resources. In such a scenario I am going to strongly advise my daughter to consider the Ivy league options she has available to her, and increase her competitive advantage." This statement was seconded by all of the parents in the room, and the generation gap widened during the course of the evening. The lesson for me was laid out in that room and learned: When the times get tough, the haves are going to hang on like crazy. These neighbors were friends of my relative, a Democrat, an elected official. This was the voice of the suburban left.

Program policies directed at the poor were traditionally premised on a belief that what had hampered the development of the poor was their lack of inclusion in an economic system that was otherwise sound. No matter the regime, if the political world view was that ours was a nation of plenty, though the methods might change as to how one might stimulate income gains, poverty could be eliminated by the poor gaining access to the system. Now we know that the push back that started with Reagan; rejection of affirmative action, welfare reform, emphasis on the language of so-called equal opportunity at the expense of equal outcomes, might have been embedded in the reality that middle class America was already trying to make do with less. Rather than assuming malignant intent to those who waged war on the poor from the right, it is more likely that they share with their brothers on the left, an awareness that the economy is indeed shrinking, the times are getting tougher, and self interest trumps goodwill every time.

There was something honest about the stated self interest of Dems in Ct. Not so the current harangue from the right that would have you believe that their interests are really not classist, they are concerned with the welfare of the nation. Their objection to the expansion of health care to the poor is to protect the budget. They are deficit hawks, or so they would have you believe. Their stance on immigration is really about homeland security and not a threat to their piece of an ever shrinking pie.

As the ranks of the poor are swelling the questions for us are: Has the forecast of limits been realized? What kind of curriculum do we want in place today? Do we have any responsibility to any of our neighbors? Is this a nation or a pack of dogs, fighting for what they fear is their last meal?

1 comment:

  1. Right on, Will! And, yes, it's a "pack of dogs" world, and yet I'm encouraged to see pockets of folks trying to hold back the forces of self-interest and greed...its an eternal struggle. Was watching the fictive Robin Hood (the 2010 version) movie last night and am reminded that the "small voice" has always been part of the larger conversation... no choice but to keep on rollin', Bro!