It's Hard to Teach Kids to Read if They Only Want to Burn Down the School

Somewhere somehow we just got on the wrong track, folks. All these issues like the public schools, crime, unemployment: We're still trying to rearrange the furniture when the house is already on fire.

For example, as I said here yesterday, that bright shiny new superintendent of schools we just hired is about to self-implode over a bunch of stupid salary and expense account crap. I can't believe we're even talking about that stuff. Another one up, another one down, and 'round and 'round we go.

I'm still trying to scrape myself up off the ground after a deeply distressing interview last week ago with a minister in southern Dallas who described a heart-rending river of kids in his neighborhood who for decades have been coming out of the schools unable to read or write and going straight to prison.

For one second, suspend judgment. Just tell me this. If you send large numbers of adolescents into this world unable to read or write, what do you think is going to happen to them? What on earth can happen?

Look, I'm not telling you to look the other way or ignore the All-Night Education Burlesque Show at school headquarters. How can you? You're paying for that show. But what is that show even about?

Over time we all sit here and watch while a succession of pretty damned smart determined leaders run at these same walls and invariably fall back stunned and defeated having accomplished nothing beyond bloodying their own heads. When do we start wondering if it's not about the leaders but the wall?

You can't get a kid a job if he can't read or write. But you can't teach him to read or write if he doesn't want to read your books or write your words.

A significant body of research has grown up around a theory called "oppositional culture" pioneered in the late 1970s by the late Nigerian-American cultural anthropologist John U. Ogbu. Ogbu worked out a kind of simple classification system for minorities in all societies -- autonomous, voluntary and involuntary.

In our society autonomous minorities would include Mormons, the Amish and Jews. Got their own deal going, got their reasons, got their hats, perfectly happy for other people to just leave them be.

Voluntary minorities would include immigrants like Mexicans or refugees like the Haitians. Came here with a purpose, determined to dig in and get a piece of the pie.

In this country the third classification, involuntary, would be African-Americans, brought here against their will, treated badly, given no reason to embrace, trust or admire the values of their oppressors, every reason to reject the values and even the laws of mainstream society.

Ogbu found that education was viewed entirely differently within these different classifications of minority, as a leg up by the autonomous minorities, a kind of foreign cultural mystery by the voluntaries and by the involuntary minority as an insulting con game and just another form of oppression.

Listen, I'm the last guy to claim expertise or any but the most superficial familiarity with these theories. I offer them here more as an example of the magnitude of factor that can be considered way beyond mere instructional strategy. The best instructional strategy in the world is shit if the kids would really rather just burn your school down and maybe you, too.

It's not easy to bring this stuff up, because even the mention of it invites all sorts of accusations of racism. Why is Schutze talking all about black kids being oppositional? Didn't he have enough white meth-heads to worry about first?

OK, fine. Point taken. But here is what sticks with me after my interview last week with the Reverend Eddie Lane at Bibleway Bible Church. This man has been at his church for 47 years. He's an emeritus professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. He's a serious man. I was there to talk to him about another crazy deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic story -- the fancy new golf course the city wants to build to spur economic development in an area where upwards of 70 percent of the populace does not work.

The last thing he said to me before I left was that somebody needs to come in and develop a kind of super-rehab center, an institution rooted in Southern Dallas so that it comes from within the culture. Something is needed, he said, to teach young people returning from prison how to want to have a good life, how to hope, how to know what a good life even is when you see it. And, oh yeah, literacy.

He didn't say this, so I will: The approach he's talking about must come from within the culture so that it will have the legitimacy and cred it needs to do battle with that culture. You can't overcome oppositional culture if you're the opposition. It can only be overcome from within.

How? Oh, sorry, that's above my pay grade. Can't tell you that one. All I see now is that we're beating our heads against the wall, and the wall keeps winning. I'm just asking: When do we get a step ladder and peek over?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze