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July 15, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

Unacceptable, by any definition

Mie and friend, elementary school graduation

(March 9, 1995)

The other day I saw a report in the news about some children who attend public schools in Washington, DC.

The schools are located in what is known as the “inner city”. While this term implies there is such a thing as an outer city (the suburbs?) what it refers to of course are the American war zones. Those places where the high malnutrition, infant-mortality, and homicide rates have more in common with Sarajevo than Sapporo.

Actually, the news report wasn’t so much about the children as about the young adults who volunteered to tutor them. Unlike the katei-kyoshi (private tutors) who are employed to keep this country’s students on the ever-advancing edge of cutthroat academic competition, these tutors helped their young charges with the basics:  reading, writing, and arithmetic. In case you don’t keep up with currents in pedagogy, nothing has changed. Everyone, everywhere, must have these basic skills to be educated. And employable.

The volunteer tutors, obviously kind, aware and socially conscientious, all agreed “we’re getting just as much as we’re giving.” I thought it was nice of them to volunteer their time, and surely they should be commended — but something seemed, well, wrong.

It reminded me of a project I read about in Texas. That program, sponsored by a charitable organization, counsels homeless children suffering from various “disorders” because of their deep insecurity and lack of self-esteem. Although I thought the work of the project was admirable, at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a serious mistake to teach people to accept a situation that is by any reckoning, unacceptable. Homelessness is not a natural disaster. It is both predictable and preventable.

The tutors were needed in Washington because the children weren’t learning in school. This fact, an anomaly in itself, is even more peculiar when you consider the pupils were proceeding from first grade to sixth, and then on to junior high school, and even graduating, illiterate.

Most could not read at their grade level and some barely knew the rudiments of writing. I do not mean they could not express their thoughts in an essay or imaginations in a story, but rather, they could not form the letter ‘A’ with a pencil.

Some of the children were diagnosed as having “attention deficit disorder”, others as being “hyperactive”and still others as sufferers of both. Many of them are required to take behavior controlling and modifying medication throughout the day.

Apparently, the reason they are not capable of paying attention for more than a few minutes at a time is a result of some unusual (in countries not at war) circumstances of their daily lives. These children are accustomed to the sound of gunfire, of having to jump for cover to save their lives, and of seeing dead bodies as a regular occurrence. In other words, where they live, violence is commonplace.

In this they are no different from their brothers and sisters in Bosnia and Rwanda, and all the other places where violence — real, threatened or expected — removes the light of wonder from children’s eyes and replaces it with blank fear. Against this background, aberrant in the extreme, it goes without saying that children suffer scholastically. We hardly want to think of the mental and emotional damage inflicted.

It’s no mystery why kids who went to school every day needed remedial tutoring — they were not being given an education. Their schools have enough metal detectors, but not enough textbooks. Continuity in learning cannot be expected because their teachers, mostly substitutes, routinely and frequently change. Culturally and socially enriching courses in art and music, extracurricular activities, sports and recreational programs were the disposable “extras” when funds were cut. It’s a dilapidated and impoverished public school system that’s compelled to rely on charity — where teachers bring their own supplies, and parents are asked to “chip in for chalk.”

It’s incomprehensible that the pupils, all perfectly normal children (albeit living in circumstances no one could associate with normality) were presented as having something wrong with them. Nothing but opportunity and circumstance — not culture, ethnicity, or genetic makeup — separated those children from others who are learning.

In the news report nothing was mentioned concerning the fact that this level of inferiority in public education is tolerated. I wonder if it’s farfetched or could be classified as a ‘conspiracy theory’ to say that it’s encouraged. Certainly there are those who benefit, and profit, from a public education system that guarantees an educated and uninformed electorate.

Few parents in America now who can afford to do otherwise, send their children to public school — unless, of course, they are the well-subsidized (by property taxes) schools that amount to a private school education. When Mr. and Mrs. Clinton moved to Washington, they were criticized for not placing their daughter in one of the District’s public schools. Why should they? I wouldn’t send my children. Would you send yours?

It’s anyone’s guess how any country not willing to invest in the education of the majority of its population can expect to face the competition and challenges of the international job market. Not just the basics, but competence in the new technologies as well as bi- and multilingualism is what is now, and will be, separating the people with jobs from the people without.

There are those who regularly and boldly deny the documented fact that environment — and this includes food and health care as well as access to libraries and freedom from fear — does make a difference.

If there is a ‘conspiracy’ it’s the pretense that opportunity exists for all, regardless, and that everything comes down to pulling yourself up by those famous “bootstraps.”

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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