Respecting our Roundedness

Writing at The Atlantic, teacher Andrew Simmons worries that high schools treat middle- and low-income students differently when conveying the reasons for attending college. In short, Simmons argues that schools encourage upper-income students to see post-secondary learning as a path of intellectual exploration and a gateway for personal meaning, while to poorer students they communicate college as the mechanism for economic security. In other words, for the latter group, the non-empirical objectives (answering big questions, cultivating purpose) are marginalized or ignored. Simmons writes:

The black and Latino kids I teach live in Inglewood and West Adams in Los Angeles. Their parents are house-cleaners, truck drivers, and non-union carpenters. When administrators, counselors, and teachers repeat again and again that a college degree will alleviate economic hardship, they don’t mean to suggest that there is no other point to higher education. Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.

Simmons faults counselors for a "lack of imagination . . . " For example, students "hear that being a doctor is great because doctors can make money, enjoy respect, and have a great life. They don't hear that being a doctor is great because doctors possess the expertise to do great things." Expanding on that concern, Simmons observes: 

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The rhetoric echoes the oft-cited work of Jean Anyon, an education researcher who died in September. Studying elementary schools, Anyon looked at how schools can condition kids for positions in life. She saw that schools teaching the children of affluent families prepared those kids to take on leadership roles and nurtured their capacity for confident self-expression and argument. Schools teaching children from low-income families focused on keeping students busy and managing behavior. A middle-class school deemphasized individual expression and in-depth analysis and rewarded the dutiful completion of specified rote tasks. In each case, according to Anyon, a “hidden curriculum” has prepared students for a future role in society. Some students learn to take orders and others learn to chart a course of action and delegate responsibility. School can either perpetuate inequity through social reproduction or have a transformative effect and help students transcend it.

Simmons's fine essay is an argument for respecting the roundedness of the human person; it's a call to see students in their totality, to see them not simply as future employees and taxpayers, but as young men and women who possess philosophical and spiritual needs, needs that must be fulfilled in academic experiences that may not enhance a resume or raise income levels, but which nurture the dignity of the human being.   

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