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“The Poor Are Too Free?:" Unlocking the Middle-Class Code

The “idealized middle-class fantasy ignores that behind the weightless freedom often lurked the life-long burden of debt” writes PL Thomas.

Walking outside the Commander’s compound in the “heart of Gilead,” Offred (June) is reminded of her past now swept away by the rise of Gilead, the theocracy at the center of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless.

This idealized middle-class fantasy ignores that behind the weightless freedom often lurked the life-long burden of debt—the thirty-year mortgages, the monthly bills, the billowing cost of college-for-all. A motif of freedom weaves its way through Atwood’s “dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were,” a work withGeorge Orwell just below the surface.

To fulfill her role as a handmaid (fertile women designated to conceive with the Commanders), Offred (June) has been re-educated at the Rachel and Leah Center by the Aunts, women controlling women. The Aunts as the teachers for Gilead help the handmaids understandfreedom:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much freedom.

As Atwood explains,

Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle, its ever-present shadow, sublegal opportunism, and the propensity of the powerful to indulge in behind-the-scenes sensual delights forbidden to everyone else. But such locked-door escapades must remain hidden, for the regime floats as its raison d’être the notion that it is improving the conditions of life, both physical and moral; and like all such regimes, it depends on its true believers.

In the “no excuses” charter school movement, David Whitman is a true believer, a voice for the “new” paternalism that shares a haunting parallel with the paternalism of Atwood’s dystopia:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance….Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Another true believer, cited by Whitman in his Sweating the Small Stuff, is Lawrence Mead, who claims in The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty: “The problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free.”

Now let’s add all this up, as Diane Ravitch has helped us do the math: President Barack Obama + Secretary of Education Arne Duncan + speechwriter David Whitman + “the poor are too free” Lawrence Mead = “no excuses” education policy.

People trapped in poverty, Mead et al. argue, are suffering from too much freedom; therefore, they must be given freedom from (like the handmaids). Our “new” paternalistic schools, then, are gifts of the middle-class code bestowed upon children living in poverty, disproportionately children who also are African American and Latino/a.

So just what are these impoverished children being given freedom from?

Natalie Hopkins has one suggestion:

It’s a great question—one that gets to the heart of the tensions over “urban” school reform. What will our schools look like once they “succeed”? Will black girls stop playing hand games? Will black boys lose the urge to tap West African rhythms on their desks? Will children graduate bearing no trace of the poverty, riches, triumph, failure, and culture that form the complex kaleidoscope of blackness in this country?…But the problem is when you consider education policy for the past six decades, there hasn’t been a war at all. From desegregation to today’s “school choice” [such as charter schools], every single scheme has been designed to kill off the Negro soul—or at least provide an escape hatch from it.

Another question is, What are the consequences of these new urban schools policies?

Examining the rise of “no excuses” charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, Sarah Carr cites one teacher: “‘The first week of school is all about compliance,’ said Kaycee Eckhardt, one of the founding teachers.”

But Carr notes that Andre Perry (institute for Quality and Equity in Education, Loyola University) “is troubled by the idea that children—and poor children of color most especially—need to be controlled. ‘There’s an insidious mistrust of children reflected in having them walk on lines or making them stay silent.’”

Yet, “no excuses” charter schools driven by a “new” paternalism that embraces a deficit view of children, people in poverty, and people of color remain committed to freedom from, despite the potential long-term outcomes:

Sci Academy and other [“no excuses”] charter schools like it run a risk in creating such structured, disciplined environments where students receive motivation from external rewards and punishments. The approach can backfire in the long run if students do not know how to function once all the structure and incentives disappear and if they do not learn how to think for themselves….Despite the guiding ambition to send all their students through college, Sci’s learning environment is the opposite of collegiate in many respects.

And here we find the ugly truth behind the claim that “no excuses” paternalism seeks to offer impoverished children of color the key to middle-class values: The people these students are being trained to be—as Hopkins unmasks—is not some middle-class ideal such as the one recalled by Offred (June), but the ideal that privileged people want for “other people’s children”—controlled, passive, silent, obedient,freedom from—so that privileged children can maintain their freedom to.

As in Gilead, the privileged orchestrate a world in which they havefreedom to built on the rest having freedom from. And this deficit view by a paternalistic state extends beyond schools, as Deborah Meier condemns in her quote of the day:

“We are coming to find you and monitor every step you take. And we are going to learn about every bad friend you have. And you’re going to get alienated from those friends because we are going to be all over you.” Joanne Jaffe, of the New York City Police Department, on a program meant to steer juveniles away from crime.

Joanne Jaffe may have heart of gold, but she, and the NYC Police Department, couldn’t be further off the mark. This quotation and the story it goes with sent shivers up my spine. The idea that the kids will follow our advice if we treat them unfairly, interfere with their perfectly legal rights, harass them a bit more is so far from reality that it truly is scary.

Meier seeks a different barometer for the standards we allow for “other people’s children,” however:

That’s why medicine rests on “do no harm”—and so does raising children. So I often rest my arguments on “would I do it to myself” and “would I do it to my own offspring?” And if so, why not?

In “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), James Baldwin confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.” [Think of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

As an example, Baldwin adds:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them.

Baldwin’s central message appears relevant to the hallways of “no excuses” schools as well as the streets of urban America:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

This surrender of self, of culture, of race can be found in the normalizing effect of zero tolerance policies that turn the school-to-prison pipelineinto schools-as-prison as well as the conversion of urban public schools into “no excuses” charter schools. “DuBois might have called our flight from blackness and fixation with standardized tests ‘measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity,’” explains Hopkins, adding:

In order to move beyond the black/white, negative/positive binary that dominated DuBois’ 20th century, we need to generate some new definitions. What does it mean to be educated? What is history? What is “culture”and how can our public institutions value it? We need new definitions for success – hopefully ones that don’t deodorize the funk.

The middle-class code of “no excuses” school reform, it seems, is more about someone else’s freedom from to preserve the freedom to remain privileged.

While privileged children sit in gifted classrooms and private academies that celebrate creativity and respecting a child’s innate zest for learning, a separate and unequal school system is being built on a “new” paternalism platform that hides issues of race and class behind code words like “middle class.”

As Baldwin envisioned almost fifty years ago, if “no excuses” ideologies win, “the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society,” but it will be one designed for them and not by them.

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