Friday, May 23, 2003

Thanks to Joanne Jacobs, I found this article about Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu, and his much-criticized efforts to figure out why black students in a wealthy Cleveland suburb underperform their white peers. Much-criticized because, like John McWhorter before him, Ogbu reached the uncomfortable conclusion that many of the black students he studied view academic achievement as something to be avoided because it amounts to "acting white."

This is a subject that I think and worry about from time to time, and I just don't know what the answer is. I'm sure, however, that any solution has to include radical changes in the way a lot of black parents treat their children from the youngest age. One can find these conclusions in McWhorter and Ogbu, but what really hit home with me was my personal experience.

When I was in college in Athens, Georgia, I went once a week to a predominantly black elementary school to read to some kindergarteners. Typically, I would go to the same classroom, and then take one of the children into the hall where I would read with him or her. So over the course of the school year, I would get a pretty good feel for how the entire class was doing on their reading skills.

Now the typical breakdown in a classroom was about 25 blacks, 4 or 5 whites, and, in one year, an Asian girl. And, unfortunately, the differences were stunning. Hardly any of the black 4 or 5 year-olds knew the alphabet, though most of them seemed eager to learn and to read. All of the white kids knew the alphabet pretty well. And the Asian girl could read several grades ahead.

One occasion stands out in my memory. A college-age female named Susanna was there at the same time as me, and she spent the hour reading to the Asian girl. After a while, Susanna turned to me with her jaw gaping open. She said, "I was just reading her this book, and we came across the word 'fleur de lis.' I didn't know what it was, but then she said, 'Fleur de lis. That's French.'"

The Asian girl might have been some sort of budding genius, of course. Even so, she didn't learn to read 'fleur de lis' in her kindergarten class. From what I saw of the classes, they mostly consisted of story time, play time, nap time, recess, snack time, etc. Not much learning going on there.

The only logical conclusion that a) the Asian girl had parents who drilled her on reading from day one, b) the white kids had parents who at least taught them the alphabet, and c) the black kids had parents who didn't do much at all to teach their kids to read. It was deeply saddening, because though the kids were just 4 or 5, I could already see that their lives would still go down vastly different paths over the next decade or so, even if we lived in a utopian society with no racism at all.

What can we do about it? The little bit that I did -- reading for an hour a week -- made me feel good about myself, and it even seemed to make some small difference in one particular little boy's attitude. (Once, on seeing me enter the room, he ran up and hugged my leg, and said, "When I grow up, I want to be a reader like you.")

Still, even a teacher with 6 hours a day could never do enough to help a room full of black 5-year-olds catch up with their white and Asian peers who are two years ahead by the time they start kindergarten. The black parents have to be involved. And I just don't know how to get so many people to radically change the way they behave at home with their children. Any governmental measure that stood a chance of working would be so incredibly intrusive and patronizing that no one would ever go for it.



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