The Ignorance of What Is Possible

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There were some pretty stand-out comments in our last thread on education and the culture of poverty. I wanted to pull this one up from Sorn, because I thought it deserved its own post. In it, Sorn discusses how service in the military exposed him to the broader world, and gave him a better sense of precisely what is possible. 

As beautiful as this comment is, I pull it up  for two basic reasons. One, it's my hope that when we talk about education and social mobility, we can talk about more than simply raising test scores. Two, it's also my hope that we stop rendering these issues through a strict racial lens. . So much of this reminds me of my Dad's own reminiscences of growing up poor in Philly, and then joining the service. For sure, he left the Army somewhat embittered by his time in Vietnam. But to this day he credits the service with broadening his horizons, making him accountable and, I think he'd put it this way, making him a man.

I graduated from high school in a town of 3500 people on the edge of the Crow Reservation. My father currently teaches science in Busby on the Cheyenne side, I went to 4th and 5th grade there. The biggest thing that I remember about my upbringing was I didn't know, and still really don't know to an extent what was and is possible. 

Poverty has a way of limiting people's options, but for all of the talk about poor people and helping the disadvantaged through education the emphasis, as TNC and Cynic have so eloquently pointed out, always seems to be on test scores. There is a massive cultural component to education, and so many otherwise well-qualified and smart people never seem to escape the life I left behind not because they aren't intelligent enough, but because they don't know what is possible. 

Looking back now after being ten years gone from high-school and that environment I think the cultural factors had as much to do with why I made it out and why several of my friends did not. First both my parents had college degrees. My father went to school on the Vietnam era GI bill graduating from Northen Montana College and my mother, the unreconstructed yooper got her degree in elementary education from Northern Michigan in Marquette. So that's one factor, even if I didn't know that it was possible for academics to have a direct pay off on my life I at least had some sort of an inkling of a broader world. A world that some of my friends did not. 

Second the stress in my house growing up was never on formal education. It was taught from an early age that the things a person learned had real practical value in everyday life. My mother taught me how to read when I was 4 and a half, and my father used every oportunity at his disposal from changing a bicycle tire to when I wanted my first car and had to work with him to replace a piston in an old 86 chevy S-10, to teach his children how to solve open ended problems in a practical way. 

However there were strange gaps in my knowledge and in my self-imposed expectations. On the one hand I knew that some people were paid to write, but until I had a brief little article published last year courtesy of this blog I never imagined it would happen to a guy like me. I knew people graduated from fancy schools, but until I actually left the army and went to a small little catholic school here in Montana I figured that the people who went to schools like that were necessarily smarter and somehow better than I was. Little by little my life has shown me that what I once thought was possible, is only a small part of what actually is possible. 

I still have days where I am very happy that I'm not in jail, dead, addicted to something, or paying child-support to a woman I don't love. There but for the grace of god go I. It could have happened, a kid I used to spend time with when we were growing up went to jail a few years ago for rape. My little brother's best friend was stabbed three days before he was supposed to graduate. My best friend in high-school who I haven't heard from in years --a person who was at one time head and shoulders above me in intelligence, dropped-out, obtained his GED, and is presumably working a dead end job somewhere. I haven't heard from him in years, and it breaks my heart to think of what might have been under different circumstances. I hope he is doing well, but we cannot however hard we wish go back and try to re-create or change the past. No one's outcome is determined but there are things that make success or failure significantly more likely. 

think the biggest single factor that seperates my life now from what my life could have easily been like was my decision to join the army. Both myself and my little brother joined the service right out of high-school and that has made a huge difference in the trajectory our lives have taken. For myself it was the army that taught me that I wasn't as stupid as I thought I was in relation to other people. A friend of mine who is at the university of Chicago getting a master's in middle eastern studies now, whom I met when we were both young analysts in Georgia said it best during a phone conversation a few years ago. He said "I saw some really smart people with master's degrees from really good schools who failed out of DLI (defense language institute), but I also saw people from really bad neighborhoods who had GEDs occasionally carry the highest grade in the class." 

In this respect it was the service that first taught me there might be some sort of hope for myself. Really and truly by comparing myself against the people I came across in the service --which remains a broad spectrum of American life even as it is increasingly divorced from the mass of people-- I learned that it might be possible for me to go to college and succeed. In some ways, although I don't know for sure, I would argue that a similar education took place for my little brother. He went to Germany and was stationed there for three years. A poor boy from Montana, he married a German lady --my neice was born this summer. He went through selection and the 18 Delta Q course and has hopes of going to Medical School if he can finish up his bachelors before he gets out. 

In both of our cases, and for many others I believe, the service was an education, not in any academic sense but in the sense of what was possible. These past 4 years at college have also been an education, but again the education has only partly been academic. If all goes well and I can finish up this honor's thesis, enshallah, there's a chance I can graduate this year Magna Cum Laude with a double major. I don't say this to brag, never that, but only to say that in all my wildest dreams of what I thought my life would be like at 18 I never thought such a thing was possible. 

In other ways though what was true of the Army was also true of college. The education here has only been partly academic. The biggest component of my college education has been a further assimilation of "proper" or one should say "middle-class" modes of conduct and speech. I'm still rather rough around the edges, I'm not the most cultured piece of cheese on the tray, and I still smoke, but I curse far less than I used to. Also I have learned a modicum of grace in the time that I have been at college. In high-school and in the service I used to use knowledge like a hammer. What I knew I knew and ambiguities be damned. In retrospect I recognize that such a use of intellect is a cover for massive insecurities, and also the truth in the old saying that "when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail." It took continued exposure over 4 years to people with degrees of knowledge I didn't even know existed, but somewhere along the way I realized that the mark of an educated person is that they wear their eruditition with an easy grace. Also I realized that when knowledge is taken as an end in itself, one can be comfortable admitting that one doesn't know the answer. Five years ago these finer nicities were still things I didn't know I didn't know. It wasn't that I lacked the intelligence, but that I hadn't been exposed to the right cultural markers. 

I think that overall, that as important as basic skill are, an education in the broader sense, what might rightly be called an education in what is possible forms a vital link in helping lift people into the middle class. If people are to be lifted out of poverty it is as essential that the mentality of sic est, sic fuit, sic erit,be broken. There is a fatalistic mentality born of poverty that has to combated if people are to be successful. As TNC says

Keeping kids from dropping out, keeping kids out of jail, keeping them from having kids, themselves, has its own rewards,

and this is undoubtedly true, but there is more to the equation than that. 

I am a big believer in institutions, and that the best way to educate people is to bring them into the institutions that will equip them for success in whatever field they desire to go into. I look at what my military service, and my time at college have done for me and I am amazed, because in reality sometimes I still feel in the back of my mind that I'm a poor white dude from the reservation and that I don't deserve any of the good fortune that has come my way. Yet whatever success I have had, or may have, in this life has not been due to my own hard work, but because I had the dumb luck to choose association with institutions that provided me with a decent cultural education. 

I don't know if there is an answer to the current state of American schools somewhere in my personal narrative, but I do think that part of the key lies in taking students who never believed that their lives would be anything more than a re-hash of what their parents and friends experienced, and exposing them to the people, instutions, and possibilities, that teach the cultural habits necessary for success. The key to a good education isn't wholly in skills, or wholly in culture, but in finding some way to merge the two. If somehow intelligent poor-kids could be made to understand that their intelligence coupled with a work ethic properly applied is a ticket to a better life earlier than I did, then maybe something more could be done with the state of education in this country. However, the job is harder than it seems, because in seeking to educate the whole person one isn't teaching math, or science, or reading, but striving to impart a world-view. It's true that if johnny can't add he won't amount to much, but it's also true that if Johnny is reading college-level history texts for fun and doesn't have a model of someone who has actually "made it pay" the odds are equally against him.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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