Education Reform in the Deep South, part two

Continued from earlier post: “Education Reform in the Deep South, part one”

In the Deep South, beyond the issues caused by outdated economic development plans and unpredictable tax structures, we also have other factors to look at, which relate to the social structures and ideals created by the economics and society that Cobb describes in The Selling of the South.

The first among them are socially conservative working-class ideals. I was raised with those ideals. I can remember my parents insisting on the paramount importance or hard work, reliability, and personal responsibility. Their attitude toward our handling of schoolwork was the same. I also remember them stressing adherence to workplace policies even when those policies didn’t make sense. Why? Because the boss can fire you! Not because the rules were right or morally good, but because in this world, the man with the power can sweep you aside and replace you quickly with someone else who can do your job . . . and without a job, you’ve got nothing— no paycheck, no ability to pay bills, no identity. I hear these conservative values expressed often down here: I call it “the ethic of the-way-it-is.” Don’t question authority, just work hard and take what you’re given. It may not be much, but it beats nothing at all. It is a mentality straight out of the Great Depression.

Because so many families in the Deep South are working-class or poor, they share “the ethic of the-way-it-is” out of necessity. And those ideas about life and society transfer into the parents’ handling of children’s upbringing— and their education. A negative recollection of school as rigorous and pointless coupled with a feeling of powerlessness against the institution of the school system causes many working-class parents not to question the way their children are being educated. I can remember my parents insistence on good grades but the emphasis was not on whether I was learning; I can remember their insistence that the school rules were not to be broken or even questioned; and I can remember that, if I got in trouble, I was ruining my chances to succeed by singling myself out as a troublemaker. The whole attitude was centered on compliance, obedience and having a clean record. That was back in the early 1980s, more than thirty years ago, back when I was growing up.

I still find myself living by those values . . . In eleven years as a public school teacher, I have never been written up, and in my working life, I have never been fired from a job. I am always conscious of how my actions will be perceived by those with the power to fire me (though I’m not as adamant as my parents about never speaking up). But I wonder now, as an educated adult living a middle-class life, how those values are perpetuated, how education prepares kids for certain kinds of lives as adults, and how our system is set up keep people “in their place,” to use an old Jim Crow phrasing.

Deep Southern example numero uno: in Alabama, where I live, there is a public relations campaign called “Go Build Alabama” that encourages young people not to go to college so they can work on “a fabulous construction site.” This video stars Mike Rowe, sweaty and in a hard hat, explaining how great it’s going to be to work construction. For this campaign, a consortium of groups called the ACRI (formed by the state legislature in 2009) hired a well-known TV personality with a blue-collar image to look confidently into the camera and give this half-sarcastic/half-folksy speech to tell young people: don’t pursue higher education because it’s a waste of time and money. Why get educated when there are perfectly good jobs in construction? That advice might be fine . . . if education were only good for job training.

Education is more than job training, though. Higher levels of education also teach people to think critically and to question norms. Higher levels of education also create expectations of a higher quality of living. The residual aspects of educational attainment affect a person’s life as much as the direct impacts. Educated people are less likely to accept everything they are told by people in positions of authority, less likely to accept the kinds of low-wage jobs that Cobb describes extensively, less likely to accept low-quality schools for their children. The list could keep going.

In a previous post, “Some Other News from Around the Deep South, installment seven,” I referred to a recent Washington Post blog titled “A surprising map of where it’s hardest to escape poverty in the U.S.”  Three of the top five states where it’s hardest to escape poverty are in the Deep South – #1 Georgia, #3 South Carolina, and #4 Mississippi – all of the five were in the larger South. If we add up the facts in that Post blog, Jean Anyon’s findings back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Mike Rowe’s heady analysis of career choices, the sum is easy to find: poor people in the South stay poor because multiple social and political entities, like state-run schools and state-sponsored economic development agencies, encourage them to. All signs point to that conclusion: conservative working-class values teach a practical type of obedience, low-performing schools inhibit possibilities for higher education, and state-sponsored ad campaigns refute the notion that higher education has any value.

Another way of looking at how Deep Southern culture encourages social class stagnation is rates of union membership. The rigorous conservative attitudes of the working-class South have bought in fully to anti-union ideals, and have for most of the last hundred years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mississippi and South Carolina have some of the lowest union membership rates in the nation at 3.7%. Following to the BLS’s “by state” chart, Georgia’s union membership rate isn’t much higher at 5.3% and Louisiana’s is only 4.3%. The only Deep Southern state that comes close to the national average of 11.3% is Alabama’s rate with a staggering regional high of 10.7%. Working-class and poor Southerners, in general, don’t believe that they should work together to achieve better conditions for themselves.

That attitude is carried over to issues of school reform. The same people who won’t band together in the workplace to demand better pay and benefits also won’t band together to demand better education for their kids. The price of speaking out seems too risky. For example, what if my kid gets singled out by his teachers and the principal because I spoke up? 

What needs reforming is not the curriculum or the standards or tenure laws or testing methods, but a whole social system that devalues education, that denigrates the power of collective action, and that is somehow satisfied with cyclical poverty. The same Deep Southern culture that resisted the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago is now resisting another set of common-sense cultural reforms that will lead to an improvement in all of our lives. A conservative culture that has always disliked change refuses to disavow its own Depression-era working-class ideals about compliance and obedience, just like it refused to stand up to its own racist ideals about Jim Crow-era segregation— even though both have been equally damaging to our whole culture.

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