A Human Profession

14 04 2008

If you are an educator and/or a human being, you need to order this book immediately: Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. Lareau is a dynamic ethnographer/sociologist who looks into the extent to which parenting ethics affects/effects the way that a child will perform in a given institution (namely, school). She follows lower and middle class families (Black and white from both socioeconomic levels) to discover patterns across social strata with regard to child rearing. Her findings are astounding and enlightening. I promise.

Pierre Bourdieu says that individuals from different social locations (i.e. lower class vs. middle class) are socialized differently. Seems obvious, right? Now, think about this: Susie teaches her son how to talk to adults by engaging in conversations with him (“What did you do today, Johnny?” …”Well, why didn’t you explain that to your teacher?”…), whereas Sally rushes home to fix dinner before her next shift. The only words Sally has time to say to her boy are “Billy, don’t touch that.” and “Eat your dinner.” Now, if Sally were Susie, she would have said, “Don’t touch that because I need it for work tonight, so I don’t want it to get messy and your fingers are dirty.” So what’s the big deal? Johnny will expect his teachers to explain why when he is disciplined and he will also be able to engage in discussions about why he doesn’t understand the material because his parents have taught him how to do that by showing him that he can speak to adults and encouraging him to explain himself when he is not understood. Meanwhile, Billy is uncomfortable speaking to adults and he becomes so used to responding to directives, that he doesn’t argue back when he doesn’t agree with something a teacher disciplines him for and he doesn’t explain how the teacher’s judgment was wrong. He merely goes along with it, perhaps displays an attitude, refuses to explain himself when the teacher asks him “what’s wrong?” and holds the general assumption that school is “unfair.”

Now, these are highly generalized examples which I have constructed to convince you to read the book, but Lareau’s findings confirm that the way that children and parents interact with the institution of school have an awful lot to do with their social positioning. Furthermore, Lareau draws on Bourdieu’s theory that the way that a person is socialized determines what a person deems comfortable and natural. So, why haven’t we considered that parenting is different across different social strata? Because we assume that everyone is brought up the way that we are… OR! We assume that if a person is brought up differently from us, they must have “known better” at least. (It’s important for me to mention here that Lareau’s study finds pros and cons for both lower and middle class ways of parenting… this made it an especially interesting read for me as a parent as well.)

As educators, we have a responsibility to know our students… and their parents. We often label parents as “uncaring” without considering the possibility that parents care for their children in different ways. Lareau and her researchers make some very interesting observations about the ways that teachers interact with children of different social classes and the ways in which families interact with the school (and teacher as extension/part of the school). Learning will not take place in an environment where we assume that everyone has had the same socialization that we have had.

Bourdieu argues that what we consider natural is relative. Parenting is historical–– it changes across time periods and it varies from place to place (i.e. people parent differently in America than they do in Germany). [Foucault did a similar theoretical jog when he began writing The History of Sexuality, should you be interested. In fact, should you not be interested, you should read Foucault. As an educator, Discipline and Punish particularly resonated with me.] Since parenting ethics has changed over time, we know that there is no “natural” or “more natural” way to parent.

Unfortunately, the institution of the school requires us to make assumptions about students based on their performance on tests that they may or may not have the cultural tools they need to succeed on. We ask for students to display their knowledge in a manner of ways that confirm whether or not the child has been socialized properly (according to… whom?) This is becoming scarier and scarier as we fall deeper and deeper into the cracks of NCLB. It seems that in our effort to “close the achievement gap” between groups of students, we are actually falling into gaps that are much more fatal. We are actually reinforcing and amplifying gaps between social classes by placing such strong emphasis on arbitrary tests. As educators, we are forced to spend so much time “documenting” that we often fail to focus on the more humane question of who we are teaching and what their individually specific needs are in terms of preparing them for a world that might go against their norms. We need to focus on providing our children with the cultural tools that they need to experience success in a business-driven world, but we need to do this without subtracting from the personal culture of that student. We need to confront our classrooms with the mindset of Annette Lareau and with an awareness of how society works.

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4 responses

14 04 2008
Art

You have made me think while I am on spring break. This was excellently written and well thought out. You have interested me in reading the book. I am not exactly sure when I am going to fit it in, but I want to read the book.

Have you heard of Ruby Payne? I have looked at parts of her book _Poverty: A Framework for Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty_. She posits there are “hidden rules” for surviving in poverty, middle class, and wealth. That teachers often come from a middle class perspective and don’t understand where lower socioeconomic students are coming from. Interesting and thought-provoking. Not particularly well received quite often as Americans like to pretend we live in a classless society.

Thanks for this excellent post. It was worth reading and sharing.

14 04 2008
wlr

Thank you, Art. It’s always hard for me to write about something that I really want people to read/watch (in the case of a film) bc I don’t want to “give it away,” but I also want to be sure that it makes sense. Lareau really cements an argument against the classless society that the “American Dream” promotes. I’m always happy to see your kind words here!

PS: With regard to Ruby Payne, I have read some criticisms that she engages in “deficit thinking” about lower classes. I suppose it’s time for me to buckle down and read about her since I’ve heard so many positive reviews from teachers and one scathing review from academics. hmmmm…

15 04 2008
goheelz

Very interesting that Lareau is onto Bourdieu. How, I wonder, does she recommend that teachers get inside the world of their students and parents’ habitus (to use Bourdieu’s word)? That is, how can the teacher adapt to the social habits and acquired cultural capital of the student and thus create appropriate learning environments and situations? While remaining true to moral, intellectual, and ethical principles? Shades of the Alcotts!

15 04 2008
wlr

Thank you for commenting. Indeed Lareau and Bourdieu make for an interesting and exciting pair.

I’m not sure that Lareau’s objective (to use a noun from the academic lexicon) is to prescribe some kind of advice for educators. As an ethnographer, she has provided us with a keen and insightful study that does coincide with Bourdieu’s framework.

I’m not sure that teachers need to “adapt to the social habits” of the students. Rather, I think this study pioneers a new way for educators to think about families and students within and beyond the school. If educators are made aware of their own bias toward concerted cultivation (the term that Lareau uses to classify middle class child rearing, since the parents are actively cultivating the individual to succeed in school and endowing them with the cultural capital they need by organizing leisure activities that will condition them for success), then they can begin to resist that bias that probably stems from their own socialization and they can approach students with more understanding. For example, the teacher’s tendency to “read” a student’s behavior as apathetic towards school work could (and does) affect that student’s ability to succeed in the classroom. However, if the teacher can begin to “check” those gut responses to students and consider a wider context for that student’s actions, then the teacher could turn a moment that might have been used to admonish the student into a teachable moment (i.e. explaining to the student how s/he is reading the student’s behavior and providing some alternatives so that the student doesn’t get “into trouble” in other classes.) Oftentimes I have found in my own experience and in my readings that a student’s attitude toward an institution (school) can eclipse his/her aptitude (learning) within the climate of the institution before instruction takes place. As educators, we need to be able to identify and improve a student’s affective filter so that they can achieve within the school’s environment (which is, unfortunately, modeled after the financial world as well…).

Another thing that Lareau does (in the same line as Bourdieu), is she makes it very clear that there are “costs and benefits” to both concerted cultivation and accomplishment of natural growth (the child rearing pattern of lower/working class households where there is an explicit discretion between adults and children. With accomplishment of natural growth, the child is allowed more of a “childhood,” rather than being thrown into a tight schedule of often rigorous activities.) She explicitly addresses her efforts to avoid and hopefully, prevent, deficit thinking among everyone, including educators.

I read this before the Alcotts and after. I must say, Bronson was certainly ahead of his time. I’m not sure he was to the point of getting inside his students’ habitus, but he did practice inclusion when he invited a Black girl to stay at the school… certainly a step in the right direction. If only everyone had the time, the energy, and Masonic Temple to devote to the education of a few as Bronson did. Boo, Horace Mann, the producer of a machine that dismisses socialization of any kind.

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