Saturday, May 26, 2007

Reflections On Education

It looks like I'm actually going to get to writing about a couple things I've been thinking about for a while. I'm glad I waited to write this post about blacks and education because I just read some posts and articles that are going to help me.

A little more than a week ago, I stumbled upon some blogs I hadn't seen before. Among them was Tariq Nelson where I saw a post about "Black boy culture," which links to an article that basically seems to say blacks devalue education because of the breakdown of black families and the rise of hip hop culture.

So many thoughts...ok...

Blacks not caring about education comes up a lot, and I used to be simpleminded enough to agree that blacks don't value education. What I say now are the following:

1) America doesn't value education. It's not just black people. Our nation allows people to become rich and famous without even a high school degree, and many of us worship and want to be like those people. I firmly believe that you shouldn't be able to "make it" in this country without education...but you can, and that's the problem. I think it only makes sense that this message would affect blacks more than others. Understand that the majority of our celebrities are white, and the majority of those people don't have a college degree and probably don't care about college. I hear white people put down education. There are white kids who skip school and don't want to attend college and don't go to college.

But, because they are white, that's okay. They can still receive opportunities, so their academic performance--or lack thereof--is no big deal. If white people are poor or criminals, no one is saying that's because they didn't receive an education, because whites don't value education or because the US doesn't value education. If a white person is middle class, rich or famous, no one is questioning their credentials or their valuation of education there, either. But if you're black and you start to realize as you grow up that even getting an education might not get you as far as a white person can go without one, you kind of ask yourself why borrow all that money, why spend all that time, doing something that may very well end up not being worth it. I know because I have started asking myself those questions. The difference between me and the blacks these kinds of discussions seem to be about is that those blacks, realizing the odds are against them, just won't even try.

2) One of the main problems with blacks and discussing issues affecting blacks is too many discussions seem to focus on black males. Blacks devalue education...proof is that black boys are XYZ--not attending college, not performing well on standardized tests, not graduating high school, are becoming entertainers, commit more crimes, black families are broken down, etc. Hmmmm...okay. Explain why black females don't have these same problems. I mean, as a race, our standardized test performance might be lower than everyone else's--black women included--but this doesn't really seem to be stopping black women from attending college and even graduate/professional school, making more money than black men and getting better jobs than black men. And we're not all becoming singers or video girls. Are black women and black men not raised in the same families? Okay, so this, to me, should be a sign that "devaluing education" is not the only--or even biggest--reason for black underachievement in life and black underperformance in regards to school, and neither is black families allegedly not emphasizing education or suffering a breakdown. If those were the major issues, then black females should be doing just as badly as black males.

3) There's all this focus on underperformance, pointing to academic indicators that are made by white people, predominantly white males. I'm sorry, but people from different cultures think differently just as men and women think differently (and women also lag slightly behind on standardized tests vs men, although, if i remember correctly, women make better grades). You can't have white males give tests to everybody and call them "standardized," one size fits all, end-all be-all measures of who is smarter, who is more prepared, who is more fit for XYZ school, etc. And thinking differently doesn't equate to smarter, just different. And I'm certain there's a class differential there, as all of these things are not coincidences. So, big deal if black people are behind on standardized tests. It has been past time for educators to come up with fair measures, and various background information needs to be taken into account.

The easiest way I know how to get across other issues I want to point out is to talk about my family. Now, I don't know for sure, but I get the sense that the majority of black people don't believe in borrowing money to attend college, attending the best school one possibly can or that parents are obligated to pay for college. I think these, if true, are key cultural differences. There are several others, but these are three that have played the biggest roles in determining my path, as well as many other blacks I've known of.

I remember the first girl I dated--she was Asian and lower-middle class or so, very close to being poor--was really on me about college. We had similar levels of ambitiousness, but she definitely worked harder than I did. At one point, I think I had told her what schools I was applying to, and she responded something along the lines that I should be applying to better schools. Now, the schools I applied to were, for the most part, prestigious, but they were more prestigious in the South while the most prestigious schools overall tend to be in the Northeast with a couple in California. But I'm from the South and because of how overprotective my parents have always been, leaving the South at age 18 was really not going to be an option. That was first of all. Second, the college I was to attend really wasn't going to be my choice--and already wasn't because of the regional aspect--because my parents had to approve of it financially. Needless to say, then, my parents didn't want me attending schools like Harvard or Yale, nor good Southern schools like Duke or Vanderbilt, because of what they cost.

Essentially, I explained this to this girl and she didn't believe me. In fact, she was certain I was lying or making excuses. What ended up happening with her, in contrast--even though my parents probably made nearly triple what her parents made in terms of money--was she got accepted to Cornell and Dartmouth and, no question, she was going to one of those schools, no matter what. She thought that all parents were like this, I guess--regardless of how much money you have, if a parent has the opportunity to send their child to an Ivy League school, they will. Unfortunately, that's not true...and for more reasons than just finances.

But finances is a big reason. I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned this directly, but all of my ambitions really seemed to be a burden to my family, mainly because of money. My talking about schools like Yale wasn't a joy...more like an "Oh, Lord..." And, at this point, I think it's key to mention that both of my parents are educators...both have taught at colleges, and my father still does. This is another reason why people expect my family to really be into education or where people think I got my academic achievement from. But it's not true. I wouldn't say education isn't important to them, but their philosophy is more "get an education" than "get the best education" and "attend college" than "attend the best college." Anything else is too expensive.

So they complained when I signed up for AP classes in high school, because they had to pay $75 per class in order for me to take the AP exams at the end of the school year. One was bad enough, but with as many AP classes as I took, it definitely was expensive. And then we had fight after fight about college because I wanted to attend schools like Duke and they didn't want me to. I can't tell you how many times my mother has said to me, "We don't owe you an Ivy-League education," which just sounds so demented to me because I think more like I imagine some whites and many Asians thinking about education. So, long story short there, I'm in a lot of debt for both undergraduate school and law school because I did go ahead and borrow money, did attend the best schools I could and they did not pay for college. My mother is paying my undergraduate loans back right now, but, believe me, both of my parents complain about that, too, even though I didn't ask them to do that. As far as the law school loans, I am pretty terrified that I'm not going to be able to pay those back, because--despite my law school's prestige--I am not at all confident that I'm going to have a job offer upon graduation, let alone a six-figure job offer like all the white law students will. That kind of fear is one reason many blacks are unwilling to borrow money in the first place.

As I mentioned, I know of several other blacks whose parents didn't pay for college. Nikki's parents didn't, which resulted in her turning down admission to Duke to attend a college that most people have never heard of because they offered her a scholarship. My brother-in-law paid his way through school, which also resulted in his attending a college that most people don't know of. My parents wanted me to take a scholarship to a state school that is known as a "party school"...which I didn't feel would exactly appeal to Harvard Medical School (which is what I was set on when I entered college).

And, as fate would have it, I ended up watching a talk show I have never seen before and saw this black female who came on the show to tell her mother that she is dropping out of college less than a year before graduating...because she can't afford it. And, naturally, her mother went off, even calling her daughter names and threatening to beat her. And then the girl said some things that completely hit home. Two in particular--1) she pointed out that her parents will not help her pay her college expenses at all but will buy themselves a brand new car, and 2) they won't help her, but will buy her little brother who is in high school a new car and give him the sun and moon all because he's an athlete whom they think he's going to get drafted. That was incredible to me, because that is almost exactly my story.

When I was a senior in high school arguing with my parents about the college I wanted to attend, they bought themselves a new SUV. And then when I pointed this out, they were just like, "But we need a new car" and completely didn't see anything wrong with this. And then again in my sophomore year of college, they bought another SUV. And I don't have a brother, but I always wanted one...until I realized how bad my life would have been if I'd had one. See, black families exalt black boys, give them everything they want and let them get away with murder. He doesn't have to be an athlete, even. I have a male cousin who was given everything and treated so much better by my parents whenever he was around...and now he has been in jail twice and is currently on house arrest for three years. I actually think this kind of behavior and sexism in black families is one of the biggest reasons why black females are doing so much better than black males, but that's a separate post for another time.

I think either right up there with money or more so than money, my parents own self-esteem issues got in the way. Both of my parents grew up poor. My father is more intellectual than my mother, but nobody in my family is like me intellectually. I don't know how to put that a better way. Because of the time period in which my parents grew up in (civil rights era, segregation), where they are from, the social class in which they grew up and their own intelligence level...I think my parents simply did not foresee having any children like me. My parents didn't save for college and never thought they'd have kids interested in advanced courses or Harvard Medical School. With some parents, their growing up with few opportunities makes them push their kids...but in other parents, it does the opposite. Why?

I think one reason might be some people get an understanding of what it takes to make more of themselves and some don't. My parents are in the latter category. They wouldn't have had the first idea how to get their kid into Harvard or medical school, but I put a lot of effort into finding these things out for myself. In fact, I was pretty obsessed with it. At each stage, that's what I did. And now that I'm almost finished with law school, I am crystal clear on the fact that the majority of blacks just...don't...know how to achieve because there's no one there to tell them. It's really hard. The processes I've undertaken have been hard, intricate, detailed, complex, time-consuming and very expensive. We all know that more black people than not simply don't have the money to get as far as I've gotten, and the lack of faith that it will all be worth it eliminates the idea to borrow money to get this far.

Being upper-middle class, at least for where I grew up, was the only thing really operating in my favor, and I was lucky enough to grow up in the age of the internet...otherwise, I really don't think I would be where I am right now. I was able to go online and research everything I needed to know about getting into college because we could afford computers and the internet before they started becoming as popular as they are...and very fortunate enough to be able to go online to college and law school message boards so that I could learn all the ins-and-outs that well-off white kids already knew. Another advantage, though, is social class was the only thing that ever made me feel the sense of entitlement I feel. Normally, entitlement is viewed as a bad thing. But if I hadn't felt entitled to the best education, I wouldn't be getting it because no one else in my family felt entitled to it or felt I was entitled to it. I feel entitled to the best of everything.

People who have the requisite resources take those things for granted and tend to think everyone has those things. I remember being irritated in college one time over the fact that everyone in one of my classes seemed to believe that everybody has a computer, and this was in 2000. It's 2007 and not everyone has a computer--I know people who don't, and I actually think they're all black. That means these are people who can't just sit down and look up everything they need to know about getting into the best college and the best law school like I was able to do. Could they talk to someone who has done it? Yes, but not everyone knows someone who has done it, and there's no guarantee that the people they do know who have done it will be all that helpful--I know this from personal experience, particularly when I was applying to law school. Could they go to a bookstore? Yes, but the costs of books add up--I know this from personal experience, particularly with buying books to prepare for applying to law school--and not everyone has money to spare on that when they have bills to pay and are barely getting by.

When I was applying to law school, the way the white applicants on message boards seemed to take everything about the process for granted really pissed me off. Applying to law school is ridiculously expensive. Ridiculously expensive. And especially if you do all the things white kids tell you are necessary, such as taking a $1300 prep course, buying copies of just about all the old LSAT exams that have been given, buying various LSAT prep books, buying various books about applying to law school...and then the costs of taking the LSAT, applying to law school, reserving a seat at a law school that accepts you, paying to apply for financial aid (yes, at some schools, you do this...some require you to fill out this form called NeedAccess that costs $15 per school you fill it out for) and so on. And prep courses are another key point, because prep course classes are expensive and tend to be filled with mainly white kids...hmmm, and we still have an achievement gap?!?! And now that I'm in law school, every time anyone talks about taking the Bar exam, they say something like, "You must take BarBri" (a prep course). "You need a prep course." A subset of white kids getting into prep courses whenever they are preparing for an exam is their parents getting them tutors whenever they are having problems in school...another option that is not going to be available to many blacks and other poorer individuals.

Now, the lack of mindset many black parents seem to have, in my observation, as far as being willing to help pay for college or help their kid apply for student loans (which, I know black kids whose parents didn't want them applying for loans and/or refused to help fill out financial aid forms), attending the best schools and so on...let's take that and connect it to affirmative action for a second. Most whites and Asians, and even many blacks, seem to think that affirmative action should be a different story when it comes to middle class blacks and up. I think that much of what I've written should begin to speak to why it shouldn't be a different story for us. A black kid like me who has black parents like mine without affirmative action, minority scholarships, etc, is only going to take steps backwards in the world, because this is a black kid who is not going to be able to attend the best schools, which will affect admissions to graduate/professional schools and job opportunities, which will affect salary, housing and social class. I know that my parents truly didn't know any better about a lot of things, even though I'm not sure they ever would have been willing to pay for me to attend Yale or Duke. But they now know that the reputation of the school you attend can be very essential, for example, and I think they know that this is most true for blacks.

I mean, the fact that Barack Obama attended Columbia undergrad, and especially the fact that he attend Harvard Law, is one of the main reasons why whites are so impressed with him and why they are so willing to embrace him. I truly get sick of hearing "Harvard Law" in connection with him, but it's an example of how much coming from an impressive school matters for a black person. The fact that it's mentioned so much to validate him makes me think that most people are thinking about his attending that school as a black man as just incredibly out of the ordinary and/or it means he must really be "a smart black person" if no other kind of black but a Harvard-educated one can be a really smart black person. But this is the thinking in America.

Another thing about middle class black parents, especially if they are around my parents' age--these are likely people who grew up with a lot less than their kids have. So, again, these are people who don't know anywhere near as much as their white counterparts about attempting to ensure that their kids get into the right courses, the right high school, the best college and so on...because my parents didn't know anything about that or why those kinds of things are so important. My parents have college and masters degrees, but they have them from very unimpressive schools that getting accepted to is almost a matter of simply applying and/or being from that state. They are teachers, not doctors or lawyers or businesspeople, at unimpressive colleges.

As far as the SUV thing, my parents, particularly my mother, are materialistic. The thing I've noticed is people who grew up poor tend to be materialistic and/or more free with money when they finally do get something out of life because they now have the opportunity to have things they couldn't have as they were growing up. My best friend in law school is even more idealistic than I am about social issues, but she's going into corporate law--why? Because she grew up poor and her family is still poor, and so she wants to have the money to get her family out of that, buy them a house, car and all that kind of stuff. I've observed this in celebrities, as well, because many of them grew up poor or working class. Their excessive spending is the result of suddenly having more money than they know what to do with. This is certainly not all people who did without while growing up, but a lot of those people felt insecure about it--maybe still do--and try to make up for it.

My mother likes to have nice things, and she likes to appear to have more than she does. The last thing she's for is saving money, and I do think she has always had a tendency to sometimes put being able to have things she wants before things my sisters and I needed by rationalizing that we didn't need them. And they truly were necessities, like visits to the doctor, braces, treatment for my sister's scoliosis, etc, as well as a really good college. I think a lot of black families do this, and I know from listening to black comedians that my parents aren't the only ones who complain about expensive necessities for their kids or other things that would be extremely beneficial for their kids such as AP courses and college. And I do think parents of other races differ from blacks in this way, but I wouldn't say this is all about blacks not valuing education.

I don't want to talk about blacks and "hip hop culture" in this post. I'm tired of the discussions about hip hop. Undeniably, hip hop is influential, but black boys aren't the only people who listen to hip hop. Clearly, no one else turns out like black boys allegedly do because of hip hop, and I listened to hip hop some growing up, as well. What I do want to end with is this: I do believe parents are supposed to pay for college. Whatever college the kid chooses, that's what you pay for. If you can't pay for it, you get the loan or co-sign a loan. If you don't want to have to whine about your 30-yr old still living at home with you or borrowing money from you or not being able to keep a job, or your teenager running around getting pregnant/getting people pregnant and dumping the kids on you...send that kid to college! If after all that the kid can't get anywhere and has truly done everything he/she can, then you can really start blaming our racist society. I believe that parents are supposed to be putting money away for college from day one, or even when they first start anticipating that they will have kids. I understand why this is not a possibility for some parents, and I understand why this is not something parents who grew up with nothing would want to do. I understand wanting to treat yourself when you have the resources if you never had them before.

But in my theoretical opinion, since I will never have kids, I would be finding a way to set money aside and would anticipate that my kid would shoot for Harvard. If my kid decided that's not the kind of school he/she wants to attend, I'd be upset...but they'd at least have the money to attend any college since Harvard is among the most expensive colleges. Either way, I don't believe in throwing your kid, especially a black kid, out there to sink or swim. Enough decks are stacked against a black person as it is. So, I would treat all my kids as if college is a given, and I would be up on every step that needed to be taken along the way for that kid to get into the best school. Everyone in my family is excited about how intelligent my sister's kids are, but that's not going to mean anything in 10 years if my sister doesn't start figuring out how to pay for their college education...which she's not doing.

Unfortunately, middle class blacks are middle class because they spend so much time caught up with getting by day to day. It's not like they live in excess, can have one parent work and the other stay at home with the kids helping them with academics and learning all they can about college prep like so many white families do, and so on. They don't have the time--it's work, dinner and then bed for a lot of black parents with little time for anything more. So, why are we expected to be so advantaged and to know all the things white and Asian kids know? I know black parents simply don't have the time and money for the kinds of things white families do. As a teenager, I had the free time that my parents didn't, and I was unusually ambitious. So, I did the work that white and Asian parents normally do, the kind of work that is expected of black parents, as well. I did it, not my parents. They didn't help, and, in many ways, they couldn't help. I dragged myself to where I am...not my social class, not who I know, not my gender and certainly not my race. And I'm not going to be one of those "I did it; you can do it, too" kind of blacks who refuse to pass down "the secret" to others who need it, because, as hard as this all has been, it's enough to make someone give up.

I must say, though...given that race and other factors matter so much in our society or can result in success without education for some but education without success for others...I'm not sure blacks devalue or undervalue education any more than it deserves to be. Think about it. Either way, any discussion concerning the state of black America is far more complex than simply blaming black attitudes about education.