FAQs / Many children from poor families have managed to escape poverty because their parents emphasized education and studying hard. The approach advocated on this site is the complete opposite. How can you say it is better?

This question implies two things: that school is the key factor that has helped some people escape poverty, and that young people will “study and work hard” only when forced to by parents or teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The “successes” are the exceptions; the big numbers show that schools in general are not helping youth out of poverty, and in fact are reinforcing their belief that they are losers and must find some other path to “success”–such as dealing drugs. (Many educators view schools as Rube Goldberg machines for eradicating poverty but, like those machines, schools are over-engineered and unnecessary for the purpose.)

Studies have shown for decades that one¹s socio-economic status has a very strong effect on one’s schooling. Children in poor neighborhoods go to poor public schools; children in rich neighborhoods go to rich public schools, and there is very little crossover, despite attempts such as forced busing of the poor into rich schools. School creates and solidifies more class differences, in every sense of that phrase, than erases them. Ivan Illich wrote about this issue in the 1970s, yet we still ignore it: “Even if they attend equal schools and begin at the same age, poor children lack most of the educational opportunities which are casually available to the middle-class child. These advantages range from conversation and books in the home to vacation travel and different sense of oneself, and apply, for the child who enjoys them, both in and out of school. So the poorer student will generally fall behind so long as he depends on school for advancement or learning.”(From Illich¹s “Deschooling Society,” p. 14) He went on to argue that, rather than giving low-income people money in a form that must be applied to schools, it is better to give them money that they can use to learn what they want or need.

Others have voiced the same views over the years, and many of them are summed up in John Marsh’s book, “Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality.” In short, schools didn¹t create poverty and inequality, so giving poor people more school degrees, instead of more money and better environments to live and work in, will not raise them out of poverty.

When children from poor families do manage to rise above those economic circumstances, it is generally because one or more adults (whether from their immediate or extended families, or the broader community) supported various aspects of their development. (The form of the support matters. The classic “successful” Asian student who is pressured to be at the top of his or her class often pays a high personal price. Many such students are miserable, and there is a whole cadre of “school refusers” in Japan and China. The measure of “success” is also very one-dimensional, and even the Chinese educational establishment is doing an about-turn to remedy what such a system promotes.]

The second issue, that children won¹t learn unless forced by teachers or parents to do so, also doesn¹t hold up scrutiny. No one works harder than an infant who is trying to roll over for the first time, and no one is more dedicated to achieving a goal than the toddler who is figuring out how to walk and how to speak and be understood. And look at the effort spent in activities such as building a tree house, becoming a good skater, or constructing a sailboat, all at remarkably young ages.

When youths do not continue to expend such effort, it is usually because their energies have been drained by meaningless (to them) busy-work from which they have no escape. History‹including up to the present time is filled with stories of remarkable accomplishments made by young people who have had only the opportunity to pursue their interests. Often they are on their own to “beg, borrow and steal” the resources they need for their creations. What is important is that their drive to do so has been kept intact. For some, this may lead to serious academic study; for others, their success comes from their intuition, their knowledge of people, and their ability to read various situations and figure out how to achieve their goal. Even for those in school, look how often the class clown returns to the 10th reunion a successful businessman, and to the 20th, a millionaire! If that is your measure of success, there is proof of the power of self-motivation. For others, the self-directed path leads to other accomplishments and overall life satisfaction.

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