Category Archives: Culture and Society

The Subliminal Curriculum – Beautification

A well-meaning pre-school teacher decided her class would make headdresses as a project for Thanksgiving. She cut headbands and lots of colorful feathers from construction paper, showed the children how to glue the feathers to the headband, and then stapled the finished bands to fit their heads. Perfect!

Undoubtedly the pre-schoolers were not aware of the project’s hidden lessons—its subliminal curriculum—nor perhaps was the teacher. Subliminal curricula are not openly intended. But, in addition to perpetuating a stereotypical image of Native Americans, the project suggested that there is one right way to make a headdress and that pre-schoolers cannot choose colors nor draw feathers, much less be entrusted with scissors or staplers. Perhaps gluing was the only age-appropriate and safe skill for a class of three-year-olds. My point is that this project is an example of the subliminal curriculum.

I saw a far more devastating example of the subliminal curriculum at Trenton Central High School when our new principal decided to beautify the entrance hall so that visitors on their way to the main office would be impressed. She placed potted plants on the window sills, installed colorful doormats that read “Working Towards a Future,” and mandated that no student be seen near the main office. A security guard was placed at the junction of the main building and each of its wings. All day long they directed students to go around through the back of the building to get to the opposite wing or to the cafeteria, even though the shortest route was straight across. Because the lunch schedule for each small learning community differed, students on their way to the cafeteria, happily babbling with each other after hours of study, had to walk by classrooms where lessons were in progress. If the students from each wing had been allowed to use the central hall to reach stairs leading to the cafeteria, they would not have had to pass any classrooms, just offices and lounges.

Trenton High’s entrance hall, with its high ceiling, columns, and chandelier, was already beautiful. The plants were a lovely addition. Although the message on the doormats seemed ambiguous to me, I found the message to students clear: you’re not good enough to be seen in your own school. I doubt, however, that students got that message. There was no organized protest against the avoid-the-main-hall rule. A few kids even enjoyed trying to sneak past security into the forbidden zone. I wonder what impression the bellowed “Get back here” made on visitors.

Another hidden lesson was that making the school look good was more important than creating a quiet learning environment. And, of course, the beautification was not intended to be enjoyed by students.

At Trenton High, students and learning often came second to looking good to outsiders. The principal was praised widely in the press for her collaboration with Xerox to acquire the duplicating facility that I wrote about in my blog on vocational education. We on the inside knew how few students it trained. But I was grateful for the Xerox employee who worked there; my duplicating problems were solved.

I have other examples of the subliminal curriculum, but readers will have to wait a few weeks while I take a vacation.

Vocational Education – A Worthwhile Alternative?

Tracey Syphex, ex-offender, is now vice-president of Phax Group Construction and Design, LLC; managing partner with Phax Group LLC, a real estate development company; and the 2011 Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year. He was a panelist at the Princeton Area Community Democratic Organization’s recent discussion “Trenton From the Grassroots.” He credited his turn-around to having learned a trade at the Mercer County Vocational Technical School.

Until the late 1990’s, Trenton High had its own vocational school, taught by professionals in their fields. Students spent three periods daily, for two to three years, learning commercial foods, auto body, auto mechanics, cosmetology, masonry, and a host of other trades. When I first started teaching there in 1981, I could bring in my dry cleaning, get my hair cut, have my lawn mower tuned, and get my car un-dented and repainted. My job was to help my special education students read and understand vocational vocabulary. In the process I became versed in unibody auto construction and the diseases of fingernails. One of my students learned welding and moved to Texas as a skilled worker. Nursing students earned certification. Trenton’s vocational program was impressive.

But the vocational school began to decline as state-wide testing increased. Students who didn’t pass the Minimum Basic Skills test were required to take remedial classes, and suddenly there was no room in their schedules for a three-period vocational course. Over time, vocational classes became filled predominately with special education students because they were not required to pass the state tests. Some vocational teachers chafed that they had not been trained to handle so many special ed kids.

In the school year1999-2000, the vocational school was closed, and much of its equipment disappeared. Rumor had it that the Mercer County freeholders had pressured Trenton to close its vocational school because it competed with the county vo-tech schools. Under a new superintendent, Trenton High was reconfigured into small learning communities (SLCs), all of which were intended to lead to a career but few of which offered hands-on experiences, and those only to seniors. The vocational building itself was divided into standard classrooms; only the shop housing cosmetology was spared. The Medical Arts SLC took in the vocational school’s nursing and cosmetology programs. Business and Computer Technology absorbed the former business courses and opened a huge duplicating room under the sponsorship of Xerox. A few students worked there each period, supervised by a Xerox employee. Applied Engineering offered computer-assisted design, but SLC’s like Law and Justice and Fine and Performing Arts offered no trade.

I myself joined the Medical Arts SLC but was never assigned to help students with vocational vocabulary. Medical Arts sent its seniors across the street to Saint Francis Hospital, where they learned various skills from the hospital staff. For two years, the nursing program continued at the hospital, but then it was decided that the student/teacher ratio was too costly and the program was discontinued. The nursing teacher retired in disgust. Of course it was costly; kids got certified! By 2006, Medical Arts had been moved to a building far from Saint Francis. No Child Left Behind forced everyone to concentrate on those high-stakes tests.

Do we need vocational education? Tracey Syphex was saved by his trade. Now he hires and trains felons who’ve been released from prison. Recently, the PBS Newshour’s “American Graduate” series has showcased the benefits of hands-on learning and internships. Businesses cry out that they need skilled workers. Vocational education—half a day with a professional—is costly, but so is prison and so are social programs to support the unemployed.

With Liberty and Justice for All

As we celebrate Independence Day, I think about the state of our country. I remember one of my black colleagues reciting the Pledge of Allegiance along with the class. At the phrase “with liberty and justice for all,” her lips would tighten into a grim line. She would not affirm what, for her, was a lie.

The United States has not yet recovered from its racist history, but another injustice looms, threatening white and black people alike. Billions of dollars in the hands of a few wealthy men and corporations have the power to undermine our democracy, skew elections, and influence elected officials. Voting rights have recently come under attack—lest the majority rule?

On this July 4th, it’s time for Americans to come together to fight for independence from the 1%.

Ban the Box

Cornell William Brooks, Esq., recently selected to be President and CEO of the NAACP, and currently President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, spoke at a League of Women Voters’ meeting on the topic “The Beloved Community Behind Bars: A Dream Deferred.” Much of his focus was on the “Ban the Box” movement.  Because having a criminal record, for even the smallest offense, severely impacts the chances for employment, Mr. Brooks supports banning the “box,” the question on job applications that asks “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”

To help his audience gain perspective about criminal records, Mr. Brooks asked us to picture two old, sepia mugshots—one of an eager, self-possessed young black man, the other of an older, dignified black woman—each with a number stamped under the photo. The mugshots had been found in a dusty file cabinet in Montgomery, Alabama. I think most of us guessed correctly: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks, American icons with criminal records that few of us knew about. But, Mr. Brooks pointed out, in today’s world, criminal records are digital, are saved on disk, and can be sent anywhere.

One out of three young people in America is arrested, and 65 million Americans have criminal records, often as a result of arrests after being stopped and frisked or for mischief (the kinds of risky things even League members might have done in their sorority days). Joel, a high school senior driving to an interview at Yale, accidentally bumped into a parked car. He was late and didn’t stop to leave his name and insurance information. A day after his Yale interview, he was picked up for hit-and-run. Fortunately, the owner of the dented car was a teacher and, hearing Joel’s story, refused to press charges because she knew a criminal record might jeopardize his acceptance at Yale.

Another example of the absurdity behind some criminal records is the story Mr. Brooks told about a sixty-year-old construction worker who came to the Institute for Social Justice for help. Forty years before, he’d been convicted of possessing five Valium pills that had not been prescribed for him. (Mr. Brooks asked whether League members had ever borrowed medicine from a family member, then quickly added, to laughter, “Don’t raise your hands.”) The resulting criminal record meant either that the construction worker would be fired or that his employer would lose a contract with the state. The only solution was a pardon. The Institute gathered testimony from experts that the worker, after all these years, did not pose a threat, and Governor Chistie pardoned him. To cap his argument, Mr. Brooks pointed out that Barak Obama had admitted in his autobiography to using marijuana, and George W. Bush, in his autobiography, to driving under the influence—yet the American people elected them to the presidency.

A record of incarceration deprives an individual of about $100,000 in income during his prime years. Having 2.4 million people behind bars exerts a $65 billion drag on the economy each year. Besides these economic impacts, are the moral challenges as well: self-esteem, the ability to provide child support, etc. There are also racial implications: for a white male, having a criminal record reduces his chances of being employed by 50%—for a black male, the reduction is 67%. (And even a white male with a record has a better chance at employment than a black male without one.)

For Mr. Brooks, the solution is the Opportunity to Compete Act, which takes the same position regarding hiring as does the U.S. Government and Walmart, the nation’s biggest employer. Under the act, employers would first make an offer and then run a background check for a criminal record. If a record is found and the offer is withdrawn, the prospective employee would have ten days to dispute the record or provide additional information for consideration, such as evidence of rehabilitation. The employer would not have to hire the person but would, if the position has not already been filled, have to explain in writing to the person why the offer is still withdrawn.

I’m with Mr. Brooks, and I hope my readers are too. We need to show the New Jersey Legislature that we support this act. As Mr. Brooks’s examples show, it’s not hard to get a criminal record, especially if you’re black. How many of us hold our jobs because we’re lucky not to have been caught or are privileged enough to afford a lawyer to get us off? Banning the box doesn’t guarantee employment, but it increases the chances that people will be seen for who they are now, not for how their history has marked them.

The Language of Responsibility

I’ve always been fascinated by the language we use to describe falling. With little kids, we say “Susie fell.” But for an elderly person, we say “Grandma had a fall.” That passiveness—as if Grandma were a victim of gravity— is akin to “accidents happen.” Maybe I’m a control freak, but I don’t much believe in accidents.

Recently I asked whether a young man who’d damaged his grandmother’s car in a rear-end collision felt embarrassed. Oh no, I was told. It was a rainy night, and the woman in front of him stopped short. So much for responsibility! But wouldn’t the young man gain a greater sense of control, of pride in his potential power, if he acknowledged that he hadn’t kept a safe following distance?

I worry about a little boy who leaves a trail of broken toys and bruised buddies as he zooms through his play—all “by accident” and thus forgiven. I explain that although his intention is to do no harm, some forethought about cause and effect is needed. I tell him about a kid whose playmate swung him around near a flagpole. The resulting concussion necessitated weeks of missed school and left him too dizzy even to watch TV. The little boy’s eyes grow wide, but I’m afraid he still wouldn’t notice a flagpole.

Years ago at Trenton High, a young man who usually loved science came in, put his head on his desk, and hid his face in his arms. I went over, bent down, and realized he was crying. Two members of his family had been seriously injured the previous snowy night when the car in front had skidded on a patch of ice and they had been unable to avoid a collision. “I should have driven them home,” my student sobbed.

You? I tried to console him. “It’s not your fault. What could you have done?”

He looked up, still berating himself. “I race stock cars. I know how to swerve to avoid collisions.” So much for what I knew about my students, but what a sense of responsibility! He believed that, given the weather, he should have anticipated issues with icy patches and volunteered to drive. Too much forethought?

When is an “accident” an accident, and what is the impact of the language we choose? I don’t have the answers, but the question seems useful.

I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?

Missing my Black Neighbors

I’d be more optimistic about achieving a post-racial society if some of my neighbors were black. Recently I visited a town in rural New Jersey. A white couple lives across the street from a black friend of mine, who has just returned from the hospital. The couple promised they’d drop over daily to help her out. Down the street three young black men pulled into their driveway, next door to a white guy mowing his lawn. An integrated community with at least one neighborly neighbor! Do they even bother to notice black and white?

In Princeton, some of us constantly notice black and white because we’re worried. As the value of land increases, along with taxes, black people whose families have resided in Princeton since its early days may be forced to leave. We say that we want to keep Princeton’s diversity, but it’s not certain that, even with white and black citizens working together, we can overcome the pressures of the free market on this ever-more upscale town.

I used to have black neighbors: a mixed couple down the block and the family next door (though for more than a year I didn’t recognize that they were African-American). I might have guessed when we were told upon moving in, “You’ll like the Phelans. They’re good neighbors.” Why else single out a specific neighbor? Eventually, when I knocked on their door bearing Christmas cookies and was welcomed into a house filled with colorful masks and carved wooden statues of African women, I found out. (The Phelans were very light-skinned and very private, so my ignorance is understandable.) What started out as neighborly assistance during snow storms and hurricanes became invitations to dinner and, once, an excursion together to New York for a special art exhibit. We didn’t often talk about race, but we could. Judy Phelan and I hated wastefulness. When her mother died, I gave her my mother’s urn for her mother’s ashes. We laughed about how shocked my mother would have been to share her urn with a black person.

Am I saying I want black neighbors just because they’re black? Actually, I am. Neighborhoods are defined by socio-economic similarities, so on my street, poor blacks would be excluded. But it would be reassuring to know that some black people can afford to live here. Neighbors, unlike the black and white friends we make at work who, like us, are scientists and teachers, offer insight into other fields and sometimes different perspectives. Having been raised to look down on anyone who was not a WASP, I learned a ton from my Italian, Catholic neighbor in Illinois, who was married to a butcher and had five children. Thanks to her tolerance of me, I discovered my own intolerance and overcame it. We are friends to this day.

Any person’s story can be fascinating, but every black person’s story is an education for me—not that I want to discuss race all the time. Besides, after working at Trenton High for so many years, I miss black faces. And maybe then I could stop noticing black and white.

Asians Are Smarter

For years I’ve heard that Asians are smarter than Americans. Each time, I’ve envisioned hordes of Chinese people peering down disdainfully at stupid me. I’ve cowered, embarrassed and fearful: are they really smarter than me? It wasn’t until I wrote my post “The Most Dangerous Pronoun” that I realized I’d fallen into the collective noun or “they” trap.

Acknowledging that Einstein, Chomsky, Clinton (Bill and Hillary), and thousands of other individuals are smarter than I am has never bothered me. And I acknowledge, unconsciously and happily, the intellectual superiority of Chinese friends. It’s the vision of hordes who are ethnically different from me that’s intimidating. I, a Caucasian, stand no chance. Perhaps that’s what black people feel when reading negative comments and dismal statistics about their race.

But wait, we are individuals. We fit into a spectrum of ability that has nothing to do with ethnicity. We can strive to fit in wherever we choose. I was reassured recently by an article in The Princeton Packet about Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” who spoke at Princeton University about her latest book, The Triple Package, written with her husband. They began by identifying overachieving groups in America today, which include Nigerian-Americans, Jews, Mormons, and Chinese-Americans among others. They found that the groups share three qualities: self-discipline, insecurity, and a superiority complex or sense of one’s exceptionality. According to Chua, feeling simultaneously superior and insecure produces drive. She noted that the three qualities are not exclusive to any one ethnicity or group.

Can any child learn to achieve? As a teacher, I believe so—though how to instill insecurity is a mystery. At Trenton High, students came with insecurity; my job was to elicit and prove their exceptionalism, and that took long enough. But, if I succeeded in convincing them of their worth, self-discipline usually followed. Some of my students achieved.

Certainly I was raised to believe myself superior to others. Mother told me I was an aristocrat and boasted about me to her friends, but she never warned me not to boast. My braggadocio alienated everyone around me. Without friends I became insecure, aware of my effect on others, and eager to please. People now tell me that I’m driven. I believe I have achieved.

Are Asians smarter? I opt for a more useful wording of the question: do American schools instill in students whatever qualities they need in order to succeed? Answering that question is hard enough and will yield more valuable results.

 

 

Voting Rights and Politics

      Why, in New Jersey, is the right to vote denied to people with felony convictions while they are on parole or probation? It’s politics, right? The ACLU notes, “New Jersey is home to some 80,000 citizens – most of them African American or Latino – who live and work in our state but cannot vote because they are on parole or probation.” So, I reason, since minorities tend to vote Democratic, it must be Republicans who’ve put this law on the books.

      I decided to look at the history, certain that the law was recentsay sometime around the War on Drugs. I found a thorough, overwhelmingly footnoted, 2004 article by George Brooks in the Fordham Urban Law Journal.  To my astonishment, I learned that felon disenfranchisement was written into New Jersey’s constitution in1844 and rested on John Locke’s concept, “that those who break the social contract should not be allowed to participate in the process of making society’s rules.”

     The law had not been designed to suppress the black vote. Blacks didn’t have the vote in1844. This law appears in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, where the states cannot abridge the right to vote except for participation in rebellion, or other crime. Brooks notes that “despite facing judicial scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s and 70s, felon disenfranchisement laws were almost always found to be constitutional.” (Brooks, 110)

       Even though, during the War on Drugs, disproportionately more blacks than whites have been stopped, arrested, and convicted for drug-related crimes, this has nothing to do with the disenfranchisement law. Any discrimination is the responsibility of the criminal justice system, not the law. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow points out, it is the intent to discriminate that must be proven in court. Statistical evidence means nothing.

       How can I convince my state legislators to pass a bill allowing parolees and probationers to vote, as they can in Pennsylvania? My own legislators, all Republicans, would have more to lose than to gain. Yet I cannot argue that the law is based on politics.

Maybe I should point out that the effect of changing the law will be minimal. After all, only half of Americans who can vote, do.

I could just admit that I’m a bleeding-heart liberal. I am excusing 80,000 citizens—most of them African American or Latino—who shouldn’t have broken the social contract in the first place. Or is there an excuse? Although I find John Locke’s premise compelling in the abstract (good is good and bad is bad; obey the rules), “the social contract” is troubling. The CEO of McDonald’s will find it easier to obey “Thou shalt not steal” than his employee, who must support a family on minimum wage. The social contract allows the already rich and powerful to determine who gets the profits—and, especially after Citizens United, even to determine who writes the contract. Maybe that’s a reason to consider restoring voting rights not only to parolees and probationers but also to those felons still in prison.

The Power of Voting

“I don’t know who to vote for.”

“I don’t like any of the candidates.”

“My vote won’t count.”

These excuses were familiar to me, but, whenever I staged mock elections in November at Trenton High, I heard another one. “I don’t vote. I don’t want to give up my power.”

That voting meant giving up one’s power made no sense to me. Wasn’t America founded on the power of the vote? For years, when at least one student invariably gave this excuse, I struggled to understand. Occasionally, a small voice asked, “Do you think there will ever be a black president?” Finally, I developed a theory: some black people are so resentful of our racist history that they boycott the white man’s system of government.

The first time I heard “I don’t want to give up my power,” I consulted a black colleague. She was surprisedand angry. She came to my class and lectured the student about the sacrifices of black Americans who’d struggled for the right to vote. Had Martin Luther King, Jr. given his life in vain?

When our problem child remained adamant, my colleague and I worked out a skit to illustrate that issues important to black people were being decided without their voice. I played the bad white guy, voting for “laws” that repressed black folk. She used her vote to counter mine. Still, the child balked. Issues meant nothing. Finally, we resorted to a basketball analogy: to vote is to shoot for a basket. You might not make it, but it’s worth a try. If you don’t shoot, the other team’s sure to win. The student would give in to shut us up, but we knew he wasn’t convinced. That’s why I was thrilled when Obama was elected. A black president might help mend the wounded egos and restore faith in the system.

As a member of the League of Women Voters, I believe in voting. Votes do count. Perhaps my candidate won’t win, but he or she has a better chance with my vote than without it. Even a shoo-in candidate can lose if supporters don’t bother to vote. To those who don’t know whom to vote for, I offer the League’s voters’ guides and debates and suggest checking the voting records of incumbents and the platforms of all. Voting is our responsibilityeven if it’s choosing the lesser of two evils.