The theme of this year’s ASA conference was “Hard Times,” specifically, the brutal inequalities that have resulted from the restructuring of power and economy in America. Many Americans have been feeling the pinch of hard times for a generation, and yet most people still think of the economy on purely personal terms–how does it affect me directly? — and still manage to maintain a sort of removed superficial acquaintance with the plight of those living at the lowest end of the economic spectrum.
If I am to propose that part of the problem is indifference to the plight of others, what makes us so removed from such an important issue? Granted, I am writing only about one thread in a tapestry of causes, but as a writer I have seen how my industry is part of the problem. This makes me alternatively defensive, ashamed, and angry. Schools and the educational market in general are pretty adept at sanitizing and minimizing those differences between students. I have a colleague who does a great deal of writing for children, including passages and questions for standardized testing. He showed me a long list of taboo topics when writing those short paragraphs that end up in those standardized tests. The list included anything that even smelled of disadvantage, joblessness, poverty, hunger, or homelessness. The same is true in most types of writing for kids that he does, including series books and magazine articles. Things must be clean, sanitized, politically correct…Dick and Jane never go to the soup kitchen or the food pantry so that they can eat. Kids read about a world that is presented as if they are enclosed in a glass bubble, only glimpsing the economically disadvantaged (even that is a euphemism…try “poor”) from a safe, insulated distance, like seeing dangerous animals in the zoo.
So is it any wonder that so many adults who are also products of this protective cocoon often have no real perception of the inequalities that result from money? The homeless man curled up on a city street, the woman asking for handouts outside a restaurant… these are things that many Americans are uncomfortable with and swerve away from, avoiding eye contact and quickening their pace. But many Americans are only one pink slip or one illness away from being in the same situation.
Should we take kids on field trips to the worst parts of our most economically deprived cities? Many parents would be up in arms about this, and yes, it depends on circumstances. But is it really so taboo for our children to feel how important Johnson’s vision of the “Great Society” was to making America strong? Is it really so un-American to feel compassion for Americans in need? Are we so afraid to entrust our children with the goal of achieving America’s core value of equal opportunity for all?
Perhaps it is clear from this blog that learning is a multifaceted existential experience, which is being lost in our profit-driven world of publishing. At the end of the day, it is not about what is best for our children, but what educational market will buy, which sadly is often driven by a consumer mentality rather than a love of learning or a desire to provide kids the best, most morally and intellectually rich education possible. Texas is one of the largest markets for educational publishers of textbooks and library series books, given their sheer size and population numbers. In an industry already suffering and often struggling for survival, it’s not hard to justify catering to this lucrative market. It’s not greed that drives these publishers, but necessity, the need to accommodate the consumer whose preferences result in high demand and textbook adoption dollars. However, the need to ground our kids in the realities of their society is a moral imperative. Somewhere between curriculum standards, testing, library books, and the vast variety of classes and sports and activities that modern children are engaged in, there must be a way to simply encourage kids towards a lifetime of caring about each other.