On “American” students

18 Nov

“Sometimes you see your own country more sharply from a distance. That’s how I felt as I dropped in on a shack in this remote area of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/opinion/kristof-girls-just-want-to-go-to-school.html).

So begins Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece “Girls Just Want to Go to School” in The New York Times earlier this month. Kristof goes on to describe the academic commitment of Ngoc Phung, a “malnourished 14-year-old girl” who acts as the head of her household during the week while her father is in the city working to pay off debts the family incurred when Phung’s mother was dying of cancer. Phung gets up at 3am to take care of her siblings and study before they all make the 90 min-bicycle trip to school.

Kristof’s point? Phung is one extraordinarily committed and hard-working child, struggling against the overwhelming odds of poverty, remote geography, limited academic resources and sexism to get her education.

No argument there. But I do have a bone to pick with how Kristof chooses to make his point. As if Phung’s story on its own does not illustrate clearly enough her commitment to her education, Kristof chooses a foil–or rather, 75 million of them–to underscore her determination. He laments, “I wish we Americans could absorb a dollop of Phung’s reverence for education.” From there, the generalizations start to snowball, as he writes, “Granted, Asian schools don’t nurture creativity, and Vietnamese girls are sometimes treated as second-class citizens who must drop out of school to help at home. But education is generally a top priority in East Asia, for everyone from presidents to peasants.”

The implication that education is not a top priority for us “Americans” (I’ll say “US American” from now on) bothers me because it is a gross generalization that does a tremendous disservice to hard-working US American students who meet their own crushing odds of poverty, lack of resources, hunger and -isms aplenty by getting up every day and going to school–and then some.

Take, for example, the children who participate in Breakthrough San Francisco’s academic enrichment program for students with limited educational opportunities: these 4th-12th graders make an 8 year commitment, including 6 weeks of full-time school each summer (including 2 hrs of homework each night), and 2 hrs of afterschool tutoring and enrichment twice weekly during the school year. That’s a total of roughly 2300 hours of learning above and beyond the regular school year. And that’s a non-negotiable time commitment: students who miss more than 3 days of summer school lose their spot in the program. Breakthrough’s message to its students? “You can be really, really smart, but in the end, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put in the effort,” says Jenee Woo Scott, Director of Student Support.

Across the US, students make similar commitments to their education through programs like Breakthrough, SMART, Citizen Schools… and that’s just the students who are formally enrolled in academic support programs. Countless other children invest time quietly and without recognition. (While that is an unsubstantiated generalization, I think Kristof owes me that much.) So this is all to say that, in fact, some of us US Americans do have a dollop (and more) of reverence for education.

Now let me be clear: I don’t mean to diminish the magnitude of Phung’s or other children’s struggles and challenges. Let’s not turn this into the Oppression Olympics, where the most oppressed kid gets the gold medal of our admiration, and everyone else gets a “nice try” runner-up consolation. My point is simply that nationality doesn’t define your attitude, your work ethic or even your opportunity: with 22% of all US American children living in poverty in 2010 (according to the Census Bureau), I wonder for how many of those children attending university is the “almost impossible dream” that Kristof rues it is for Phung.

Of course, we all know that you can’t just generalize a whole nation, right? Why make such an obvious point?

Because we insist on doing it. It’s fashionable and even applauded in some US intellectual circles to decry “American” values, and hold up the exotic Other as a noble alternative to our materialism, greed, laziness or flat-out moral inferiority. We gild Asians, Africans, and anyone who lives in poverty (outside our borders) in a sheen of righteousness, marveling at their joyful persistence in the  face of adversity.

All this smacks of a bit of paternalism, if you ask me. While we are seemingly complimenting these groups (assigning them “positive” stereotypes, if you will), it’s still dehumanizing. It still casts people as caricatures, and not folks just like ourselves, who can aspire, who can choose to skate by, who transcend limitations and who sometimes succumb to them. 

Perhaps most problematic is that when we place anyone or any group up on a pedestal, we set them up for inevitable failure. And when they fail, it is somehow all the more offensive to us: because we think Phung is so pure and good, when she gets pregnant before she finishes high school, we shake our heads with that much more disappointment, regretting ever having wasted our money on donations to support Vietnamese girls’ education. (Note: that example is hypothetical. To my knowledge, Phung is not pregnant.)

But just as Kristof’s piece–with all its hyperbolic generalizations–is less about Phung than it is about educational inequity on an international scale, my sense of unease is less about his paternalistic attitude than it is about a tendency toward qualified compassion. It’s a tricky, flawed and ultimately unfair strategy to pin compassion, generosity and activism on the unassailable merit of the recipient. Poverty is poverty. Lack of educational opportunity is lack of educational opportunity. Those issues should inherently motivate us to act for social justice. We shouldn’t only do it because it impacts a child who is cute, noble or marketable.

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