Thursday, June 7, 2012

Causes Can Have More Than One Effect

Before the night is over here, I want to make an additional comment on the same Morning Edition segment that I posted about earlier.  Thinking back on it, I realize that while my incredulousness about the use of Death of a Salesman to illustrate the concept of the American dream was well worth emphasizing, I missed the opportunity to remark on another, possibly more significant aspect of the story.

The subject of the story and its authors all make terrible assumptions about the American dream, but they make equally terrible and even more common assumptions about education as the pathway to it.  They pretend at compassionate liberalism but are seemingly guilty of very subtle acts of blaming the victim.  After outlining Juan Carlos Reyes’ triumphal narrative, they emphasize the fact that he is aware of the fact that the vast majority of people from his neighborhood didn’t make it out, and that he wonders why.

The story goes on to quote Jim Cullen, the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, as saying “A college degree has become, in effect, the lottery ticket of American life.”  I very much agree with that remark as it appears on the surface, but apparently in context it was meant to refer not to the value of the degree itself but the likelihood of obtaining one in the first place if you come from a challenging background.  Everyone involved in presenting his story looks at Reyes and makes the same mistake of confusing correlation and causality that I see at every turn in topics of education and employment.

As it’s presented by NPR, it was the act of getting a college degree that turned Reyes’ life around; nothing else.  Yet the actual story that’s presented of him, if one pays attention to it, focuses on the interventions of a committed high school teacher who pushed Reyes to pursue and achieve more, and who took an active interest in Reyes’ future.

It may be presumptuous, but I feel confident in assuming that she wasn’t the only presence in his life that offered encouragement, advice, and more importantly, support and assistance.  It seems to me that it’s an exceptional mistake to say that this man was destined for nothing until he got a college degree, at which point his future opened up wide for him.  It seems like a mistake in light of the fact that Morning Edition and Reyes himself wonder aloud about what it could be that differentiates him from other people who came from his beginnings but didn’t dream big, didn’t go to Baruch College, didn’t become a senior manager in the Office of the President at Columbia Teacher’s College.

It’s as though the program comes right to the brink of asking the right question but then falls back on the assumption that there must be something wrong with all the Hispanic kids who didn’t make it, even if it isn’t their own fault.  Morning Edition entertains the notion that there’s some specific set of tools that lead a disadvantaged youth to college, but it oddly fails to consider whether those tools are important beyond simply compelling a student into higher education.

If there are certain circumstances that contribute to a person like Reyes going to college, isn’t it just possible that those circumstances, and not merely the presence of a college degree, contribute to such a person’s success?  Maybe for some impoverished youths, the lack of a social support structure and connections within the middle class does more to limit their prospects than the lack of an education.  Conversely, maybe a person who pursued higher education but lacked any external influences that ranged beyond their impoverished background wouldn’t get as far as Reyes, who had at least one experienced and well-connected teacher actively supporting his trajectory in life.

Morning Edition further quotes Jim Cullen as saying that some would look at Reyes’ story as proof that the system works while others would see the fact that he is only an exception as proof that there is something seriously wrong with that system.  For my part, I would take it as further evidence that we are aggressively focused on entirely the wrong system in trying to explain the source of economic opportunity.  Yet the possibility that status and social influence might have something to do with economic outcomes seems as obvious to me as the fact that Death of a Salesman is not a happy story.

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