Thursday, October 15, 2009

who you calling 'we'?

In general, I like Nicholas Kristof's work for the New York Times, and I basically agree with his argument in today's Times that when it comes to education reform, Democrats are too easily cowed by powerful teaching unions and too willing to let underprivileged kids languish in impoverished learning environments.

I only take issue with the implications hidden in Kristof's analysis of why this is so often the case, midway through the column:

as long as the students in question are impoverished and marginalized, with uncomplaining parents, they are allowed to endure the kind of teachers and schools that we would never tolerate for our own kids.

Who's the "we" Kristof is talking about here? The suggestion appears to be that the Democratic Party is made up of those whose children are not forced to endure despicable learning conditions. It's a double fallacy, since even the children of the affluent are too often ill-prepared for doing anything other than school and--more importantly--not all Democrats look, act, and believe like Nicholas Kristof does.

This is, in fact, an all-too common double-silencing effect: As Kristof points out, underprivileged kids and their parents are forced to put up with underqualified teachers and subpar learning conditions, without much recourse or say in the matter. And then, to add insult to injury, education writers like Kristof build a "we vs. they" approach: "we" would never tolerate the kind of teachers and schools that "they" have to put up with.

It's not accurate, and it's not right, and it's certainly not fair, to imply that the most significant, vocal, or powerful Democrats, on education or other issues, are those with whom "we" most easily identify. Certainly the mainstream of the Democratic party is made up of affluent white men and women, but perhaps that's because "we" spend so much time assuming that these are the Democrats whose voices matter most that "we" forget how to listen to people who don't fit that mold.

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