Monday, January 14, 2008

The following is part of an ongoing dialogue I'm having with Naples Institute Co-Founder Dr. Jim Fisher. I think you can collect the gist of the preceding conversation without having to read it all. Please let me know what you think:


As you know, I have had the life-long pleasure of interviewing and observing leaders and people of accomplishment. What interests me the most are the folks I find who are completely self-made: people who grew up either poor or middle-class, whose family was unable to give them a single dime to get them started, and who made something of themselves from scratch. Horatio Alger types, in other words.

The reasons these people interest me most are (a) my family had trouble just making ends meet, too, and (b) the self-made person is the American Dream, a dream that I cherish as much as I love my family and my home. So every time I see proof that it is more than just a myth, as so many people will tell you today, it validates my most central beliefs and sense of self.

Last winter I had the opportunity to interview a gentleman who grew up poor and is now quite wealthy, and he's a philanthropist of some note - exactly the kind of person I most admire, especially because he prefers to give anonymously. He agreed to let me interview him only out of respect for the mutual friend who suggested it - and as long as I promised not to use his name. I told him my intention: to create a high school course and text that would show underprivileged children how to "make it" through the example of people just like them.

Let me pause here to note that this issue, the lack of even basic exposure to positive models of success, is in my estimation one of the single largest contributors to the poverty cycle and to the middle-class trap as well. (By trap, I mean that there is no financial security in being middle-class, and so it is only better than poverty as a matter of degree.) I intend for much of the fruit of The Naples Institute to be in augmenting mentoring and bringing together haves with have-nots.

Back to my tale: This man, as I said, was kind enough to give me a morning of his time, and he was happy to answer all of my questions in depth. But he told me his opinion of my ambition up-front and in no uncertain terms: he thought mine a fool's errand.

This man grew up poor during the Depression, but with a family that supported his education whole-heartedly. As with most intellectual families, dinner-table conversation was wide-ranging, informed, and often heated. He and his siblings studied in the living room after dinner, while the adults read newspapers and books. The children were expected to get top grades at school, which they did, and they were also active in working various jobs to help the family. He says the work ethic and the education-ethic were instilled in him from birth. It never occurred to him that he would not go to college, study something practical, and go on to a brilliant career in science or business (or in his case, both).

"It all starts with the family's value of education," he told me as we began. "Your course is not going to work because without parents who promote education, these kids can't make it. They don't stand a chance."

I was horrified. "This is why we're making the course," I said. "To help kids when their parents can't or won't."

"It won't work," he insisted. And that, to him, was that.

Now to your reader's critique of Geoffrey Canada's interview on Charley Rose, that he spoke for an hour about transforming American education but never once mentioned the necessary role of the family as an active participant in the education of the child. I agree, parents are vital to their children's education, and we need school systems to engage and partner with parents in every conceivable way.

But what about parents who either can't or won't help? What about the single parent who works three jobs, and rarely sees his children? What about the immigrant whose own education ended in second grade, and who cannot speak a word of English to understand her child's homework? What about the foster child whose foster parents are merely using him as a paycheck? The kids whose mother is too strung-out to care, whose brothers are dealing, whose sisters are turning tricks? The kids whose peers mock him and beat him up for owning any books at all? What about the child whose parents are uneducated, and proud of it? Who think that school is a waste of time? Or who think that a tenth-grade education is sufficient, and further schooling would be a frivolous waste of time?

Do we have to write all these kids off before they even begin first grade? Perhaps what Canada and other educational reformers are trying to do is say, "Yes, in a perfect world, parents would participate in their kids' improvement. But if we wait for the world to be perfect, we'll lose yet another generation of promising lives to the ravages of academic failure? We must do what we can do, controlling what we have control over (schools), and yes, encourage parents to join us, but not wait for them to do so."

The gentleman I interviewed thinks the fight is lost before we ever begin, and so we may as well give up now. I have a different plan. I believe that Geoffrey Canada does, as well.