Grade D Culture

Originally posted on the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog on September 29, 2007; reposted to the same place on November 14, 2008, when there was a serious lull in posting and I was getting tired of seeing the same thing on the front page day-in and day-out.  “…and I felt like this page should have something important on it. And I got reminded of this essay all over again. And it honestly says what I’m feeling right now better than anything else I could possibly say. It might even say what I’m feeling about my life better than anything I’ve ever written.  If I have to leave a bloggy epitath, this should be it.”

I have no intention of leaving bloggy epitath for the long term, but here it is again anyway.

Shortly after I started at Middle Georgia in the fall of 2000, I read the seventh – and my first – state-of-the-system address given by the chancellor of the University System of Georgia at the time, Stephen Portch. It, frankly, inspired me. It gave me the idea that I was working in the right place. It was very specific about setting goals for the whole university system – and for specific schools in the university system – and relatively specific about specific accomplishments that were in place and accomplishments that needed to happen.

But when I read the speech, I found one primary thing resonating with me more than anything else – in the midst of grading the University System of Georgia for performance to date, he assigned the culture in which he worked a grade of “D”. And very deliberately explained why.

It is important to remember we don’t operate in a vacuum. We operate in a society and in an environment that has many challenges. On culture, I grade a “D.” This is not unique to Georgia. We continue – in my mind — to have a pervasive, anti-intellectual culture in this country.

When Sherita Denson — a bright young African-American student at South Atlanta High School – writes an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and describes how she must endure being called a “nerd” and a “loser” to succeed academically – we have a grade D culture.

When a basketball player with a troubled past gets more ink than the number of new freshmen with perfect SATs – we have a grade D culture.

When I see more emotion generated over UGA’s weekend football parking than their Rhodes Scholar output – we have a grade D culture.

When we have too many young people who dream of playing in the NFL and NBA – and who have a better chance at winning the Georgia Lottery — we have a grade D culture.

When almost 90 percent of Georgia eighth graders watch TV two hours or more daily — we have a grade D culture.

When we have a culture where too many school boards spend time debating the need to doctor “evolution” out of science books, rather than focusing on preparing young people to face a technologically and scientifically-oriented society — we have a grade D culture.

When we can come up with the perfect plan to produce talented teachers, but when they graduate they choose the $80,000 non-teaching job with stock options over the $25,000 teaching post with long hours and metal detectors – we have a grade D culture.

It was one thing to say “hey! yeah! isn’t it time to change the world now?” as a young-punk, 28-year-old faculty member, new on the tenure track. But I wasn’t really prepared for how much that grade D culture would impact my day-to-day work as an education professional in Georgia.

What has boggled my mind as a professor, the more that I’ve seen it, has been the simple lack of expectation that adults have had for their children. It’s true all over the country, I know. But it’s true in Georgia (and in other places in the Southeast) in particular. In principle, we want our children to do well. But when they don’t do well, we make excuses for them. We understand their struggles. We look to give them a less stressful way.

And we don’t even consider that, if they could just work through those struggles and do a little bit more and push a little bit harder, the whole world might open up to them. In fact, we’re pretty sure that the whole world won’t open up to them. We think, honestly, that’s something that the kids from the big cities do. Or the big money school districts. Or the private schools. Or anywhere else but our own back yard.

(Now, playing football on Sundays? Ballin’ in the Association? Maybe even getting a preaching gig at a big church and getting to the high-five-figures of income? We might do that. But making important scientific discoveries? Becoming a writer who influences people’s thoughts and minds and lives? Being the rare transformative political leader who will actually improve the world instead of demagoguing the mess out of every issue? Sakes, even being the inspirational teacher who isn’t content to go to school and pick up a paycheck, but actually wants to develop students? Nope. Not us.)

The hard lesson that you have to learn, when you start in this business, is that changing the educational culture of a place – a city, a region, a state, maybe even a whole country – is difficult work. No. Check that. It’s nearly impossible. You’re working to spread a gospel – in my case, a gospel of science and the possibilities that the young thinkers might do great things – and you have to preach that gospel repeatedly, day in and day out, to have even a hope that a tenth of the people might actually hear you and take your words to heart.

But even then, when that small fraction of people hear you, their family and friends – and their family and friends have constructed different ideas and different visions of their future. And those visions didn’t usually include leaving the small town and seeking out great things to be done. Because people from Rome, Georgia (or Canton, or Trion, or Rockmart, or Cartersville) don’t do those things. The men find the steady jobs on graduation and support their families. The women stay at home and raise the children. And if that business hasn’t started by the time the kids hit 23, then, well, what’s the problem? What’s the holdup? We want grandkids, y’know.

I recognize that I’m a terribly blessed man, because I was pretty determined to get the heck out of Hilliard, Florida, when I graduated high school and go off and Do Great Things (whatever those things were), and my parents didn’t show any level of doubt in me. On the contrary, they showed disappointment whenever I showed even the slightest weakness. They didn’t punish me, but they made it abundantly clear that they thought I was brilliant, and that I Could Do Better. And that steady drumbeat of messages lasted while I was in college, even at points when I really had other things on my mind and I was annoyed by it. But it was a drumbeat. “We’re proud of you. You do good work. You should do better work and get rid of the B’s. You should be preparing for life after graduation. You’re going to be great. We’re proud of you.”

When I talk to students whose parents don’t even attempt to understand what’s going on with their schooling, how the college experience is changing them and their parents are offended by the changes and they’re feeling alienated and ostracized because of the changes, rather than encouraged…well, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart over and over again. And the more I see it happen, the more I find myself wondering what in God’s name I’m doing here.

Not that anybody has to worry about me throwing in the towel at this point. I said this a while ago, and I was reminded of it this week, and it bears repeating:

Teaching is what I do; it’s who I am; it’s what my vocation is. For some people, this gig is nothing more sophisticated than a job, the thing they do that pays the bills. For me, I borrow Ludlow Porch’s line about being on the radio: “If anybody ever found out I’d do this for free, I’d be in Big Trouble.”

But I really wonder if it’s time to qualify that. I still have teaching experiences where it’s apparent that I’ve got kids who really want to give it everything, and parents who are willing to throw their backing behind it. (Special props at this point to a group of seven young people I’ve been meeting for the past three Tuesday nights, that I’ve taught a bit of chemistry to, and who have taken a couple of those days that had just been ruined beyond all repair and actually reminding me why it’s worth it.) But the more I look at the youth of 2007, the more I see the numbers of kids who really give it their all dwindling, and the number of kids who give it their all AND get the full round of support from their so-called loved ones dwindling even more rapidly.

I’m tired of the Grade D Culture. I don’t want to hit 65 and see the Grade D Culture still pervasive, and be asking questions about what more I could have done.

(Stephen Portch left the University System of Georgia in 2001. I left the University System of Georgia in 2003, convinced that I could best contribute to the challenge of creating a more educated Georgia outside of the University System.)

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