Monday, August 28, 2006


A reader left a well-written, thoughful comment on my pre-K post. Here is the original comment and then my (lengthy) response:


anonymous said...
I have, and have had for many years, mixed feelings on "mandatory" pre-K. In many ways, I think it is a case of what is right not being fully aligned with what is good. One of my questions is why are public schools responsible for raising children? As a teacher, I know that for many children it is far better to be in a pre-K classroom than wherever they might otherwise be, but I feel as a citizen that people who have children should be responsible primary care givers to said children. We all know that it's ultimately the kids who suffer without pre-K, but how do you make people responsible for their actions - having children that they can't/won't/don't raise? How do you fix the situations/circumstances that result in the need for government funded pre-K? Where does what is good converge with what is right?

Without knowing the name of the person in question, it has been difficult for me to locate facts concerning the following; however, it seems real enough and is a good example of another situation where what is right and what is good are at odds. Rumor has it that there was a doctor in Clarksdale who, just a few decades ago, was sterilizing poor women who came in with multiple pregnancies. He was sterilizing them without their knowledge or consent. I cringe at his violation of their bodies and their rights, but at the same time, I can identify with his motivation. Of course, even in the rumor version of this tale, the doctor ultimately lost his license.

Can you, in either of these cases, fully meld good and right, or draw a distinct line between the two? I can't, and I don't even pretend to know how.


It is my belief that if a segment of society is being left behind than that is our failing, all of us, as a society. I think we have become more and more satisfied with the idea that if a group of people are underachieving, are being left behind, than it is their fault and no one else.

On an individual level, a case-by-case basis, each person makes her own decisions. In the case of pre-K benefiting low-income single-mothers each of those women made (excluding cases of rape or abuse) the decision to have unprotected sex, and then to have the baby. That is the reality on a micro level.

But on a macro level it is true, no matter what city, state, or country, no matter what race or religion, that when a group of people live in poverty and receive a substandard education, things like teenage pregnancy (and sexual abuse) skyrocket. This is as true for poor, black women in rural Mississippi as it is for poor, white women in rural West Virginia.

If someone is born into wealth they are almost certainly going to die wealthy. If someone is born into poverty they are almost certainly going to die poor. Yes, there are success stories. But they are one in a million.

We, as a society, have failed to take care of everyone in our society. In every country but ours universal health care is a right, not a privilage. In many countries, including our neighbors to the north, outstanding, free public education through university is a right, not a privilage. Here an outstanding education is, for the most part, quite costly.

For a low-income black woman growing up in the Delta there is no sex education, no Planned Parenthood, and no way to get an abortion. She is poor, her mother is poor, her grandmother was poor, her great grandmother was poor, and her great-great-grandmother was a slave. Unless she is extraordinarily hardworking, intelligent, and lucky, she will die in poverty. Society has done very little to help her. It has provided her with a segregated, underfunded school system, and little opportunity if she graduates. The question isn’t why doesn’t she take more responsibility for herself and maybe make it out of her situation? The question is how does anyone make it with the odds stacked so solidly against you?

Who benefits from all this? As I said in the pre-K blog: rich, white people. We pay less in taxes than almost any other country, and yet people always complain that taxes are too high. Taxes should be high. In the 40’s and 50’s the wealthiest people in America paid up to 80% in taxes. Now, maybe, they pay 35%. My belief is that government is a collection of individuals, all individuals in this country, and that government should best serve all of these individuals, not just the rich. But after decades of perpetuating the idea of personal responsibility most Americans have bought into the idea that for those left behind it is solely their fault. If the race is fair, than yes. But this race has been rigged from the start, and those left behind started miles behind the rest of us.

The Last of the Mohicans is a great action movie, but there is a line, really a throwaway line, towards the end of the film that has always stuck with me. The hero, Hawkeye, is debating an elder from another tribe, and says something to the effect of: “Let us not be like the white Americans, and their masters in Europe, infected with the sickness of greed.” I think as a society we have become infected with the sickness of greed.


Anonymous said...

And here is my (lengthier?) response to your response:

I don't disagree with you. I can't, as everything you say more or less approximates my feelings and experiences. I agree that we as a society are lacking because we have failed our brothers.

As I said before, I have mixed feelings about pre-K. I don't think that pre-K is a bad idea, but I think it is simply another "band-aid" to fix a problem that is all too prevalent in Mississippi, especially in the Delta. But even if Mississippi institutes pre-K, and succeeds at helping those children (and their mothers), is the real underlying problem of poor, often very young and un- or under-educated mothers having unplanned (unwanted, unloved) children being fixed? I still think the answer will be a resounding NO. If I thought pre-K would fix the problem, I would lead the charge up the steps of the governor's mansion and beat the door down to change Gov. Barbour's mind. But I know in my head and in my heart that pre-K is not THE ANSWER, though it is likely a PART of it. How do you fix the problem? How do you cure the underlying ills? How do you repair 150+ years of damage? I don't know, and I've talked to many people about possible solutions ranging from the obvious (improve education and social programs for poor families and children) to extreme solutions like population control measures and socialism. I still don't have an answer. I'm optimistic enough to believe that there is a solution, one that is both good and right, one that I pray is found in my lifetime, but I'm also realistic enough to know that I (or even you and I) can't find it alone and that when we as a society do find it, the solution won't be an easy one to implement, though I hope that I am in a position to help with it.

Digressing somewhat: I am, and will always be, a Mississippian, regardless of where I actually live. I love Mississippi for all that is good and wonderful about her and inspite of all that is not. Perhaps I love her even more for her imperfections. I hate it when outsiders put Mississippi down. Not because they toss insults at something I love (though that is reason enough for me), but because I know they don't truly understand (and probably don't care to) the magnitude of the poverty and segregation that still exists. I barely understand a fraction of it, and I've lived in the midst of it. Even if they did understand, those people who toss insults are not likely to offer any constructive ideas or assistance, and that bothers me. The fact that those same people as Americans betray not only their fellow citizens, but themselves, by insulting a HUGE portion of our population (the poor) is truly sad. Recently, Jeff Smith, a political candidate in Missouri said that he was going “to tell people like Governor Blunt that we don’t want to be… our aspiration is not to be the next Mississippi.” How can supposedly educated people, like Mr. Smith, say such things? -- Mr. Smith should be lucky enough to call a Mississippian friend, let alone get to join the club.-- With attitudes like Mr. Smith's still so prevalent, how are we as a society supposed to fix our problems. You and I both know that poor education, poverty, teenage pregnancy, ... are OUR problems, not THEIR problems, whoever/wherever they may be. How do we truly become a unified "us" and not a "you and me" or an "us and them"? That's the real issue. How do we make people (ourselves) care? How do we make us do what is right?

Studies show that even 25-30% parental involvement can significantly improve the quality of schools (Thanks to Dr. Rowland for making me write that parental involvement plan). Don't you think the same is probably true of society? If 25-30% of us really cared about us, couldn't we make a significant difference? If we take care of us, then we will be doing what is both good and right.

On another note, I watched your video "Making the Difference" today. It was pretty good on several levels, but I did notice one factual error. Emmet Till was lynched (or at least kidknapped) in Money, a town so small you have to know where it is to get there, though the trial of his murderers was held in Sumner.

Ben Guest said...

I think the answer is actually fairly simple (I'm reminded of our successful summer school at Holly Springs this year, where teachers taught every period, all teachers were on the same page as far as the organization of the school as well as the rules and consequences, and the administration backed the teacher 100% of the time. We took in 166 kids who had all failed the previous year and had a smooth, well-run school). As with summer school, the solution to the problems of the Delta isn't rocket science. It's actually pretty simple.

The Delta needs high quality medical care and education for all. Minimum wage needs to be increased to $10 an hour. Services need to be in place for people who can't make ends meet. If those things happen, the problems in the Delta melt away. Guaranteed.

Of course, lacking industry, the only way to achieve all of these things is a significant raise in taxes. That will never happen in today's political climate.

You are right about the video. Thanks for watching.