An article I wrote for work was recently published and I’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback on it.
In the article, I compared the education I had received in secondary school in Sierra Leone (1986–1990) to the one I received in high school in the U.S. (1990–1992). I argue that the secondary education I got in Sierra Leone—which was even then a very poor country—was superior to the one I got in the U.S. Basically, I didn’t think that many of my high school peers gave a flying funk about their studies and this resulted in them putting very little effort into their studies.
In my U.S. high school, it seemed like doing well in school was the lowest priority for most of the students. They just didn’t seem to care about their grades. Compare this to Sierra Leone, where students were ranked first, second, etc. in class based on their performance, and nobody wanted to be last! But this is not to say that the kids I studied with in the U.S. didn’t care about anything. They cared about how they looked, what the wore, what kind of car they drove, who they were seen hanging out with, who they spoke to. Certainly, it’s natural for kids to care about this stuff but these are purely cultural concerns, i.e., students learn to value these things. And if they can learn to internalize one set of values, why can’t they be taught to value education?
The way I see it, many students in the U.S. do not believe that an education will get them where they want to be in life. At my high school, many of the students voiced a desire to be successful in terms of ownership of a new car or a house but they never mentioned how going to college was going to help them achieve that success. There are many possible explanations for this. Many kids came from families in which the parents didn’t attend college, so they may not have been expected to go to college either. Also, many students probably couldn’t see the sense in incurring student loan debts in order to go to college when they could just go straight into the workforce.
In fact, this is precisely what many of them did. I went to school with kids who had been doing menial, low-skill work at shopping malls and movie theaters since they were 14. The money they earned enabled them to buy clothes and even cars. But many of them also explicitly stated that they thought it was stupid to give up working in order to go to college because they would both be losing income and going into debt!!!
In addition, many American students, especially minority and poor students, receive signals from the wider society telling them that they can succeed without doing well in high school and going to college. A Black high schooler will see hundreds of images of Black rappers, athletes, dancers, and other entertainers for every one Black intellectual. Personally, I can only think of three Black intellectuals off the top of my head—Cornell West, Manning Marable, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—but I can name dozens of Black entertainers and athletes. Is it any surprise that many Black kids get the sense that the wider society doesn’t expect them to succeed academically and fail to see how being educated will help them succeed in society. Similarly, poor White kids see very few positive images of other White people who came from humble origins and made it in society. Take former president Bill Clinton, for example, who reportedly grew up in a trailer park. After his rise to political prominence, Clinton’s humble roots were all but erased to the point where, to outside observers, he was no longer someone who had risen out of poverty. But without the academic success that took him to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale, I doubt whether Bill Clinton could ever have gone as far as he did.
This is not to let anyone off the hook. Parents, teachers, and even peers are certainly guilty for not motivating, and perhaps more importantly for not expecting, students to do well in school. But students’ attitudes are also shaped by their own perceptions of education’s role in their future success and these perceptions will affect students’ commitment to academics. These perceptions can’t but be shaped by the signals students receive from the wider society.
After all, students are rational beings. If they do not believe that an education will pay off in the future, why would they be motivated to invest enough mental and emotional energy in their schooling?
Read the full article here.