Monday, June 11, 2007

Money - Poverty - Education - Class - Discrimination

The New York Times' Paul Tough profiles Ruby Payne, a woman who I had not heard of until I read this profile.

If the description is accurate, and I have no reason to believe Tough is inaccurate in any sense, my first gut reaction is that I like this woman and what she has to say. Tough writes:
At the heart of Payne’s philosophy is a one-page chart, titled “Hidden Rules Among Classes,” which appears in most of her books. There are three columns, for poverty, middle class and wealth, and 15 rows, covering everything from time to love to money to language. In a few words, Payne explains how each class sees each concept. Humor in poverty? About people and sex. In the middle class? About situations. In wealth? About social faux pas. In poverty, the present is most important. In the middle class, it’s the future. In wealth, it’s the past. The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?
I have had the fortune to move among all three classes at various times, this little description is quite accurate.

Teachers apparently love Payne and her message, and I can see why education academics don't--Payne's ideas don't comport with the "social justice" message of education academics:
Payne’s work in the schools has attracted a growing chorus of criticism, mostly from academia. Although Payne says that her only goal is to help poor students, her critics claim that her work is in fact an assault on those students. By teaching them middle-class practices, critics say, she is engaging in “classism” and racism. Her work is “riddled with factual inaccuracies and harmful stereotypes,” charges Anita Bohn, an assistant professor at Illinois State University, in a paper on Payne’s work. Paul Gorski, an assistant professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, writes that Payne’s central text “consists, at the crudest level, of a stream of stereotypes and a suggestion that we address poverty and education by ‘fixing’ poor people instead of reforming classist policies and practices.” (“LeftyHenry,” a recent poster on a political blog, was less subtle in his criticism; he called Payne “the Hitler of American academics.”)

Payne’s critics seem less aggrieved by what she includes in her analysis than by what they say she has left out: an acknowledgment that the American economy and American schools systematically discriminate against poor people. In this way, Payne finds herself in the middle of one of the central debates about poverty today. On one side are those, like Payne, who believe that poor people share certain habits and behaviors that help keep them in poverty. Recognizing and changing those behaviors, Payne and those who share her views believe, will help poor people to succeed. On the other side are those like Payne’s critics, who think that the game is so thoroughly fixed that most poor people can’t succeed no matter what they do. To them, locating any of the causes of persistent poverty among poor people themselves is, in effect, blaming the victim.

Academics in the latter group can’t stand Payne. And academics in the former group find it hard to defend her. There are plenty of sociologists, psychologists and economists who have reached conclusions similar to Payne’s: poor parents are more inclined to use corporal punishment; poor students are more eager to work hard in a teacher’s class when they feel a personal relationship with a teacher; poor homes are more often chaotic and loud. The problem is Payne’s methodology, or rather her lack of one. She does have a Ph.D. in social policy, and her book does have a few pages of footnotes. Her seminars include occasional references to popular scholarly works of sociology and history, like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.” But clearly, Payne’s preferred unit of research is the anecdote. Her talks are nothing like university lectures. They’re a blend of cracker-barrel wisdom, Tony Robbins-style motivational speaking and a Chris Rock comedy routine. And that means that among academics in good standing, saying something nice about Ruby Payne is a good way to invite the disapproval of your peers.
So Ruby Payne doesn't play the social justice game and therefore, her ideas have no merit. But what is impact of Payne's message on teachers and their classrooms? The proof is in the pudding and if Payne's message gets to the teachers and it helps the teacher teach their students--isn't that a good thing?

Payne may not be the most PC of people in terms of her message, but there is no denying some basic facts: Her message resonates, she speaks to crowds most acadeimic educators can only dream of and she has a concrete plan to help educators. Does it over generalize--perhaps, but is it working?

That would be an interesting test.

1 comment:

aha! Process, Inc. said...

Hello Matt,
Thank you for your thoughtful dialog on Ruby Payne and the article about her in The New York Times. We have linked your blog to ours. Stop by sometime and join our discussion!