ATTITUDE GAP

William Raspberry has another piece on the black-white achievement gap in education. He makes a couple of important points:

Speaking frankly and helpfully about the academic achievement gap between black and white students is a lot harder than it ought to be.

***

I can almost feel the resistance from black Americans to the notion that there is something cultural about the underachievement of black students. Almost as palpable is the easy conclusion on the part of many whites (and I’m not talking about racists) that if black people would just buckle down as other disadvantaged groups have done, many of their problems would evaporate.

And yet — how hard this is! — the buckle-down crowd may be closer to the mark. That is not to say that the academic gap (as much as four years by the time of high school graduation) is merely the aggregate result of individual black laziness. It isn’t.

Black students and their parents understand the importance of an academic credential, but often primarily as a ticket to college and good careers. But if that’s what it is, then one might as well purchase the ticket at the lowest possible cost: avoidance of challenging courses and performance that is “good enough” rather than the commitment to excellence that eats into social time.

And the differences begin early. One study found that the home of the average white kindergartner had 93 books, the average black less than half as many. The point isn’t that the white children score higher because they read all those books but that the differential presence of books reflects a differential interest and investment in learning. (Asian American parents, for instance, may have fewer books but a stronger commitment to learning.)

A few years ago, I was teaching at a community college in southeast Georgia and, although I had recently completed my Ph.D. in political science, was asked to go back and pick up additional graduate coursework in criminal justice because there are more JuCo courses to teach in that subject. Although the closest university was Florida State, the nearest school for which I would receive reimbursement was historically black Albany State. The professor for the course I took (I took another position the next year and no longer needed CJ coursework) had received his BA, MA, and PhD all via correspondence from sham institutions. His subject matter knowledge was less than mine, because I could at least absorb what was in the textbook. He continually referred to his academic credentials, quite proudly, as his “papers.” It didn’t matter that he was no expert in his field, so long as he had punched the requisite tickets to a good job.

That attitude certainly exists in many whites as well. But our history of racial discrimination made jumping through hoops and getting certification–one’s “papers”–much more important for blacks than for whites. Indeed, until the near-universalization of college education in the 1960s, whites from the upper classes had the luxury of going to university almost solely for cultural enrichment and learning for its own sake. Few blacks had that luxury.

FILED UNDER: Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.