Monday, January 15, 2001

THE $120,000 SKILL AND OTHER LESSONS FROM AN IVY LEAGUER IN THE INNER CITY: An MLK Day Discourse

Note to doting, ambitious parents: Exactly what are you paying for when you fork up 120 plus grand for little Johnny’s liberal arts education? Is it the ability to read and write critically? A broad knowledge of all needed for scintillating cocktail conversation? The literacy skills needed to read the New York Times? No, no and no.

Here it is, plain and simple: The modern liberal arts education really teaches you how to quickly research any given topic, master it and – assuming a self-proclaimed air of expertise -- write on it convincingly within a tight, sub-48 hour timeline. That’s it: the $120,000 skill.

By my senior year, I was confidently and passionately churning out policy papers on arguably our country’s greatest dilemma -- what to do about our decaying industrial cities. After all, didn’t listening to top professors and reading through all the urban studies books in Yale’s vaunted stacks qualify me as an expert? Who cared that I was judging places that I’d spent little (if any) time in? I’d mastered all the academic theories and statistics and cases, and my arguments all sounded so good, so logical, so damned right on paper. Accordingly, my professors consistently validated this so-called ‘expertise’ with high grades, flowing praise and few red marks.

By graduation, most of us had bought into 'The Academic Bubble World Myth' – that expertise could be found in the ‘right’ sources and argued with the ‘right’ logical reasoning. Many of my brightest classmates took that belief and their $120,000 skill to McKinsey and Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, where -- as analysts -- they looked at some data, assumed expertise and gave Powerpoint presentations to corporate clients. Yet other classmates took that belief and their big-money skill south to the Beltway where – as Congressional aides -- they read a few journals, assumed expertise and inked policy papers for a few guys named Kennedy and Lott.

I, on the other hand, stayed in town after graduation and started to question The Myth. I mean – despite all the classes I took, books I read and papers I wrote; in other words, despite mastering the $120,000 skill -- what did I really know about cities and their issues with housing and education? The answer: not a whole lot.

It was at that precise moment that I decided to see these cities up close and personal. The ensuing three years have taken me deep inside housing projects, homes, homeless shelters and schools in some of Providence and Boston’s most troubled neighborhoods.

So, what have I learned?

Here’s a start: I’ve learned that benign intentions often result in horrific consequences. What I’m referring to here is the tendency for well-intentioned liberal Harvard PhDs, The Nation journalists and other so-called pundits to proscribe benign -- and, absolutely inane -- public policies in neighborhoods they have never lived in and in schools they have never taught in. Let me step back for a second.

I came out of college with pretty left-leaning political views – the belief that poverty and crime were ‘structural problems’ caused by forces beyond our control; that ‘morals’ and ‘values’ were hollow-sounding words; and that all poor, misbehaving kids needed was a healthy dollop of kindness.

Bullsh*t.

Sure, my dear friend Tobi -- a sometimes-reformed Providence drug dealer -- had been dealt a bad hand in life but that didn’t explain why he had to objectify women (“Yo, I’ve been with 70 different women in the past year,” said with a charming grin). That didn’t explain why he had to blow his weekly paycheck on bottles of 40s, and that surely didn’t explain why he simply and adamantly refused to take any responsibility for his destructive actions.

Sure, the women at Rosie’s Place – a women’s shelter and soup kitchen in Boston’s South End where I volunteer every other Friday – have been down on luck, but that doesn’t explain the ingratitude and lack of appreciation that I often hear: “I can’t believe you don’t have any cherry pie today! I don’t eat pumpkin pie…Where’s the damn cherry pie?” all spoken with disdain.

Sure, my students in Providence and Boston weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths – indeed, most of them qualify for free or reduced lunches – but that shouldn’t excuse laziness or disrespect for others or inappropriate language. What many ‘inner-city’ (read: poor black, Asian or Hispanic) students really need isn’t flexibility and progressive Ted Sizer-styled learning but strict, old-fashioned structure and discipline (and I learned this the hard way). What they need isn’t empty, liberal public rhetoric about "not giving up on public schools" but a real commitment from adults who are willing to invest their lives into teaching and work long hours. What they need isn’t warm fuzzies and touchy-feely sympathetic love, but hard lessons in character – lessons about what responsibility, integrity, perseverance and civility mean.

So I guess this makes me a traitor: a cultural conservative. But here’s my point: over the past three years, I’ve learned firsthand that many of the problems in cities today are a result not of ‘structural changes’ but of thousands of poor individual choices aggregated together. The trash dirtying Olneyville streets in south Providence, the graffiti on school property (“I hate this f*cking school” painted on my elementary school in Providence), the urine in housing project hallways: those are the product of individual irresponsible choices that someone made, not Post-Industrial white-flight or Post-Cold War industry-decline.

In short, I’ve learned (1) not to judge topics that I really know nothing about -- and (2) that The Academic Bubble World Myth is, after all, just a myth.

I'm waiting to hear from my liberal friends: ctschang@hotmail.com