Monday, June 11, 2007

Theory versus practice

When we were vacationing in Paris a few years ago, we saw a great headline: "Fine in practice, but how does it work in theory?" Ah, those tricky French! So self-aware they even joke about their passion for abstraction.

But it's not only the French. It's academics across the board. "How does it work in theory?" seems to be the operative question behind the critics of Ruby Payne, an education specialist featured in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. A teacher, a middle-class woman whose defining reality was her marriage to a man raised in poverty, she has made a career out of teaching other teachers how to recognize certain behavioral patterns of poor children and to work with them, not to change them but to help them better understand and negotiate the complex social worlds in which we all move.

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?

Her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty has sold thousands and thousands of copies. She has worked her way into personal wealth. Among teachers she's in great demand. But academics look at her with skepticism. She's buying into stereotypes, reinforcing the structures of racism and classism, say her critics. Even worse,

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.

I'm familiar with this line of criticism. Why tinker around the edges when the whole system is unjust?

Take Walter Benn Michaels for example, chair of the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, looks to be a fine catalogue of persistent economic injustices. I'm not far into it yet, but I see that one of the goals of the book is "to help alter the political terrain of contemporary American life." He finds it "hard to accept" that "we Americans just aren't all that committed to equal opportunity after all." I have no doubt that the observations in this book are earnest and well-conceived and meant to change the world.

What got my attention--what got me to pick up the book off the shelf of new books at the law library--was the afterword, which for some reason he writes in the third person. Here we learn that Walter Benn Michaels

makes $175,000 a year. But he wants more; one of his motives for writing this book was the cash advance offered him by his publishers. Some readers will be tempted to see a discrepancy between these facts and the arguments against economic inequality made in the preceding chapters. But they should remember that those arguments are true (if they are true) even if Michaels's motives are bad, and they would be false (if they were false) even if his motives were good. Not to put too fine a point on it, the validity of the argument does not depend on the virtue of the person making them. Furthermore, the point of the book is not that people, including its author, should be virtuous. During the summer in which most of this book was written, a homeless man lived in the railroad underpass Michaels can see out his study window. A more virtuous person might have been tempted to go down and bring him some breakfast or maybe even invite him in for a shower and a meal. It never occurred to Michaels to do either of these things. Mainly he wished the man would go away. And his desire for the man to just not be there does not contradict the argument of this book; it's more like the motive for the argument of this book. The point is not that we should be nicer to the homeless; it's that no one should be homeless.

This passage, in all of its tedious and cynical self-consciousness, leaves me speechless.

Ms. Payne's work reminded me of Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, the formerly homeless educator I blogged about in April. Looking back over my notes, I see that she actually had been in one of Ruby Payne's seminars, where she found a number of truths revealed.

If I want to get out of generational poverty there are hidden rules. For instance when my kids were small if you came to my house to eat, I’m going to make sure you get enough. I'm going to feed you! But if you came when my kids were teenagers I’d say let me fix you something else, because what was important then was that they like it, now how much. Now that I’m hanging around with other people sometimes, I’ve noticed that in affluent situations, they don’t care about whether you like it or if it’s enough, it’s all about how beautiful it is, the presentation and how lovely it is. If I don’t know those hidden rules, if I come into that situation and try to mingle, I’m already ostracized.

For Nussbaum-Beach, it would have been useful as a schoolgirl to be offered the tools to understand class differences. For teachers, it could ease the frustration of working with poor kids. Said a science teacher quoted in the Times article, "I realized, these kids aren't dumb. . . . They just haven't had the enriching experiences that I had growing up."

I'd like to change the world too. I'd like for nobody to be homeless or poor. In the long meanwhile, I wish Ruby Payne many more standing ovations.

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