It’s the Enculturation, Stupid
Scott CarrollScott Carroll is a writer in Baltimore City. He is a published ghost writer of narrative nonfiction. His op-ed articles have also appeared in the Baltimore Sun and on The Health Care Blog. Following a several-year stint as business/technology consultant in the Los Angeles office of the world’s largest consulting firm, he returned home to Baltimore where he continued his comprehensive tour of the non-administrative side of the American education system, this time as a teacher, while pursuing his development into a writer. The child’s experience was both the Baltimore City public elementary schools and the premier private schools of Baltimore County, his secondary education a product of the city’s prestigious public engineering high school. The young man was Ivy League and HBCU educated at the engineering schools of Columbia University and Morgan State University, respectively, the latter of which bestowed his B.S. in Industrial Engineering. As a teacher he was a substitute for two years in one of Baltimore’s underperforming neighborhood high schools that was concurrently featured in an HBO documentary about the country’s failing schools. His experience teaching algebra and pre-calculus at one of the city’s lower-performing magnate schools rounds out the comprehensive tour.
I have just seen a most heartening commercial, now apparently blanketing the metro-Baltimore market; it is the sixth or seventh time I’ve seen the spot in the last two days. It’s really more like a public service announcement, the unstated sponsor’s lettered logo in blue caps, “PNC,” briefly across the final frame. Throughout this commercial a most endearing young voice, a most painfully cute young voice is heard gently imploring, impressing upon all parents the vital importance of parents’ exposing their young children to as much language as possible, because, in the words of this little boy or girl: “birth to five years old, that’s our information age.” “Tell us stories, sing us songs, or just talk to us,” says the child so very simply.
I say heartening because of a breeze of hope kicked up in the wake of this powerful messaging right there on the popular scene, in that all-so subliminally reinforcing, persistently iterative medium the commercial, no less. It is heartening to see. That an enculturation void yawns so gaping wide across society as to inspire PNC Bank to step into it with a 30-second little statement of potentially life-changing guidance for so many American families, well, that is a damning indictment.
Responding to an enculturation issue of a different sort—no void this time but, instead, affirmative enculturation in an unfortunate direction—attorney general Eric Holder, in response to two recent high profile racist rants now dominating the common discourse, was right to invoke the idea of cowardice as regards our nation’s failure to take on the topic of race head-on. He would have been right to extend this assessment beyond just our timidity about race to our equally timid avoidance of any talk regarding culture: cowardice there is aplenty to go around.
This American society of ours at the forefront of modern man’s advancement into the technological age—certainly the norm in this society so highly advanced is a parent team incessantly reading to its young, assiduously addressing in at least some intelligible fashion the thirty-thousand questions per day posed by each of the incredibly active young minds in those parents’ charge yearning to Know. Even without any latest scientific proof of the importance of such interaction with the young child up until its fifth birthday, certainly, in The United States of America, it is already the norm, adhered to by parents as a matter of course. But it is not the norm, and why not? Is it the norm in certain subcultures within the greater American society and not others? Why? Are we to accept as a given that the average poor parent simply will not be reading much to his child, not talking to him much?—hands clapped clean, matter settled, solution to be sought in remedying somehow the incredible deficit in intellectual/neurological development once the child is enrolled in one of our wonderfully well-funded schools? Certainly one must not be so insulting, so patronizing as to suggest that a community growing out of a centuries-old history of institutionalized impoverishment and undereducation might benefit from a real good look into some things that it might learn to do differently.
Policy advocacy and political pressure, constant advocacy and pressure, are of course vitally important to maintain and improve upon the freest, most open society in a world greatly skewed toward the rich, but liberal pundits and activists are like Republicans denying the reality of global warming when they refuse out of hand any consideration of the cultural/enculturation component to chronic poverty and academic underachievement.
Culture is the number one ingredient in the life of any animal, quadruply-so the human animal, the great animal of the intellect. Until this idea of culture, really, more accurately, enculturation, is confronted head-on—until we grow as a society to understand that intellectuals and academic standouts really are raised far more-so than they are taught in any school—there will be no great gains toward the type of outcomes to be expected of the great United States of America, of its student population.
Having thus far not limited scope to any one particular of the nation’s numerous historically underperforming communities and subcultures—among them, it will be noted, are many poor white communities and subcultures across the nation—I wish now to express a quick word with regard to my own team, my own cultural identification. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have had a dream, a dream of the average black household in a routine hour of individual reading, each member comfortably reclined in his and her own favorite little corner of the home. In this typical black household, just as typical of the less affluent and poor as of the affluent, clean of coarse language and intellectually lazy combative screaming, family members in measured tones engage the topics of the day, an attentive parent team presiding over a positively stimulating, life-skills-enhancing atmosphere. In this dream there is the typical black neighborhood, again as typical of the poor as of the affluent, in which one would be hard-pressed to find a child on the street well after dark, on a school night; one would be hard-pressed to find a piece of garbage on the street.
Like the vaunted civil rights titans of a half century ago, today’s black leaders and advocates for the black community have done an exceptional job leading the United States of America, leading the country to a more equitable society on a much stronger footing, but both have done a lamentably poor job of leading black America, being even as absentee fathers to the modern African-American culture, whatever that even is at this point. Despite the contrary imagery all around in my daily circuit through Baltimore City, my dream has remained with me in vivid relief. I believe that if I only remain true to it long enough, singing it loudly enough, long enough, it too will come to pass. The way there, first, is to want to get there.