American Students

We actually discussed “systemic injustices” and “societal oppressions” in class last week. My students are firmly and passionately convinced that the way your life turns out depends entirely on your own effort and hard work. I tried to play the devil’s advocate and suggest ways to challenge this position but the students rejected my arguments with indignation.

“You are all so American,” I commented.
My students’ shared stance is not only a sign of robust psychological health but also an explanation for the insanely high standard of living in this country.

I left the classroom feeling proud and content. The world belongs to such people.

60 thoughts on “American Students

  1. Typically my colleagues would see these students as naive, in need of a good liberal arts education to set them straight, telling them that people achieve exactly what they are allowed to depending on their degree of “privilege” determined at birth.

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    1. And then these colleagues will go home and spend the night complaining on social networks how their lives are hard, they are depressed, it’s a horrible “publish or perish” world, the only way to get published or get tenure is through corruption, nepotism or sleeping with the right person, etc. 🙂 🙂

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  2. “My students are firmly and passionately convinced that the way your life turns out depends entirely on your own effort and hard work. ”

    I hope this is something all parents teach their children. The beauty of this is that, even if it’s false, believing in it and acting accordingly will make good things happen for you. So, I think of it as a ‘life-hack’ of sorts.

    The reason why it is a ‘life-hack’ and not a truism is that if you turn it upside down (If you’re poor/unsuccessful you don’t work hard) it clearly becomes incorrect.

    The key is to focus on the positive statement (work hard to become successful) without dwelling on its negative counterpart (people who aren’t successful are lazy).

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    1. “The beauty of this is that, even if it’s false, believing in it and acting accordingly will make good things happen for you. So, I think of it as a ‘life-hack’ of sorts.”

      • Exactly.

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  3. My only problem with the “everything you get is because of your own effort” perspective is that if something goes wrong that’s out of your control, it’s all too easy to slip into the “everything that goes wrong is your fault” perspective. I’m still struggling to get out of that.

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  4. Why is it so important in this country to say you worked for every last thing?

    I remember being an undergraduate. I could hardly believe my good luck, going away to a good university in a beautiful place. I had not worked for this, really, beyond having good grades — I was 17 and had just landed on it, a beneficiary of low in-state tuition. It didn’t seem necessary to say “I have worked so hard for this, and people who do not have what I do have simply not made a good enough effort.”

    I am suspicious of the harping on work. In my current world the ones who go on the most on hard work and its importance are living on investments or someone else’s good oilfield earnings, and do not have jobs, but feel superior to the poor.

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    1. Why is it so important in this country to say you worked for every last thing?
      “I worked for it” means “I deserve it”. To say you didn’t work for something is to say you didn’t deserve your good fortune and too many people will rush in to take it away from you. Or it is to upend the just-world hypothesis and the moral order of America.

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      1. Oh, I see. But isn’t that an endless quest, having to prove you deserve everything? I did not really work for my excellent genes, the US passport I was born to, and so on, and so forth. I guess that just-world hypothesis is really strong. Isn’t it a little … childish, though?

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      2. Still fascinated by this. I do not understand how I missed it. It is so incredibly Calvinist, too. Must everything be deserved … is nothing a result of chance?

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  5. How many of these students were non white? I am all for people seeing themselves as in control over their own lives. But it’s undeniably true that if you are born a white, middle-class American, you have much easier time achieving success than if you born a lower income African American and live in an urban neighborhood. I am not sure why identifying and trying to rectify structural barriers is an issue. They exist and they hinder large groups of Americans.

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    1. We all know where I work, right?

      “How many of these students were non white?”

      • Obviously, the majority. My students all come from poverty.

      “But it’s undeniably true that if you are born a white, middle-class American, you have much easier time achieving success than if you born a lower income African American and live in an urban neighborhood.”

      • My black students from East St. Louis and Ferguson disagree. And I understand them. The constant barrage of “You are miserable, underprivileged, downtrodden, everybody else has it easier, success is structurally hard for you to achieve” does zero good and a lot of damage. I don’t come to them with such statements because this would only undermine them.

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      1. I don’t think the point of noticing structural barriers is to use the information to go and discourage Black 18 year olds — who have already overcome some of these if they are in college, anyway.

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  6. 1) I would be a little worried if young college students didn’t believe that their life’s path didn’t entirely on their hard work and effort. It obviates the point of college otherwise.

    2) Almost anything is better than learned helplessness and fatalism.

    3) I don’t like telling people they have it harder. There’s no point to it. They already know or if they don’t, I don’t like taking the shine from their eyes. I went to a psychologist who told me that I had trouble in the job market because of my name as if it had not occurred to me, or was something that I could easily “fix.” She started telling me that “Racism exists!” as if the kinds of people who have problems with my name would just hand wave it aside when they realized my ethnicity in an interview. After that meeting, I fired her.

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    1. I don’t know what it is like not to face gender discrimination. I remember when I did not realize I was, and it was confusing because I could not understand what was happening. Once I understood, life became less stressful and it was easier to see how to context the situation(s).

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      1. I mean *contest. But I do wonder what the unpacking privilege thing is about. When I was a young person I resented it when the older types went on about how privileged one was, and so on.

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        1. And it is a trap. My dept. chair here (one of them) likes to go on about how professors are “privileged” because they “had a chance to do the PhD” whereas instructors “did not have that chance.” That is silly — they decided not to continue; none of them applied to PhD programs, much less got thrown out of one.

          Still I cannot figure out how everything is just hard work when it is manifestly the case that it helps to have resources and opportunities and not to be a member of a maligned group.

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      2. ***Although: I will distinguish between recognizing and understanding actual instances of gender discrimination and the general discouragement I got from my mother: things will be awful because you are a girl, so you should not try.

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  7. “My students are firmly and passionately convinced that the way your life turns out depends entirely on your own effort and hard work.”

    That’s because they grew up on books like the “Little Red Hen” in their youth and “The Fountainhead” in their teen years. Now let’s see the Russian version of “The Little Red Hen.”

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  8. I find it funny or odd (not sure which) that so many of your commenters are quick to point out how wrong your students are….

    For me, the ideal is to believe that hard work and determination are enough while recognizing that good luck and bad luck also exist and to be thankful for good luck rather than wanting to whip yourself and to not let random bad luck discourage you.

    For sure, it’s best to err on the side of believing in hard work and determination because otherwise you get Russia or the Middle East and stagnation and backwardness forever.

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    1. I also find it weird. Would it be better if students said, “I’m never going to achieve anything because there are structural injustices that benefit the privileged which is why working hard is useless”?

      This was supposed to be a nice, uplifting story but it didn’t turn out that way.

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      1. …but that is not the conclusion that is drawn. Structural injustices mean you have to work harder if you are not one of those who benefits from them. And that you may not rise as high as some others. That doesn’t mean hard work can’t pay off, or that work is not necessary.

        Why it isn’t a nice, uplifting story — because of having been raised with it, I suppose, and because of having become critical of the Calvinist ideas much of the US popular imaginary is rooted in. It is true that you can make money in US — my Liberian student details cars and points out he would not be able to do this in Liberia since there are fewer cars and fewer people who could pay him to detail them.

        It is just that we have all had repeated to us daily since birth that “anyone can grow up to be President” when this is manifestly false, and we are kind of allergic to this and related pep talks.

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        1. “Structural injustices mean you have to work harder if you are not one of those who benefits from them.”

          • Yes, that is truly horrifying. What a tragic ordeal to have to work harder than somebody.

          “It is true that you can make money in US — my Liberian student details cars and points out he would not be able to do this in Liberia since there are fewer cars and fewer people who could pay him to detail them.”

          • And he will be happier and achieve more than the spoiled drama queens in expensive colleges who dedicate their lives to pitying him and checking their privilege.

          “It is just that we have all had repeated to us daily since birth that “anyone can grow up to be President” when this is manifestly false, and we are kind of allergic to this and related pep talks.”

          • I’m not sure who “we” are in this sentence. 🙂 🙂

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          1. “Truly horrifying” … you said that, not I.

            Liberian student, the problem is that he is being deported as he is out of status and has been denied refugee visa.

            We: anyone who went to school in US and had to listen to this pablum endlessly while at the same time looking directly at the evidence of its falsity.

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      2. The people I went to High School with (who were mostly black) were constantly pointing out structural injustices, but the conclusion was that they had to work hard to make something of their lives and right the wrongs of the world. It was almost a mantra with them.

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        1. Yes. That’s my experience too. I don’t think I’ve ever run in to an African American student who claimed that structural injustices didn’t exist. Their response to structural injustice (as djirl points out) was that they needed to work hard(er). But it is very surprising to me that a group of AA students would claim that they haven’t/don’t face any structural or institutional barriers.

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          1. I really don’t want this to go in the “my black people are better than your black people” direction. But I do want to point out that I didn’t expect for there to be such a massively negative response to such a simple little story. I hope none of the students is reading this. I’d have made the post private if I had the slightest inkling that their sense of self-worth would prove so offensive for some reason.

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    2. The thing is, I actually don’t find that most Americans believe in hard work and determination. They believe in individualism, this is true, and that they can be the exception and get ahead. But ask them to do things more difficult than climb the corporate ladder — do something like contest what is currently going on in terms of destruction of universities, for instance — and they are completely fatalistic. And nihilistic — won’t even vote, because politicians are “bad,” and so on, and so forth.

      But I do guess it is what you are comparing it to. I remember making it somehow from Belgium to Denmark despite a transportation strike. My family was amazed that I had not given up on the possibility of getting rides or something, and said well, it was because I was American and Americans do not give up. I remember being in Brazil and saying I wanted to transfer universities, and not discussing it any more once the paperwork was in and accepted. Then, at the end of the semester, people were amazed that I really was transferring and had not just been complaining pointlessly. They considered that I was an example of Yankee determination and ingenuity as well.

      Nonetheless I still find that most Americans resemble those Danes and those Brazilians more than they do me, and nonetheless here I am saying look, I have efectivamente NOT worked for everything I have; some of it I have simply received.

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    3. We in US did not have enough grit or determination to get Guantánamo closed, to get global warming turned around, to do lots of things — for lots and lots of things we did not even try.

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      1. So? Those things are not priorities for most people. My working assumption is that things that bother the majority change and things that don’t bother people …. don’t.

        I’m not happy about Guantanamo but I’m not disturbed enough to make any kind of effort … awful but true.

        I don’t really care about global warming/climate change much either.

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          1. Yankee know-how only applies to things that people care about (and of course material comfort is generally going to be high on the list).

            Deciding that other people should care about something and then deploring them for not doing anything about it is putting the cart before the horse.

            The civil rights movement is a good example of yankee know-how in action. The leaders got people to care about an issue than hadn’t thought of much before (or cared about but didn’t know how to address). The country went from legally enforced segregation in some places to a black president in less than 50 years (in social evolution terms that’s lightspeed).

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            1. What interests me, though, & I did not say it very well, is that people claim inevitability about things they just don’t really care about. “There is nothing to do about that” in many cases just means “I am not interested in that.” So we’re fatalistic / helpless about all sorts of things; I think the students say hard work will get you ahead because it is what they have been taught to say, not for any more profound reason.

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              1. Given that this very trivial little story aroused a storm of comments while the really important posts on foreign affairs arouse zero interest, I don’t think anybody here is in the position to criticize others for having a reduced area of concern.

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              2. Well, I think it is a small enough point to be a practical one to discuss on blogs in the midst of everything else, yet an interesting enough one to get comments. It is interesting to see how refreshing you, tired of Russian pessimism, find all these Horatio Alger – type stories. I think it is true that optimism is a US characteristic. But US has really ODd on the idea that the poor are only so because they are lazy.

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              3. “It is interesting to see how refreshing you, tired of Russian pessimism, find all these Horatio Alger – type stories.”

                • I’m not Russian and never lived in Russia. The Russian culture is fatalistic, not pessimistic. They don’t have enough rich people to be pessimistic. Pessimism is the affliction of the generationally well-fed. 🙂 I’m just happy to be surrounded by psychologically healthy people, that’s all.

                “But US has really ODd on the idea that the poor are only so because they are lazy.”

                • Nobody here expressed this idea.

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    1. Of course, we all encounter chance or, as you say, dumb luck all the time. But we can choose what we do with the circumstances chance gives us. Really nasty shit happens to some of us. But we either let it defeat us or we don’t.

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      1. Or, are able to rise above it or not. One of my high school cohort is homeless now. Got B.A., worked (is HS teacher) but had some health problems that caused financial problems and the whole thing snowballed. She is now disabled, could work but people are loath to hire her walking in a walker & without middle class address. Yet I know women her age who have never worked and who would say my schoolmate’s problem must be laziness and poor planning.

        It is that attitude, work as panacea, I am reacting against.

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        1. That totally sucks for your friend but there’s no message beyond the fact that sometimes really bad things happen for no reason. It’s nothing to base one’s life strategy on (unless one’s life strategy is to withdraw from any and all effort).

          “that attitude, work as panacea, I am reacting against”

          Oh please, I’m the laziest mofo around*. But I’m glad when people take a can-do rather than a the-fates-are-against-me attitude.

          *not technically true I have tons of energy, just not for things that would improve my financial lot (and that’s mostly a conscious choice, given the alternatives: follow my weird obsessions or follow the euros, I’ve mostly chosen the former).

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          1. Yes, but where I live people are really conservative. They would really vote against benefits for this woman, and go to church and pray to go to heaven, and say it must be her fault, all the while living on what one very well paid family member makes. I don’t like the “hard work is everything” mantra because it justifies the reduction in SSDI, food banks, aid programs, and so on.

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        2. Again, that’s the flip side of the just-world hypothesis. Just as you deserve your good fortune you deserve your bad fortune. Except a lot of people believe that they only deserve their good fortune and their bad fortune violates some social order. It’s not just an American thing or a Calvinist thing either. People feel that things “must happen for a reason” so they struggle to find a reason (“She didn’t work smartly enough/she was bad in a past life/she sinned in some other way”). Those housewives just boil it down to “I made good choices and am financially sound. You are not financially sound, so therefore you have made bad choices.”

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          1. ” Just as you deserve your good fortune you deserve your bad fortune. Except a lot of people believe that they only deserve their good fortune and their bad fortune violates some social order.”

            • You are describing psychologically healthy people, that’s all.

            “It’s not just an American thing or a Calvinist thing either.”

            • Exactly. Psychological health or lack thereof know no borders. 🙂

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            1. That, to me, sounds unhealthy / unaware / immature / illogical / egotistical / etc.

              Sure, it is flip side of just world hypothesis and is naive. But it is hardly sufficient as analysis.

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              1. “I’m good and the world is good” is the only psychologically healthy position. And it is what we should all strive for.

                The belief that the world is good and everything will ultimately work out to my benefit in spite of setbacks is called “a positive mother complex.”

                There is also “a positive father complex” which can be resumed as “Society is functioning and I’m a valuable, good member of this society.”

                The two complexes are the cornerstone of psychological health.

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              2. Saying “there are no structural barriers and people who do not have the things I have, have character flaws” isn’t to say “I am good and the world is good,” at all.

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              3. Evildoer?

                My point: saying work tends to pay off is one thing. Saying there are no structural barriers are another. Saying there are is not to imply that the world is not “good.”

                IRL many of the adults I see daily do in fact believe that they “worked for everything” (their oil wells, etc.) whereas the poor just did not “work hard enough.” It’s disingenous to say the least. But it has justified the closing of schools and hospitals, and so on … because the deserving can afford to pay to go to certain private ones that are left.

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  9. I think a lot of people feel really theatened by the idea of young non-white minorities (esp young black people) getting behind the idea of getting ahead by hardwork and planning.

    On whose behalf will they feel indignant for?

    What were they rebelling against so ferociously?

    Many years ago a teacher (disciple of Ayn Rand actually) suggested that social workers unconsciously sabotage their clients in order to feel needed and that convince themselves they’re doing good work. I wanted to reject that idea at the time but I’ve seen it played out in real life far more than the opposite.

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    1. Young black people are behind the idea of getting ahead by hard work and planning, always have been. Black people in US are upwardly mobile by definition despite the fact that some very discouraged ones also exist.

      White people have always felt threatened by this. Consider, just as one example, that Tulsa race riot in the 20s, for instance, where a huge prosperous black business district was torched because it was huge, prosperous and black.

      Consider the attacks on public education, reductions to school lunch programs, and on, and on. These are all directly aimed at keeping minority and also other working class persons from rising.

      Saying this is the fault of those who NOTICE inequality may be fun but the people promoting all this inequality are people like my state governor not some random liberal freshman trying to figure out how things work.

      But yes, I have seen some social workers like that.

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  10. Overall, I suppose the reason that I don’t find this story to be good news is not because I don’t want young people to be empowered (I do) but I also want young people to be aware of the shortcomings of our system and to be inspired to make the world a better place. And I am generally a positive person. I love the world and I truly believe that most people are good people. But my personal feelings of general happiness aside, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues that need to be rectified.

    For instance, proportionately, Black Americans have higher drop out rates, higher incarceration rates, lower high school graduation rates and lower matriculation rate than White Americans. Unless I’m misunderstanding your story, it seems that your students would say that this points to a wide spread character flaw in the Black American population. By contrast, it seems that your students would point to men like Scott Walker, George W. Bush, and Bruce Rauner, and suggest that their success indicates that they are upstanding hard-workers.

    I don’t personally buy the above claims. Rather, I think there are structural/institutional injustices built into our system that serve to promote the interest of White middle-class/upper-class Americans and serve to inhibit African Americans. To give a concrete example, the fact that public education is funded through property taxes is a grave injustice and results in a profoundly unequal public school system. Urban schools, or schools in neighborhoods where the property is cheap, are woefully underfunded. I know I have mentioned this before but I taught in an urban school district and while, the teachers were good and hard working, the school was falling apart (a book case collapsed during class for instance), classroom size was 32:1 at the minimum, there weren’t enough books for students to take home, the library was understaffed and lacked a decent collection, there were no enrichment/after school tutoring programs etc etc.

    By contrast at the nice middle class public school I taught at (and in contrast to the nice middle-class public school I attended), there was free after school tutoring, books galore, generally a 20:1 class ratio, free SAT prep etc. etc. There is no way that students who graduated from the urban public school came away with the same educational experience at the students who graduated from the suburban public school. To give another example: in many large cities, public transportation is designed to make it difficult to travel from the urban neighborhoods to the cultural center of the city. This makes things like getting to museums, libraries, or pubic parks more difficult.

    So because I see all the above as structural injustices, I support things like increased funding to public education, universal public pre-school, re-districting, revamping the way public schools are funded, increased funding to public transportation, affirmative action programs etc. etc. And I do remember you saying Clarissa that you support affirmative action as it’s practiced at your school. In fact, I would argue that the very existence of the public university– particularly of a public university that serves an urban population– arises out of an attempt to remedy structural injustices.

    I know this comment is too long. So I will wind up now. 🙂 But I worry about the voting patterns of students who think that there are no structural injustices anywhere. Will they vote to defund the public school system? Work to overturn Affirmative Action programs? Vote to defund Head Start? Vote to dismantle public transportation? Maybe I’m misunderstanding the story. But I for one want young people to be aware of systemic flaws so that they can work to make our society more just and more prosperous.

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    1. “Overall, I suppose the reason that I don’t find this story to be good news is not because I don’t want young people to be empowered (I do) but I also want young people to be aware of the shortcomings of our system and to be inspired to make the world a better place”

      • On the subject of young people: we are really not a traditional expensive private school where rich white 18-year-olds are driven in limousines by their doting Mommies and Daddies to booze and party until their trust finds mature. There are quite a few students my age and older.

      “But I worry about the voting patterns of students who think that there are no structural injustices anywhere. . . Maybe I’m misunderstanding the story.”

      • I’m sorry but I think you are. We were discussing the way people interpret their own life experience. They shared the way they read their own lives. I don’t know how anybody can jump from this to overturning Affirmative Action. Nobody did in that classroom.

      “Unless I’m misunderstanding your story, it seems that your students would say that this points to a wide spread character flaw in the Black American population. By contrast, it seems that your students would point to men like Scott Walker, George W. Bush, and Bruce Rauner, and suggest that their success indicates that they are upstanding hard-workers.”

      • No, nobody said anything of the kind. Walker and Bush weren’t mentioned. People simply expressed their own philosophy of life. And one’s own philosophy of life doesn’t extend to Bush, Rauner, or the neighbor down the street. And it really doesn’t extend to collectivities because in a group the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts. This is precisely why I’m 100% for Affirmative Action and the reparations but I would not react very kindly if an individual told me, “I didn’t do the homework because structures of oppression prevented me.”

      Tell me, would this be a better story if the students had said, “I know that no matter how hard I work, I will always just struggle and keep failing. The rich will keep getting richer and the poor will stay poor. The lack of social mobility and structural oppression will prevent me from doing what I would really like to do with my life”? And let’s remember that this is all being said in the context of the classroom to me, the teacher.

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      1. “but I would not react very kindly if an individual told me, “I didn’t do the homework because structures of oppression prevented me.”

        Me neither. But if a student came to me and “I’m sorry. I attended the local urban high school and am here on a scholarship. I’m really struggling with writing skills/understanding the reading. Can you spend some extra time tutoring me?” I would gladly help. (I would gladly help any student of course. But there is a difference between a petulant whiney student and a student who is sincerely struggling with basic skills.)

        “Tell me, would this be a better story if the students had said I know that no matter how hard I work, I will always just struggle and keep failing. The rich will keep getting richer and the poor will stay poor. The lack of social mobility and structural oppression will prevent me from doing what I would really like to do with my life”

        Of course not. But I wouldn’t fault a student who DID say that. I would help the student to find ways to feel empowered, to seek help, to find ways to work within the system etc. etc. And if a student feels that they have gotten a fair shake and equal opportunity, that’s wonderful (I personally feel that I have gotten a fair shake.)

        I want students to feel empowered. I just don’t want them to think that structural barriers are a myth or that people who say that they have been inhibited by structural racism are lying/lazy.

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  11. “Given that this very trivial little story aroused a storm of comments while the really important posts on foreign affairs arouse zero interest, I don’t think anybody here is in the position to criticize others for having a reduced area of concern.”

    I don’t have zero interest in the Ukraine posts. I read them and do find them interesting and tragic. I just don’t have anything to say in response. It’s a horrible tragedy. But I just don’t have anything to add to those posts that you didn’t say already.

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    1. I see the number of hits each post gets. This one broke all the records in weeks. And it’s a post about nothing. Psychologically healthy people said some extremely obvious and healthy things. Period. End of story.

      Maybe I should start a series titled “Things Healthy People Say.”

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  12. First, we heard that the students were not the right race, then that they were not the right class, then that they were not the right kind of people of their race, then that they were the wrong age. Now the story is that I’m not the right kind of American or they are not the right kind of Americans.

    Among avoidance strategies, these are the most common and unimaginative.

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