Working Hard

May 15, 2008

When talking with my students about constraints on the individual choices that families might make on behalf of their children, they inevitably talk of their grandparents and great parents “who came here with nothing” and worked hard and learned English so that they could “make it”. In the family stories as told by many of my students, this transition to economic security and cultural assimilation happened relatively quickly, and, except for the “hard work”, was pretty straightforward

It sometimes seems as if some of these students project their own relative comfort back several generations, even while they also claim a family legacy of “working hard to make it”. It would seem, at least in the versions of family history told in my classes, that immigrants of previous generations enjoyed cozy evenings gathered around the scratched and worn kitchen table, wearied, perhaps, by their day at the factory but profoundly grateful for all that their children were accomplishing at school.

I honestly do appreciate their questions about why, then, they see poor children struggling with English in their classrooms. They wonder why the children of these families haven’t worked harder to learn English, why the parents aren’t working enough to provide for their children, why these families “rely” on public services for things like health care when their ancestors valued taking responsibility for one’s own family, why school seems to not be a priority in some of these families.

And this opens the doors to all sorts of conversations. We trace family economic histories (though I’ve been thinking that I could do this much more formally), and talk about how, historically, it had commonly taken four generations from immigration to the first college graduate in a family.

We talk about the differences between coming with “nothing” in terms of savings or material possessions yet having a marketable skill, and coming with only the strength in one’s arms and back.

We talk as straightforwardly as I can press them about how those of us gathered in a university classroom are not representative of the rest of the population, and advise caution against the assumption that we are the norm while those kids in their second grade classroom are the aberration.

We talk about the Catholic schools during the waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (including the one attended by my father) that taught children in their home language, as families slowly transitioned into English while adamantly preserving ties to home.

We talk about the changing nature of immigration, about how people who arrived after weeks on a boat (and whose letters home would take as long to cross back) had fewer options for sustaining identification with their homeland than today’s immigrants who can text, call, skype, post and view photos and videos on the internet, and can (and do) live simultaneously in multiple worlds.

We talk about the immense differences between immigration that was, for all intents and purposes, permanent, when travel and politics and religion made clear to everyone that leaving was for good, and immigration motivated primarily by the search for jobs.

And we talk about economic times that have and have not enabled people to get beyond the first steps on steep ladders, about jobs and wages and upturns and downturns and the declining earning power of people who do manual labor.

The inability to make a decent living, let alone to get ahead, in spite of working hard is powerfully illustrated in Peter Goodman’s recent NYT article on Latinos being particularly hard hit by the current downturn in the economy. He writes:

The boom in American housing generated millions of new jobs for those willing to engage in physically demanding tasks, from factory work churning out floorboards, carpeting and upholstery, to landscaping, roofing and janitorial services. Latinos occupied widening swaths of these trades and filled large numbers of relatively high-paying construction jobs.

As a great influx of Latino immigrants spread beyond the initial entryways of the Southwest into smaller cities and towns across the South and the Midwest, many found employment doing much of the unpleasant work shunned by those with better prospects.

But now significant portions of this work are disappearing. What were once the fastest-growing areas of the nation, including states with expanding Hispanic populations like Florida, California, Georgia and Nevada, are often bearing the brunt of the pain.

The belief that we can control our economic circumstances through hard work is difficult to shake, but at least with analysis like this, we can delve deeper in our conversations about “them” and “us” as we move into more nuanced discussion about how our families found their own way in very different economic times.

And hopefully, we can also then move beyond talk of education being mainly about preparing people for jobs to also talk about how education can be about preparing a citizenry who can participate in creating public policies other than those that simply leave people to fend for themselves, floundering, in spite of working very hard all of their lives.

It’s very hard work for teachers to rethink so much of what they’ve learned about the place of education in the lives of American families, and to become advocates for those kids in their classrooms, especially in the face of so much public discourse that simply takes the easy route of blaming teachers for persistently uneven playing fields.

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One Response to “Working Hard”

  1. Jeanne Says:

    The belief that we can control our economic circumstances through hard work is difficult to shake…

    Indeed. And nice work trying to get privileged students to see beyond their own experiences or the romanticized and sterilized experiences of their ancestors.

    One question I’ve heard about is the benefits white people especially got in the 1800s through things like free land in the west–my great great grandfather, an Irish immigrant, benefited from that program and was one of the first settlers in Winona, Minnesota. It may not seem like much to have gotten a free piece of land in 1860, but it was an enormous gift, as enormous as it would be today to get a free plot of land somewhere. The land allowed my great great grandfather to, for instance, take out loans in order to build a home. That home allowed him and his family to acquire more wealth and net worth, just from the value of the land and the home.

    I’m getting some of this stuff from a book I’m reading, White Wealth/Black Wealth, which makes the argument that looking at equality through wealth or assets reveals some interesting trends in the US and suggests some solutions to poverty and inequality.


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