Lives on the Boundary, 25 Years Later

When I teach about Education and Class, one of the books that resonates most deeply with my students is Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary.

The book was written 25 years ago, but students are still mesmerized by the narrative because so much of the book still rings true.

In his excellent blog, Rose tells the story of getting Lives on the Boundary published in the first place:

It was summarily turned down by 12 publishers in a row, for it is, after all, an account of one person’s educational journey, hardly the stuff of a best-seller. (In today’s market, it most likely would not get published at all.) Other potential liabilities: The vocabulary and syntax are not simple—I’m a big fan of the embedded clause. The book is peppered with references to cultural events and artifacts of my youth and early adulthood and to the books and ideas being introduced to me. Finally, though it is driven by stories, those stories are woven into an argument about social class and educational inequality. As a read, it is not a day at the beach.

He writes that now, the popular press is more likely to tell tales of insurmountable obstacles working against the academic achievement of the poor, or instead, of triumphant stories of homelessness to Harvard. While both kinds of stories are true and important, Rose’s lifelong work has been to quietly ell very different stories:

There are other narratives involving poor people and school; unfortunately, they are perceived by some editors as less dramatic, but they are hugely important. They are stories of people who do make it, maybe not with great fanfare, but they succeed. Not infrequently, they have benefitted from dedicated teachers and mentors, or special programs, or more timely and targeted financial aid and services. There are also stories of people who don’t complete a certificate or degree, but who accomplished something valuable, like the young man I got to know who turned his life away from drugs and the streets during the first year of a welding program and after a lot of thought and consultation joined the Navy to stabilize his life and finish his education.

 If all we read are stories of failure, we can come to think that little is possible for students who start out behind the eight ball, that it doesn’t matter what the institution does. We have to have stories like DeParle’s, absolutely, for they slam home the devastation of inequality. And also give us the story of a young person’s exceptional achievements—the rise from mean streets to a robotics lab. I’ve told both kinds of stories. But give us as well the full range, the less dramatic, but tremendously important testaments to our broad and varied intelligence as a people and to the difference a responsive institution can make as people go to college or return to it, seeking a better life. All of us need to read these stories, but especially the students who are living them.

I highly recommend Lives on the Boundary, as I’ve been recommending it for almost 25 years now.

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