Alfie Kohn wrote a book entitled, What does it mean to be educated? I sat today, pondering the same thing. What does it mean to be educated? In the suburbs and in the media, being educated means being equipped with a high school diploma, then a Bachelor’s degree and in the case of about 1 – 20 percent of the population, according to the federal government’s, State of Education report, a graduate degree. Everyone I knew in my youth had college as a goal, everyone; not just the white kids but everyone. That has changed.
John Ogbu, James Banks, Sonia Nieto and a few others I have read, suggest that going to college for many young people in the urban/inner city environment (black, white, latino, etc.) isn’t even a reality for them so preparation, visualization and anticipation aren’t part of their future aspirations. It isn’t about the color of their skin it is about their income and the promise of a good education for them. Martin Luther King Jr., in the year, and especially in the months, before his assassination, focused his efforts on those people living in poverty. Ruby Payne also collected information and research about people living in low socioeconomic communities that illustrated that people living in poverty have a different cultural foundation based on cooperation and relationships. For them it isn’t about attaining a “formal” education, it is more or less needs based and living day-to-day. The education that comes from living in an environment where relationships are important, survival is important and knowing how to turn public assistance like food stamps into cash gives one an advantage in the current system. This education could be referred to as, “street smarts.”
How do I define street smarts? Sheesh, I imagine it’s difficult so let’s look at current resources. After perusing several sources, street smarts means having an informal, shrewd and cunning knowledge of survival skills in an urban, poverty stricken environment. Interesting definition; there was an associated article asking the question whether or not new MBAs (business administration graduate students) need more street smarts. Do some CEOs already have the street smarts to make it big because some of the same shrewd and cunning skills necessary to survive the streets also make one a good business person? Transactional relationships, an “eye” beyond your current situation, how to read people and a shrewdness to your social interactions may have led to people like Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, Jermaine Dupri, Jay-Z and a few other CEOs-of-color who grew up poor but have reached a level of financial and “power” security they probably didn’t think they could attain when they were struggling. They did it without college degrees although some of them may have gotten a degree later on in their careers.
What does it mean to be educated when people who have degrees, even graduate degrees, are jobless after being told all throughout their lives that education leads to opportunities? Does education necessarily mean employment? The best candidate seems to be the street smart college graduate. That might mean incorporating the skills developed as one becomes street smart (for example, being more sensitive to “reading” other people) into one’s formal preparation for whatever career they pursue. This would mean adjusting curriculum to facilitate progress based on the learner’s previous knowledge – even if that knowledge isn’t necessarily valued by the traditional curriculum. That was the idea behind the Oakland School District’s decision to label black vernacular as a dialect of Standard English, or for Stanford University to develop a culturally biased test called “The Chitlin Test” that asked test takers such minority-focused questions like, “how long do you have to boil collared greens before they are done cooking?”
This type of strategy is student-centered and focuses on the experiences of the individual student and by incorporating that culturally specific knowledge into the standard curriculum required by schools, each child in your class can meet the expectations of a district and, Heaven forbid, a national standard. I suppose my conclusion is that being street smart, or not being street smart, should not prevent a child from attaining whatever goals they have in mind. Creative, child-centered teachers can nurture the idea of college in young people because the young person recognizes that the teacher values the knowledge the learner has and supports the idea that this street smart “intelligence” as Gardner might suggest, can improve rather than hinder the aspirations of success in children living in poverty, children of color and traditionally disenfranchised populations.
But this young man did everything right. He earned honors in high school, avoided gangs and gang entanglements; by all accounts (including law enforcement) he was a good son and young man. He even used the street smarts he developed; reportedly, he knew there had been trouble the morning of his death and went home a different way. The melee followed him. They preyed on him; an entire group preyed on him and beat him to death. All of his street smarts didn’t help him; sadly no one helped him until it was too late.
It would be very easy to focus on all the good things he did, find, arrest and banish the teens who did this but, and all the bully research is moving in this direction, we have to deal with the lack of positive conflict skills in the perpetrators and show them that there is a different way for their lives to proceed. A friend who studies gifted and talented youth once said to me that some of these bullies and disruptors in class are equipped with a gift in leadership. However, many teachers are apprehensive about arming these students with responsibilities or are worried that they will be rewarding bad behavior. But it isn’t bad behavior – it is good behavior trying desperately to fit in with a classroom environment that doesn’t seem to value their gifts. I’m not saying these brutal teenagers who killed this young man are gifted, or misunderstood – what I AM saying is that there are systemic issues underneath this behavior and they have been ignored, misdiagnosed and under-resourced for so long that their street smarts have become their first tool for dealing with conflict, “disrespect” or anger. This means strike first, deal with the consequences later – and those consequences aren’t even envisioned, just like the possibilities of college.
I guess what I am trying to say is, hope doesn’t just come to you – hope is fostered, nurtured and passed along by individuals. I don’t know how to fix all the problem(s) of Chicago and many other cities like it – but I know that I can pass on hope to those around me who are listening; Sara has nurtured hope in me and I try to continue to build it within myself – I encourage you to nurture hope in those you love.