Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Educating for Helplessness

Communal self-sabotage and the cycle of poverty

Here’s a Washington Post story about a poor black kid from rural Mississippi, and the hard road he faces out of poverty. Excerpts:

Davis, 19, was about to graduate from one of the poorest-performing schools in a region of America that offers the bleakest landscape for the young, and the moment came with equal parts excitement and dread: As he entered adulthood, there was no telling when or how all the combustible parts of his life might now blow up.

Davis’s senior year had doubled as a reminder about all the hazards. He barely had a stable place to live and had moved months earlier to the far edge of town, taking over a dim unit paid for by his aunt after he grew sick of sleeping on a love seat at his grandmother’s cramped place. Davis had little family support; he’d fought with his mother so furiously several years back, his solution now was to simply not see her. He also was graduating with a debt — $1,200, the fine for driving his aunt’s car without insurance and then skipping a court date.

Toughest of all, graduation meant stepping into a place providing few examples of something better. His street in Drew consisted of a rusting cotton gin and a row of boarded-up storefronts. His neighborhood had a thriving drug trade that took place near an abandoned building with “For Colored” painted atop a doorway. His county had a poverty rate nearly three times the national average, at 36 percent. His state had the lowest median income in the nation and the second-highest incarceration rates. He could drive for two hours in any direction without finding a local jobless rate resembling anything near the national average.


The Deep South’s paralyzing intergenerational poverty is the devastating sum of problems both historical and emergent — ones that, in the life of a young man, can build in childhood and then erupt in early adulthood. Students such as Davis deal with traumas at home and dysfunction at school — only to find themselves, as graduates, searching for low-paying jobs in states that have been reluctant to fund programs that help the poor. That cycle carries implications not only for the current generation, but also for the ones to come, and holds back a region that has fallen further behind the rest of the nation.

If you read the whole thing, you’ll notice that Jadareous Davis will not keep to a schedule. He is late to his graduation ceremony, even though he had been told to be there by nine. Later, he loses a job because he shows up late. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if you want to get ahead, you have to be on time. It’s a small thing, but small things count for a lot.

Last weekend, at a party, I ran into a friend who was back in town visiting our town, which is close to Mississippi. My friend teaches in one of these redominantly black schools like the one profiled in the WaPo piece. I hadn’t seen him for a year and a half or so, and was dismayed to see how downcast he was. He had been seriously injured in a classroom scuffle with a high schooler taller than he is, a confrontation initiated by the student, who didn’t appreciate being instructed to sit down and stop talking during class.

He was feeling very grim about his job. When I last saw him, he was full of stories about how difficult it was teaching in that school, but he had high hopes. No more.

“If I had just one kid who cared about learning, it would make it worthwhile,” he said. “But I don’t.”

He described an overwhelming culture of indifference within the school and the student body. The school’s leadership are proponents of “culturally appropriate education,” which means, in practice, that teachers may not expect African-American students not to talk in class during the lesson, or to avoid talking over each other. This is their culture, and must be respected, goes the theory.

The weary teacher listed a few more examples of this kind of thing, and how it makes teaching and learning in that school next to impossible. And in his telling, the culture these kids come from at home is as fragmented and as chaotic as the one Jadareous Davis was raised in. Both the culture of the home and the culture of the school are failing these kids. Both are forming and educating them for helplessness.

“Sounds like that school is graduating kids who will be incapable of working in the real world,” I said.

He shrugged, signaling agreement.

“But what do we do with kids like that?” I pressed. “If they can’t hold a job … what?”

He said nothing. Because there was nothing to say.




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