It was a heated conversation, but when I paused to think, I thought, "Who is this guy?" So I Googled him, and I found his book, and I bought it. I tend to think this is an important "academic" idea - the close reading of those you disagree with. Sometimes it changes your mind in important ways - I know that, for example, my thoughts on Horace Mann changed dramatically as I really read his words when I began writing my thesis. Sometimes, certainly, it doesn't. But either way, you need to try.
|Lincoln School, New Rochelle, NY - the evidence might suggest that when integration |
has not been undone, there are differing results.
|Life Magazine, 1966 |
Having lived through a big part of this era, I might begin with different questions.
And yet, as Ford says (and I have attempted to say to Buck via angry Twitter argument), "But Buck's focus on schools neglects the bigger picture. The power of the epithet "acting white" is just one manifestation of a belligerent youth subculture among poor blacks that rejects mainstream institutions generally. "Acting white" is to education as "stop snitching" is to law enforcement: an attitude of aimless and self-destructive opposition, borne of deprivation, alienation, and despair. The root cause lies in the depth and pervasiveness of inner-city poverty. Buck argues that poverty can't be the cause of "acting white" because "blacks in the Jim Crow era … pursued education eagerly even in the presence of far more dire poverty. If poverty … caused the 'acting white' criticism, it surely would have shown up long before the 1960s." But the problem isn't just objective poverty. It's also social isolation, which worsened dramatically at precisely the time Buck says the acting-white problem emerged."
Buck does not, in my mind, see the big picture precisely because he fails, at the start, to ask the right questions. And perhaps - and I know I'm treading into dangerous assumption territory here - he doesn't ask the right questions because he knew what he wanted to write before he began his research.
What leads me to believe this begins with Buck's casually negative characterizations of people he clearly sees as opponents, those who, "argue that that many of the things learned in school - ways of thinking, writing, or problem-solving, for example - are "white" or "Eurocentric" (p. 19)," as political and sloppy (he quotes William Darity as describing his research as "warfare in the academy" (p. 20) in an attempt to discredit his work at the start).
Obviously, though, Buck's book is essentially a political, not an academic, argument. This is a free-market, America "as it is" declaration, insisting that African-American students and African-American communities must change, because we don't want to (or cannot) make any changes in America's socio-economic or educational structure. Ford again, "Buck endorses everything from vouchers to exclusively black-male charter schools to the novel idea of replacing individual grades in integrated schools with academic competitions between teams of students."
Thus, it is not really a surprise that Buck thinks that when I suggest that we rely on student strengths, and adapt curriculum and especially communication methods to student strengths, we are cheating kids. Or that he gets angry when I suggest that our schools are "white," "Eurocentric," places obsessed with creating "norms." I say these things in a way which suggests problems, and Buck, the white adoptive father of two Black children (book flap), has a very large personal and cultural stake in cultural conversion and moving all toward "a norm."
My experience - and politics - differ. Having watched school desegregation proceed clumsily and badly in New Rochelle, NY, I have also seen what happens when integration has continued in a single public high school city with consistent support for educational institutions and facilities. So, seeing differing results in differing circumstances I might begin from a less certain place.
And thus I might ask different questions up front, including the questions Buck has told me - via Twitter - that he had no interest in asking. Questions about the purpose of the American education system, questions about cognitive theories, questions about learning theories. Even questions about term definitions - how, as an example, might one define, "thinking, writing, [and] problem-solving"? What, I might ask, is, "Acting Student"? And if "Acting Student" is "Acting White," what does that suggest? Because I would ask, can you really discuss these issues if you do not begin by making sure that everyone understands what you mean when you say something?
I think you do. Unless your goal is to confirm what you thought in the first place. Perhaps if your solution is 'changing the students' - your research will lead you to believe that is necessary.
And Buck's book suggests to me that he "neglects the bigger picture" because the bigger picture clashed with the hypothesis - and perhaps a very personal hypothesis - he began with. And not just his book, in a later "battle" we argued over the definition of "private school" - and whether the US definition was the same as the European definition. Buck showed little understanding of the concept of state religion or the differing social structures - perhaps (again, that dangerous assumption) because admitting that Catholic schools in the Republic of Ireland are not really equivalent to for profit charter schools in the United State would challenge the political narrative (defunding American public education) embraced by both himself and his Ivy League sponsors.
Confirmation Bias is a huge problem in research, especially social science research. We too often begin with an 'uneducated guess' which we call a hypothesis. And then we search the internet for information which supports that. We acknowledge challenges but dismiss them. We may even limit observation to ensure that our case studies don't blow up our hypothesis.
So, when I observe differing cultures learning differently, I wonder, and I try not to generalize. When I see a blind person reading Braille or anyone reading an audiobook, or even (to quote from a Twitter argument with Buck), a telegrapher in an old film reading Morse Code, I wonder about what those things - cognitively - have in common and what separates them. If I see Canadian or European school policy I look at the entirety of the difference, and I, yes, it's the leftist in me, look at who seems to be "winning" and "losing" in the resultant society. I can even look at French laïcité and be both strongly supportive of the goal and deeply troubled by the personal freedom implications.
Now Stuart Buck's interests ("historical" as he says) and mine may not seem to clash. We're both, I suspect, historians by nature, and deeply political historians (is there any other kind?). But I'm a post-modernist and he is not. I doubt truths and he hunts for truths. Still, the biggest separation is that I never begin research with a hypothesis. I am a Grounded Theory guy ("Rather than beginning by researching and developing a hypothesis, the first step is data collection, through a variety of methods."). I begin instead with an interest in a topic, but I refuse to make predictions as to what I will discover.
This does not eliminate bias. Nothing eliminates bias in human learning. But it tends to limit "confirmation bias" because there is nothing to confirm. And it tends to limit confirmation bias because Grounded Theory requires you to define terms. I think of geologist William Smith in Simon Winchester's book The Map That Changed the Worldneeding to begin his work with a definition of "rock." What he was seeing in those coal mines and canal digs of the 1790s couldn't begin to be classified until he determined that definition.
So, I think Buck is wrong about many things. But that's not a problem. Many of us disagree about many things. That's what makes the world an interesting place.
But in why I think he gets it wrong is a cautionary tale for all of us.
- Ira Socol