Creative Control

Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist

Risk vs. Reward.


I struggle with the idea of the new compensation program being instituted in some Chicago public schools, which pays out cash to students for achieving at least a C-grade in English, math, science, social studies, or physical education.

The tsk-tsking old man inside me; slowly pickaxing his way out of the collapsed mine shaft in which he was born the day my childhood ended; the old man taps out in Morse code the standard argument that Kids These Days Have It Too Easy, that this is just another symptom of the Entitlement Generation demanding It Now. Why should these punks be given money for doing something that their predecessors did for free? That they did for the satisfaction of achievement and the pride of your parents and yourself?

But I’m only 31, yet, the tapping is faint, and with any luck the old crank in the mine shaft will suffocate and die down there before he ever reaches the light of my mind. The person I am now understands that it’s not as simple as that. I am, don’t get me wrong, somebody who often holds up comprehensive education as, if not a “magic bullet,” at the very least a bullet of incredible power and utility. But that metaphor implies that education is something you can simply fire and forget about. What one can forget is that the target is moving very quickly and in no easily trackable pattern.

David Simon, the man behind such incredibly under-appreciated television programs as The Wire and Homicide: Life on The Street, cut his teeth as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, his experiences and observations forming the basis of both his television series and his long-form journalistic works. Woven into the tapestry of The Corner: A Year in The Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, a book he wrote with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns, is a remarkable essay about the education system and its failure to reach those children in most need. It lays out in convincing fashion the hostility of the environment and the advantage that the open air drug markets have in luring youth away from the schools–namely, the advantage of results.

A teenager working his way up the drug market makes bank. That’s the long and short of it. Despite the many real and deadly risks involved in “the game,” those who survive and thrive as soldiers in the market have the money and influence to do what they want and how they want it.

And what the schools offer you? An education. But what does that education offer you? A chance to find an entry-level data entry job and mountains of student loan debts that you pay off for the rest of your life while letting the corporate infrastructure suck you dry? These kids have seen what comes of honesty and hard labor in America; most of them have parents who worked two jobs for fifty years, committed no crimes, and who could still never escape the slum they grew up in. One doesn’t need to be “educated,” to be smart enough to find this a ridiculous path to follow.

But I’m not just talking about the inner-city. That would be very easy to dismiss as “their problem.” But it’s not “their problem,” it’s our problem, and I’m not saying that in the sense that “every American is worthy of our brotherhood,” I’m saying that this observation of the inner cities has slowly permeated American culture at large. That it’s not just the urban poor who are victimized by this. This was never a virus that could be quarantined effectively.

We watch political races in which the contestants and their staff have been consistently rewarded for thumbing their noses at the rule of law, or have received massive payouts for gross incompetence.

We live in an America that has embraced a fierce anti-intellectualism, couching it in the idea that intelligence is something one cultivates to feel superior to others (which, yes, sometimes it is) and must therefore be shunned and disparaged. We live in an America that creates entertainment based on the principle of humiliating an adult pitted against a fifth-grader and then goes to the voting booth and puts that same adult in control of the armed forces. We do this in the name of balancing things out, of making sure that nobody is made to feel inferior…we lower the bars that we do not wish to place the effort to hurdle. We soft-pedal facts in terms like “some say that” and “some believe that” so as not to appear unfair to those who traffic in outright lies.

In that America, what right do we have to look at our children and say “go to school”? What credibility do we have to espouse the value of education when we tolerate the value associated with having not education, but simply the chutzpah, connections, and ruthlessness to claw to the top of the heap? Hell, we don’t just tolerate it, we qualify it award-winning and multi-platinum1.

What right do we have to say that they should not be paid $50 per A when they excel in school when we permit those who fail outright in society to reap endless benefits not in spite of that failure, but in fact for that failure?

I won’t say I support the payoff strategy, but it doesn’t seem there are enough of us, anymore, willing to suggest that intelligence and education is its own reward. Besides, even if we were willing to suggest as such, could we say it with a straight face anymore?

1 I need to elaborate on this quip, because I’m not trying to declare Kanye West part of the disease. I’ve never been quite comfortable with his skits and rhymes that put down formal schooling throughout this album, but at the same time he’s talking about his experience, which I described above as per David Simon’s journalism–West’s life led him away from school and into the industry that best served his abilities as an artist and producer. He’s fortunate, in that way, to have recognized it in himself and to have had others recognize it as well.

I worry a bit, however, about those who take West’s narration of his own truth, or the pre-graduation NBA move of LeBron James, or the stories of Deion Sanders’ lackadaisical approach to football studying, to be a sort of call to inaction. I don’t think West tells his listeners to drop out of college, I think he tells them that college was not the place for him, and he then backed up that statement by exploiting his natural talents into something productive.

But we all can’t be Kanye, LeBron, or Neon Deion. We just can’t.

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2008 by in Books, Chicago, Education, History, Music, Politics, School, Society, Television.
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