Twin Taproot

For some years now I have been paying the costs of two South African boys’ education. The boys are brothers; their father is a single parent, Mom having died of cancer two years ago. The school they go to, chosen by their parents when Mom was still alive, is in general pedagogically “conservative,” has a full slate of activities for the students, and has a good reputation locally. For years all of its seniors have passed the “matrics,” South Africa’s school-leaving tests (the national pass rate is about 60%). Most of the students live near the school, but it draws students from all over Johannesburg. Discipline is consistent and firm but not harsh by South African standards. Students carry a diary requiring parents’ signature daily, in which the parent or teacher may write about current concerns. On the whole, the school’s parents support the school’s practices and decisions.

When the boys get home from school, they start their homework and continue at it with short breaks till they are finished. When they were younger, dinner waited till homework was done; now, dinnertime is often a break time after which homework continues. The elder boy, 13, was a poor student in his early years but has gradually improved till now he is an honor student and was recently chosen as a kind of sub-prefect. The younger boy, 9, has always been an excellent student, a budding athlete, and, as his father says, “the induna [great leader] of the playground.”

At home there is no doubt that the demands of school must be met. Dad’s own schooling started at a public school and continued at a mission school not far from the family’s village in the rural north. For a long time the mission was the most prominent institution in the area, its priests, brothers and nuns generally respected throughout the countryside. Dad named the elder boy after one of the priests, who chose to be buried in the mission’s churchyard rather than in his European homeland; and he still speaks fondly of his history teacher Sister Mary Hugh, as did his classmate the late novelist Phaswane Mpe. His parents, both orphaned, were taken in at the mission and received their schooling there. It is one of the givens in this family that schooling matters.

However the value of schooling becomes or remains a part of parents’ fundamental beliefs, one thing seems clear: the instillation must be affirmative or positive, not negative. Though the boys are sometimes punished for the occasional lapse, it would be destructive to try and punish them programmatically into a “respect” for school that would actually be only a sullen and fearful acquiescence. In fact, the boys like their school very much. Here is the probable basis of an element of effective parenthood: parents bring beliefs forward from childhood experience through growth to adult application.

Hence my concern on reading that state legislatures are considering and even passing legislation fining parents for their children’s educational misdemeanors such as truancy. If parents’ child-rearing practices are leading to truancy, delinquency, and failure, such laws will only punish the barn after the horse gets out. Diane Ravitch says that “[p]arenting education needs to begin when a woman is pregnant. The window is open from prenatal days until age 5.” This comment jibes with those made by an occupational therapist who used to be my colleague. She thought that much of the needed physical and mental discipline leading to effectiveness in school had to be instilled at a young age by parents who had a sense of how to do it and felt doing so as a positive and continual obligation.

Ravitch goes on to say that “the root problem” lying behind poor child rearing “is poverty.” In a similar if more general vein, Dr. Johnson says, “Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.” Ravitch says further that “we should be giving [poor or unknowledgeable parents] a helping hand,” which seems to echo Dr. Johnson’s dictum that “a decent provision for the poor is the true test of any civilization.”

I think, though, that if we did more digging we would find a double taproot. One part is as Ravitch & Johnson claim, but poverty cannot be a sufficient cause; otherwise, the South African family I have told you about would have completely different experiences of education, for they were and are poor. Nor does relative affluence necessarily guard against fecklessness, as many teachers of more economically fortunate students know. If beliefs lie behind action and inaction, maybe those also need examining as part of a possible explanation of what is going wrong.

Whatever happens, we are not going to do any real explaining or any real fixing if we spend our time wondering, as Ravitch puts it, “If only we could find the right person to punish.”


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