Poverty, Peasants and Schooling

Reading Tolstoy for Social Justice Education

Brilliant Tolstoy discusses the complex nature of “education for emancipation” in his classic novel, Anna Karenina. I refer to Levin, of course, a wealthy landowner who spends his time in the country farming, writing a book on agriculture and secretly longing for the simple and joyful life of the peasantry. While Levin entertains the idea of organizing his farm into a cooperative business enterprise where the peasants will participate in the profits in order to increase productivity, he argues with the gentry on whether or not “rational farming” can truly make a difference. Here is a brief excerpt of a dialogue (pages 335-337):

Sviyazhsky: The people are on so low a level both of material and moral development that they are certain to oppose what is good for them. In Europe, rational farming answers because the people are educated; therefore we must educate our people – that’s all.

Levin: If the people are on a low level of material development: how will schools help?

Sviyazhsky: Schools will give people other wants.

Levin: How will schools help the peasants to improve their material conditions? You say that schools and education will give them new wants. So much the worse, for they won’t be able to satisfy them. And in what way does knowing how to add and subtract and to say the catechism help them to improve their material condition, I could never understand! The treatment seems to me just a parallel to treating peasants by means of schools. The people are poor and ignorant, this we know…but why schools should cure the ills of poverty and ignorance is just as incomprehensible as why hens on their perches should cure fractiousness. What needs to be cured is their poverty. Schools are no remedy, but the remedy would be an economic organization under which the people would be better off and have more leisure. Then schools would come.

Let’s just flash for a minute to a recent web article by Ashleigh Patterson, entitled Feeling Poor Spurs Lottery Ticket Purchases (7/25/2008, Reuters Life!) which quotes George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who states, “When people are made to feel subjectively poor, they end up buying more lottery tickets which is somewhat perverse since every time you buy a lottery ticket, it’s the equivalent of burning money,” In this “study” people earning less than $100,000 a year, which was suggested by the researchers to be a low-income, bought 1.27 lottery tickets compared to 0.67 by people who earned more.”

And so, I pause and I think. I try to wrap my brain around the fact that this study refers to people earning less than $100,000 a year as low-income. Consider of course, that if a family making $95K a year is low income, how would we describe a family living on a teacher’s salary of $42K? Then, a salary over $100,000 is now considered just breaking into middle class, these days? I also consider the ramifications of the use of the word perverse since every time you buy a lottery ticket – you burn money. Would this be the same as the statement that “people are on so low a level both of material and moral development that they are certain to oppose what is good for them?”

And then my dear readers, I did what I always do. I thought about myself, my life and my current predicament. My husband and almost everyone I know buys lottery tickets on a weekly basis. My grandmother, may she rest in peace bought a lottery ticket daily along with playing the numbers. My aunt who after twenty-five years of service in a wealthy private hospital is lying ill in a bed concerned that her health benefits will expire too soon (and will you please take that wallet in the drawer and buy the Mega tonight, dear?) bought lotto tickets her whole life, and I myself having been unemployed for more than two years and stuck in this horrific real estate market — am buying a lottery ticket. This new tiny, 2 X 3 slip of paper sits every Tuesday and Friday on my desk next to a diploma for a doctorate of philosophy in educational leadership. Not that that last fact says anything about my level of intelligence or my capacity to live a productive and meaningful existence. In fact, it says very little about anything. In the last few years I have gotten such ill and ignorant treatment from highly educated members of the community who are apparently unaware and oblivious to the facts of life out here in the real world. So much so, that to them, a lottery ticket is a perversion while for me as of late, a lottery ticket on a Tuesday, is simply an act of hope. It is a choice to feel hope and dream and imagine in spite of the despair, desolation and poverty that pervades every day existence. And I am not alone, folks. And we all ain’t ignorant.

Now, back to Tolstoy and schooling. The argument under consideration remains that people who are low on both a material and moral development level are certain to oppose what is good for them. First, the latter does deserve some discussion, doesn’t it? For example: How do we know the levels of moral development, exactly? What criteria must we follow? It vaguely reminds me of my dissertation and my noble attempt to quantify critical literacies outside the box – you know, outside a person’s ability to phonetically read a paragraph and mechanically write a sentence. I wanted to quantify an individual’s ability to interpret, put into perspective, strategize, critically analyze, interrogate, validate themselves and others, have a social awareness and imagine. That noted, I want to push us along and quickly agree with Tolstoy when he says that if education is simply about giving these people new wants, then so much for the worst because they won’t be able to satisfy them! What are the wants that education gives people and why won’t they be able to satisfy them? This is the fundamental question behind social justice education because it underlines the assumptions embedded in our current education practice.

Here are the assumptions: People have wants. Wants are different depending on whether you are peasantry or gentry. Education gives people new wants. The new wants are reflective of the wants of the gentry (ie. the status quo). However, if the peasantry learns the new wants, they will not be able to satisfy them, regardless of his or her education. (Why? Because then the status quo would be altered and the wants would have to be redefined in order to reproduce the notion of Haves and the Have Nots.)

It is also noteworthy to consider Tolstoy’s statement about the relationship between schooling and poverty. He writes, “What needs to be cured is their poverty. Schools are no remedy, but the remedy would be an economic organization under which the people would be better off and have more leisure. Then schools would come.” Why, then schools would come? Does he suggest that a result of economic well-being and leisure is the desire for education? If so, then, what would the purpose of education be if it were no longer to “give people new wants?”

If we free ourselves from the notion that participation and achievement in the current educational system will provide us with “equal” or better opportunity in society and consequently free ourselves from the notion that we must “give” our at risk, struggling, impoverished youth “new wants” (because ultimately they will not be able to satisfy them in the current socio-political structure) then – we can begin to imagine education as a completely different endeavor. What might education look like if “people were better off and have more leisure?” What kind of school would come?

Laying a foundation for “the new school” is at the heart of social justice education. Unfortunately with standardized testing and the privatization of our schools especially threatening in the most impoverished communities, schools making a commitment to social justice struggle every day with negotiating a perilous terrain intended to swallow the bravest. The first thing educators considering social justice education need to know is that the heart of the work lies in each one of our imaginations. I use the word imagination because the school, the new school, that is – does not currently exist. It requires that each person on board is ready to break down and sprout new wings and this requires a leap of faith and a lot of hard work.

The biggest step, however, and the most difficult step is understanding, adopting and living by this transformational belief:

If people are “better off and have more leisure” the schools will come.

What are the fundamental assumptions embedded in this statement?
Well-being and more leisure are critical to education.

So, while the current debates in education still hypnotize us to believe that our children, our teachers, our parents in the ghetto, in black and brown skins, in despair or in prison – need to learn to work harder, get more discipline, close the achievement gap, stay in school longer and throughout the summer, jump higher over the moving hurdle, get more math and reading and less music and theater and art, point a finger at yourself for not working hard enough, feel shame for not reaching the $100,000 “low income” salary –

Stay clear eyed and firm about what is real and what is spin. Fight hard and fight long for well being first, more leisure second, and I promise, the school will come. The school will come.


Guiding Questions for Discussion

1) What is the purpose of schools?
2) Do people of a low material and moral development oppose what is good for them?
3) How does the notion of schooling and education change depending on the socio-economic status of the students?
4) If all of our children in the schools were better off and experienced more leisure, what kind of schools would we create for them?


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