The Washington Post runs a depressing piece in Outlook today by Patrick Welsh, an Alexandria, Virginia high school English teacher who is struggling with the academic failures of his "virtually all-black class of 12th-graders." Mr. Welsh, who may risk being dismissed as a racist by the mafia of bad-policy education formulators, and disciplined by school administrators who are in their thrall, argues that you can throw millions of dollars at the problem, like oil onto flames, but until you get parents-and especially fathers-to care about the education and welfare of their children, nothing you do is going to help.
My students knew intuitively that the reason they were lagging academically had nothing to do with race, which is the too-handy explanation for the achievement gap in Alexandria. And it wasn't because the school system had failed them. They knew that excuses about a lack of resources and access just didn't wash at the new, state-of-the-art, $100 million T.C. Williams, where every student is given a laptop and where there is open enrollment in Advanced Placement and honors courses. Rather, it was because their parents just weren't there for them -- at least not in the same way that parents of kids who were doing well tended to be.
Of course, the story of inner-city school failure is nothing new. Pat Moynihan addressed it inter alia in 1965 in "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," describing the "deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American" as a "tangle of pathology" arising from the absence of men from the family structure, and attributing it to the legacy of American slavery, which he called "profoundly different from, and in its lasting effects on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than, any recorded servitude, ancient or modern." Nor was Moynihan himself the first; he relied on a host of earlier studies to produce his own, including the pioneering work of the renowned African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, who'd already observed in 1950 that
. . . disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community. . . . Since the widespread family disorganization among Negroes has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in family life required by American society, the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him."
More than four decades-and four decades' worth of worthless, nay, harmful, policies-after the Moynihan Report, the situation is still calamitous, and social scientists continue to grapple with it. Kay Hymowitz, in her 2005 City Journal tour de force, "The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies," sounded a cautious note of hope after first limning the grim catalogue of ills besetting black communities:
And finally, in the ghetto itself there is a growing feeling that mother-only families don't work. That's why people are lining up to see an aging comedian as he voices some not-very-funny opinions about their own parenting. That's why so many young men are vowing to be the fathers they never had. That's why there has been an uptick, albeit small, in the number of black children living with their married parents.
But Patrick Welsh's students have yet to see any evidence of that uptick, and in the meantime there's a disturbing new wrinkle to the story. In answer to his asking them in frustration why they didn't study "like the kids from Africa," one student told him:
"It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study." Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.
He was "stunned." And there is something stunning about it, over and above the intrinsic tragic truth of it, which is that these kids seem to have wrung out of the misery of absent parentage a new formulation for excusing themselves from living up to any expectations.