Thomas Edsall's Question

Today in the Times Thomas Edsall asks just the right question. It’s the same question that I ask as I read about the public schools that have failed so many kids. It’s the question that Robert Putnam in his new  book, Our Kids, and so many others are asking.

How Do We Get More People to Have Good Lives?

and since “people,” of course, all began by being kids,

How Do We Get More Kids to Have Good Lives?

I have three answers, or at least three things to say about how we might begin to answer the question.

1. We often turn to government, and sometimes with great success, as in the Morrill Acts of the 1862 and 1890, as in the G.I. Bill of the 1944, as in thousands, probably any number of other instances we might cite.
There are, of course, any number of instances when turning to the government didn’t turn out so well, as in so many wars, wars in Vietnam and Iraq for example, as in any number of educational reforms, as in Horace Mann’s wrongly conceived Common School (the destructive effects of which we are still suffering from), as in George Bush’s and Ted Kennedy’s also wrongly conceived No Child Left Behind.

2. We don’t do anything. We stay away, stay out of it. And we have to make sure that government, equally powerless to help, stays out of it. For just as we are convinced of a legitimate government role in certain instances we are no less convinced that people first have to, by their own efforts help themselves to have better lives.

3. The correct answer to the question is, of course, a combination of the two, of government’s help effort from without, and of people’s own efforts to help themselves from within. But here the devil, of course, is in the details, in finding the right combination. And most often we are bedeviled in our search. We are all too often wrong or mistaken, as we apparently are today while struggling to come up with winning combinations for the seemingly intractable problems of immigration, healthcare, joblessness and others.

Edsall’s article is mostly taken up by reporting on how efforts “from the outside,” which may or may not be sponsored by government, may be successfully raising both cognitive and non-cognitive test scores of underprivileged kids, helping them to stay in school and thereby increase their life “earning” chances, and as a result bring down the number of empty desks in the picture:

Credit  Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Credit    Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

A display of 857 desks in Washington, D.C., in 2012, represented the 857 students who drop out of American high schools every hour of every school day.

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