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The absurdity of achievement

Episode 6: "Listen to the poem!"

October 2nd, 2018 2:33 PM

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

This sixth episode aired a few days after Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, so pardon me for this somewhat discombobulated response. I watched all of the sixth episode and parts of the testimony. Both productions had me seriously questioning our conventional conceptions of merit and achievement. 

There is, by mainstream standards, an obvious achievement gap between President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court pick and, say, Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who was assassinated by law enforcement officials in 1969. 

Hampton — a smart, charismatic and socially astute young man — was closer in temperament, mentality and economic class to a Ke'Shawn Kumsa than a Kavanaugh. 

Hampton was an aspiring lawyer whose career aspirations never materialized because suffering pushed the young leader into a life of activism. Kavanaugh, as most of us know, went from Georgetown Prep to Yale Law School to the White House to a few votes away from a lifetime placement on the highest court in the land. 

And yet Hampton and the Panthers are more closely associated with attempting to alleviate human suffering than the judge. For instance, the Panthers confronted childhood hunger by implementing breakfast programs and were pioneers in the campaign to eradicate sickle cell anemia.

Kavanaugh, on the other hand, has consistently ruled from his perch on the D.C. Circuit in a way that blithely disregards human suffering (read his heinous dissents in National Federation of Employees v. Vilsack or Island Agriprocessors v. National Labor Relations Board). 

What is often lost in the discussion about the black/white "achievement" gap is the strong possibility that the way we frame the discrepancy is itself a problem.

In favor of this stultifying emphasis on white-collar career preparation, schools across the country have seemingly been diminished in their ability to educate young people in the areas that most matter — in character development, in human empathy, in basic decency, in (as C. Wright Mills would say) the sociological imagination. 

In one scene in the sixth episode, Brendan Barrette's mother says she wants her son to "perceive inequities" and to "be part of the solution, not the problem." That's an education that doesn't show up on a standardized test or in a GPA — important as these may be. 

It's "disheartening," OPRF teacher Tyrone Williams points out, how we've "set up this system" of achievement that does not really illuminate many students' "true brilliance." 

What is illuminating is how often people like Kavanaugh and Trump end up rising to the top in this color-blind meritocracy. 

Something else that was illuminating during this sixth episode (and indeed in other parts of the series) is just how stressful high school can be. It's a pressure cooker. The stakes, already, are high (which the students know only too well; not satisfied with straight A's, Caroline Robling-Griest must see the percentages). And all of this before most students have even been on their first real job interview. 

"Listen to the poem!" the slam poets yell, which is to say, 'Life isn't about a score or a percentage.' Sadly, though, fewer and fewer students, even in Oak Park, can afford to really take this message to heart.  

As many economists have shown, the majority of the wealth and resources that have been created in America over the last three or four decades have clustered among the top 10 percent of the population even as the rest of us have worked harder and longer.

And the wealth gap between black and white families has stubbornly persisted for hundreds of years. 

Any notion of merit, particularly color-blind merit, melts into absurdity in this context. How can we seriously preach responsibility and achievement to the likes of Kendale McCoy and Ke'Shawn Kumsa when they will watch CNN and witness the comedy of errors that is our federal government? 

How can we preach the "hard work pays off" gospel to Robling-Griest — who stresses herself out in order not to be debt-ridden after college and whose family life was nearly upended by the colossal ineptitude and recklessness of mostly white men (no more or less able or gifted than she) who then got obscene bonuses? 

These mostly white men are blessed with the privilege to perpetuate their wealth, to raise children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren blessed with the latitude to err without consequence, to fail up. 

And also the latitude to do what they want or will with a girl like Robling-Griest who, if she works hard enough and is good enough and doesn't make too many mistakes, will grow into a woman like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

What are we doing to a generation of kids by putting them through the wringer in high school only to let them loose in a world of mountainous college loan debt, ruinous economic inequality, moral depravity, callousness, precarious employment, wage insecurity and Brett Kavanaugh?

As Williams says, "The problem is not with Jada [Buford], it's with us."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kavanaugh sits on the 9th District. He sits on the D.C. Circuit. Wednesday Journal regrets the error. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com