Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cultural Capital at Home

We’ve hit the age that every parent dreads: the age at which your kid’s math homework involves actually re-learning algebra.

I knew this day would come, but nothing really prepared me for it.

The Boy is smart, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up, so he’s in advanced math.  And he’s mostly fine with it.

But this week he brought home...exponents.


So far, it isn’t too bad.  Experience tells me, though,  that it won’t be long before he gets to fractional and/or negative exponents, neither of which I really understood the last time I saw them, which was sometime during the Reagan administration.  

They teach math differently now than they used to.  Back in the day, I learned to “carry” and “borrow,” like God intended.  Now, apparently, they “regroup.”  It’s actually a smarter approach, once you figure out what the hell it is, but I admit being brought up short the first time I saw it.  Still, though, arithmetic is arithmetic.  Now we’re getting to the more abstract stuff.

My own history with math was odd.  I cruised along quite comfortably until I hit geometry.  I hit geometry in the same sense in which a watermelon dropped from a skyscraper hits the sidewalk.  It wasn’t pretty.  “Prove this is a rhombus.”  I’m sorry, what?  I’m hoping that proofs have gone the way of borrowing and carrying, but I suspect not.  

I know, as a card-carrying college administrator, that I’m supposed to condemn math phobia wherever I see it.  And there are fine and good reasons for that.  I made it through my mandatory stats classes for poli sci in both undergrad and grad school, so it’s not like the sight of numbers gives me the vapors.  But as a human being, rather than just a placeholder for an office, I have to admit a pretty glaring blind spot where “geometry” is supposed to be.  I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is.  

(On those 8th grade “vocational aptitude tests” they used to give, I always crashed and burned on “spatial reasoning.”  I’ve long considered the ability to do complicated jigsaw puzzles a sort of magic.  And let’s just say I give my phone’s GPS a pretty good workout.)

This is where the whole “first-generation” thing really hits home.

The Boy has parents who went through this stuff, and who can at least try to help him when he gets stuck.  We can help him make the maddeningly difficult leap from “I know that” to “you mean, I use that here?”  When he gets discouraged or confused, we’re there for him.  I even took a crack, this week, at explaining that a period inside quotation marks at the end of a sentence does double duty.  He was skeptical, but went with it. Nobody said English grammar makes sense.

This is how cultural capital gets transmitted.  Well-meaning people, doing right by the people in their lives, reproduce privilege.  The kids who don’t have parents at home who can help them through the rough patches in their homework are likelier to get lower grades and draw negative conclusions about what they’re doing.  The kids who get help when they need it are likelier to make it through.  Neither is a certainty, but the probabilities are real.

I don’t see withholding help as any sort of solution.  Parents are supposed to help their kids.  Wasting TB’s talent because others don’t have educated parents wouldn’t help anybody.  That’s not the point.  I didn’t go into education for a living only to withhold education from my own kids.  

As he gets older, I’ll have to add some other lessons.  Those will involve trying to figure out what happens when some people have the wind at their back, and others have the wind in their face.  And what it means to try to live an ethical life in a stratified country.

We’ll give thanks this week for the very real blessings we have.  As they get older, I’ll try to get them to ask just how those blessings got there in the first place.