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We Can Find Talent Everywhere
Increasing access to opportunity—not distracting culture war ploys—should be at the top of our education agenda
In a harrowing account in The New York Times this weekend, columnist Nicholas Kristof describes how 12-year-old Maya Gayen was trafficked to a brothel in Kolkata, India—locked inside, beaten, threatened with death and raped constantly. After an unfathomable number of years of this horror, a taxi driver who visited the brothel helped her escape and eventually married her, although she reluctantly continued to sell sex. Kristof tells how he visited their one-room home in the red-light district nearly two decades ago, largely taken up by a bed where she met her customers while her four sons tried to sleep underneath.
This could be merely a story of unspeakable tragedy, the kind of story that repeats itself in too many places in too many ways. But Kristof has something quite different to tell. “This is a story of human trafficking,” he writes, “but mostly it’s a story of a mother’s love, the adoring son she raised and the highest-return investment in the world today.”
In the memorable tale that follows, we learn that Maya’s eldest son, Avijit, now 29, has completed college, studied French and Italian cooking, and is working as a chef for Carnival Cruise Line and living in Long Beach, California. Kristof met Avijit when he returned home for an annual vacation. What did he have to say about his mother? “She’s the greatest mom ever,” he said, noting that she sometimes starved herself to make sure her boys got enough to eat. “I want to do everything possible to support this lady, because she did a fabulous job raising us.”
I’ve been reflecting on this special story since I first read it because it offers such a poignant reminder that talent can be found everywhere—and that with love, support, education and opportunity, it’s possible for someone to emerge out of the starkest circumstances and make positive contributions to society. In Avijit’s case, he was able to attend school through a local nonprofit in Kolkata called New Light.
But this story also provides a powerful counterpoint to the cynical political calculations that Republicans are employing to attack public education and undermine the value of the teaching and learning that does and should go on every day to improve students’ lives. We have seen their culture war games played out over and over in recent months with book banning, legislative battles against so-called critical race theory and African American studies, and myriad attacks on gender studies, LGBTQ+ students and especially trans young people.
As I have chronicled in “DeSantis, Cowardice and the Fear of Others,” Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis is a particularly cruel purveyor of this hostile opposition to diversity and inclusive education, all minimized as dangerous “wokeism.”
The passage on Friday by House Republicans of their Parents’ Bill of Rights Act is another expression of their sad misdirection, intended to further fuel outrage among their base and pretend that parents are currently excluded from their children’s education and need federal policy to take back their rights. This bill—which has little chance to be advanced by the Democratic-led Senate or avoid a veto from President Biden if it were to pass both chambers—seeks to mandate that schools make their curricula and library catalogs public and further politicize classrooms by legislating the role of parents in discussion of gender orientation, including requiring parental consent if a student wants to change their gender-identifying pronouns.
Before the 213-208 vote, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries addressed why Republicans were bent on passing this hot-button act. “This legislation has nothing to do with parental involvement, parental engagement,” he said on the House floor. “Parental empowerment has everything to do with jamming the extreme MAGA Republican ideology down the throats of the children and the parents of the United States of America.”
In addition, while billionaire oligarchs like Charles Koch and former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cynically work to sabotage public education and push vouchers and other ploys to privatize K-12 education by stripping available resources, it’s possible to forget the central role that public schools can and do play in creating opportunity for economically disadvantaged students and improving lives.
But the remarkable story of Maya and her son Avijit is an inspiring lesson of love and the importance of education. While America continues to struggle with economic and social inequality, educational opportunity—and particularly earning a college degree—plays a critical role in significantly increasing income over one’s lifetime. And more, the data shows that better schooling is more likely to result in better health, more happiness, more civic engagement and less crime.
As economist John N. Friedman wrote last year, “limited social mobility hurts not just these children [at the bottom] but all of society. We are leaving a vast amount of untapped talent on the table by investing unequally in our children, and it’s at all of our expense.”
Consider the case of Finland for a moment, which typically scores among the highest in the world for both math and reading among its students. Why? The answers include having empowered, well-paid, well-respected teachers who are given control over their classrooms’ curriculum and emphasizing learning and critical thinking over test-taking. But they have another attribute that profoundly differentiates this small Nordic country from the American reality: Greater educational equality across the country. As Smithsonian magazine noted a decade ago when Finnish success attracted media attention:
“Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). ‘Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,’ said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.”
The struggles to improve public education in America and decrease the negative outcomes between top-performing and low-performing schools are real and complex. The relevant factors include everything from poverty and racism to rising anti-intellectualism, hostility to science and facts, and anti-democratic leaders motivated to ignore or actively discourage the positive impacts of education. This is a topic that deserves further attention, particularly as the pressures to privatize and efforts to undermine public education intensify and spread.
But we will never have a fighting chance to make the necessary changes to decrease inequality and make improvements that enhance social mobility and give more students an opportunity to advance if the Republicans drag the country down with endless, distracting culture war battles. As long as such distractions continue and discourage real change, stories like those of Maya Gayen and her motivated son will be inspiring, but will remain nothing more than fascinating aberrations.
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