Rarely can someone outside the inner-circles of power in our country climb the ladder of success; most people can’t even get their foot into the door of the room where the ladder is.
Imbalances of power and opportunity are built into the foundation of our societal structures. As a video from last year that is now flooding social networks online describes, 40 percent of all the wealth in our country belongs to just 1 percent of the people.
Even if wealthy people are working very hard, is an average CEO really working 380 times harder than the average earner in the company? Some people get ahead with relative ease, and some people never even have a chance. How can we fix our broken system?
Most of the time, social reform asks those who are not advantaged to learn skills to match those who have the advantages. Essentially: Don’t speak the language of your culture because you won’t succeed that way, this is how to hold yourself in a job interview, this is how to behave in a classroom, the forks go on the left side of the plate.
Teaching life skills that will increase someone’s chances of breaking out of the cycle of poverty or into jobs with increasing earnings potential continues to be important. However, we need to make radical adjustments if we want to effect real social change.
Even if teachers come from backgrounds that aren’t upper-middle class, white and English speaking — the elite — our society instructs our educators to consider the cultural language of the elite as the most valuable and correct.
Teachers need to learn how to communicate using different cultural languages.
For example, many of us assume making direct eye contact shows respect and confidence. However, direct eye contact as a show of respect isn’t a part of the cultural language for everyone. An article in The Telegraph points out that, “In many Asian, African, and Latin American countries, however, this unbroken eye contact would be considered aggressive and confrontational. These cultures tend to be quite conscious of hierarchy, and avoiding eye contact is a sign of respect for bosses and elders.”
Cultural languages vary not just internationally but in the shared languages brought down through generations and between socioeconomic class cultures as well.
As Larry Dansinger, a “proponent of unbiased education in our schools,” described it on WERU’s “Outside the Box,” “It’s easy to look at kids from gritty neighborhoods or blue-collar families and decide they aren’t smart enough to succeed in school.” He notes that psychologist Barbara Jensen writes in her book, “ Reading Classes,” that working-class culture views success “based on cooperation rather than competition. Success comes from relationships with others, not personal achievements.” When a child’s worldview discourages self-promotion or individual competition, they are at a disadvantage.
For upper-class children, success means competing individually to be the best. And here, again, teachers appreciate students who have this kind of individual, competitive — but refined — success in mind in the classroom.
School curricula could be designed for a variety of cultural languages. There are helpful guides for educators to better communicate with and teach students who don’t use the elite’s cultural language in their everyday lives.
Teaching upper- and middle-class skills to poor, nonwhite, immigrant or blue-collar students so they can better navigate the power structure is essential in the shorter term. Changing the structure itself to allow for the validity and valuing of different cultural languages should be the goal.
Not everyone can climb all the way up the ladder, but if we build a better ladder surely we can get more people closer to the first few rungs.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.