My friend Emily pointed me to a post on Facebook from Nick Kristof about girls seeking education in Pakistan. The article highlights the risks faced by girls and women seeking educational opportunities in the tribal regions; it’s well written and inspiring. It’s good, mass consumption media about a serious problem. But his framing comment on his Facebook feed was a bit surprising:
I think Kristof was typing, and after he wrote “….Bravo to them!…” an up-by-your-bootstraps conservative ran up, pushed him over and typed the last sentence. Needless to say, it’s a strikingly ignorant comment, whether it was typed by Kristoff or the personified zeitgeist of the American Libertarianism.
The comment section for this post was equally astounding, mostly because it so acutely demonstrated how many people lack an understanding about the structural and economic challenges faced by students who drop out of school. To forestall the argument that students who drop out are lazy, fine, yes, some students are just lazy. And some bankers break the law, and some cops are dirty, and some military contractors bilk tax payers out of billions of dollars. Welcome to the imperfect reality of living in a modern society.
And indeed this is what is so jarring about Kristof’s comment; he often has a very good grasp of the intricacies and complexities of modern socio-economics. I worked in D.C. public schools in Anacostia, what we would euphemistically call a “rough neighborhood,” so I’ll speak from my own observations. Out of the 20 fourth graders I worked with, I had one who was responsible for cooking for her younger siblings (mother worked two jobs and was out of the house most of the time), one with severe emotional trauma from seeing his mother murdered in front of him that prevented him from concentrating in class, and the list goes on.
I’m highlighting these cases because not five metro stops away, or a brisk 30 minute walk, is the U.S. Capitol building. Less then 2 miles in the other direction and you’re in Georgetown, with it’s lovely cobblestone roads, old-growth trees and multi-million dollar historical townhouses. If a fourth grader from this neighborhood cooks dinner for his or her siblings, it’s probably by choice with a parent’s help. The learning disabled or emotionally troubled child has in-school counseling services, and probably access to a psychologist. Yes, kids deal drugs in even the preppiest of private schools; they probably won’t make their living doing it in the long run (but might make their livings as investment bankers buying drugs as adults).
The problem with Kristof’s comment is that it doesn’t recognize that there is a difference between access to a school and access to opportunity. If we’re just talking about access to schools, those Pakistani girls should just buck up because they do indeed have a school, rendering his adulation moot. If we are addressing the far more complex issue of opportunity, his comment isn’t moot it’s just surprisingly ignorant. Would he wag his finger at my student who cooked for her siblings, admonishing her to take advantage of her awesome (read: depressingly not awesome) educational options, regardless of having to attend to her siblings survival while her mom works two jobs to barely make ends meet? Would he say to my other student, “So, your mom was shot multiple times in front of you by your estranged father; you might not have access to counseling but you’re not being chased by the Taliban so pull it together”?
It’s the lack of recognition of these realities on Kristof’s part, realities that he so often makes tangible for readers when he’s reporting from Africa/Asia/the Global South, that is surprising and highlights a serious problem in American society. If we view access to opportunity as a problem that girls in Pakistan face admirably, while remaining blind to the inequities in our own society and hostile to the most vulnerable among us, we can’t expect to help anyone. Our aid and our good intentions will just be a facade, a hypocritical demand that others do as we have imagined we do, or a self-serving salve to sooth our guilt for failing our own citizens.