Critiquing Randy Bomer’s "Miseducating Teachers about the Poor"
by Richard Wilson
Randy Bomer is an influential figure in the field of education, having headed up many
important institutions in that field and written books which have made considerable
contributions. The work of his which I will discuss here is his paper Miseducating Teachers
about the Poor, a rebuttal to the principal work of Ruby Payne which was written a generation earlier than Bomer’s work.
Though I agree with Bomer’s connecting of “teacher beliefs” and the success of
students, and his observation that factors outside the classroom must also be considered, his solution to the problem of poverty and inequity falls short not chiefly because the problem is perennial, but because his solution is terribly inadequate at addressing the problem. Furthermore, Bomer’s chastisement of the political Right is a severely dishonest straw man, and shows that he is unaware of the underlying structure which undergirds both the Right and the Left.
People make low-resolution caricatures of those around them, which heavily impacts
the actions that person will take towards others. This observation is corroborated by one of
Bomer’s own: that the way teachers think of their students impacts how they treat them. If a
teacher conceptualizes a child as less capable because of their poverty, Bomer says that they “are more likely to be in lower tracks or lower ability groups, and their educational experience is more often dominated by rote drill and practice.” This lines up with many other’s observations, including Jesus of Nazareth’s dictum that “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
Bomer then moves to criticize Payne’s detached and unempathetic attitude towards
poor people, a “that’s the way they are” view, and concludes that it is unhelpful that this
disincentives people from helping the poor. I agree with this observation, and would add that it is our duty as human beings to help those who are less fortunate. What I disagree with profoundly is what Bomer believes the telos, the end goal, of helping the poor is, “to change a system that perpetuates poverty.”
I would contend that no system, let alone the simple charity and advocacy which
Bomer recommends, will ever abolish poverty or inequity or inequality. Perhaps the world will be devoid of poverty for a time with the work that the UN is doing, but it will never last due to disasters or social upheaval.
But it may not last because of a more foundational reason, the fact that the human race
will never be satisfied even if Bomer’s Telos was achieved, and all inequality is eradicated. The great author and prophet Dostoyevsky says this so vividly, and explains why in such a
profound way, when he says this of mankind:
“He would risk his [paradise] and would deliberately desire the
most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to
introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic
element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will
desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself--as though
that were so necessary--that men still are men and not the keys of
a piano” (emphasis added).
In a state of perfection, human nature is not like that of alligators, who are perfectly
content sitting in a warm pond for all their days if they are adequately fed. Instead, human
beings must continually prove to themselves that they cannot be controlled or subdued, even by paradise. They must prove this even by destroying such paradise. The idea that this world will ever be permanently eradicated of poverty or inequality, therefore, is one that is
uncharacteristic and unachievable by human beings.
“So do you propose we simply let inequality rage then? Surely it is a good idea to
combat inequality to a point,” a person might ask me. And I would wholeheartedly agree!
Controlling inequality is an essential and godly thing we all must do, and all sensible people
would agree with this because of the following logic. If all wealth and success is greedily
heaped up at the top, then society will inevitably destabilize, and because of this I believe that Bomer’s advocacy for the poor is vital and I applaud him for it.
But, for those reading who find themselves also having a great care for the poor and a
desire to help them just as Bomer does, I would warn them against two dangerous pits which Bomer falls into. To describe these pits, allow me to first describe a schema which can be applied to the Left-Right political spectrum, so that the fatal mistakes which Bomer make
The Left and the Right are, roughly, manifestations of two fundamental forces necessary
for any structure to maintain itself. Both sides facilitate practices which work in tension to keep a structure afloat, but each side guards against the catastrophic tendencies of the practices of the other side. To clarify, I do not mean to totalize this schema, as each side has aspects of both forces within itself. However, each side is biased to a certain one. With that aside, let us address the Right.
The Right is concerned with maintaining systems and hierarchies which produce the
necessary means to keep the structure running. These systems and hierarchies however, as
time passes and the environment changes, may become corrupt, ineffective, obsolete, or
cease to work in another way. The catastrophic failure of the Right is that it tends not to notice when the structure is becoming ineffective at its task. It may continue to run a broken structure until it self-destructs.
This is where the Left becomes essential. The Left is attuned to notice inadequacies in
the structure, and they will advocate to fix these things. The Left however, is not always correct in its diagnosis of the structure, for they could be identifying the wrong problem or be seeing a problem when none exist at all. If they continuously get the diagnosis wrong and advocate for unnecessary change, then these changes could also destroy the structure.
And this is where the right comes back in, because it tends to advocate for the
efficiency of the system. And so the two sides continuously dialogue, and this is how a
structure is maintained.
Now that this conceptualization of the Left and Right is laid out, Bomer’s two mistakes
become clear. In his analysis of the right, he shows no knowledge of the its fundamental role in structures and believes that it only perpetuates oppression and inequality. Bomer’s view is
evident in his characterization of the right when comparing it to Ruby Payne’s work, “Such a
perspective aligns well with right-wing social policy. If the poor are poor simply because they do not know how to behave as if they were not poor, then the middle class and the wealthy should not be taxed to provide public assistance, public health, public schooling, or a public sphere in which the poor might participate.”
If the purpose of the Right, as Bomer suggests, is to enforce the structures which only
help the middle class and ignore the poor, then of course it it wrong; it is pursuing a
catastrophic tendency by maintaining a structure which will ultimately self-destruct. But instead of providing evidence that it is only doing this, he assumes it, as if perpetuating inequality were their only purpose! Thus, he severely straw mans the Right’s position.
What’s more, if Bomer holds this position and subsequently believes that the right has
nothing of substance to say because they exist simply to enforce a corrupt system, then it is
simply logical to tear the whole system down. If he believes that the structure which the Right maintains is designed to “oppress [students] and others like them systematically”, what’s to stop him?
Perhaps if he takes issue with the Right’s behavior, he should instead encourage them
to realize that the system which they are maintaining may be malfunctioning in regards to the educating the poor, and perhaps they would be willing to have a conversation with him. But I don’t believe he is interested in conversation. I really wish he was, but it doesn’t seem like he could sit down with a person on the Right for five minutes before claiming that they’re an oppressor of the poor and deeming them irredeemable. It seems from this work that he is on a crusade to liberate the oppressed from their Right-wing tyranny.
No one will have a conversation if a person acts like a crusader, and so I encourage
anyone who empathizes with the poor to avoid such behavior. Instead, I would encourage them to empathize not only with the poor, but also with their brothers and sisters on the Right who are inclined to ensure that the systems which keep the structure of the United States going are in order, as imperfect as they may be, and engage in loving yet rigorous conversation on how to both keep the structure running, and improve it for the good of all people.
by Richard Wilson