Mike Rose: Second Chance Education Provides Hope

Essay on "The Inner Life of the Poor" delineates public and policy's blindness to poverty, opportunity for poor to realize their dreams through education.

Mike Rose, research professor in the UCLA Department of Education, revisits his essay, “The Inner Life of the Poor,” which was published by Dissent in 2013.

“I reprint it now for I think it is especially relevant in these times of brutal social policy and the day-to-day dehumanization of vulnerable people both within and at our borders,” Rose notes on his blog.

“The poor are pretty much absent from public and political discourse, except as an abstraction–an income category low on the Socioeconomic Status index–or as a generalization: people dependent on the government, the “takers,” a problem,” Rose writes. “Neither abstraction nor generalization gives us actual people waking up exhausted, getting kids off to school; trying to make a buck; or, in some cases, past the point of trying. And if we lack images of living, breathing people, we doubly lack any sense of the inner lives of the poor.

“We don’t know them. And because we don’t know their values and aspirations, the particulars of their daily decisions, and the economic and psychological boundaries within which those decisions are made, they easily become psychologically one-dimensional, intellectually, emotionally, and volitionally simplified, not quite like us. This fact has huge implications for public policy, education and work, and civic life.”

Rose, whose research and numerous publications focus on the impacts of poverty, working class backgrounds, and resilient individuals seeking a second chance through education, says that the current political, social, and economic climates still obscure how the public and policy makers misunderstand poverty.

“Though the economy overall has rebounded from the recession of a decade ago, many people who were devastated by it never regained what they lost,” says Professor Rose today. “Income inequality continues to widen. About one-fifth of our children live in poverty. And what remains of a skimpy social safety net is being shredded by the current administration.”

Rose points out that the poor are often stigmatized – and blamed – for their circumstances.

“Historian Michael Katz has detailed the ways we in the United States have stigmatized the poor through our definitions of them (for example, as undeserving or morally weak) and through the policies we establish to provide assistance to them, such as our narrow and punitive welfare system,” he writes in the essay. “Appearance, race, language, and neighborhood are intimately involved in this construction of the poor as different and inferior. The label ‘the poor’ itself becomes a categorical term freighted with deficiency.

“If we are separated from a group not only physically but psychologically, then it becomes all the easier to attribute to them motives, beliefs, thoughts–an entire interior life–that might be deeply inaccurate and inadequate.”

Rose writes that the role of second-chance education and its ability to provide an alternative path for those initially held back by poverty is complex, “… given the intricate relation in our country among social class, educational resources, and academic achievement.”

“[The] adult school and community college reflect educational inequality and can contribute to it. A lot of students never complete a certificate or degree. But some institutions do better than others with similar populations, so the quality of governance, services, and teaching matters. These institutions are among the few places in mainstream society where poor people can become more publicly visible and display to their advantage multiple dimensions of their lives.”

Rose asserts that institutions of public education, “… should be run with a deep knowledge of the motives, aspirations, cognitive capacity, and inner and outer barriers of the full range of the people they serve.” He writes that community colleges specifically are in a position to better serve their students when recognizing and aiming to assist their needs with financial or parenting assistance and better access to educational resources.

“In the community college policy debates, we pit the comprehensive, open-door college against a leaner, meaner institution, or the academic function versus the vocational, or conceive of remediation as de facto antithetical to substantial education,” Rose writes. “What we should be talking about instead is the need to define the community college as an uniquely American institution that, at its best, can provide a public, mainstream, widely distributed institutional space—there are about 1,150 of them in the United States—where people with limited resources and opportunities can begin to direct their lives and find expression for their hopes and abilities.

“There is nothing wrong with an economic, practical focus. The people attending these courses … desperately want to better their economic prospects. The problem is that both policy deliberation and political rhetoric stop there.”

Rose is the author of 12 books and numerous articles on language, literacy, and cognition, as well as being a regular contributor and source for media on teaching and learning for the working class, returning students, and veterans. His major publications include “Lives on the Boundary: the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared,” “Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America,” “The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker,” “Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us,” and “Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.”

Professor Rose was selected to the National Academy of Education in 2013. He is a frequent source and contributor to media, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. In January, Rose was named one of 200 education professors – among 13 from UCLA’s Department of Education – on Education Week’s “Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings” list.

To read, “The Inner Life of the Poor” by Professor Mike Rose, visit his blog.