George W. Bush and “the soft bigotry of low expectations”

Official Portrait of Former President George W. Bush (Public Domain)

In July 2000, then presidential candidate George W. Bush addressed the NAACP to discuss his plans for educational and economic reform, using the phrase “No Child Left Behind.” Despite how that infamous initiative turned out, the speech that introduced the idea was one of the best speeches I ever heard Bush give, maybe only second behind his speech at the Washington Cathedral after 9/11. Regardless of where you may fall on the political spectrum, George W. Bush’s call for educational equity should resonate with us all today.

Recognizing the continuing disparity between the rich and the poor despite the growing prosperity of the nation, Bush says, “Our nation must make new a commitment to equality and upward mobility to all of the citizens.” One of the ways to make this happen in Bush’s mind was to equalize educational opportunities for every American. That was the dream anyway. Introducing his plan, Bush refers to “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” of how we have become complacent in offering opportunities to all no matter what their position in society.

In the last few years of a long career as an educator, I find myself discouraged and even a bit despondent as we move ever away from the lofty goal set forward in Bush’s speech. In 2000, the community college was still a place where those, especially the traditionally underserved, could gain a quality education that would allow them to advance in society, perhaps gaining a two-year degree, qualifying them for a trade, or leading to the opportunities and rewards, both tangible and intangible, that come with further educational opportunities. The goal was not only to provide meaningful work through a real education but also to bring real meaning to their education apart from work, enriching their lives and their communities in the process.

However, a disturbing trend is increasing at alarming rates within our society, continuing its spread to our colleges and universities–the lowering of the bar for the sake of efficiency, and of course, cost effectiveness. Increased pressure from students, faculty, administrators, and society in general to make English classes easier. Decrease the requirements and the standard so students can get that piece of paper sooner. Make gateway English classes less rigorous (for their sakes, of course) because it is too hard for people who work, too hard for people with children, too hard for low income people, too hard for people who didn’t get a good high school education or who are still in high school or who have been out of high school for a while. We can’t expect OUR students to maintain Standard English in a college-level English class, can we?

Do you hear what I hear? It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Do we expect less because it costs too much time and money to expect more? Do we not think our students are worth the effort to push for excellence in the name of true learning? We discriminate when we ask so little. It is demeaning and arrogant. Who are we to expect so little? In the Letter to the Romans Chapter 12, verse 3, Paul writes, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (New International Version). Are we, am I, thinking too highly of myself? Am I, are we, guilty of the bigotry of low expectations? Perhaps I am the chief of all sinners in this regard.

But I repent and encourage others in society to do so as well.

What are we really saying when we consider “meeting expectations” as equal to an A instead of the C it should indicate? Does our soft bigotry sound like this:

“It’s okay, Nondescript C Student, that you plagiarized the paper, even though I have provided sources, conducted classes on the subject, and provided workshops that you didn’t attend. You just didn’t know what you were doing. I see now that your academic dishonesty is my fault. I mean you work, right? You hate that job and need at least an associate’s degree to do what you really want to do for a living, but I get it. Who wants to really put in any effort to actually learn the subject when it’s a subject you are being forced to take and don’t enjoy at all? Yes, I think putting in some effort to actually read three pages in the text and view a five-minute video explaining in-text citations is a bit too much to ask when we are in the midst of a pandemic. I can’t expect you to have time with all that you are doing. I don’t really know what you are doing, but I know it must be way too much to find time for the education you say you want. You just want it on your terms, not your instructor’s, am I right?

“I’m probably not being flexible enough. Or explaining things well enough. Or maybe my online class is not designed properly. Or perhaps I am not considering your learning style sufficiently. In exchange for my poor pedagogy, let me just allow you to redo that paper. It won’t help you, but it will make me feel like I helped you, so I will feel better, and you will not feel frustrated and complain about me to my superiors, which will make them feel better. But first, let me mark every single error in the paper for you, so that you will not have to think about how to find problems in your writing and correct them. I mean, after all, you aren’t really going to need to know how to properly revise, edit, or document your essays because, I mean, really, how likely are you to go on and get your BA or BS?

“Besides, we need you to be trained for the type of job that people like us, and our children, don’t want to do. We need somebody to do these jobs. It will be easy with a little bit of training to find the type of employment that a person of your background is suited for. Do you even really need a liberal arts education for the kind of life you’re bound to lead? Why in the world should we as a society expect you to read and analyze a poem? Not that I would ever ask you to do such a thing. Read a whole novel by the fourteenth week of the semester? That’s unreasonable. You’re the first in your family to go to college AND you’re still a high school student AND you work AND it’s a pandemic. I can’t ask such a thing of you.

“Now, critically reading novels and poetry requires noticing small details as well as understanding figurative language (like sarcasm) and the nuance of language. That kind of deep reading, especially by authors outside of your demographic, leads to things like, I don’t know, developing empathy. But why would a person like you need to empathize with your fellow human beings during and after a global pandemic? Not really very practical, is it? Not with the economy in the shape that it is and people’s mental health deteriorating. I don’t want to inconvenience you or cause you more stress, so don’t let correcting a little ‘ole plagiarism infraction stand in the way of going to your low-paying, soul-sucking job. So, I am just going to ignore the little mistake of copying word for word from your source without quotations or in-text citation. I know you didn’t intend to do it. We’ll just forget it ever happened, shall we? It will be easier for all of us.

“And while I’m at it, I suppose I should have a meeting with you to help you make the revisions and edits that I have marked. Oh, you don’t have time for an in-person meeting at my appointment times and office hours? How about some other time? You don’t want to come to campus for an in-person meeting. How about a virtual one? A ten-minute phone call? Just don’t have the time? In that case, since you just need a C or above to pass on to the really important training that you will actually need in real life, let me just find some extra credit you can do to make up those measly eight or nine percentage points you need to have a C. (A person like you doesn’t need to know how to communicate clearly and effectively in English, do you? How will that help you get a job?)”

The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech for the first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Public Domain)

Okay, perhaps I am too carried away, but I had to get it out of my system. When I write in this satiric way, I hear the truth–too many of us who cling to our degrees, careers, businesses, and positions in society–who drive sedans and SUV’s, live in comfortable homes, enjoy financial security and a standing in society–too many of us who think so highly of ourselves are, in essence, only “insects on the leaf” as the Ghost of Christmas Present says, looking down on “our hungry brothers in the dust.”

And when, or if, our conscience is inconveniently pricked, we try to cover up our sin, by “making it easier” for the ragged rabble, requiring less and less and less of those poor, pitiful students. Sadly shaking our heads, we move to wipe every tear from their eyes, saying, “Well, really, what did we expect?”

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