Category Archives: race

our kids: the american dream in crisis by robert d. putnam

Our KidsA lot of press have published very enthusiastic and positive reviews about Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, but as someone who works in the education field, has a background in family, youth, and educational sociology, and is a frequent reader of nonfiction, I must strongly disagree with the bubble of positivity surrounding this book. The book covers what the author believes to be the disintegration of the “American dream” which, for the purposes of the book, is essentially the belief that individuals can achieve upward social and economic mobility through increased educational attainment.

Everything covered in the book isn’t new to anyone that works in education or is in tune with social inequality in anyway. I concede that this book is likely not meant for people who are already interested in and informed of these topics, but is rather meant to serve as an introduction to the general public of the troubling conditions that surround young people who are trying to advance themselves within society. However, the tone that Putnam adopts within his book is incredibly condescending. Within the work, he highlights the different life and education experiences that typically occur for youth in different economic classes, ranging from upper-middle class families to those who are living below the poverty line. I’m happy that Putnam (or rather his graduate student, Jennifer Silva, who actually conducted all of the interviews detailed in the book) included a range of representations of what it’s like to grow up in America today in comparison to what his and his high school classmates’ lives were like in 1959 in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. However, what really irked me is when the author would write calls to action with an air of assumption that anyone reading the book helms from something above a working class background. When this happened, it seemed to me like Putnam sometimes lost sense of the humanity of the populations that he doesn’t personally identify as and assumed that anyone reading his book would be of the same social social class as him. Because of this, I felt like the calls to action were particularly alienating.

The main argument Putnam makes throughout the book is that class influences a child’s success in the American schooling system and subsequent career and education trajectory more than race does. While I agree that class is incredibly influential on these outcomes, race can also greatly impact how children are treated by their peers, community, and educators, and this cannot be brushed aside as easily as Putnam makes it seem. I wish Putnam had spent more time digging into how the intersection of race and class can impact certain children, but he seemed to cherry pick stories that supported his main thesis instead of looking to include a representation of different experiences.

Below, I’ve included two quotes that I found particularly troubling in order to provide examples of why this book rubbed me the wrong way. They are only included in this review because I feel like they can help potential readers decide whether or not this is a book they would like to read.

When describing how a poorer individual relates to his parents’ political ideologies, Putnam states, “David lives in a chaotic family situation with no role models at all for political or civic engagement, so our questions about those topics elicited a puzzled stare and a brief response, as though we had asked about Mozart or foxhunting.”

“But most readers of this book do not face the same plight, nor does its author, nor do our own biological kids. Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”

Aforementioned alienation aside, I guess Our Kids can serve as a good introduction to how social and education inequality affects young people for a reader who is completely new to these topics. If you decide to read this, please realize that Putnam’s tone can be incredibly condescending at times and this subsequently impacts how he details the experiences of all of the study participants who were interviewed. I partly think he did this in order to enact a larger call to action and a greater sense of shared responsibility with the assumed (upper-middle class) audience who is reading the book, but it fell flat for me.

Publication Date: 10 March 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Author: Robert D. Putnam web/facebook/@twitter

the short and tragic life of robert peace by jeff hobbs

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert PeaceAs I work backward through my backlogged book reviews, I now present you with my review of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs, which is the second book that I finished in 2015 and is my favorite read of the year so far!

This book is beautifully written — you can tell the author spent countless hours studying the way other successful authors have crafted their timeless sentence structures. The Short and Tragic Life profiles, obviously, the life of Robert Peace from the relationship of his parents prior to Peace’s conception to how his family and friends deal with losing him after his death. The book is written by Peace’s college roommate which lends the book authenticity, but also means that the author inserts himself into the story at times, which can sometimes feel a bit awkward, but is completely understandable in context.

I’ll give a brief summary of the book, while trying not to reveal too much of its contents… this book discusses the early life of a young boy who is born into a low income family comprised of an extremely hardworking mother, an incarcerated and loving father (a reality that is sadly too common for many today), and dedicated grandparents. As Peace, an extremely intelligent child, navigates middle school and high school, Hobbs illuminates the struggle Peace must have felt to contribute to his family’s income, while trying to get himself to college, something no one in his immediate family had succeeded in doing before. When Peace enters a very prestigious university (and meets the author), he struggles to identify with the wealthy, privileged student body as a poor, black student. Hobbs describes this phase of Peace’s life and his struggle so incredibly well that this is the part of Robert Peace’s story that I always tell people about when I recommend this book to them. I have yet to read something that feels more authentic when describing how difficult it is to navigate fitting into an elite university’s student body when you differ from the majority. This othering of Peace very much influenced his college career and post-college trajectory and is a necessary read for anyone who is interested in higher education, socioeconomic differences, race, sociology, and the intersection of all of the above. Please, please read this book!

I originally read this book in order to participate in a Twitter book club led by Kat Chow, a journalist who covers race and culture for NPR’s Code Switch blog. As part of the book club, Kat and her twitter followers curated a list of books that are either about or are written by people of color. While the online book club seems to have died after the reading of the first selection, the list still lives and is a good reference point for adding things to your To-Be-Read pile. I have it saved in my bookmarks.

As I mourn the loss of my all too short stint of being in a digital book club, I was wondering if any of you have an online book club that you recommend me joining? I just joined a book of the month discussion inspired by Rory Gilmore (I started binging Gilmore Girls in February and am now almost done with the series…), but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be as active as I’m wanting. Are you in a book club that you’d like more people to join? Leave a comment and tell me more!

Publication date: 23 September 2014 by Scribner. Format: Hardcover.

Author: Jeff Hobbs GoodReads/Publisher Profile