To at-risk African-American youths, gauzy, intangible catchphrases about the value of learning amount to nothing more than the ultimate instance of bringing a knife to a gunfight, almost literally. When President Barack Obama says, “The future belongs to the nation that best educates its people,” kids in New Orleans who hear murders taking place outside their windows at night respond, “What future?”
In the wake of decades of failure, perhaps it’s time to start taking our cues on how to sell education in the inner cities from the research of Dr. Patterson, or, better still, those two young men ambling down the sidewalk in Brooklyn that afternoon.
In 2008, seven states adopted a new plan to attract low-income and minority students to college-prep courses, the gist of which was simple: pay kids $100 for every advanced placement exam they pass. The states latched on to the idea after a similar program in Texas produced a 30 percent rise in the number of students with high SAT scores. The proof is there—money talks.
With that in mind, what’s wrong with telling a 16-year-old boy, “You wanna meet exotic women? Go to school, work hard, get an international business degree and go start a company in Paris.” What’s wrong with saying to a kid who wants to be an iced-out rapper that the real money in music doesn’t go to the performers, but to the record executives? “So instead of wasting time on a rap career that odds say will never materialize,” you can tell him, “Why not go to college, study music and business, graduate and then work your way up at a label? And, if that’s not glamorous enough, start a label!”
Knowing what we know about how deeply many of America’s inner-city children value “cool,” it’s foolish to insist on trying to appeal to them with traditional, impractical platitudes about education. It shows a disconnect with reality and, almost certainly, it’s a disconnect that exists because these marketing gimmicks are dreamed up by learned people who have come to know the inherent value of their brain.
Is it tacky to attract kids to education with material wealth? Absolutely. In fact, it’s practically the antithesis of much of what proper schooling should impart. But wouldn’t you rather have another tacky plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills than another dead black kid in Compton?
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here.