Bauer's comments reflect our own misconceptions
Andre Bauer believes government assistance for the poor has the same intent and pitfalls as feeding stray animals, something he learned from the folk wisdom passed down by his grandmother.
Bauer's comments in part are the result of a common error made by many speakers—just because you can make an analogy doesn't make that comparison valid. But more important than his rhetorical flaw is that Bauer is both demonstrably wrong and a stark reflection of how we view and treat poor children in public schools in SC and across the nation.
When we look at and listen to Bauer, the reality is "we have met the enemy and he is us," especially in terms of how we view and treat poor children in our schools.
Two powerful cultural myths, also misconceptions, drive Bauer's comments and assumptions running through our school system.
First, we are people driven by faith in the rugged individual, touting the honor and promise of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, demonstrates that success often comes from hard work. But more importantly, Gladwell shows that success is hard work in the context of great fortune.
Many bright, gifted, and hardworking people fail, through no fault of their own, while other people, often not as gifted or tenacious, succeed. Gladwell does not discount hard work; in fact, he shows that it is crucial to success, but he does dispel the rugged individual myth by exposing the cultural context that often creates the possibility for success and failure in any person's life.
Bill Gate's genius needed the fortune of time and place to flourish; neither his genius nor his drive were enough without context and good luck.
The inverse of our belief in rugged individualism is our acceptance of a culture of poverty. Many trace the term "culture of poverty" to Oscar Lewis in the early 1960s, but the popular view of this concept is at best debatable and at worst provably wrong.
Briefly, the culture of poverty myth is flawed because it reduces a class of people to a single stereotype—as if all poverty and all people living in poverty are one type. This is untrue for any economic condition. As well, the popular view of a culture of poverty as expressed by Bauer has shifted the cultural dimension of the theory—focusing on the power of the culture to overwhelm or support distinct classes of people—to blaming the poor for being poor, with the implication that financial success and failure are somehow inherently within each person.
The second part of Bauer's comment—"You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better"—at least implies that the poor are inherently incapable of thought, that they are deficient, unlike people who succeed in our society.
And here is where Bauer's comments hit home with our schools. This deficit perspective of the poor is exactly how we view and teach children from poor homes in SC.
We have for years now invested large amounts of taxpayer money in unscientific programs, notably the work of Ruby Payne, to teach educators workbook approaches to teaching the poor. And these programs do little more than reinforce inaccurate stereotypes of poor children and families, further justifying for educators the reduced curriculum and instruction that we offer those children who need our schools the most.
In the first few years of schooling, we label children (correlated strongly with the economic status of their families), and these labels stick throughout their education.
Once children are labeled "deficient," they receive the narrowest possible education. They are placed in classes with higher student/teacher ratios than their "gifted" peers; they are assigned the least qualified and least experienced teachers.
And they are offered worksheets, memorization, basal readers, and rote behaviors (with the most authoritarian classroom management as well) because we assume, as Bauer does, "[t]hey don't know any better." The result is a cumulative 12 or more years of training a group of students to be cooperative based on the flawed assumption that they are somehow responsible for the economic conditions of their families and are likely incapable of doing anything more substantial.
Yes, Andre Bauer is wrong in his characterization of the poor, but the outrage aimed at his comments rings hollow because we have allowed the same perspectives to drive our schools for a century with very few questioning deficit assumptions that reduce children to what they lack at the expense of basic human dignity.