Marriage and the Underclass

To the editor:
As a fellow educator, I agree 100 percent with you [Gerry Garibaldi, “ Nobody Gets Married Any More, Mister, ” Winter 2011]. The breakdown of the American family and absentee parenting together create an insurmountable hurdle for teachers. There is not much that No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top can do to overcome this.

Andy Gill
Sterling, VA

To the editor:
There are two options for dealing with the problem of teenage pregnancy: give these girls real, improved life options on the condition that they put off getting pregnant; or make it really punitive for them to get pregnant. The latter rightly seems inhumane, if only to the prospective children. But dealing with the former would require changes to our national political economy of the sort that are beyond the political imagination of a journal like this one.

Nils Gilman
San Francisco, CA

To the editor:
The girls were lost causes before they got pregnant—low-skilled and cognitively limited. We pretend that they are capable of doing work that they haven’t a chance of understanding.


To the editor:
What real hope do these women have in the broader culture? They are smart enough to see through the alternative you offer: even if they get a much-vaunted spot in a community college, they will not become Barack Obama. How many community college graduates are in Obama’s cabinet, or the U.S. Senate, or even on school faculties?

Lori Askeland
Yellow Springs, OH

To the editor:
The trend over the last two decades shows that teen pregnancy is an issue for every demographic in this country. Focusing only on poor black girls from never-married, single-mom families will not solve this problem.

Beverley Jackson
Fredericksburg, Virginia

Gerry Garibaldi responds:
I was gratified by the extensive correspondence that this piece generated online but was occasionally alarmed by the responses. Gratified, because clearly what I was seeing in my world resonated with readers, who were, for the most part, thoughtful about and moved by the human faces behind what are frequently presented as bloodless, bare statistics. Alarmed at the notion, expressed in more than one letter, that somehow my students are incapable of learning or improving their lots—“cognitively limited”—and that teaching them at all was a waste of our taxes and my time. Wrong. They’re not stupid. Nor are they evil or morally corrupt.

Their problem is not cognitive; it’s cultural. My girls are sinking because sinking is the norm where they come from and because the larger society not only permits but subtly encourages and promotes sinking as an acceptable alternative to rising. Maybe none of them is going to get into Harvard or grow up to be the next Barack Obama; admittedly, my school is worlds away from the Punahou School in Hawaii. But what’s so bad about community college? Both my wife and I are proud grads of California’s excellent—well, it was then—community college system, and we rode those cheaply bought two-year degrees to more prestigious four-year schools to finish our educations. I’m in no position to be a snob about public education; I happen to believe that every kid deserves a decent one. But without the backup provided by a stable family life, or by just having a safe place to sleep at night and regular meals, I wonder how many members of any ethnic group could stand up to the headwinds that blow across my students’ lives.


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