Sharpen Those Pen Nibs, Lad! (Or: Gene Marks Feels Their Pain)

I wasn’t going to post anything about Gene Marks’ ridiculous Forbes column of the other day,  “If I were a poor black kid,” which told disadvantaged young people that if they study a lot and use lots and lots of technology, they will transcend the immense structural inequities that shape America today (oh wait, I think “immense structural inequities” might be my wording, not his…)

This was partly because I think Baratunde Thurston did a fine job in a CNN column puncturing Marks’ naïve and pompous “advice”…advice which basically could have come from the mouth of an industrialist talking to an office boy in a bad 19th century novel: “Work hard and keep your pen nibs sharpened, lad, and you’ll go far!”

But there is something so manipulative about Marks’ subsequent response to Thurston, so mistaken in its invocations of technology,  that I want to weigh in.

In his response, Marks repeats his original bullet points, each more reductive than the last, each denying the fact that kids in weak school systems can never achieve these goals simply by sheer force of will.

Here’s Marks’ advice, each “tip” followed by my thoughts:

  • “1. Study hard and get good grades.”  […In which Marks ignores the challenges faced by kids attending underfunded schools operating with huge classes and poor instructional materials, or living with overworked parents who need the kids' help after school to care for siblings…]
  • “2. Use technology to help you get good grades.” [Ignoring the fact that many school systems can afford neither cutting edge technology nor the staff hours to maintain it and (this is crucial) to instruct students in its effective use; access is NOT inclusion, as Virginia Eubank’s book, Digital Dead End helps us see. Undergraduates need guidance in using Google Scholar; how would a middle- or high-schooler figure it out on her own as Marks' original column suggests she do? That column shows the depth of his ignorance about how pupils learn to think critically and vet resources.]
  • “3. Apply to the best schools you can.” [Because to Marks, just believing in yourself apparently makes up for the challenges I just listed under “1” and “2”]
  • “4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor.” [Because, as in the corporate world Marks inhabits, it is not what you know but who you know…? Does he really think the kids are actively avoiding services that are being offered to them?]

The brevity of each point is itself insulting, a gesture that condescends by simplifying.  So it is not surprising when we then read that Marks feels the kids’ pain:

  • “5. Learn a good skill. This is what I said in my blog. I said this wasn’t easy. It’s brutally hard. “

“Brutally hard”, Mr. Marks? Maybe that’s a clue that this is not about the kids’ lack of  discipline and fortitude.

As I’ve written before  in this blog, analyses like Marks’ put tremendous faith in existing systems of education and employment, with technology privileged as a cure-all.  Alongside such conservative logic,  his compassion rings false, to the last note of the response:

“Will any of these kids read what I wrote in Forbes? Probably not. I’m hoping that educators, bloggers and most importantly parents do. Because it will be very tough for any kid to do it alone.”

“Tough,” it certainly is, for many kids of color or low socioeconomic standing striving to find equitable educational opportunities in the United States.  Too bad Marks displays no historical or political perspective on what makes it so; he could start by looking at his own thinking on the problem,  I’m afraid.

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