Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Making a Difference

The first half of this week's This American Life told the heartening and inspiring story of Geoffrey Canada, the man who has led a "Harlem Renaissance" in education and is overseeing a dramatic new approach that promises to lift thousands of African-American children out of poverty by giving them a decent chance at a solid education through his Harlem Children's Zone. The program offers an all-encompassing approach to education that begins with parenting classes for very young children and a variety of programs that are aimed to aid children at every step of the educational process, all the way through college. In short, the HCZ is a resounding success. Study after study has borne out the idea that ensuring the success of people from impoverished backgrounds must begin with tending to their educational and health needs from infancy on. The episode explains Canada's unique philosophy, which is to reject the approach of prior anti-poverty programs, which focused mostly on the economic, health and educational needs of the parents in the hopes that the parents can lift themselves and their children out of poverty. Instead, all of the focus is on the children of parents who are mired in poverty. This can make for a harsh reality; Canada's program isn't designed to help the poor parent get a better job or improve their own educational prospects. This is done not only out of necessity (money for such programs is limited of course) but also because by the age at which they have children, most people do not have and will never gain the skills necessary to better their own socio-economic status. But they can still better their children's, by learning child-raising skills at the HCZ "baby college", free pre-K programs that prepare children for kindergarten, health and nutrition programs, and programs to aid teenagers in high school and young adults in college. The success of this approach is undeniable.

In a sense, Canada rejects liberal thinking, in the focus on programs that have never proven their effectiveness and have done little to lift millions out of poverty despite decades of application. But in another sense, the HCZ embodies the absolute best of liberal thought. Innovation, the rigorous application of scientific and technical principles confirmed by countless hours of careful study, and the unending willingness to better the plight of those who simply cannot better themselves without help; this is the liberal ethic, and to see it succeed in practice is truly inspiring. It is my firmest desire and hope that this program can be replicated across the nation, and that the success of programs like Canada's can galvanize policy-making aimed at the plight of poverty at a national level. 

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