Author Jonathan Kozol often writes about his conversations with affluent friends and associates who question whether money makes a difference when it comes to educating and rearing children. You can't put a price on values, self-discipline and love of learning, they tell him.
Kozol doesn't disagree, but then he asks why they send their kids to expensive private schools or vigorously lobby their local school boards to provide their kids' public schools with every learning tool taxpayers' money can buy. Why does money seem to matter so much for their kids?
I can't help thinking of Kozol when reading the debate raging on The Daily Page and elsewhere about the wayward youth of Madison's Meadowood neighborhood. Some of it amounts to the converse of what Kozol described: Certain behaviors portend criminality and moral decay in other kids but not our kids.
Dave Blaska, a terrific writer and committed public servant, attributes the violence and self-destruction in Meadowood to a particular kind of youth, whom he describes this way: "His pants are hanging down around his knees, his hands are at his crotch and his mouth is functioning as a sewer pipe."
It would be great if this description helped us identify anti-social tendencies before they manifest themselves. But Blaska's teenage nightmare describes about 80% of American males under the age of 24.
Teenagers in Maple Bluff and Shorewood Hills have the same droopy drawers, use the same gangster slang and have the same penchant for creative and uncreative cursing as the kids in Meadowood. But we don't assume this is helping them become National Merit Scholars or get admitted to Ivy League colleges -- both of which they do with amazing frequency. Somehow, though, we assume these speech and clothing choices are contributing to shootings, theft and vandalism in neighborhoods where these things have become a concern.
I'm not trying to say that Blaska's analysis is limited to his fashion statement. He has a list of proposed reforms that alternately channel Ronald Reagan, Tommy Thompson, and his favorite Madison alderperson, Thuy Pham-Remmele.
Blaska's list is a mix of good common sense and boilerplate neo-conservatism, but in his writings and his responses to his online critics, the excessive swearing and the baggy pants are what he keeps going back to.
Does he really think these speech and clothing choices are limited to at-risk youth? Didn't Blaska's Blog see The Wackness?
One item on Blaska's list is that all teachers must read Bill Cosby's book Come on People. My list would start with a requirement that every elected official read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities.
Among other things, the Savage Inequalities proposes that rich people and poor people trade neighborhoods so that all of the resources and political influence the affluent use on their own behalf might suddenly get spread about more evenly. Blaska has proposed that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz move into Meadowood. Both ideas seem more realistic than getting young people to dress and talk the way grown ups want them to.