In the latest City Journal, Kay Hymowitz discusses Bill Cosby's parenting-power crusade among poor African-Americans and links it to the failure of government social welfare programs to close the education and economic gaps. A typical Cosby rant: "Proper education has to begin at home. . . . What we need now is parents sitting down with children, overseeing homework, sending children off to school in the morning, well fed, rested, and ready to learn." To Hymowitz, parents who do engage in these activities have signed up for what she calls "The Mission" - that is, the conscious attempt on the part of parents to develop the talents, interests, and personal character of children such that they are freed to pursue their bliss. She bluntly states the problem: "Poor black parents rear their children very differently from the way middle-class parents do, and even by the time the kids are four years old, the results are extremely hard to change." Hymowitz claims that underclass parents fail to sign up for The Mission, and while they may have the requisite parenting skills, they lack "the motivation to bring them to bear in a consistent, mindful way." Gadfly is probably unqualified to judge the cultural claims Hymowitz is making and is uncomfortable anyway with the logical conclusion of some of them (i.e., some kids are damaged goods by age four; there's nothing schools can do about it). But we would certainly agree that, while proper education must start in the home, such broad changes take time and prodigious effort. So in the meantime, the fact that these kids are showing up at school already behind does suggest that high-quality pre-school for lower-income children can be an important (if not fully effective) stopgap. (For more on that topic, see this recent Fordham publication, here). Parenting is key, but so is high-quality schooling.
"What's holding black kids back?" by Kay S. Hymowitz, City Journal, Spring 2005