Thursday, June 10, 2010

Clarion Ledger Article from 6/10/10: "Cultural Divides: Barriers Remain to Educational Attainment"

This article came out this past Sunday in The Clarion Ledger. If you've got feedback for me on it, feel free to email me at Here's the text of the article.


Cultural Divides: Barriers Remain to Educational Attainment

Mississippi appears to be stuck in a vicious Catch-22, which accompanies the state's troubled racial history. On the one hand, Gov. Haley Barbour has noted that education is the No. 1 economic development issue in the state. At the same time, poverty and racial stereotyping inhibit educational success. The problem appears irresolvable.

Two reactions are common. The first one says things are not so bad in Mississippi - the denial of failure. The second sees failure everywhere and expects nothing else of the state - the prophecy of failure. Exceptional students who overcome adversity are proof for the deniers and negative stories about Mississippi are confirmation for the prophets of failure.

Both views are troubling. Most people have a hard time denying the state's great problems. Some think that if only we would quit pointing out Mississippi's troubles, we could get people to invest here and to grow business. There is some truth to this concern, but ignoring real problems only lets them grow. My own optimism for the future of the state comes from the fact that the Catch-22 is only apparent. It can be overcome. The difficult problem falls on the side of the pessimists. They create and sustain self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is an error of reasoning. When people commit this fallacy, they call some circumstance inevitable and then, through their own actions or inaction, they make it true. The conclusion they draw from the experience is that they were right: the outcome was inevitable.

Take an example from baseball. A kid who says he will never get a hit decides not to swing. When the third strike whizzes by, he says "See! There was no way I was going to get a hit!"

Failure in baseball has miniscule effects compared with failure in school. Imagine the same thought process at work when a student believes that he or she cannot succeed on a test. If messages continue to predict poor students' failure in education, we should not be surprised when some think there is no point to school.

A number of my students told me about their experiences in transition to college and gave me permission to pass on their messages. The first four are African-American students and the fifth is white. Christopher Cox said: "My high school guidance counselors told me that coming from my background that I would struggle during my tenure. They said that I should attend junior college. This increased my doubt in myself being able to achieve at a four-year institution . . . these statements were discouraging, " he said.

Chris will be a senior in the fall at the University of Mississippi and has a bright future ahead of him.

Nick Luckett shared with me the fact that some members of his community warned him against coming to UM in particular. They told him "Don't go there. You'll get killed." Clearly this warning was racially motivated.

But other teachers told him he would be better off attending a community college, rather than a four-year institution, advice with economic implications. He explained: "Despite all the negativity I received because I decided to come to Ole Miss, I have had a great experience here at this university and I am so glad that I came."

Next, Andre' Cotten and Melissa Cole, both inductees in the UM Student Hall of Fame, have related difficult transitions to college. Andre' wrote that "from my experience, I find that some prospective minority students get discouraged because of the stigma of social injustice that some people who are not familiar with the Ole Miss community attach to our university . . . on the contrary, from my experience as an undergraduate I found that there seems to be a comfortable place for everyone to fit within the Ole Miss family."

Melissa explained that "when I told my friends, neighbors and fellow church members that I would attend Ole Miss, I was always asked 'Why?' or was received with a frown." Certainly racial history played an important role in the culture that inspired these forms of discouragement, but it is important to notice the economic impact that comes along with it.

Finally, Brent Caldwell, one of my white students self-described as a person from a modest financial background, has explained to me that he has "a few friends whose parents didn't go (to college) and who gave them the attitude of 'well we didn't need to go to school; why do you?' . . . Unfortunately, most of these friends never went on to college or flamed out of community colleges." Brent explained that between himself and his former friends, he experienced a "palpable feeling of class difference there," which ended a number of his friendships.

In examples like these I see a symptom of what appears to be happening at all levels in the state. There is still an outlook that inspires people to think that certain institutions and successes are not "for us," for poor African Americans or whites, or for Mississippians generally. These attitudes are observable at many levels, despite the shining examples that contradict them.

The cultural challenges for Mississippi impact us all. When people get too used to hearing negative things about Mississippi, they become more likely to accept low expectations for the state. We need the opposite. We need high expectations, but without denying the problems we face.

Something very important for cultural leadership is at work in the examples of the successful students I have mentioned. I have asked my students how they overcame discouragements from going to college or from coming to the University of Mississippi.

Their answers are often that "I knew her" or "I knew him." Students saw examples of success and wanted it for themselves. A crucial component of leadership in educational attainment in Mississippi must come from a few individuals who swim against the powerful currents of discouragement. When they succeed, others can see that their own prospects might also be bright. The more our students succeed and are visible, the harder it becomes to assume that failure in school is the only option.

My proposal to overcome the apparent Catch-22 is simple: We must fight culture with culture and on many fronts. One way I suggest we do it is with a documentary. There are countless examples of success that we can show kids in Mississippi to contradict the harsh discouragements that many children confront. We have rich resources in our fantastic students who must be talked about, who must be shown to others as the exemplars that they are. A growing number of students have overcome self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. With a documentary we can highlight our many successful students.

We can make the video available for classrooms and public television, but we can also post it online for each student to watch through our expanding avenues of communication that technology has enabled. I envision a viral video that students can access directly on computers at school or in local libraries, to circumvent the common channels of discouragement.

Such efforts could be just the kind of force needed to turn today's cultural current around, to replace a negative and discouraging culture with a culture of excellence.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of Public Policy Leadership at the University of Mississippi, expressing only his own point of view in this article. His second book, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy, will be released in 2011. Contact him at


I've got a scanned version of this file here, in case you'd like to see the original printed version. You can visit my Web site here or send me feedback via email at


  1. "African-American"? "white"? If referring to people by their skin color is inappropriate, it's inappropriate.

    Of course, you're hardly the only one who does this. But it was particularly obvious here, and the inconsistency caught my attention.

  2. As I say in the article, the problem in the state is not only poverty and education, but what remains of stereotyping. It helps to clarify why people were worried in the way that they were about Ole Miss. It also helped to substantiate the fact that I wasn't talking only about assumptions people have that were based on race. Since the article came out, I have received by email some more examples I could quote of white students who've been discouraged similarly. Some folks assume the problems only arise for African Americans. I needed to explain that this assumption is not true. That's the reason. It may be that this kind of discouragement occurs more for African Americans in the state. Certainly it occurs more among the poor. Thanks for reading and for your thoughts.