It’s not easy being a sociologist, so just don’t talk shop with your dental hygienist

It is tough enough having your actual profession confused daily by every person you encounter.

If I had a dollar for every time someone confused sociology and social work, I’d have quite a few dollars (but not enough to quit my day job).

But what happens with a sociologist ends up in another equally confusing department like Educational Studies?

As if fielding the question, “You’re a sociologist–so do you work in a hospital?” was annoying enough, now I have to debunk more mythology around “Ed Studies,” what it means and what I do.  Just to be clear, I am not a case worker and I also don’t exactly train future teachers.

By now, I should know better. When people ask me about my work, I know they’re not going to like what I have to say.  I study the sociology of education and care endlessly about school inequality.  Knowing that I have radical views on the state of public schooling, I should either speak up or shut up.  Even my own husband isn’t ready to hear what I have to say about the state of local schools.

So last week, when my dental hygienist and my dentist engaged me in a conversation on the state of public schooling, I should have kept it light.  But I just couldn’t.

Maybe it was because I had just come off a lecture on the broad history of American public schooling.  Maybe it was because it’s the start of the school year and I’m getting my students into Hartford schools to do research. Maybe it’s because I never stop thinking about kids and schooling.

But, when asked, “So, how do we fix this mess we’re in?” [“This mess” being the state of public schooling], I replied, “One of the ways we could fix the state of schooling is to blow up the attendance boundaries and figure out a way to do schooling across city and town lines.”

My dentist looked horrified. Maybe, not horrified. Maybe just a little dumbstruck.

[Side note: we live in a state where the city and town lines are deeply etched in the landscape, literally and figuratively. Folks here do not want to share anything–not even municipal services like trash or snow removal–unless absolutely necessary.]

And immediately, she redirected the conversation and threw in, “well, maybe we should just control who becomes parents.”

Now, it was my turn to be dumbstruck.

Parents, and in this case parents of children in urban districts, take so much heat for the success of their children.  And parents are surely part of the equation. But public schooling is complicated, and few lay critics fail to realize two things: first, schools are located in a specific place and even if they draw students from outside of local boundaries, they are still subject the local norms and mores of the community.  And secondly, the local boundaries did not happen overnight–local boundaries are also the result of social and economic processes that enabled some folks to leave cities and constrained other folks to city communities. (See any history of suburban life and discussion of red-lining)

Public schooling is complicated. But my stance on equalizing opportunities rests squarely on the intersection of schools, families, AND communities.  We can blame teachers or school administrators or politicians, but our public school system is tied directly to geography.  And the geography, the vast residential segregation by race and social class that exists is not an accident.  Residential segregation is the result of institutional racism and to some degree classism that over decades has left many communities without the economic and human resources necessary to run “successful” schools.

To sit back and blame parents for the condition of public education, especially parents living in low-resource neighborhoods, as though they don’t care about their own children seems like a really ignorant position.

I remained dumbstruck, unable to muster any response to her comment about poor parenting. And then she told me my teeth looked great.

I went home, cavity free.

Being a sociologist is tough sometimes.

About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in education reform, kids, parenthood, personal, politics, race, schools, social class, work. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It’s not easy being a sociologist, so just don’t talk shop with your dental hygienist

  1. Janet says:

    I guess you have to know where to stick to “small talk.” Probably best to keep to small talk with your banker, too. Keep up the good work!

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