What About “The Achievement Gap” For J. R. R. Tolkien’s Professor?

Here is a story about the admirable work being done in some YMCAs. They offer Early Learning Readiness Program for Informal Family, Friend and Neighbor Caregivers. It shows people working together to meet a need to help children grow and develop. This is a good response to the claims that public school needs to start earlier in the lives of our children.

But the way the story explains the YMCAs work, it almost seems like a form of lobbying for the government to take over and fund another program. I hope that’s not true.

I also really hate the dire fatalism the article promotes.

Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the School Superintendents Association, told a briefing in Washington recently that studies showed that the achievement gap “begins before a child gets to school, and it’s very much based on poverty.”

So what? A teacher of eight-year-olds is supposed to believe that each child’s upward development is now fully limited by a lack of education when the child was three?

When J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, went to Oxford, one of his most influential professors was Joseph Wright. Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, wrote about Wright’s background:

Joe Wright was a Yorkshireman, a truly self-made man who had worked his way up from the humblest origins to become Professor of Comparative Philology. He had been employed in a woollen-mill from the age of six, and at first this gave him no chance to learn to read and write. But by the time he was fifteen he was jealous of his workmates who could understand the newspapers, so he taught himself his letters. This did not take very long and only increased his desire to learn, so he went to night-school and studied French and German. He also taught himself Latin and mathematics, sitting over his books until two in the morning and wirsing again at five to set out for work. By the time he was eighteen he felt that it was his duty to pass on his knowledge to others, so he began a night-school in the bedroom of his widowed mother’s cottage, charging his workmates twopence a week for tuition. When he was twenty-one he decided to use his savings to finance a term’s study at a German university, so he took a boat to Antwerp and walked stage by stage to Heidelberg, where he became interested in philology. So this former mill-hand studied Saskrit, Gothic, Old Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Russian, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and Old English, eventually taking a doctorate. Returning to England he established himself in Oxford where he was soon appointed Deputy Professor of Comparative Philology… He continued to work without ceasing, beginning to write a series of language primers, among which was the Gothic book that proved such a revelation to Tolkien…

Okay, not every child can grow up to be a Joe Wright (furthermore, no education method on earth can predictably create a Joe Wright!). But what if, instead of learning a dozen languages, we allow that an average person can learn to speak and read and write his own language–and maybe one more? What if we stop pretending this possibility ends if he has a bad home life as a toddler or doesn’t get into a good pre-school?

Whenever I hear people talking about the importance of “education” (i.e. childhood and teen schooling) I think about Joe Wright. What are we telling kids when we pump out government messages about staying in school? Are we pushing success? In some cases undoubtedly we are. But we are also saying something else: If you can’t make it in school, or if you graduate without having basic skills, you are done for. You have no chance.

I think this is a self-fulfilling deception. We need to stop telling teens who didn’t get a great start that they are doomed. We need to learn this motto:

It isn’t about where you begin; what matters is where you finish.