Readers Write: America's class divide is really an information gap

Letters to the Editor for the weekly print issue of July 9, 2012: Information capital – the power to think and use information creatively – evolves over time as the product of a person's experiences with words and concepts. Poor children have less chance of developing it than their richer peers.

Class divide – really an information gap

In his June 25 commentary, "What Obama and Romney should be talking about," John J. Pitney Jr. chided President Obama and Mitt Romney for not addressing America's growing class inequality and lack of class mobility.

The reason for this division may rest on one enviable commodity: information capital. Information capital – the power to think and use information creatively – evolves over time as the product of a person's experiences with words and concepts.

But not all children have the same chance of developing it. As part of a grant from the William Penn Foundation, we've spent more than 10 years in one low-income and one middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. We found children in poverty are at a disadvantage, which we detail in our upcoming book, "Giving Our Children a Fighting Chance: Poverty, Literacy, and the Development of Information Capital."

Print materials, a key ingredient in helping children develop reading skills, are hard to find in a low-income neighborhood. As a result, children here see fewer people reading and have fewer resources to read themselves. This continues with extreme differences in parental attitudes toward learning. Devoid of resources and experiences themselves, parents are less capable of helping their children become proficient readers.

This divide grows in this digital age. Kids from affluent neighborhoods have more access to computers and the Internet at home. They become more familiar with technology, gain more information, and become specialists in knowledge areas. Low-income kids tend to use technology for entertainment.

These gaps will continue to grow unless we address the information environment itself. Children from low-income areas need greater access to books, computers, and the Internet as well as assistance from capable adult mentors and often underfunded public libraries.

For too long, the focus in education has been on "how" to teach, rather than "what" to teach. No matter how hard teachers may work on teaching higher-level reasoning or critical thinking skills, nothing will "stick" if students don't have the requisite background of content knowledge to build on.

Susan B. Neuman

Professor of education

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Donna C. Celano

Assistant professor of communication

La Salle University, Philadelphia

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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