I hate to use a phrase that was coined by a senior advisor to President George W. Bush. But use it I must…and even in a similar context. Michael Gerson described the all-too-common educational practice of expecting less from members of certain groups (thought to be disadvantaged) than one expects from other groups (who are thought to be advantaged) as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” We can all come up with plenty of examples. For instance, a teacher might praise a black or Latino student for getting a B but be disappointed when a white or Asian student gets a B. This is “soft” bigotry because it probably stems from a good heart; such a teacher certainly doesn’t think of herself as racist.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to race. For instance, Weston is the most affluent town in Massachusetts, so we expect students to do well. We joke that it’s Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Now it’s true that Weston students have a great many advantages — I certainly wouldn’t deny that — but clearly they’re not all above average. More importantly, just because most students from Cambridge and Boston don’t have those advantages is no reason to expect less of them. For example, at the Crimson Summer Academy we have very high expectations of our students, all of whom are low-income and most of whom are black or Latino. Yet it’s clear that many of these kids have issues with being held to the same standards we use at Weston. After all, many of them have been getting A’s in math at their regular schools! That, I submit, is a perfect example of the soft bigotry of low expectations; out of the best of intentions they’re getting A’s for less than A work, probably because they’re low-income inner-city minority youth. That system doesn’t do them any favors.