I’ve sat on this one for a few days; trying hard both to gather my thoughts and to reconcile them into making some sort of sense; while trying even harder not to sound like a complete idiot. Here goes:
The other day I was privileged to attend a Human Services Forum awards breakfast wherein my co-worker was honored for her longevity, dedication and service to our employer (Way to Go Lu!) The keynote speaker was Dr Tim Black, sociology professor at the University of Hartford and author of the book ‘When a Heart Turns Rock Solid’, a true glimpse into the lives of 4 Puerto Rican brothers from Springfield MA over an 18 year period of time. I was quite interested to hear what he had to say (as a former soc major myself) and settled in to listen. He spoke about the double economic upheaval/recessions resulting in displacement within the same generational span of time. Made perfect sense, and offered a basic framework for understanding some of the factors influencing the Puerto Rican population in this part of the state. Dr Black made it clear this had turned into a double decade research project for him. He spent a great deal of time with the subjects, developed close relationships with them, and is clearly passionately involved in advocating for and working with Latinos; which is highly laudable.
Then he started to lose me. And I’ll tell you why…. First and most importantly – just by developing relationships with the subjects of his research he biased the conclusions he arrives at. Big mistake – huge…. Dispassionate observation is crucial in achieving factual unbiased results. “Observe and record, but do not interfere” is the first rule of research. The Prime Directive – if you will. Admittedly this is tremendously difficult when the subjects you are studying are human beings. How can you not interact with, influence, and be influenced by them? This difficulty is probably one of the reasons I did not pursue a career in sociological research…. well that – and the fact that I hate writing research papers. I’m much better at op-ed pieces. 😉 Anyway, by developing those relationships, and even providing assistance to one or more of the brothers at times (in the form of job references and the like) he skewed his results. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have done that as a moral, responsible, and caring individual; I’m merely saying that he’s influenced his outcome making any conclusions suspect at best.
He also lost me when it seemed that he was “blaming” circumstances for bad outcomes (jail time for instance) rather than personal choice and personal responsibility. If you don’t already know, this is a really hot button issue for me so I was hard pressed to keep my mouth shut and my lower lip bit. But I did well – contenting myself with an eye roll or two to my table mates (many of whom are Hispanic – and agreed with me – as I later discovered). Dr Black used the example of one of the brothers getting into a car accident on the way home from work, and turning back to selling drugs in order to support his family because he had no transportation to get back and forth to work. I find it highly improbable this was the only choice available to him at that time – although Dr Black would have us think otherwise and why not? He clearly cares a great deal about the young man and so is willing to make allowances for him – which brings me right back to the whole bias thing again, doesn’t it?
During the question and answer period Dr. Black also stated he felt that anyone living in the North End of Springfield should be able to go to college for free. That was that – Elvis left the building at that point and I started seeing red. I’m 100% for government assistance and low-interest loans to pay for a college education – particularly when the student comes from an impoverished background. There are many programs and grants already in place for students in need. But FREE? Come on! A college education is not a right – it’s a privilege. One that my husband, myself and our oldest daughter are struggling to provide to her at this very moment. Nobody’s handing us a free ride – and we live paycheck to paycheck just like the rest of blue-collar America. The federal government (FAFSA) would like to believe that her father and I magically should’ve had thousands of dollars available to pay for this year’s bill – I want to know where that money is – cuz it ain’t in MY bank account – jussayin. Oh wait, I bet our car mechanic has it….. But I digress. College is a privilege that should be paid for so that it will be valued and not tossed aside. (Remember the old adage of ” its worth what you paid for it”?) If you pay nothing for your education then how invested will you be in it? And, if you’re not invested you’ve now robbed a “paying customer” of the opportunity to attend. I say this because I have first hand experience with valuing my higher education so much more when I had to pay for it myself.
I’ll descend from the soapbox now. If nothing else, Dr Black gave me a lot to disagree with him about. Why is it difficult for people to accept responsibility for their choices? What about giving people a hand up rather than a hand out? I stand by my opinion that hard work and perseverance make a successful person. Anyone can rise above their circumstances if they want to badly enough. I was not able to purchase his book that morning – the blue, bleeding heart liberal (ie Massachusetts) audience descended upon the book table like the proverbial pack of ravening wolves – but I will be looking for it online. I have no doubt its an accurate story of life in Springfield over the past two decades – but “rock solid” from a research standpoint? Not a chance.