Much of the rhetoric surrounding education involves how we can help less well prepared students “catch up.” This is true across all levels of education — — from early childhood through adult education.

We know, too, that there is summer melt/slide, particularly for students from low income families who have not had the experiences over the summer of their high SES counterparts. Whether through conversations, reading, travel, excursions and activities, high SES children often exercise their reading and math muscles over the summer. Map reading, mileage, travel, seeing new sights, listening to a new language, trying new foods, playing in summer leagues, reading good books (or even not good ones) helps kids’ brains grow.

For me, one of the most disheartening things to hear when listening to and engaging with educators, whether at the start of the school year or thereafer, is the suggestion that we let students struggle mightily so they can “lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” Other similar comments are: “Let studetns find their way rather than coddling them;” “Children need to struggle to succeed;” ‘We managed without all these supports; why can’t they?”. And worse of all in my view: “What is wrong with kids today? They need to shape up and get with the program.”

There are many angles from which to explain my antipathy to “blaming the student.” Let’s start with this observation: children do not choose their parents and yet we blame them for the shortfalls in their homelife and in their communities. When many children don’t succeed in school, it is not because of situations of their own making. If these students experience trauma or toxic stress or abuse, it is hard to say the children are to blame. Seeing parents abuse each other (or being abused oneself or seeing one’s siblings hit) is not a child’s fault. And just as an aside, in the heat of this summer, the absence of air-conditioning or quality fans leaves folks moody and out of sorts. Those with pools in their backyard or houses at the shore have advantages galore.

But, here’s one phrase we need to remove entirely from our lexicon (unless we return to its original meaning): “lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” The phrase is often used to encourage self-reliance and self-sufficiency. It is used to express the epitomy of independence and autonomy.

The irony of this “boot” phrase is three fold. First, one cannot actually pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps. It is impossible. One would fall on one’s face. Second, if we go back to the origins of this phrase, it actually meant the opposite of how we use the term now. It meant trying to do something that could not be done, trying something utterly improbable. Third, it is actually meanspirited to leave children without the tools to succeed and call ourselves educators. We need to lend a hand (or more than a hand) to help kids pull themselves up. And, when they want to pull themselves up, we would be wise to recognize that effort as key to ultimate success.

The origins of the offensive phrase “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is described in greater detail in the article cited below. In addition to identifying this source, I want to repeat a quote within it from an article titled “The Truth about Globalization. It applies to education as well.

“Expecting the poorest people in the world to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without access to foreign investment, training, technical skills, or markets, verges on indifference or cruelty.”

Ditto for kids. Ditto for everyone actually. Making people fall on their faces isn’t commendable. It’s mean and unhelpful and deeply offensive. Extend a hand or a rope or a life-saver. The results will be better.

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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