Unlike those who rebuke without offering solutions, Mike Rose produces a statement of hope in “Lives on the Boundary.” Rose weaves a tapestry, gleaning from his own learning experiences and those of other’s whose lives have intersected his.
Rose, associate director of the UCLA writing program, describes his book as “vignette and commentary, reflection and analysis.” It is an “engagement with language,” an examination of people who have been labeled failures, an exploration of the process becoming literate, and a rite of passage for Rose himself into the academic world.
Rose immediately confronts the “back to basics” cry for a return to drills on parts of speech, grammar rules, spelling and diagraming sentences. The landscapes of Rose’s education intermingle with scenes of people and places in his response to education fundamentalists. There are scenes of the deprived, of “information poverty,” of struggles and anger, and finally, of great hope.
Rose came to Los Angeles with his Italian immigrant parents in the early ‘50s. He moved into an impoverished neighborhood in South- Central Los Angeles. Woven into this tapestry are vivid, yet dreary, scenes of the neighborhood and Roses’ family life. His education was as bleak as the neighborhood. He was stuck in a vocational track throughout his parochial school until an insightful teacher recognized potential where others had only seen deficiencies.
Rose chronicles his discovery of classic literature and critical/analytical communication which lead him from the grim boundaries of his neighborhood to Loyola University. His journey continued to UCLA graduate school and then on to the Teacher Corps in the housing projects of east Los Angeles County. Along the journey are encounters with professors, master teachers and students--children of migrant farm workers, Vietnamese veterans, and underprepared college freshmen.
With these students Rose shares harbored feelings of being out of his league and of “dreary impotence.” Yet, throughout his story, the evidence of deficiency is not that of the students, but of the American education system. According to Rose, in an effort to tailor instruction and guarantee the democratic right of education for all, educators “frequently slot rather than shape, categorize rather than foster,” a judgment of ability which, accurate or not, has affected the curriculum these students have received. Hope is evident in the lives of the students, such as the veterans who wanted to change their lives. Rose recognized that despite their earlier failures, they still held onto an American dream: “Education held the power to equalize things.”
As for the solution, Rose immersed his students in talking, reading and writing toward the development of critical thinking. Through these case studies, Rose continually challenges “the assumption that error can be eradicated by zeroing in on the particulars of language . . . and that grammatical error signals some fundamental mental barrier.”
Rose re-entered the university “with some responsibility for making it work . . . to see beyond failure . . . (and) develop perception.” He challenges the politics of academia and presents a “forceful call” to those who teach to encourage performance; to “engage books and ideas thought to be beyond (the) grasp (of students)”; to recognize that “error marks the place where education begins,” rather than diagnosing the error as an illness and attempting to provide a remedy with corrective teaching. Rose cautions all, “How much we don’t see when we look only for deficiency, when we tally up all that people can’t do.”
As I began reading “Lives,” I wondered who was the intended audience. Then as I traveled along with Rose on his journeys, my own doubts of ability as an undergraduate college student and my love for the “masters” in literature were resurrected. I felt concerns for my children’s education and recognized my parental responsibility toward their learning. I was inspired as a “teacher” to tap the dreams of the “functionally illiterate” with whom my life intersects daily. And like Rose, I was reminded that as we teach, so we learn.
As a personal rite of passage, “Lives” is a vindication from the “powerlessness” of Rose’s childhood to his right to cross those boundaries into the academic world. He is critical of the “publish or perish” attitude within the university. Ironically, his driving force to publish this book signifies a rite of passage within the university system. He champions this right for others, and he challenges universities to recognize the potential of the “so-called” educationally impoverished. “Lives” is a mirror to the many lacking perfect grammar and spelling, who may see their dreams translated into reality after all.