Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Have you popped your bubble?

By Joe Frank

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(John Almond/Flickr)

I’ve heard it said often in political conversation: “Well, we live in a liberal bubble up here in the Northeast.” It is a statement I’ve heard many people agree with, but I did not understand it myself until recently. I spent my entire childhood as a resident of Massachusetts before coming to college here in Amherst, still residing in the same state. While I have visited many places around the United States before, I have only ever known the Northeast to be “home,” and I have not had much experience outside of the bubble.

Recently, I travelled for eight days to the Mississippi Delta on an alternative spring break trip through the University of Massachusetts Amherst Hillel House and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Mississippi is the one part of the country I have visited that is the least familiar to me. In addition to the community service work we did, which consisted of helping to clean out a house for the church we stayed in, we also spent a considerable amount of time learning about southern lifestyle, history and culture, specifically centered around Jewish life in the South. We met people of various backgrounds, from the mayor of Indianola, Mississippi, to locals from the little town of Sunflower where we stayed. These interactions, and the knowledge I gained about people’s struggles in the Mississippi Delta, helped pop my bubble.

During the trip, I realized some of the problems people in the South are working to remedy are problems that do not receive as much attention up in the North, or at least on this campus. Many of these issues can be tied back to the high amount of poverty in Mississippi. Take education for instance, or, more specifically, childhood literacy. Reading is such an important skill — you couldn’t comprehend this article without it — but yet we take it for granted. On the trip, we visited a week-long spring break camp for elementary school-aged kids at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. The camp’s goal was to improve the children’s reading skills, so the other people on my trip and I spent a day reading to kids, helping them when they needed it. Sadly, some of the children were in third grade and still could not read.

This is a major problem for childhood growth and future academic accomplishment. In Mississippi, students need to be able to pass a reading test to move on to the fourth grade. At face value, this may seem like a good idea, since the ability to read and write is key to scholastic achievement. However, according to the Hechinger Report’s article on research by Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew, “kids who repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family.” This study is just one that suggests retention can significantly hurt a student’s success later in their academic career. Many factors contribute to student dropout rates, but studies suggest that retention is part of the problem. On top of this, schools in Mississippi are underfunded, making it difficult for children to receive the education they need.

Another closely related issue is the school-to-prison pipeline. The fact this is even a thing is honestly saddening — that there is a connection between schools, ideally places of learning and potential, and prisons goes to show America’s education system needs to change. Zero tolerance policies, which are disciplinary policies that punish students for breaking certain rules with consistent, harsh punishments (often suspension or expulsion), no matter the context of the situation, contribute to the pipeline. Many students are punished not by the school itself, but by police officers in the school, sending students into the juvenile justice system. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, Black students are three times more likely to be expelled or suspended. This is a deeply troubling problem in American schools.

I know that Mississippi is just one state out of 50, and there are many other states I know nothing about, but this trip helped open my eyes. A one-week trip to Mississippi obviously cannot broaden my worldview so much so that I now fully understand the problems facing Southerners, but I have begun to scratch the surface. Before I went to Mississippi, I just saw it as a hopelessly backward part of the country and an example of what not to do. Of course, Mississippi has systemic issues, but I had not thought much about those issues specifically or about how there are people working to solve those issues. I also believed that Massachusetts was almost completely absolvent of wrongdoing. I now know that to be naive.

Still, there is a political bubble even around the UMass campus. Some of the problems we often discuss here, like the sanctuary city debate and the free higher education movement, are not on people’s minds as much as in other parts of the country, and we forget that sometimes. It is not to say that the goals we rally and protest for are unimportant or irrelevant — they’re not. It’s just that we sometimes forget there are other parts of the U.S. I implore you to educate yourself about other places, and if you can, travel this country.

Go pop your bubble.

Joe Frank is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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