image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions

  Reported by
  John Easton, AM'77
  Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93
  Richard Mertens
  Sharla Stewart
  Mary Ruth Yoe

  Photography by
  Dan Dry


  > > The End of Consulting?
  > >
Records of a Revolution
  > >
Campus of the Big Ideas
  > >
You Go Girl!


Chicago: Campus of the Big Ideas
The launch of The Chicago Initiative-the University's five-year, $2 billion fund-raising effort-was marked by an April 12 event that focused on Chicago's intellectual initiatives.

Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

Concrete floor, exposed duct work, low ceiling-one look told Edward Lawlor and his colleagues that the basement of the Oriental Institute would be a fitting place to talk about poverty, crime, and the state of public schools.

Lawlor, a sociologist and dean of the School of Social Service Administration, and his panel colleagues are scholars but also activists. Their element is not just the library but also the failing school, the crumbling high-rise, the overcrowded jail. And although they discussed some of the nation's most intractable problems, their conversation was tinged with hope.

Susan Mayer, for example, gave a spirited defense of the War on Poverty. Mayer, the incoming dean of the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, focuses on children and poverty. A self-described "money person," she insisted that the War on Poverty did not fail, contrary to what many people think: "Big efforts directed at big problems produce results."

A child of 1960s idealism, the War on Poverty gave us food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs for America's poorest. Yet the number of children living in poverty increased. But if the War on Poverty did not increase the income of America's poor, Mayer said, in some ways it made their lives better. Today most poor children have enough to eat and access to medical care. Just as important, the War on Poverty broadened opportunities. Poverty is no longer inescapable destiny.

The irony is that these successes made future progress more difficult. Today's poor are increasingly entangled in what Mayer called "multiple disadvantages": mental-health problems, substance abuse, low skill levels. Big solutions can no longer yield big results. "It was easy when poor children's problems were general, requiring things like more money, more food; much harder when what they need is the adults in their lives to be willing and able to be good parents and good role models."

Poverty and schools often go hand in hand, and Anthony Bryk, the Marshall Field IV professor in sociology and director of the Center for School Improvement, described the center's work in the city's public schools. "Poor and minority students, even in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods, can do the work," Bryk made plain. "There's no question."

Schools fail children, not the other way around, he said. In many schools, teachers "have been there for long periods of time, have tried lots of things, and they have come to the conclusion that nothing works." But better teachers are not enough, Bryk noted. Rooted in communities, schools need broader support. Bad schools often reflect a distrust between teachers and the community, as well as high crime rates, weak social institutions, and other blights.

"We need to create new institutions in these communities," said Bryk. He and his colleagues are putting their ideas to the test at the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School, a public school the University began five years ago, hoping to improve urban schools by training better teachers and by linking school and neighborhood in ways that help both to thrive.

New approaches to law enforcement in poor neighborhoods, suggested Tracey Meares, JD'91, a professor in the Law School and director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice, could improve community life-having police arrest the people who buy drugs, rather than concentrating on the dealers who sell them, would spread the social cost of enforcement to wealthier communities rather than concentrate it in the poor communities where the dealers tend to predominate.

The conversation recalled some of Chicago's earliest traditions, when scholars like education reformer John Dewey combined research with social activism. But an old rift needs mending, noted Lawlor. A century ago, a divide grew between Dewey's education reforms and the settlement house movement of Chicago social reformer Jane Addams. Since then, social services and public education have taken separate paths. Today, Lawlor said, social services must be centered in community institutions, like schools, not dispersed in a hodgepodge of agencies. The divorce between Dewey and Addams no longer works. "Maybe it makes sense," suggested Lawlor, "to put them back together."

1. In the beginning: what do our origins tell us about ourselves?

2. Homo sapiens: are we really rational creatures?

3. Integrating the physical and biological sciences: what lies ahead?

4. Money, services, or laws: how do we improve lives?

5. Clones, genes, and stem cells: can we find the path to the greatest good?

6. How will technology change the way we work and live?

7. Why do we dig up the past?

8. Art for art's sake?

9. In the realm of the senses: how do we understand what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?

10. Can we protect civil liberties in wartime?


link to: top of the page 

  JUNE 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 5

  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  > > Investigations

  > > Editor's Notes

  > > From the President
  > > Letters
  > > Chicagophile
  > > e-Bulletin: 06/14/02



uchicago ©2002 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166