Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review of Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel

I was pleasantly surprised by Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, which I had assumed was yet another account of a white teacher trying to be a “savior” in an inner-city school. And indeed, Joshua Steckel is a white college counselor at a Brooklyn high school that serves a diverse group low-income and minority students. But this book is not a cliché and asks its readers to think critically about the promise and limits of higher education in an unequal society.

The narrative follows a set of students as they apply and then go (or try to go) to college. The authors rely on interviews and essays written by the students themselves, so the kids’ voices are front and center. We see the stumbling blocks to access (e.g. parents needing to file taxes early enough to be eligible for financial aid; visiting far-away schools; tensions between individual aspiration and family responsibility, etc.), and we also see the road blocks involved with degree fulfillment (identity issues on largely white campuses; lack of a supportive cohort; financial strain; family pressure; academic struggle, etc.).

What distinguishes this narrative from others like it is the teacher’s vulnerability in showing his initial assumptions about and eventual learning with the kids he serves (assumption #1: good students should absolutely go to a four year, residential liberal arts college) or about the colleges whose relationships he cultivates (assumption #2: colleges will really commit to a student for four years with social and economic support). And in the end, the reader gets a picture of the featured kids as real human beings developing identities, rather than as statistics or exemplars or ‘future workers.’ The reader also gets a sense of teaching as a deeply relational activity.

This is the second book this month whose title gives me pause. The idea that this is a book that focuses only on “the vision of a life beyond poverty” does not fully reflect the nuance of the stories in the account.  Zasloff and Steckel themselves grow to understand that higher education – even for students who come from challenging circumstances -- is often part of the process of building a “good life.”  A good life definitely has an economic component, but it also involves “interests, passions, and abilities,” [296] the balance between responsibility and self-fulfillment [296], and “a search for meaning.” [297].  I wish the title would reflect that complexity.

This is a provocative read, and a good one. I recommend it.

One thing of note -- The New Press, which is a nonprofit, "public-interest" publisher, put out this book.  It looks like they also published The New Jim Crow, which I've been meaning to read. The role of the publishing industry in narrative nonfiction is an interesting one, and I’d like to explore it more.

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