Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Method in the Madness: African American Males, Avoidance Schooling, and Chaos Theory

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Method in the Madness: African American Males, Avoidance Schooling, and Chaos Theory

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article examines the social context of schooling of a cohort of 115 African American males who attended Metropolitan High School1 (MHS) between 1986 and 1989. Drawing upon elements of chaos theory, a construct emerging from the field of quantum physics (Gleick, 1987; Prigogine & Stengers, 1984; Zukav, 1979), it explores the systematic methods of avoidance schooling behaviors invoked by these students. Two central theoretical assumptions associated with chaos theory are relevant to this exploration. The first assumption is that seemingly minor, remote, and isolated conditions or changes within or outside of a system can have profound consequences upon it. The second is that a phenomenon is best understood through an examination of the interrelation of its various components rather than a focus on one or more of its component parts (Griffiths, Hart, & Blair, 1991). By highlighting the ecology of resistance to schooling at this inner-city public high school, this article attempts to show how actions, policies, and procedures, viewed at the time as innocuous and insignificant, resulted in poor academic preparation and an overall chaotic school environment that adversely affected African American males. The importance of the relationships between the various central components responsible for the education of African American males at MHS thus emerges as critically important.

CHAOS THEORY AND EDUCATION

Chaos theory gained prominence as quantum physicists failed to predict with accuracy the position and momentum of particles or the dramatic structural changes that occurred as molecular matter evolved from minuscule to massive proportions (Gleick, 1987). During the past two decades, many researchers in disciplines other than physics, particularly the social sciences, have focused on the applicability to their fields of study of the theoretical assumptions and concepts associated with chaos theory. Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, endeavored to predict changes in the atmosphere utilizing a computer program that simulated a weather system (Gleick, 1987). Based on these findings, Lorenz proclaimed the existence of a "butterfly effect," whereby the minutest atmospheric event, the fluttering of a butterfly's wings, for example, could result in drastic and even catastrophic weather events hemispheres away (Gleick, 1987). Freedman (1992) argues that the essence of business management today is making sense out of chaotic and/or potentially chaotic organizations. According to Hayles (1990), researchers who examine the tenets of chaos theory argue that the theory is best understood in terms of the nonlinear relationship between order and disorder.

Urban educationalists have clearly noted that schools and school systems that serve large percentages of African American males are often beleaguered by widespread chaos and academic underachievement (Davis & Jordan, 1994; Fine, 1991; Garibaldi, 1992; Kozol, 1991; Leake & Leake, 1992; Polite, 1993a, 1993b). That many urban school districts serving African American students are unprepared to address the widespread incidence of school failure among African American males is also explicit. However, most theories of school failure address aspects of the problem but not the system as a whole. The use of chaos theory as a framework for explaining the effects of the U.S. educational system on African American males thus seems promising. Chaos theory seems particularly helpful in that it provides a holistic framework for explaining the impact of pervasive and possibly harmful patterns of institutional, group, and individual behaviors imbedded within disordered school systems. This holistic approach would necessitate, as Griffiths et al. (1991) argue, that "all events deserve attention and monitoring" (p. 440). As they further contend, "If we do not think holistically, we may not account for relationships among elements. …

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