pbs | Jerome Kagan is one of the pioneers of developmental child psychology. But I interviewed him a few weeks ago with an economic motivation. PBS NewsHour has begun to explore a virtual reality project designed to help close America's deeply troubling and widening economic gap -- between those in the bottom rungs of the income and wealth ladder and those at the top. I explored this in 2011 when I visited Sesame Street, reporting on the effectiveness of the "marshmallow test." The idea: to help kids learn to delay gratification and learn how to save, for example. The general aim: to do better in school, do better in life.
Jerome Kagan was skeptical, however of any short-term technology or test that claims it can close the achievement and economic gap. He thinks it will take a much more significant investment.
Jerome Kagan: The income inequality gap keeps on increasing. Joseph Stiglitz, [a Nobel laureate economist], said in an editorial in The New York Times that for a child born into the lower fifth of the income distribution of his family, the odds are only 50 percent that he or she will ever rise out of that [lower] fifth. That's all. Just to rise up to the next fifth. That's terrible and the achievement gap in school is getting worse.
Paul Solman: The achievement gap between richer and poorer?
Jerome Kagan: Yes, between the affluent and the bottom third of the population. Many people acknowledge that it has to do with the fact that poor, uneducated parents don't realize the importance of reading to your child, talking to your child, taking your child to the zoo. It's not that they dislike it; they don't realize it's important.
The message of Sesame Street is clear. Sesame Street was funded by public funds with the hope that it would help poor kids. But it helped middle class kids because the parents sat with them and explained it, and the gap in knowing your letters between the poor and affluent was bigger after Sesame Street than before.
So it has to do with the failures of parents. Rarely is that in the press because there's a deep reluctance to blame the victim.
Paul Solman: What is the fundamental problem?
Jerome Kagan: The fundamental problem is that the gap in educational achievement, which is a key in our technological economy, is due in my opinion -- and the opinion of many, including Arne Duncan, our secretary of education -- to the fact that the families of the poor who are not very educated are not talking to their children, interacting with their children, insisting they do their homework and so on. Should we say it's a failure? Let's say it's an error of omission.
Paul Solman: You mean that it's poor parenting?
Jerome Kagan: Right, but people don't want to say that. We don't want to blame the victim. The civil rights movement had a profound effect on the United States and on the American mind, maybe unique in the world. Once we realized how victimized people of color had been, an honest empathy went out and that's how we got civil rights legislation.