A Sociological Approach to A Hope in the Unseen
Cedric Jennings, the main character of Ron Suskind’s novel A Hope in the Unseen is an anomaly at Ballou Senior High School, an inner city public school of Washington, D.C. Raised by a single mother on a measly salary from the Department of Agriculture, Cedric is accustomed to working hard for everything he receives in life. An honors student and participant of Ballou’s special science and math program, Cedric dreams of pursuing education as a means to escape D.C. and carve out a better life for himself. Being a star pupil in a poorly performing school that scorns academic achievement is no easy role to play. Viewing the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an imperative step on his path towards a new life, he is shocked to find himself drowning in the work and competition around him. Cedric is surprised to find solace in returning to Ballou. After receiving admission to Brown University, Cedric feels he has finally proven himself to all of his naysayers and earned a ticket out of D.C. In his new Brown environment, Cedric struggles to adjust to the intense diversity and intelligence surrounding him. Although it takes the majority of his freshman year, eventually Cedric finds his own niche at Brown and transforms into a man capable of caring for his beloved mother. A Hope in the Unseen offers itself as a lens through which to examine sociological themes. Specifically, education, social deviance, religion and their respective implications can be thoroughly analyzed through the pertinent events of Cedric’s journey.
Living in a credential society like the United States, the institution of education holds immense importance in terms of facilitating social placement and earning potential. Cedric observes his mother, Barbara, and her inability to climb the ladder of society without a strong education. Without the necessary credentials she is destined to remain in her low-income bracket, struggling to make ends meet each month. On her five-dollar-an-hour salary, finances are perpetually tight. One evening Barbara casually reminds Cedric, “I hope you knew to eat big lunch today? You know, it’s the first week with rent and all.” (Suskind, 41) Cedric responds in the only way he can, “Yeah, I knew. Got seconds on salad. Ate all I could” (Suskind, 41). This culture of poverty also manifests itself in the school culture at Ballou. Every school possesses a hidden curriculum consisting of the implicit attitudes and rules of behavior (Henslin, 507). At Ballou however, this hidden curriculum reinforces beliefs of solidarity found through gangs, street slang, and repression of aspirations outside of their immediate purview. For example, at an inner-city school like Ballou, teachers accept the use of street slang in formal writing with the belief that refined speech will be unnecessary in their future occupations. This hidden curriculum exhibits itself in Cedric’s peer, Delante Coleman. His leadership in one of the school’s largest gangs, his reputation as an established drug dealer, and his silver Lexus compose Delante’s status; an ideal status for a large percentage of Ballou students. Delante is “every bit as driven as Cedric. It’s what each does with his fury and talents that separates these two into a sort of urban black yin and yang” (Suskind, 19). In order to escape absorbing the intense hidden curriculum, Cedric actively works to isolate himself and remain focused on his ultimate goals. James Henslin describes the function of education as a system that sorts people according to abilities and ambitions (Henslin, 505). Barbara raises her son to take pride in his academic abilities and to use them to actualize his ambitions. Ballou High School utilizes a method known as tracking to control the gates of opportunity. “The idea: save as many kids as you can by separating out top students early and putting the...
Bibliography: Henslin, James M. Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Tenth Edition. Boston: Pearson,
Suskind, Ron. A Hope in the Unseen. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
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