Robert Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise makes the point this way: "Say you have a group of youngsters who are trying to learn to play the drums. You could study all the kids in school who had tried and failed to learn to play the drums, observe what they were doing wrong, and then try to use your observations to help your youngsters avoid the same mistakes. Or you could focus on the kids who had learned to play the drums correctly and tell your youngsters 'This is how you do it.'
"You cannot learn to produce success by studying failure. The only reason to spend your time studying failure is if you want to produce more failure."
Woodson was talking about something that is dear to his heart: the strengths, the resources, the success models that exist in even the most problem-ridden communities. It amazes him, he said, that we will spend enormous amounts of time and money studying the pathology of these neighborhoods while ignoring such successful drummers as Kimi Gray, who, as resident manager, has turned her Northeast Washington public housing complex into a model of efficiency, cleanliness and resident pride. Rental collections at Kenilworth Courts are so far above the citywide average that the project not only pays its own way but actually returns a surplus to the city.
His point applies with equal force to any number of social problems, including two that are much in the news these days: joblessness and pregnancy among inner-city teenagers.
Our stress on the negatives -- 50 percent joblessness among black teen-agers, for instance -- not only fails to point the way toward solutions but also adds to the hopelessness that makes the problem worse. What is there about the nature of the ghetto, or of the job market, that prduces these horrible statistics? What is there about particular youngsters that renders them unemployable?
Woodson's point is that we are asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. There's little to be learned from the 50 percent who are jobless, but perhaps a great deal to be learned from the 50 percent who are working.
How did they do it? What was the trick of attitude or approach that convinced an employer prejudiced against black teen-agers in general that this youngster in particular was worth taking a chance on?
A blue-ribbon panel that just finished a year's study of adolescent pregnancy in the District of Columbia notes in its report that "the apparent lack of motivation to steer clear of the pitfalls of early pregnancy could be dealt with if these students had a clearer sense of their own futures, and if they were on a success-focused course of action."
I don't doubt it. But instead of studying the hopeless, why don't we try to find out why some girls came to develop that clear sense of their futures? If we learned to do that, we might help our young to understand the difference between statistics and individuals. We might help them to grasp the fact that employers don't hire numbers, and that no girl ever became pregnant by a statistical abstraction.
The numbers are of vital importance in shaping public policy. But they are almost worthless in terms of the decisions that individual teen- agers make, the attitudes they display.
We need to find ways to help young people understand that, even in the most dismal circumstances, they can exert important control over their own lives.
And the most promising way of doing that is not by studying failure but by learning what we can from the successful drummers.