In the last week, in various conversations about Norristown, I heard several people express the opinion that the majority of Norristown residents aren't intelligent enough to understand things like government, municipal codes, zoning, their own economic situation, and even basic cleanliness.
So apparently we have another stigma on our hands--that we're viewed as a community of stupid people.
Let's look at the facts. The 2010 census says that 78.8% of Norristonians 25 years and older are high school graduates, only 6 points under the national average of 85%. 16.8% of us have a bachelor's degree or higher. There's no data on how many are in between--those who've apprenticed at a trade, or earned an associate's degree or (I know this is more than a few) retrained after losing a job.
Even the 21% of adults who don't have high school diplomas shouldn't be written off as unintelligent. My grandmother only went to school through 6th grade, yet she had enough mental power to be caregiver to a son with acute chronic PTSD, including dealing with doctors, nurses and the VA, with all their red tape, on a monthy basis, for almost 40 years. She balanced her own checkbook and kept to a budget. She read the Times Herald cover to cover and watched all levels of the news, enough to make up her own mind on the issues and vote in almost every election. And as for her cooking--she fashioned culinary works of art, like homemade ravioli and incredibly light egg bread and the most perfect pizzelles I've ever eaten.
So why do people think Norristown is filled with stupid people? For one thing, our median household income is under $44,000. People with low incomes are often perceived to be unintelligent, with the crooked logic that, if they were smarter, they'd earn more. And we all know that's ridiculous in our society, where teachers and anyone in the arts are paid so little. Your average college research scientist only earns about $55,000. Just 16.4% of Norristown residents actually live below the poverty level, but the perception seems to be much higher.
For about a quarter of our residents, English is a second language. It seems to be human nature to assume that if someone doesn't speak the same language as you, they're stupid and you're not. Norristown has always been an immigrant community, from the arrival of the first German settlers in the 1700's. We've had Italian, Polish, Dutch, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, Indian, and many others come here over the years. We've dealt with language barriers before. Get over it.
Frankly, I've observed a lot of inept communication in this town, between people speaking the same language. And when a misunderstanding occurs, the fault is always placed on the listener, instead of on the person with poor communication skills. I've also observed a complete lack of communication where it should occur, for instance, between government and citizens. Norristonians can't be blamed for being uninformed. It isn't a failure to understand or follow issues on our part, it's that there isn't enough information emanating from Municipal Hall.
So what do we do about this stigma of stupidity? First, we stick up for ourselves. As a former teacher, I know that students who believed they couldn't learn, didn't. It translates to the whole community. We have to stop buying into the notion that we're sub-average, simply because we're from Norristown. We have to correct misconceptions about what our community is capable of.
Next, we need to demand the best education for our kids, with an emphasis, perhaps, put on improving those communication skills. When our kids do amazing things, like our robotics team at Eisenhower, we need to spread the word and back their efforts.
Supporting Arts Hill and arts education in our schools is a must.
Might be nice, too, to develop some adult educational opportunities in the borough (yes, I still call it a borough--but that's another blog).
Anyone else have suggestions? Leave a comment.