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 lion’s share of resources into boosting as many of them as possible to college. Forget about the rest. ” (Suskind, 8) The impacts of such methods are long lasting and affect job opportunities, income, and lifestyle.
While, Cedric is fortunate enough to be viewed as one of the college-bound, most students simply cannot conjure up the motivation to succeed in the Ballou environment. Attendance is scanty at best, homework is reduced to optional, and teachers rest satisfied so long as their students show up to class. This learning environment renders even the brightest students incapable of competing with the national pool of college applicants. Cedric is aware of this challenge and fears “whether any amount of work will be enough to propel him to a new life” (Suskind, 9).
Ultimately, education and its effects come down to family background, as Henslin clearly illustrates. The U. S. education system reproduces social class structure and its racal-ethnic divisions (Henslin, 510). Adults without college degrees, in general, tend to work low-paying, dead-end jobs, which further inhibits social movement. With the cost of higher education ever on the rise, inner-city students must work harder still to obtain scholarships if they wish to attend college. “Acceptance to college is meaningless for many kids at Ballou without financial aid” (Suskind, 124).
For Cedric’s friend, James Davis, receiving no scholarship money means the disintegration of his acceptance to Florida A&M, his first choice university. Despite receiving the necessary scholarship to attend Brown, Cedric’s achievement is still spited in the community. By those who know the reputation or even location of Brown, which is not many, Cedric’s decision to attend an Ivy League school is viewed as pretentious and a waste of both time and money. When Cedric arrives at Brown, he becomes acutely aware of how different his family background is from that of his peers.
His roommate, Rob Burton, was raised in Massachusetts by two college-educated parents and an older sister who attends Harvard. Additionally, both his parents are doctors. The two boys find themselves at extreme odds in terms of common interests and experiences. For Rob, “there was never any question about whether he would use his quick mind and good manners to excel. It was assumed in everything that cosseted him” (Suskind, 178). Even these expectations stand in stark contrast to Cedric’s experience as a first-generation college student.
When Cedric befriends the only other black student in his dorm unit, Chiniqua, he finds they have much in common in terms of their racial identity and its inherent culture. However, she matriculated through a program called Prep for Prep in New York and was privately educated from seventh grade onward so as to pave her path to the Ivy League. “Chiniqua, who scored an 1100 on her SATs, received years of counseling – both academic and social – to assist with the collision of cultures she ingested each day crossing fifty blocks of Manhattan” (Suskind, 202).
Cedric has had no experiences, other than the MITEs program, in the intense process of racial and cultural mixing characteristic of the university. Intimidated by the impressive SAT scores and credentials of his peers, Cedric elects to take all of his first semester courses as pass/fail. When he returns home for winter break however, he lies to his community claiming to maintain a 4. 0 grade point average. The intense societal focus on grades has stemmed from grade inflation. As Henslin points out, “The
letter grade C used to indicate average, and since more students are average than superior, high school teachers used to give about twice as many C’s as A’s. Now they give more A’s than C’s. Students aren’t smarter – grading is just easier” (Henslin, 514). This practiced inflation places increased pressure on students to bring home A’s. Passing or performing “averagely”, is no longer acceptable. For so long, Cedric has clung to grades and perfection in school as the one thing he could control. He discovers that in order to allow himself to be educated he must let go of the grades and focus on the learning.
Realizing he cannot handle a five-lass course load he reflects, “it doesn’t feel as bad as he thought, not like a retreat so much as a reasonable fallback position. Far different from the swallow-your-pride, lowered bar of the first semester…he wouldn’t accept limits or impose limits on himself out of some fear of failure” (Suskind, 308). With new, higher expectations in place at Brown, Cedric is able to adapt and perform on the level expected by professors. This demonstrates the sociological principle that students perform better when they are expected to meet higher standards (Henslin, 515).
In June, when his final grades arrive, Cedric is filled with pride reading his A, B, and two S’s, for satisfactory. “Full membership in the Brown community, won fair and square” (Suskind, 357). From his position in a higher learning community, Cedric can reflect on Ballou and other schools like it. He voices his observations in a final paper assignment. “How do we lift poorly educated minorities to an equal footing in the classroom? How do we do this while respected that being singled out for special attention … can result in crippling doubts about one’s abilities?
” (Suskind, 338). In asking these essential questions, Cedric truly removes himself from his upbringing and its implications and aligns himself instead with a community of intellectuals. Throughout the novel, multiple characters grapple with the challenges of conforming to the norms of their society and the omnipresent option of social deviance. Henslin describes deviance as any violation of norms, minor, major, or in between (Henslin, 198). At Georgetown University, located in Washington, D. C. , intellect is valued and being a serious student is the norm.
However, at Ballou, truancy and apathetic sentiments towards education comprise the norms. Norms make social life possible as they render behavior predictable. As exemplified in the comparison between Georgetown and Ballou these expectations differ even within schools of the same district. As one of few serious students, Cedric struggles to find his own niche, realizing that he “simply has no social currency at Ballou” (Suskind, 21). Sociologist Robert Merton would describe Cedric’s state as anomie, lacking feelings of belonging (Henslin, 209). An acquaintance of Cedric, Phillip Atkins, also grapples with deviance.
Despite possessing the intellectual capacity, Phillip hides his intelligence in school. He struggles to recognize his true identity. At Ballou he puts on an act as the popular class clown oozing toughness and coolness. However, at home, he is a well-mannered boy whose dreams of tap dancing have been stifled by his father. He had been a nerd too at one time, but in an effort to conform to the norms of society, “He began a slow but steady shift in outlook and appearance to creating an identity… He is now a popular member of Ballou’s mainstream…He’s earned himself some comfort and security” (Suskind, 67).
While Cedric stands by his own morals and commitment to education, Phillip falls victim to the intense societal pressure to conform. After returning from his MITEs summer program, Cedric toys with the idea of conforming to the mainstream culture at Ballou. On the first day of school he dresses for the part which entails a leather jacket and a hat tilted to one side. Almost immediately Cedric is asked to remove his hat, as is the school policy. Trying to play his new role Cedric responds, “No way, Dr. Jones, this hat is phat” (Suskind, 102).
It takes the honest words of his peer, James Davis, to snap Cedric out of this new act. James, the stereotypical popular scholar-athlete, removes Cedric’s hat adding, “Boy, keep that hat off. You don’t need to be doing all that. You’re supposed to be a role model. You’re fine, just the way you are” (Suskind, 103). Cedric smiles realizing that he has wanting to hear someone say that since freshman year. In an inner-city school like Cedric’s, Edwin Sutherland’s term of differential association is applicable.
As Sutherland explains, “the different groups with which we associate give us messages about conformity and deviance…The end result is an imbalance – attitudes that tilt us in one direction or another” (Henslin, 202). At Ballou, the norm is conformity. Solidarity develops from these conformist communities. In general, society desires conformity. It simplifies groups when all members are working by the same means to achieve the same cultural goals. By choosing to be a social deviant and pursuing his own goals, Cedric renounces all solidarity.
Throughout his life, Cedric is constantly receiving sanctions for his deviant behavior. The negative sanctions range from being mocked and beaten up by his peers in school to being spited by adults for acting “too good for the community” and attending an Ivy League school. Such negative sanctions contribute to social unity. “To affirm the group’s moral boundaries by punishing deviants fosters a ‘we’ feeling among the group’s members” (Henslin, 207). However, positive sanctions do come to Cedric from key characters. His teacher, Mr. Taylor, constantly encourages Cedric and pushes him to pursue his goals.
Additionally, Clarence Thomas positively sanctions Cedric by inviting him to his office to discuss his recent enrollment at Brown University and offer guidance. Tired of the countless negative sanctions he receives for pursuing his dreams, Cedric retaliates through his impassioned speech at graduation. He seizes the opportunity to explain how students must “[learn] to fight off Dreambusters…Many of us have been called crazy or even laughed at for having big dreams…I will never forget being laughed at for saying I wanted to go to the Ivy League” (Suskind, 136-137).
In an ultimate act of deviance, Cedric names his naysayers and asserts that he will follow his abnormal dreams, no matter how hard they try to push him down. In times of hardship and strife, it was God and religion that allowed Cedric to prevail. His mother instills in Cedric a devotion to God and religious services at Scripture Cathedral, to which Barbara and Cedric are devout members. Throughout the constant upheaval the two experience they find solace in God’s word and their faith community.
In fleshing out the functions of religion, Henslin touches on the need for religion in lives of individuals like Barbara and Cedric. He explains, “the answers that religion provides about ultimate meaning also comfort people by assuring them that there is a purpose to life, even to suffering” (Henslin, 525). With the constant worry of how she can pay the bills and feed her son, faith in God is Barbara’s method of coping and getting from one day to the next. She is willing to give twenty dollars she cannot afford to do without in the church offering each week.
However, this offering is essential to Barbara’s faith. As Pastor Long preaches in church one week, “Faith is taking the last $10 from your checking account and saying, ‘God, I give this to you, because I have nothing but faith, I live on faith, and I know in my heart that you’ll bring it back to me” (Suskind, 30). Many religions emphasize that money and material belongings are of no importance to God and that all money should go to helping those less fortunate. Barbara lives by the words of the Gospel even when her checkbook cannot afford her kindness.
She thrives on the social solidarity of religion; for her it is enough. Having returned to the church herself at around thirty years of age, Barbara consciously decides to raise Cedric with a strong grounding in faith. “It’s faith, all about faith, she decides. If she can just keep [Cedric’s] faith in God and in righteousness living intact for a little longer, blessings will come” (Suskind, 30). In many instances, it is Cedric’s faith that gives him the power to persevere and actualize his dreams. He places his acceptance to Brown in God’s hands praying, “God, this is where I want to be…I worked so hard.
I deserve it. Yes, I believe this is it. This is the place I want to be. Bless me, Lord. Let your will be done. If this is where I’m supposed to be, let your will be done” (Suskind, 109). This prayer exemplifies the influence of religion in everyday life. Believing his life is part of God’s greater plan, Cedric places decision-making power in God’s hands. Individuals who lead lives grounded in reason would place decision-making power in the hands of Brown admissions officers who undoubtedly read all applications.
His speech at the graduation ceremony reads like a sermon itself. Starting by thanking God for giving him the strength and courage to be where he is today, Cedric proclaims, “THERE IS NOTHING ME AND MY GOD CAN’T HANDLE” (Suskind, 137). This quotation epitomizes Cedric’s ultimate confidence in God. He concludes his speech with a quote from the Bible. The language of the Bible is crucial to the social solidarity of religion. It creates a culture, made up of language, values, symbols, goals and norms that pious people can share.
Throughout the novel, both Cedric and Barbara reference biblical passages. The Bible possesses the ability to capture the complexity of life and beliefs in God. Henslin touches on this concept explaining, “the shared meanings that come through symbols, rituals, and beliefs unite people into a moral community. People in a moral community feel a bond with one another”. Henslin goes on to address the power of community. “Not only does it provide the basis for mutual identity but also it establishes norms that govern the behavior of its members.
Members either conform or they lose their membership” (Henslin 530-531). For Cedric and Barbara, who build their identities on religion, no action or possible outcome is worth defying God’s word. They lead their lives by God’s word. Barbara’s final words to Cedric after moving him into Brown are, “Trust in God, let Him guide you” (Suskind, 165). Bishop Long leaves Cedric with the final words “Yes, all you find students must ask your questions and get your good grades…But, never forget – never- that the only real answers lie with God” (Suskind, 153).
As Cedric adapts to Brown, he finds religion inefficient in providing answers to his many complex questions. Overwhelmed with his schoolwork and social struggles, Cedric makes no attempt to attend religious services in Providence. When he returns to Scripture Cathedral during winter break and is asked whether he’s found another church at school, Cedric responds “I just know there’s no way I could ever replace Scripture Cathedral” (Suskind 263). While his faith remains strong, Cedric falls away from the active practice of his religion.
Over thanksgiving, which he spends at his mentor, Dr. Korb’s home, Cedric overhears a conversation about religion versus reason. Speaking to a small group of people, Dr. Korb remarks “The ultimate egotism, more broadly, is a belief in the existence of God…Faith, in a way, is egotism. I know it’s at the center of Cedric’s life, what keeps him going. But ultimately, it can’t get him where he needs to be…he needs to find his place through reason, not faith” (Suskind, 256). Unable to understand this Cedric brushes off the comment. However, Dr.
Korb touches on a relevant debate in society. Henslin explores this secularization of religion and its ability to splinter a group into those who live by reason and those who live by religion. Henslin argues that for individuals who have had less worldly success, this shift in focus from spiritual matters to worldly affairs represents “a desertion of the group’s fundamental truths, a ‘selling out’ to the secular world” (Henslin, 550). In the scholarly community of Brown, it is challenging to compartmentalize religion and reason and people today so often do.
This debate comes to the forefront of the mind for Cedric. The two can certainly exist together, however, it requires some sacrificing on the side of strict religious believers. Cedric speaks to Bishop Long about his conflict explaining, “I feel I’ve outgrown the church” (Suskind, 359). Long tells Cedric that as long as he carries God along for those times when he will need Him, then he can venture out into the world. Despite his questioning, Cedric’s faith in God never wanes.
Even at the conclusion of the novel though “more than anything else, mustering that faith, on cue, is what separated him from his peers and distinguishes him from so many people it these literal sophisticated times. It has made all the difference” (Suskind, 365). Reading A Hope in the Unseen through a sociological lens allowed me to access the course material and its presence in daily interactions through Cedric’s experiences. I was raised in an affluent, predominantly white community with a strong public school system.
As a result, I lack the experience to relate to Cedric and the intense adversity he overcomes. The text acted as both a sociological document, and a novel with adept language and development of literary themes. I found this paper immensely helpful in rendering the sociological themes and theories applicable to one individual’s life in such a wide spectrum of ways. I would highly recommend the use of this novel as an additional sociological perspective for the course next semester.
The novel contains countless sociological themes, which allows any individual to draw upon what he or she finds interesting or worthy of further exploring. I chose to draw on religion although we have not yet covered it in class because I have personal ties to religion and connected with Cedric’s religious motivation and support throughout his journey. As many Georgetown students come from privileged backgrounds and become involved in the D. C. public school system throughout their four-year experience, A Hope in the Unseen is a pertinent text for all sociology students.