Last Monday Mayor John DeStefano Jr. spoke to the Yale College Democrats about education reform, discussing, among much else, the city’s relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the reconstitution of stagnant schools and the looming fulfillment of the New Haven Promise, the city’s program to help local students pay for college.

Talk of education reform in New Haven always gets me going. But when I was in middle school, and even as a high school student (incidentally, at the mayor’s alma mater), things were different: I — not a policy advocate, just a teenager — was trying to get along, socially, intellectually, as teenagers do.

Ask any teacher, and he will tell you that extracurricular environment, at home and on the playground, is as important to a student’s development as his classes and teachers. The problem is that you can’t fire — even numerically compare — underperforming parents or stringent adolescent norms, so the onus is on teachers to produce results. Of course, for the student — holistically, an emotional, physical, soulful entity — there’s something missing when teachers and programs are the sole focus.

On Friday, a band of students from the downtown Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School sat in on New Haven Green. Roughly 20 Coop faculty, Yale undergrads and local residents joined the students in protest of a recent rule handed down by the Board of Education requiring students to get parent permission if they don’t wish to ride home on the school bus. The school sees this policy as a matter of safety, but others question the motivation. Recently resigned Coop teacher Gabriel Hernandez ’07 told the New Haven Register, “Downtown store owners (were) not happy with the sheer numbers of public schools kids who flooded the neighborhood every weekday when school got out.”

One of the ideas behind the recently constructed Coop school was to bring together the kids and the downtown community — a noble goal, given the relationship between environment and a student’s ability to function. There’s no bigger advocate for improving kids’ environments than Mayor DeStefano, who last week told police recruits, as reported by the New Haven Independent: “You’re a team as a class, and we’re a team as a city. So we stand up for these kids as well.” While the current case has yet to be resolved, it remains clear that a student is more than just a student, but a complex, multifaceted person for whom freedom, security and environment matter.

This seems like an obvious point, but too easily people’s essential needs are deflated and ignored. Guilty as ever: modern right-wing populism, which has abstracted people and in turn radically distorted them.

Populism is no people’s movement at all when it outright denies the existence of a socioeconomic class structure and instead depends on the myth of the liberal elite to galvanize its (mythically) normal, humble, distinctly American followers. Corporate regulation, affordable health care, unemployment insurance and other means to protect the lower rungs are, as a result, discarded. When the abstract idea of a collective is made superior to its individual members, people — living individuals — get lost in the mix.

Conversely there are issues, like homelessness, whose subjects themselves, with their complex constellation of needs, are at issue. Interestingly, homelessness advocacy is much more people-centered than education reform, in terms of media portrayal and sales pitch: the social justice blog frequently intersperses news and policy reports with profiles of past victims, and Columbus House, a local shelter, has published a poetry book, “As I Sat on the Green,” showcasing the talents of members of the homeless community. The human appeal is what makes us think and care about the issue of homelessness in the first place.

There are, of course, benefits to thinking about people in the aggregate. If not for budgetary data and policy diagrams, some might think that homelessness is an insuperable structural issue that calls for charitable donations, soup-kitchen hours and nothing else. For those who know about the proven success and cost-effectiveness of permanent supportive housing, that’s not true. Likewise, the grand theories of cultural evolution and Freakonomics, while ignorant of unevolvable meaning and unquantifiable worth, can predict patterns above and beyond the scope of any subjective approach to value.

But in the end, the subjects are what matter. Few people would disagree with the late Senator Paul Wellstone, for whom politics was “about improving people’s lives,” but this message is too often forgotten. Before we start kicking students and panhandlers off the Green, or give in to status-quo-mongering in debates over public spending, let’s remember what — or whom — we’re really fighting for.

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.