Manchild In the Promised Land
More than half of this autobiographical romance about a boy’s education in Harlem is devoted to the years seven or eight up to fourteen or fifteen, so it is interestingly relevant to the present hullaballoo about underprivileged schooling. Unfortunately there is nothing in the book about the pre-school years which are now the concern of the “Head Start” programs, but, in my opinion, Claude Brown had plenty of head start, though his parents had been Southern Negro farmers.
Claude’s education consisted of playing hookey and being multi-delinquent in Harlem [the “stricture” is part of the education] drastically curbed or “structured” by spells in schools like Wiltwyck and Warwick. The outcome is that he has now graduated from Howard and settled on law as a career, in his middle twenties—a little earlier than a European student of the upper class would make a similar choice. Meantime, as part of a normal slow maturation, he has preserved the energy and selfpossession to write these reminiscences. (Let me say, by the way: He has a lively interest in people and in how things go on. But his book does not suggest that he is cut out to be a writer; he seems to have no drive to original truth or intellectual consistency, and he has little moral courage in probing or revealing himself. This book of external reminiscences is likely to be his only authentic book.)
Two opposing question arise about Claude’s education. First, how could this highly unacademic childhood have led to academic success? But second, why doesn’t such an education on the streets—in my opinion, a quite promising beginning—result in an adolescence and maturity as free thinking, creatively daring, and politically involved as we might hope? The young man produced by this free childhood has an understanding sympathy for the vicissitudes of life, but he is otherwise as stupid as most others of his age. He does not seem to me to be a young ally in making the world I want.
Let me put the two questions another way. The problem for progressive education is not how to guarantee that a “child-centered,” “child-directed,” spontaneous, and concrete curriculum will nevertheless teach the young how to read, write, and think abstractly; in a literate society any normal child will grow up to these arts if he is not positively prevented from doing so, by schools among others. Not otherwise than infants learn to speak, a fantastic feat of abstract thinking. The problem is rather how to keep a free and animally healthy youngster from making a merely convenient adjustment to heavy social pressures: how to tap a profounder humanity, especially when the rewards of conformity seem rich, and the penalties for non-conformity are dire, as is the case among the out-caste poor.
Claude started playing hookey early. But it is a superstition that, in the primary years, formal school work has much relevance to later academic achievement, not to speak of life achievement1 and the same can be said for high…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.