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Children in Prison

Village School Downtown

by Peter Schrag
Beacon, 208 pp., $5.95

Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools

by Jonathan Kozol
Houghton Mifflin, 240 pp., $4.95

One of the most striking and painful social events of our time has been what can only be called the downfall of our big city schools. It has helped drive out of the city millions of people whose wealth, training, talent, and interests might otherwise have helped to make or keep our cities civilized and satisfying places. At the same time, it has increasingly alienated from the city and its institutions and culture more and more of those people whom poverty and/or color oblige to remain there. The schools claim, with some reason, that they are among the victims rather than the causes of urban decay, but the fact is that, despite their always difficult problems and often good intentions, they are at least as much cause as victim.

How bad are our city schools? How did they get so bad? For answer, these two books lift the lid off the schools of one city—my own city of Boston. They do so in very different ways. Schrag’s is an outsider’s view of the whole school system—thorough, inclusive, well-researched, and as objective as a deeply concerned educator could make it. It is also witty, perceptive, and fair. Kozol’s book, on the other hand, is an insider’s wholly personal cry of outrage and pain at the things he saw done to Negro children in the schools where he taught. He is in no sense objective; though truthful, he is hardly even fair. He is not concerned, as is Schrag, to give the devil his due, but only to show what the devils are doing.

From Schrag we learn, first of all, that:

More than a third of the city’s schools are over fifty years old; several are now into their second century, while 18 of the 20 schools that are more than 90 per cent Negro were built before World War I. Dilapidated structures, some of them over-crowded and ill-used, litter the older neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, “For two years the city has not built a single new school, even though $29 million in construction funds has been approved by the Mayor and city council.” The equipment is no better than the buildings.

In some [schools], teachers try to conduct classes jammed with 45 children; in others they must operate in the basement or in temporarily converted auditoriums and lunchrooms. Few of the junior high schools have libraries, and the elementary schools have none. Many of the texts are outdated, torn, dirty, and often, when they are modern, there are not enough to go around.

What is most to the point is that neither the administrators nor the elected School Committee seems concerned about the problem, or even willing to admit that there is a problem. Thus, Schrag tells us, “In Pittsburgh the administration publishes pictures of obsolete buildings in an effort to rally public support for new construction, fliers are issued describing the inadequacies of the system…. But not in Boston. Instead of calling administrators to task for their failures, the School Committee colludes with them to obscure and deny….” Of course in a pinch, first-rate education can be given in second-rate buildings. But the Boston School system is not in a pinch, and does not even claim to be.

The system is inbred:

The majority of the city’s teachers share similar lower-middle class backgrounds, attended the same public or parochial schools, and graduated from the same colleges…. Among the teachers are a few Italians and Jews, a handful of Negroes—about one teacher in two hundred is a Negro—and even one or two Jewish principals [Boston’s first Negro principal was named in the fall of 1966]. But…all but one member of the Board of Superintendents, the senior staff of the system, are graduates of Boston College, all have risen through the ranks and have been in the system for more than three decades, all are well over 50 years old, all are Catholics, and all, excepting Superintendent William H. Ohrenberger,…are Irishmen.

Schrag quotes a leading Catholic critic of the system as saying that to succeed in Boston “you have to be a Catholic. It would be unthinkable to hire a non-Catholic as superintendent. This is a closed system. They never go outside and they never let outsiders in.”

The kind of learning to which this system and these people are dedicated is, as might be expected, one based almost wholly on the rote-learning of disconnected and outdated facts. The teachers themselves are picked according to their ability to spit up such facts on competitive exams, and they carry the method into their own classes. Perhaps the grimmest parts of Schrag’s book are his verbatim quotations of what actually happens in Boston classes. The teacher in an English class, discussing the poem “I Have A Rendezvous With Death,” asks “Now, what does rendezvous mean?”

A. (The boy stands up, as required.) It means a meeting.

Q. When does this take place?

A. In the spring.

Q. Is that when it takes place?

A. In a war.

Q. How does he treat death in these lines?

A. Like a person.

Q. What do you call that?

A. Personification.

and so on. In another class we have:

Q. What is Italy good for as far as Napoleon is concerned?

A. It’s a place where he can put his relatives in office.

Q. He is a good family man. What did he get in Italy?

A. Art works.

In another,

Q. Did we win the Revolution, Foote?

A. Yes.

Q. Of course we did…So then we had to establish a plan of government that was called what?

A. The Constitution.

Q. I’ll hit you in the head. (Hands are up)

A. The Articles of Confederation.

Q. What were they? (Pages flip in the textbook.)

A. Our first plan of government.

and so on. In still another:

Q. Why would they go by dog sled?

A. Because there’s a lot of snow.

Q. What’s the land like along the coast, Michael?

A. Mountains.

Q. What do they do on the coast?

A. Hunt?

Q. What do they do on any coast?

A. Fish.

What is astonishing about these classes is that though one is a fifth-grade class, one a seventh, one a ninth, and one an advanced placement class for seniors, one can hardly tell, from the quality of the discussion, which one is which. In none of them is the discussion as lively, fluent, or interesting as, in better schools, one might hear even in the first grade.

The result of this kind of education is what one might expect. Boston once led the nation in the percentage of its students that finished high school, and that gained admission to leading colleges. Now only about a fourth of its high school graduates go to college at all, and Schrag’s figures—4,454 high school graduates in a school population of 93,000—suggest that a good many of those students who enter high school do not finish. Achievement test scores (for whatever little they are worth) at all grade levels are well below national norms, and grow further behind as the grades advance.

WHY DID THIS once workable system—it cannot be said ever to have had very much imagination—lose so much of its energy, conviction, and morale? Schrag is not explicit here, but he hints that the schools began to decline when the old-time Yankees in the system were replaced by Irish Catholics. This diagnosis is too simple and too particular. In the first place, some of the boldest and most imaginative innovators in education today are Catholics, so that it does not necessarily follow that a school system run and dominated by Catholics must produce bad education. In the second place, the decline of the Boston schools has been paralleled, if not quite matched, by other school systems in which Catholic influence, Irish or otherwise, was much less strong or not strong at all.

What seems to me most true in Schrag’s diagnosis, not only in Boston but everywhere, is that the teachers who took over the schools—in Boston, from the old Yankees; in other cities, from other people—came from predominantly non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual lower-middle-class backgrounds, and that they looked on education very much as another branch of the civil service. You didn’t go into teaching because you loved learning or believed in its importance, because education meant anything to you or had done anything for you, or because there was anything you particularly wanted to teach, but because the schools were one place that a person without much in the way of ability, training, or connections could get in and, once in, could be sure, if he kept his nose clean and did what he was told, of staying in, until he retired with his pension. In other words, you went into education for the same reason that others went into the police or the Post Office or other parts of the civil service—because it was a safe, secure, and respectable way to move up a rung or two from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

Such people, going into teaching for such reasons, are likely, whatever their ethnic or religious backgrounds, to be poor teachers—and poorest of all for the children of our city slums. For one thing, they are generally uneasy about their own status, and consequently prone to overrate the importance of authority and control in the classroom, see challenges to their position and authority where none are meant, and to turn every personal difference or difficulty into such a challenge. For another—Edgar Z. Friedenberg has written often and well about this—they are likely to be bourgeois or commercial in their own values and attitudes, and thus both profoundly hostile to and threatened by the more aristocratic and anarchic values and attitudes of children, above all slum children. For another, they are likely to be neither very interested nor very interesting. They see education only as a way of “getting ahead,” and since they have not got very far ahead, they are not very persuasive. To their unspoken or spoken advice, “Study hard, and you can be like me,” their students answer silently (and not always silently), “You creep, who wants to be like you?” Finally, their recent escape from poverty tends to make them particularly contemptuous, fearful, and hostile toward those who are still poor—feelings they are not skillful enough to conceal even if they happen to wish to.

The job itself takes its toll. I have done all my teaching in exceptionally favorable circumstances—using materials and methods of my own inventing or choosing, working with relatively small classes made up of children who, if not eager, were at least docile, and under administrators who, even when they could not give me understanding or support, at least gave me some freedom and respect. Even then, and although I am deeply interested in education and very much enjoy the company of almost all children, even then teaching has often been for me a difficult, demanding, often heartbreakingly discouraging job. For someone to whom it is only a job, not a calling—obliged, most of the time, to do exactly what he is told, forbidden, even if he wanted, to use more than a tiny part of his initiative or intelligence or imagination, compelled to play in his classes only the roles of taskmaster, policeman, and judge, harassed and hampered with an infinity of paperwork and petty administrative duties, faced with large classes of bored or hostile children, neither well paid nor highly esteemed, by society or even his own “profession,” in which he is all too often looked on and treated like the lowest factory laborer or foot-soldier—for such a person, teaching must be, at best, drudgery and, at worst, a nightmare. A man I met only last summer, after hearing some talk about educational innovation, said to me, “I’m afraid you younger fellows are going to have to do that stuff—I’m forty years old, and I’m burned out.” For a second, I was surprised; but not when I found out that during his entire working life, to support his family, he had had to do two full-time jobs, teaching and one other, every day.

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