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Race & Violence in the Schools

In response to:

Trans-National America from the November 22, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Andrew Hacker’s review of Going to School: The African-American Experience (NYR, November 22, 1990) is unquestionably flawed as regards my contribution, and he seems to have missed the mark of the other contributors of this book edited by Professor Kofi Lomotey. His review gives the impression that I might not take too seriously the need for black children to acquire a solid grounding in education.

His review can hardly be more inaccurate, My position is set forth on the opening page (p. 13), where I state that education is as essential as oxygen. On the subsequent page, I reiterate the point that “There can’t be any separation between the importance of education and oxygen.” Professor Lomotey captures the essence of my position and, indeed, the belief of the other participants when he asserts on page one that “The future of our entire country depends upon how well we educate African-Americans and other minorities in the years ahead.”

In the book, I define “skills education” to mean the 3Rs, academic skills, the subject matter found on the SATs, GREs, etc. Professor Hacker’s quote that I view “skills education” as “no big deal” is woefully misleading. What I actually said (p. 16) is that “Skills education is no big deal, if one is prepared to accept any kind of life.” A denunciation of my stance would be condign if my position were anything other than to exhort African-American and other oppressed children to strive to be as academically competitive as Michael Jordan is athletically competitive.

Although I only know one of the other collaborators personally, I infer from their chapters that there is little doubt that they and I share the view of the transcendent importance of academic skills in the lives of African-American children. Undoubtedly, there may be some strong disagreement among us on innumerable issues, e.g., on the means to impart the skills to children, on the suitability of tests to measure learning, and on the impact of racism in America. But I sense that there is unanimity among us in our unswerving belief that black children can excel academically and must scintillate intellectually.

Contrary to Professor Hacker’s view that most of us “start with the premise that black students should be taught by black teachers in all-black public schools,” I do not find that a single writer, let alone several, subscribes to that position as an elixir for the problems facing most black children. Some Black Independent Schools enjoy tremendous success with their children, but that fact must serve less to conjure up the specter of separatism than to stimulate friendly competition and offer parents alternative schools to which they may send their children if they are displeased with public education. Far more whites opt to place their children in private schools than blacks; but I do not believe that Professor Hacker would assail those families for exercising their right to act in the interest of their children.

I define “political education” to include all forms and kinds of education, as well as the totality of one’s being, one’s culture, history, aspirations, ideology, and search for freedom. “Political education” so defined is, therefore, a concept shared by all humans, although different races and individuals very often have a very different “political education,” as, for example, Hitler and Mother Teresa (p. 15). “Political education” subsumes everything else, including “skills education,” yet without “skills education” no nation can ever be free.

Professor Hacker is concerned that my “political education” in the public schools “may impede objective analysis.” The only “political education” that I advocate parents and teachers adopting is one that puts a premium on academic skills and challenges every child to strive to develop his or her mind to the fullest. The outstanding teachers, black and white, understand fully that to the extent they succeed in enriching the curriculum with positive images and examples reflecting the culture of their children and inspire their students to have confidence and pride in themselves, the odds soar that such children will sparkle academically, emotionally, and socially.

Professor Hacker laments the fact that the contributors “are only concerned with the problems of blacks.” Given that the book is titled Going to School: The African-American Experience, it should come as little surprise that the primary focus is on black children. Were the title The White American Experience, it would be the height of folly to argue that the central focus should be on black children. But even on this point, Professor Hacker errs flagrantly. When I maintain (p. 17) that “The material that is on the SATs and GREs is accessible to all healthy normal children, Black or white,” I do mean to include all, not just black. When I assert that these children can be educated to average 700 on the SATs, my primary focus is on African-American children, but I do indeed include all children. It is not infrequent that the other contributors refer to both black and minority children when speaking about the urgent need to educate. All children do, indeed, stand to benefit handsomely from a multiculturally rich curriculum, and Going to School encourages its adoption.

It would be painfully tragic if Professor Hacker’s review were remotely faithful to what the contributors offer in Going to School. If he is to be believed, then African-American educators have such perverted philosophies about the education of their children that it is more than plausible that the Ku Klux Klan offers more hope to blacks. In a world that is growing increasingly more technical and complex each day, is it really possible that the contributors would scoff at academic skills? Would they desire a moratorium on objective analysis and an emphasis on sterile rhetoric for black children? And would they want African-American children to be as racially segregated today as black students were 50 years ago? Professor Hacker says yes. I think he is wrong, and I am sure that even biased and unsympathetic readers of Going to School, will find that his review is a shocking distortion of the volume, in general, and a brutally unfair representation of my comments, in particular.

I stress throughout the entirely of the first chapter, with as much irrepressible vehemence as possible, the indisputably vital link between liberation and “skills education.” I am utterly struck that Professor Hacker infers from those pages that preparation in science and mathematics “is no big deal” to me. Addressing black professionals on page 26, I say, “We ought to be willing to pay any price and do anything in order to underscore that the last thing we will allow to happen is for little Black children not to get a first-rate education….” The volume does not call for “black self-segregation” or the discarding of academic skills, as Professor Hacker seems to believe. Whatever faults Going to School may have, very few of them are to be found in his review.

Booker C. Peek
Associate Professor
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio

Andrew Hacker replies:

In tone and tenor, Going to School presents itself as a book by committed African Americans for a like-minded audience. I have no doubt that Professor Peek and his fellow authors want black children to master academic skills, ranging from arithmetic to astrophysics. They argue that this is not occurring because whites now plan the curriculum and set the cultural style. Hence their conclusion that only in schools which black children see as their own will true learning take place. Because of Professor Peek’s stress on black pride and empowerment, I found it difficult to visualize how white teachers and pupils could be absorbed in such schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with self-segregation: it has worked in many settings. So I cannot understand why Professor Peek wants to deny the clear implications of his own analysis.

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