What Are Schools For?

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Johnny Jenkins/UPI/Bettmann/Corbis
Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine—a group of African-American students enrolled in the segregated Little Rock Central High School following the Brown decision—pursued by a mob on the first day of the school year, September 4, 1957. Arkansas National Guardsmen sent by Governor Orville Faubus blocked the nine from entering the school; three weeks later President Eisenhower sent federal troops to protect them and enforce desegregation.

One of the first things we learn in school is that America was founded on a set of ideas, not on shared racial or ancestral bonds. All men are created equal. Liberty and justice for all. Out of many, one. Our history reflects the different and often conflicting ways that Americans have worked out these ideas across time. So Americans have also placed an extraordinary emphasis—quite possibly, an exceptional one—on a heritage of words, phrases, and slogans. Go to a Tea Party rally and you’ll hear the Founding Fathers quoted at length. But you can find the same words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—which generations of American schoolchildren had to memorize—and in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

More than a half-century after the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s fair to call Brown v. Board of Education part of America’s rhetorical legacy. Not that many Americans can quote the actual words of the decision, which reflect the sober analytic traditions of the Court more than the religiously inflected cadences of Lincoln or King. Instead, the simple name of Brown v. Board of Education—shortened to Brown—has itself become a shorthand for the nation’s most cherished values and aspirations.

So the way people talk about Brown tells us a great deal about them. Consider, for example, the statement that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released on May 17 of this year. “Today,” Duncan declared,

on the 56th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education, we celebrate the progress we have made to bring educational equity to millions of American students. But we also honor the sacrifice of all those who fought for equality by recognizing that, for all our progress, we still have further to go. We reaffirm our collective commitment to providing a high quality education to all children regardless of race or background so they can succeed in college and careers and prosper in life. Education is the civil rights issue of our time. President Obama and I remain deeply committed to reforming schools so that all children receive the world-class education they deserve.

Today, in the United States, the principles in this statement are unarguable; one can hardly imagine any reasonable person objecting to them. More than anything else, Brown symbolizes our strong and remarkably recent national consensus on the ideal of racial equality.

However far we are from satisfying it in practice, this ideal has become shared in ways that would have astonished Americans when Brown itself …

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