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 school students as well.
The Eight Year Study,2 for example, followed graduates of off-beat high schools through college and found by and large that the more the progressive curricula had deviated from preparation for College Entrance examination, the better the students adjusted to college work. (It is astonishing that nobody has either bothered to refute this study or enthusiastically applied it.) It is essential, granted, to develop the formative patterns of discrimination and communication that make learning possible altogether; but for this, once the bogeyman of academic disaster is exorcized, Claude’s study of the sights, characters, temptations, and dangers of the streets was not educationally horrendous, and in many respects it was advantageous. Especially given the Peck’s Bad Boy and Huck Finn jollity, common sense, and guiltlessness with with which he operated:
To me, “being good” meant that they just wanted me to sit down and fold my hands or something crazy like that. Stay in front of the house, don’t go anyplace, don’t get into trouble…they couldn’t even tell me what they really wanted. The way I saw it, everything I was doing was good. If I stole something and didn’t get caught, I was good. If I got into a fight with somebody, I tried to be good enough to beat him. If I broke into a place, I tried to be quiet and steal as much as I could. They just kept on beating me and talking about being good. And I just kept on doing what I was doing and trying to do it good.
It also doesn’t hurt to keep in mind—nostalgically, if you will—that much of an urban child’s delinquency is no different from a farm-boy’s hunting animals, stealing fruit, driving the horses, and even working for money when in fact there are no legitimate urban jobs. The rural course was not judged to be educationally useless. And more generally, when we are now seeing for the first time in history a dominant class of society imposing on its young a regime of training suited to slaves, it seems to be only the out-caste who, as a group, have a chance for a free and exciting early education.
And there is another point, that is universally overlooked. The social and relief workers, the police, courts, jails, rackets, and criminals that stupefy, terrorize, and make narrow the life of poverty, are, nevertheless, to a slum child the natural community, without moral prejudgment; they are more of a community, and certainly a more impinging community, than a middle-class child tends to have. If the child can learn anything, he can learn plenty of civics and sociology; they are close. To Claude, the con-men, pushers, etc. were independent enterprisers, full of useful lore. And it is eye-opening to read that when he went to a reformatory, he knew that his friends (and enemies) and his reputation were there expecting him, just as he carried other friends and enemies from there back to the streets. It is this close and continuous community, even in formidable institutions, that accounts for the child’s matter-of-factness:
When I was young, I knew all the time that I couldn’t get in but so much trouble. If I had killed somebody when I was twelve or thirteen, they couldn’t send me to Sing Sing or anyplace like that.
If he went on a hunger-strike, “I knew they would have to send me home, they wouldn’t want me to die on them. I was only playing hookey and stealing stuff like that.”
I don’t mean that, however realistic, these particular thoughts are salubrious for a child; on the contrary, as I shall point out, they are narrowing, they are too fearful.
Claude’s sexual experiences, and the frank style in which they are related, are also pretty good, though it is sad to notice how little happiness he seemed to get out of the goods he had. (Maybe I am judging too much by contrast with my own frustrated and punished childhood.) Here again, I doubt that Peck’s Bad Boy or a rural story of Horatio Alger Jr. would sound very different if there had been a freer literary convention. Lively children of 1890, for instance, must have masturbated as much as children of 1950, but it didn’t get into print.
In brief, as progressive education, Claude’s curriculum and methods were not too bad, certainly superior to the average middle-class or lower-class schooling. There is no mystery in the fact that he made out academically later on, though going to high school at night, while holding down a job, at twenty. In some respects, to be sure, he was an exceptional child; but his account does not reveal unusual intellectual or cultural potentialities. He was exceptional in physical health, animal courage, leadership, and especially in freedom from superficial anxiety, so that he could explore the streets and try things out, which is just what the average slum kid no longer does. Given the conditions, the hipster who taught him to keep cool in a fight was probably the best possible professor.
What, then, are the real educational limitations in this course? The defects appear to be cultural, but I think they are ultimately defects of character, community, and religion.
When the adolescent Claude begins to read books, study music, and finally goes back to school, we astoundingly learn nothing of the content of any of this as objective experience. For instance, he fails geometry, but then digs it and passes it well, but we do not hear about the beauty of the Pythagorean theorem or the theorems about arcs of circles. He works conscientiously and successfully at the piano, but there is nothing about the chords, the pieces, or the playing. (Perhaps some of the silence is due to misguided editing, of which the book shows many traces.) It is possible that Claude felt no excitement about these things, or no excitement comparable to the interpersonal episodes that he wants to describe. But I doubt it. My guess is that he thinks these things would be too square or uninteresting to tell; and more deeply, that he is embarrassed and even ashamed to lose himself in objective values that are not “achievement” and not under control. Thereby he betrays himself and the truth of his life. It is a more innocent example of the spuriousness in James Baldwin’s account of his own Harlem boyhood; he legislates himself out of humane values. (This is just what Ralph Ellison is unwilling to do.)
Even more disturbing, in a description of late adolescence, is the total silence about politics. There is no mention of the bus boycott, the fight for school integration, the Civil Rights movement. There is nothing on Cuba or the atom bomb. There is a rational discussion of “Goldberg” as the Harlem Mister Charlie, but no formal adolescent reflection about economic institutions. As a little burglar, Claude got himself a flashy “standard of living”—there is a lovely touch about the importance of stealing a new suit in order to show mama that everything is nice—but when the adolescent becomes more prudent, there is no reflective comment about how people live. Instead, rather disgustingly, Harlem is treated almost as a “scene,” in a series of reports on heroin, the Muslims, etc., the genre of the New York Post. Instead of groping for universality, self-recognition, and commitment, the young man settles, as a detached observer, for sociological abstractions, and so he legislates himself right out of humanity, just like almost everybody else, in Harlem and elsewhere. (I suppose this is humanity and I am a pill.)
How to account for this debasement from the busy and objective child? I think it occurs by the cooperation of two contrasting pressures. On the one hand, the going is too rough and dangerous. The child has no chance to play slowly and safely as well as fast and dangerously. The adolescent cannot afford to lose his cool or lose himself. As Elliott Shapiro has poignantly expressed it: the children have to take on grown-up tasks and responsibilities so early that they cannot afford to be vulnerable and learn anything. Put religiously, the conditions of life destroy faith and trust. The world may be one’s oyster, but one does not have dialogue with an oyster.
On the other hand, confirming this withdrawal into self-centeredness, there is an overwhelming pressure to consensus and conformity. There is no quiet and not enough space. There are so many stimuli that after a while the circuits are clogged and you can’t think straight or notice your own deeper impulses and hang-ups. There is no possibility of solitude without running away altogether.
Largely, I think, because of his independent and rather happy childhood, Claude as an adolescent is acutely aware of the deadly social pressure, and he gets out of Harlem. Though he is mum about his live interests, he keeps repeating, in chapter after chapter, that Harlem bores him. But of course Harlem is an unfinished situation for him, so he does not stay away. (My guess is that there is an unfinished family situation from his very early years, which he keeps avoiding.) Unfortunately, in this shifting back and forth, he seems to come to the following resolution: getting out of Harlem, he falls into America; and periodically returning to Harlem, he regards it as a special Identity, instead of as one place to be a human being, to which he should be loyal because it is home, and which he must change because it has rats.
August 26, 1965
Naturally, like all superstitions, this one is self-proving. If the doors of further advance are closed to those without the schoolwork, then they cannot advance. The test would be to open opportunities for return all along the way and see what happens. A more recent bolster of the superstition is the unrealistic model of precocious youngsters who get a bang out of formal schoolwork and also proceed brilliantly; but the great names in science and the humanities are peppered with both this kind and the opposite kind who matured slowly and either avoided or wasted the early schoolwork. ↩
The Story of the Eight-Year Study by Wilford Merton Aiken, Harper, 1942. ↩