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 Many of the texts are outdated, torn, dirty, and often, when they are modern, there are not enough to go around.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?
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.
Q. Did we win the Revolution, Foote?
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?
Q. What do they do on the coast?
Q. What do they do on any coast?
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.
Such men, in their own way, are a kind of hero, and we must respect them, if for no other reason than that they keep going. We must also ask ourselves, as we rightly deplore the rigidity, narrowness, and authoritarianism of most schools, what freedom means or possibly could mean to such people, who feel that they do not have it and never have had it. To be sure, many of them are ready to argue, fight, and even die (and perhaps kill everyone else) in defense of “Freedom”; but this means only that they fear that in any other country they would be driven even harder and rewarded even less. If they must be slaves, this is the best place to be one.
It is asking too much to expect such men and women to see, let alone understand, freedom as a value to be nourished and protected and fought for. They can only see it, at best, as a luxury, one they have never been able to afford—and it is not surprising that they should resent those people, including children, who seem to be able, or act as if they were able, to afford it. At worst, they see it is a positive danger, something that can only get a man in trouble. Hardly a day ago, a teacher said to me, “Society stamps us into a mold as we grow up”—here he made a sort of egg-crate stamping motion with his hands—“and it rejects whoever doesn’t fit. What’s going to happen to kids educated your way? How are they going to survive?” In much this vein, someone once wrote, “Swift death awaits the cow who leads a revolt against milking.” Such is the world-view of all too many teachers. Be quiet. Do what you’re told. Don’t kick over the pail.
It is only natural that many of these people should have developed a bad case of what Edmond Taylor, in his excellent book Richer By Asia, called the sahib-sickness—a conviction that the people you once set out to help cannot be helped and are in fact not worth helping—and that the many frustrations and resentments teachers feel in their work and their lives should eventually turn into an active contempt and hatred of the children they are supposedly trying to teach. In his book Jonathan Kozol shows how far this hatred has gone, and to what dreadful consequences it has led. It is an account of things he saw, heard, said, and did in a year’s worth of substitute teaching in a number of Roxbury schools. He has changed names and places, to make it impossible to identify any particular teacher or school. Otherwise, the tale he tells us is true.
It is a tale of unrelieved, and almost unbelievable, callousness and cruelty. The principal victim in his book—by no means the only one—is a Negro boy named Stephen, “…eight years old…tiny, desperate, unwell…an indescribably mild and unmalicious child…a ward of the State of Massachusetts [who] often comes into school badly beaten.” The insults and violence heaped on this helpless, harmless little child almost defy description. He likes to draw, and draws imaginatively and well, but the Art teacher, who prefers mimeographed designs neatly colored in, screams at him when she sees his work—mind you, he is eight—“Give me that! Your paints are all muddy! You’ve made it a mess! Look at what he’s done! He’s mixed up the colors! I don’t know why we waste good paper on this child!…Garbage! Junk! He gives me garbage and junk! And garbage is one thing I will not have.” Though Stephen’s teachers knew, and often said, that he was not in his right mind, he was frequently beaten on the hand with a rattan—a long, flexible, painful bamboo stick. Kozol estimates, “It happened for a while as often as once every month and probably more often, probably closer to once or twice a week.” Another child was beaten on a hand with an infected finger, aggravating the infection so badly that he had to spend several days in the hospital. When the child’s mother complained to the responsible authorities at school, she was told that the whipping had been “done right”; the only other response made by these same authorities was to send the child a Get Well card in the hospital.
It is grotesque; it sounds made up. Here are teachers talking about the way to use the rattan on children: “When you do it, you want to snap it abruptly or else you are not going to get the kind of effect you want.” “Leave it over-night in vinegar or water if you want it to really sting the hands.” When Kozol asked a teacher whether this kind of beating was against the law, he was told, “Don’t worry about the law. You just make damn sure that no one’s watching.” Another teacher advised him, when he whacked a kid, to do it when nobody was looking, and to make sure not to leave any bruise marks on him. Then you could just deny it coldly if it came to court. On another occasion, when two children claimed that their homework papers, which they said they had handed in, were lost—something that often happened in the endless shuffle of substitute teachers—they were called to the front of the room by the teacher and there told that they were lying. And so on, and on.
ONE ASKS ONESELF, “Are these horrors true? Have indignation and resentment made Kozol exaggerate or distort what really happened? Is he a credible witness?” There is no doubt that he is. The schools call him a troublemaker, but the charge is absurd. It is clear that he leaned over backwards, to what he himself admits was a shameful degree, to stay out of trouble with the authorities and to do what they wanted. Far from looking for an excuse to fight the system, he did all he could (and far more than he should) to avoid a fight. Who can forget the child standing for weeks on end at the door of his “classroom” and silently and futilely pleading to be allowed in? I have heard enough Negro boys talking, not bitterly but jokingly, like old soldiers rehashing a tough campaign, about their own experiences in the Boston schools, the shouts, insults, cuffings, slammings against the walls, and canings, to feel sure that what Kozol, tells us is the truth—though probably only a small part of it—and that, at least to Negro children, the Boston public schools are every bit as contemptuous, callous, and cruel as he says.
But he tells another kind of story that is in a way even more significant. These are stories about the things he was not allowed to do for or with Negro children, in many cases things that other teachers were allowed to do and did for the few white children in the same school. Thus the Reading teacher gave one white child an expensive book, helped another to go to summer camp, invited a third and his parents to visit her. But when Kozol gave a Negro child a lift home, or took Stephen to the Peabody Museum, or visited his home, he was reprimanded. He was told not to let Stephen come near him in class, to discourage all the child’s attempts to make him his desperately needed and only friend.
Still more important, every time he was able, in his teaching, to catch the interest and enthusiasm of the children, he was made to stop. Once he was forbidden to give the children some supplementary material he had prepared for History, which would make more clear to them the connection between the invention of the cotton gin and slavery. Once he was told to stop using a book, called Mary Jane, about the first Negro child in a Southern town to enter an all-white school, in spite of the fact that the children, even those considered bad readers, were reading it with enormous interest. He was not allowed to use a biography of Martin Luther King with which many children were excited. He was severely criticized for giving the children a writing assignment in which, because they could truly describe the world as they saw it, they wrote expressively and well. He was not allowed to display, because they were supposedly too difficult, some paintings of Paul Klee, though the children found them fascinating. He was not allowed to read, although the children enjoyed them, poems by Yeats or Frost. And he was finally fired for reading a poem, Langston Hughes’s “The Landlord,” which many of the children liked so much that they memorized it.
The hard fact is that with few exceptions our city slum schools, like many of the broken-spirited children in them, have fallen back on the strategy of deliberate failure. They have a vested interest in that failure. They do not mean to succeed, or to let anyone else succeed. I have by now heard or read a good many stories by or about teachers who have succeeded in reaching and teaching slum children. In almost every case they have found themselves in constant difficulty with the authorities, and have usually, sooner or later, been fired. This is to be expected. The less our city schools are able to do, the harder they must cling to the alibi that nothing can be done, and the more deeply they must be threatened by anyone who by succeeding undermines the last shaky prop to their self-respect—the dogma that poor city children cannot be taught.
Through Kozol’s voice, we hear the children calling for help. How are we to help? Here Schrag takes a position for which it is hard to find any sympathy whatever. He describes some of the attempts to rescue the children that are now going on in Boston: Operation Exodus, in which Negro parents, at their own expense, bus their children to less crowded schools in white sections of the city; Metco, in which small numbers of Negro children are bused to white schools in certain suburbs; the Boardman School, where the school system has been willing to allow at least some experiment and innovation; and the New School for Children, a private school set up and run by Negroes, many of them middle-class, and supported largely by outside money. All of these Schrag angrily dismisses, saying that by deflecting attention from the “real problem” and draining off anger, energy, and money that might be used to meet it, they may make the situation worse.
THIS IS A TYPICAL WAY of looking at things in our time: we like big, top-down solutions to problems; we are all infected with the General Staff mentality. Here it must be challenged on several counts. In the first place, though Schrag doesn’t mean it to be, it is callous, like telling people trying to rescue a drowning man from a lake that their efforts turn us away from the real problem—the need to drain the lake, so that no one could drown in it. Even if true—so what? In the second place, it ignores the obvious, that every time we find ways to educate Negro children, whether in private or special public schools in their own neighborhoods or in white schools outside them, we help destroy the myth that Negro children are uneducable, and thus make ever more clear that the responsibility for their failure to learn in most public schools lies not with them or their families but with the schools. In the third place, the great gimmick to which Schrag seems to have pinned his hopes—the idea of a metropolitan educational district joining city and suburbs (which considered in vacuo may not be a bad idea)—is for the time being politically dead. A conference of national educational leaders discussed the matter in detail for many days last summer. Their all but unanimous opinion was that in almost all of our major cities, with the possible exception of Pittsburgh, metropolitanism has virtually no chance. For one thing, and for obvious reasons, the suburbs are against it. The Superintendent of a suburban system much admired by Schrag, and one which is taking in some Negro city children, said bluntly, “Our School Board is not going to agree to vote itself out of existence.”
Precisely. The good boards will hold fast to their autonomy because they are good; the bad because they are bad. Nor is it easy to see why Schrag thinks the people of Boston, who vote in such numbers for Mrs. Hicks because they see her as one of their own, will vote to merge their schools with the suburbs. It is easy to see with what arguments and with what effect Mrs. Hicks and others like her would oppose such a move.
Finally, Negroes themselves are turning against the idea of Metropolitanism, and, increasingly, even against the idea of school integration. They say, the hell with sending our children to schools where the very best that can happen to them is that the ruling white majority will be nice to them, maybe give them a crumb here and a crumb there. Many of them want schools run by black people for black people, and, as things are going, they may have a good chance of getting them. So good a chance, indeed, that some writers are beginning to suggest that if we get metropolitanism it will be for reasons that are anti-Negro rather than pro, that is, in order to prevent them from gaining any real and effective political or educational power.
For the time being, then, metropolitanism is irrelevant. Where then, and how, are the Negro children of Roxbury, and of black ghettos in big cities all over the country, to look for help? In three places, I think. First, if we stop heckling urban white people about integration, they may come slowly to realize that their schools are no damn good, for white children as well as black, and may then begin to consider how to make them better for all. Here we must admire Schrag’s courage, fairness, and common sense in saying that the Racial Imbalance Law in Massachusetts can be seen, as by many in Boston it is seen, as a demand, by those rich enough to avoid having to mingle with Negroes, that those who are not rich mingle with them more closely than ever. The demand is unfair; and, what is more to the point, it cannot now be made to work. If white liberals want, as they should, to attack segregation, the place to attack it is in housing, where they live. Never mind how to get Negro children into the schools in lower-middle-class Charlestown, South Boston, and the North End. Worry instead about how to get Negro adults, and their children, into the rich suburbs of Milton, Newton, or Wellesley. If we are to get, as eventually we must, integration in schools, this is now the way for white people to work for it.
Meanwhile, there is much that our city-dwellers, with only the resources they now have, could do to make their schools better. By now many American educators have seen schools, in Leicestershire County in Great Britain, that provide their average children of lower-income families with first-class education, in spite of ill-designed and outdated buildings, low budgets, and forty children per class. We can learn much from them if we want to. Even in the conditions Kozol describes, some good things could be done. He writes, “The pupils who could read were insulted and bored by the kinds of books that filled the cupboards. Probably rightly so, But why not ask them to say why, and in what way, they were bored and insulted, and from that point, to consider in general what makes books good or bad? If the textbooks in the schools are out of date, why not compare them with up to date information—not hard nor expensive to get—to see how the world has changed since the texts were printed? If the schools have no good books, why not go to secondhand paperback bookstores—every big city has them—and for ten or fifteen cents apiece get good books? Or better yet give the students money and let them go out and buy the books. Of one school Kozol says, “about a third of the school hours were spent at wandering in the schoolyard (‘sports’)….” But even in the most barren schoolyard there are plenty of things to do besides wander, and if we can for a few minutes stop wish-dreaming about gyms and swimming pools we might be able to think of a few of them. In short, once we give up our alibis, and start seeing what we can do with what we have, we might surprise ourselves.
The second thing that Negroes can do, and are beginning to do, for the education of their children, is to start their own schools. The Boston New School for Children, even though its parent body is hardly representative of most city Negroes, is a good start in the right direction. Also promising are the Roxbury Community School of Boston, which serves a lower-income parent body, and the Children’s Community, which for several years now, and with very little money, has been working in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Finally, as we are beginning to see in I.S. 201 in Harlem, and in a few other parts of New York, Negroes are beginning to try to find ways, even if they cannot control an entire public school system, to exercise effective control over the schools in their own neighborhoods, to get principals and teachers who will understand, respect, and meet the needs of their children, and to give the children the kind of pride and confidence in themselves, and the zest for learning and growth, that can only be felt by those who feel themselves part of an effective community. Such efforts are just beginning and they face great difficulties. They do not seem to me wasteful diversions of energy, but the very opposite. They are intensely practical, because they meet the problems of education directly, and where they are most difficult and serious.
The poorest children in Leicestershire County are now among the best educated children in Great Britain. Those who struggle to change the system here must set themselves no less a goal—that the poorest children of our predominantly Negro cities will be among the best-educated children in America.
December 21, 1967