Schools and Society
The Great School Legend.
by Colin Greer.
Basic Books. 206 pp. $6.95.
The Ecology of the Public Schools: An Inquiry into Community Control.
by Leonard J. Fein.
Pegasus. 170 pp. $6.00.
Education has traditionally been thought of as America’s great cure-all. Whatever the social malady, whatever the injustice, whatever the inequity, education has been counted on to set things right. And although schooling is only one variety of education, reformers have time and time again turned to the public schools as the agency responsible for molding character, opening up opportunities, sharpening skills, developing mental capacity, and, ultimately, remaking American society along the lines of its egalitarian ideals.
Yet obviously American society has not been remade. In recent years the stubborn persistence of inequality has led to an outpouring of criticism of the public schools. Disappointment and outrage stem in no small measure from a sense of betrayed faith in the redemptive power of education. Through many popular books runs the assumption that the public schools of today are worse than the public schools of the past, that they are failing to do for non-whites what they once did for America’s white immigrant poor: namely, enable them to rise out of the lower class. This assumption of past success derives from the traditional progressive-liberal view of the public school as the great agent of upward social mobility, the very symbol of American democracy—a view which was incorporated in the major American histories of education as well as in the standard rhetoric of schoolmen. Little wonder, then, that many contemporary critics have concluded there must be special reasons to account for the widespread failure of blacks and other poor minorities in today’s public schools.
Four such reasons have been advanced to explain why today’s non-white poor have not benefited as other groups supposedly did in the past from exposure to public education. The first, which (except for the brief Jensenist flurry) was rejected as soon as it was advanced, is that the groups themselves are genetically inferior. The second (and the schoolmen’s chief line of defense) is that today’s poor are culturally more deprived than other ethnic groups. The third is that the schools have become different: they are more bureaucratic, more rigid, more standardized, and less flexible than they once were. The fourth, usually allied with the third, is that the schools are thoroughly racist institutions and hence incapable of educating non-white children.
Each analysis implies a line of policy. The genetic argument leads to a do-nothing policy, and in any case has found no public proponents. The cultural-deprivation theory has led to requests for more money to meet the special needs of the public schools’ clientele. Those who argue that the schools have changed for the worse have sought the elimination of bureaucracy and a diminution of the power of school professionals through decentralization (as in the Bundy report). Those who believe, finally, that the problem is institutionalized racism turn to community control as a device for affirming the legitimacy and strength of black cultural life.
During the ferment over the schools in the 1960’s, the only possibility which was not considered is the one which forms the major thesis of Colin Greer’s book: that the public schools were never as successful in educating the immigrant poor as has been popularly believed. What is especially striking about the picture Greer draws is the similarity between the performance of the immigrant poor in the early decades of the 20th century and that of the black poor today. Greer cites facts and figures, all available in public-school documents, which demonstrate that the rate of failure among immigrant children ranged from 30 to 60 per cent in the big cities. He presents early studies of different ethnic groups to show how school achievement varied consistently among groups, with some (notably Jews) scoring higher than others (notably Irish and Italians). He concludes that a group’s success in school depended on the cultural resources of the group, not on the transforming power of the city schools.
The myth that the public schools were once a miracle-working institution needed debunking, if only to bring present-day expectations into line with reality. Unhappily, Greer is not content to rest his case with this point. Instead, he uses the historical material as a club in a free-swinging, angry attack on the “American dream” in general and the public school in particular. Despite his knowledge of the severe limitations of the schools, he too shares the traditional faith in their potential omnipotence. His outrage at past failures carries him to the view that the schools were designed and maintained in order to prevent the emergence of social equality.
His theory, in brief, is this: the public schools were created by the middle class as a device to control, contain, and direct the lower classes; they exist to separate the successes from the failures, not randomly, but along class lines. The American rhetoric of equality and social mobility has been consciously used to deceive the lower classes, since there is in fact very little equality or mobility available to them and never was. Those few immigrant groups, like the Jews, who did succeed in school did so only on the strength of their indigenous cultural traditions. The rise of the Irish and Italians into the midde class should be credited not to the public schools, whose purpose it was to keep them poor, but to the economy, which needed their labor. In any event, those groups who believe they have achieved social mobility really have not, because relatively speaking their economic and social positions have changed very little.
But has there in fact been no social mobility in America? Most immigrant groups have clearly moved up and out of the miserable poverty which was their grandparents’ lot in the cities at the turn of the century. There are still large concentrations of white ethnics in New York City, for example, but less than 4 per cent of the city’s welfare rolls are white. Greer believes that the white ethnics are relatively no better off than their penniless grandparents; yet the worker who has a secure job, a house, a car, and children in college almost certainly would not agree.
Greer has no trouble showing a high rate of school failure among European groups during the major period of their immigration and even during the next generation. Given their poverty, their language difficulties, the extent of undetected physical ailments, the lack of trained teachers, classes which sometimes exceeded 100 children in number, rigid curricula, rat-infested school buildings, etc., it seems a wonder that so many immigrant children managed to stay in school and keep up with their native American peers at all. Those who succeeded, as Greer writes, were often possessed of cultural traditions which strengthened the motivation to lift themselves out of a life of poverty. However, Greer neglects to mention the other side of the coin: the presence in some groups of cultural traditions which discouraged student success and upward mobility. Richard Gambino, for instance, wrote recently in the New York Times Magazine that Italian immigrants saw school “not only as alien but as immoral”; boys were sent to work at as young an age as the law allowed, “and girls were virtually imprisoned in the house.” The older generation often viewed the schools as a threat to its way of life, rather than as a means to economic and social advancement. Greer notes that Italian-Americans were the least successful in school of all the white immigrant groups, but he does not connect their performance to a disabling tradition. For his own reasons, he prefers to regard their failure as a consequence of the intentions of the public schools. He refuses to accept the implications of his evidence: that 1972 is not so different from 1912 in that ethnic groups still achieve, or do not achieve, in relation to their cultural resources.
Since the burden of his argument has been precisely to stress the relative impotence of the schools as compared with social class and employment patterns—to provide, in other words, a historical setting for the principal findings of the Coleman report—it is ironic that Greer concludes with the ringing demand that the schools become the vehicle of a “radical reformation” and the agents of “major change” in American society. If anything, he seems to have demonstrated that the public school mirrors society and that there is scant historical justification for those who expect the schools to provide the cutting edge of social change.
The public schools have performed no miracles; they have not created a happy, integrated, utopian society. But would America be more democratic today if there had never been a public-school system? Is there another direction which the public schools should have taken at some stage? Is there another nation, with a similarly heterogeneous population, whose schools have successfully promoted universal social and political equality? Greer offers no alternatives. What he seems most unwilling to acknowledge is that the schools do not operate in a vacuum. They represent one educative institution among many. Their successes are rarely theirs alone, their failures are rarely theirs alone.
If, however, they do not operate in a vacuum, the schools nevertheless are the only mass educational agency which is “get-at-able,” that is, responsive to public pressure, and in the last few years, public pressure has been very great indeed. One of the most striking aspects of the current debate over the schools has been the call for community control of ghetto schools. Since its genesis as a disputed policy in New York City, where it was born in the midst of bitter controversy, the issue of community control has continued to polarize opinion and raise temperatures. It has been vehemently advocated as a panacea and a “natural right” and just as vehemently denounced as a reactionary power grab.
Given the explosiveness of the issue, it is refreshing indeed to read Leonard J. Fein’s dispassionate analysis of the rationale for community control. Fein, who teaches politics and social policy at Brandeis, has written a sober, closely reasoned, and honest account of the potential of community control, both for good and for ill. Unlike most other writers who support community control, Fein refrains from making extravagant predictions of success. Because of his very moderation and fairness of mind, he is persuasive in asserting that there is a serious case for community control, although his candor in assessing its dangers will strengthen the determination of those who disagree with his conclusions.
Fein quite deliberately strips community control of its mythological trappings. It is not, he says, a reassertion of “a lost heritage,” since “there never was a time in industrial America when schools in urban areas were definitely controlled by the local community, much less the neighborhood.” Nor is community control appropriate to all groups: “One of the most aggravating circumstances . . . is that community control is an urgent question only with respect to black communities, and may, in fact, be a plausible solution only for them.” It cannot even be argued, Fein maintains, that community control will lead to improved academic achievement; he points out that there are city schools with excellent students and there are non-affluent, locally-controlled suburban districts which do not produce able students (the difference is a matter of social class and economics, not size or organization of the school district). Fein also acknowledges, unlike most community-control supporters, that those on the other side of the question are not prima facie racists; he grants willingly the seriousness of the opposition to community control, which comes in the main from those who identify with the universalist, liberal tradition in America.
Fein is equally direct about the dangers inherent in community control. Since most parents prefer to leave education to “the experts,” and since citizen participation in school politics is usually low anyway, schools could end up being controlled by tightly-organized factions, rather than by the community as a whole. He is also aware that the controlling group might impose its own orthodoxy. “In general, the smaller the society, the less opportunity there is for deviance, whether political or cultural, the more the majority exercises subtle—or explicit—tyranny.” To those hoping to recapture the warmth of the small town, Fein sounds a note of caution: “In return for a major sacrifice in liberty, a sacrifice which many people are perfectly willing, and even anxious, to make, the small community offers social support, a sense of belonging, an alternative to the uncertainties of autonomy. Yet those who would reflect nostalgically on the good old days of solidarity should bear in mind the treatment of eccentricity in those days, in those places.”
Fein himself considers all this an acceptable price to pay for the building of a sense of community—a task which in his judgment it is appropriate for the schools to perform. His commitment to community control is thus based on what he calls “the central conclusion of conservative theory”—that “the loss of community is a desperate and tragically serious loss.” He unhesitatingly rejects the liberal tradition, which, by denying the value of ethnicity and group identity and by insisting on the virtue of color-blindness and individuality, must bear responsibility for the rootlessness and anomie of modern mass society.
The educational justification that Fein offers for community control is the likelihood that an ethnically homogeneous school will propose a curriculum which is tailored to the special aptitudes of the group. He cites a study in which four groups—Jews, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Chinese—differed consistently on four mental-ability tests (verbal, reasoning, number, and space). Each group showed a definite pattern, higher for its middle-class children than its lower-class children, but nonetheless internally consistent. Jews, for instance, scored much higher on verbal than on space tests, while for Chinese children it was the other way around. Fein, who believes that the schools should “encourage each group in its unique pattern,” calls this study a “powerful argument” in favor of community control (though one might make an equally powerful argument against allowing the schools to institutionalize cultural differences, which raises the absurd specter of ethnic tracking).
It is important to recognize that Fein is not a pure advocate of community control. That is, he does not believe that every community should define its boundaries and then be given free rein. On the one hand, he fears that white community control is likely to become a cover for racism; this is why, despite his basic agreement with the theory of community control, he is actually interested only in black community control. On the other hand, he strongly disapproves of imposing restrictions on those blacks who prefer the existing public school system, and so he stops short of advocating the creation of wholly autonomous black community school districts. What he proposes is that, alongside the regular public schools in the community, the state subsidize the establishment of black parochial schools: “a genuinely private system managed by the community with very little auditing by the state.” What blacks want, he writes, is not just better schools, “but also the opportunity to develop an essentially private, or parochial, curriculum.” Since blacks are too poor to create these schools, and since the state bears responsibility for their poverty, the state has a “special obligation to except the Negro community from the general prohibition on state aid to parochial institutions.”
These parochial schools would coexist in the same community with traditional public schools. Black parents could choose to send their children either to a public school, where the development of black consciousness was ignored, or to a publicly-supported parochial school, where the values of the black community were specifically inculcated.
The problems with Fein’s proposal are obvious, the major one of course being the unlikelihood that black parochial schools, whatever their special claim, could win full governmental assistance. It is a battle that Catholics have been unable to win for over a century. The analogy is interesting, however, for it suggests a comparison with a similar historic struggle for public funding of parochial schools which occurred in New York City in the early 1840’s. At that time, it was decided by the legislature that public money could not go to any school in which there was sectarian teaching. In response, the Catholics, though desperately impoverished as a group, created their own school system. Fein does not carry the analogy this far, but the Catholic example suggests that if there is sufficient black determination to have independent schools, then the absence of government funding will not prevent their establishment.
But even if the scheme itself were feasible, who would define the values of the black community? The black community, like the white community, is made up of many disparate factions. Should the parochial school teach the values of the separatists, or the upwardly-aspiring middle class, or the black professionals, or some other group? (The Catholic schools never had this problem since their values were those of the Church.) If the question is to be settled by vote, one can foresee considerable confusion in a community with two school elections—one for the public community school board, the other for the parochial community school board. Choice, which Fein staunchly maintains is important, is retained, but the concept of community control is stood on its head.
In The Ecology of the Public Schools Fein has elevated the debate over community control to a plane where serious discussion has at last replaced screaming. For those who support community control, he has built a coherent ideological base. For those who oppose it, he has compiled as good an analysis as can be found of the price which fraternity may demand of liberty.