Education & Social Change
The Great School Wars.
by Diane Ravitch.
Basic Books. 449 pp. $12.95.
Since 1805, when New York's leading families established the Free School Society, the city's schools have played a social, as well as an educational, role. With the arrival of waves of immigrants from abroad and more recently from other parts of America, greater and greater emphasis came to be placed on the social role, until the schools were seen as the key to the solution of all the city's social problems—including the most intractable, racism. By the 1960's, as Diane Ravitch writes, large numbers of people shared “an almost mystical belief in the power of the public school to change society and to save individuals.” The schools' failure, in the case of blacks, to meet this standard—specifically, their failure to graduate most of their black students into successful middle-class lives—caused the battles now known collectively as the New York City teachers' strike of 1968.
Why should the schools have failed with black students when they succeeded with other groups in the past? It is Mrs. Ravitch's central contention here that the premise of this question is simply wrong: the failure, she argues, has not been on the part of the schools, but rather on the part of those who do not understand the limited role schools have played, and can realistically be expected to play, in reforming society.
Mrs. Ravitch is careful to separate two very different tasks historically assigned to the schools—Americanization and achievement of social mobility. In the 19th century, her narrative demonstrates, schools were an important, though by no means the sole, factor in facilitating the first process, but compiled an undistinguished record as to the second. By the early 20th century, however, even Americanization had become too much for the schools, as under the strains of increased immigration the public school was transposed into a “vast, underfinanced, bureaucratic social-work agency, expected to take on single-handedly the responsibilities which had formerly been discharged by family, community, and employer.”
Yet if the record speaks otherwise, the myth of the schools' success in Americanizing immigrants, or at least the children of immigrants, has been a potent one, and it has been accompanied by another belief even further removed from reality—the belief that the schools were the path which led immigrant groups from poverty to success, and in the space of a single generation. Two misconceptions are at work here: first, that immigrant groups met with quick success in their economic activities, and second, that the schools were responsible for whatever success they did achieve. As Mrs. Ravitch explains, the popular notion that the schools worked so well is simply wrong: large numbers of immigrant children were dismally unsuccessful in school.
The ladder was there, “from the gutter to the university,” and for those stalwart enough to ascend it, the schools were a boon and a path out of poverty. The majority of immigrant children, who did not get to a university or even, in the first generation, through high school, owed as much or more to the nation's rapidly developing economy and to their own personal, familial, and cultural resources, than to the school.
As melting pots, then, the schools had a moderate impact—traceable in part, no doubt, to the mere fact of attendance. But attendance itself was not an admission ticket to the middle class; for this, a combination of economic conditions, cultural traditions, and individual ambition was necessary.
It is only very recently that we have come to appreciate any of this. Studies by educational scholars, such as James Coleman and Christopher Jencks, have demonstrated how very much more important an influence the home is than the school, while careful analyses by historians such as Stephan Thernstrom have indicated that there was much less social mobility in the 19th century than we had been taught to believe. These “revisionist” views of educational policy and American social history are well understood by Mrs. Ravitch, and she is careful to place the schools in perspective: school organization and curricula, and the battles over them, reflect rather than produce social change. As she notes in the preface to The Great School Wars, “a history of the New York City public schools [has] to be a political history,” and her book enables us to see why each battle over the schools occurred in the way that it did, when it did.
The Great School Wars begins its narrative with the fight over state aid to Catholic schools in the 1820's and 30's—a fight precipitated by the great wave of Irish immigration. The second “war,” in the 1890's, and the third, roughly between 1910 and 1920, reflected the new, Southern European immigration, the fluctuating fortunes of the Tammany machine, and the theories and influence of upper-class reformers. The fourth school “war” was that of the 1950's and 1960's, in which race was a central issue and the new immigrants were from Puerto Rico or were blacks from the Southern states.
The division into four periods allows Mrs. Ravitch room to describe distinct events and personalities while at the same time emphasizing the recurrent nature of the problems faced by the schools. Her history is a long one, and some readers may feel over-whelmed by detail. Drawing conclusions without benefit of a careful exposition of the facts, however, would have been a much worse alternative, especially when the author is challenging conventional views on a variety of subjects. In any case, among the details are fascinating bits of social history and portraits of individuals who have at various times played crucial roles in the life of the schools. Mrs. Ravitch's clear and direct style is well suited to conveying a wealth of history and analysis, and anyone with a modicum of interest in the city or its schools will find her book easy and absorbing reading.
Just past the middle of The Great School Wars Mrs. Ravitch reaches the events leading up to the teachers' strike of 1968. By this time her perspective is already quite evident: the “failure” of the schools when it came to black students could have been predicted, since success had been defined as not only coping with, but solving, a wide range of social problems rooted in factors like racism, inadequate housing, high crime rates, and unemployment. Nevertheless, the “mystical belief in the power of public schools” continued to hold sway, and contributed the incentive to act; and since the schools, unlike the national economy, were locally controlled, the means for action were at hand. At first, in the 1950's and the early part of the 1960's, the goal of school reformers was integration—a battle that in retrospect seems to have been doomed from the outset. Integration meant the end of the neighborhood school and the busing of white children into the slums, with no enhancement in the quality of their education. As such, it would have been unpopular among whites even without the intrusion of racism; with racism in the mix, integration through long-range busing became politically impossible. Mrs. Ravitch adds, however, that integration was also increasingly difficult pragmatically. Each year, the racial balance in the city's public schools shifted further from white to non-white, and with each shift in the demographic balance the frail chances for large-scale integration were further diminished. Though school administrators understood this fully, they refused to acknowledge it, continuing instead to mouth full support for neighborhood schools and integration.
In the end, integration was bypassed as a goal, and “community control” became the standard behind which many powerful political forces rallied. Mrs. Ravitch's discussion of how and why this occurred focuses on the key question raised by community control: Who represents the community? During the teachers' strike of 1968, only two of the protagonists, Mayor Lindsay and United Federation of Teachers' President Albert Shanker, were duly elected representatives, wielding power because some “community” had chosen them. Mrs. Ravitch describes in detail how the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School Board and its chosen Superintendent, Rhody McCoy, schemed successfully to avoid a compromise and force a confrontation with the union. With what authority was the local board acting? Exceedingly little. It was chosen in a manner charitably described as unorthodox, by a small fraction of the area's residents, and it espoused a position supported, at the height of the crisis, by 29 per cent of its constituents.
As Mrs. Ravitch suggests, this very lack of legitimacy on the part of the black “leaders” destroyed all chances for compromise. Since their power (and celebrity) originated in the extreme position they took on the one issue of community control, it was not in their personal interest to help bring the crisis to an end. No settlement was reasonable to them for none could offer them a role as central as the one they were playing in the continuing confrontations.
The problem of legitimacy was not limited to the black community's self-appointed representatives. One might question as well the extent to which the views of the city's white residents were represented by the Ford Foundation, the Urban Coalition, or the New York Civil Liberties Union, all of which played active parts in the crisis, or for that matter by the Board of Education, an appointed body whose members' experience with the city's public-school system was negligible and whose ethnic composition appeared indistinguishable from that of the board of the Metropolitan Opera.
In the end, the only barrier between the extremists and control of the ghetto schools turned out to be Albert Shanker and the UFT. Shanker and the teachers, throughout the 1960's, fought for serious reforms and increased expenditures, and opposed the sort of “decentralization” which would turn the schools over to the new and highly vocal “community leaders.” Ironically, though Shanker was accused of indifference or even hostility to the residents of the city's slum areas, he was almost alone in recognizing how great an effort was really needed, and how deceptive were the promises that “community control” would make a difference in the lives of the city's poor minorities.
Public education is an area in which a knowledge of history is especially important. An understanding of the limited power the schools have to bring about social change might well have avoided New York's school wars of the 1960's. Mrs. Ravitch's valuable study reinforces the lesson that good schools can provide a pathway “from the gutter to the university” for the talented few, but can do little to affect the more important task of assuring that no Americans live in conditions that merit being called “the gutter.”