C+ for Effort

Minority Problems in the Public Schools.
By Theodore Brameld.
New York, Harper, 1946. 264 pages. $2.50.

It is obvious that the American public schools are strategically situated to combat the growth of racial and religious prejudice. It is equally obvious that so far “democratic education” has been unequal to its opportunities. But faith in the potentials of the school system rightly continues unabated, and new techniques and intercultural programs are constantly being devised. Dr. Brameld’s book is a serious contribution to the growing literature on the subject. Making no attempt to be popular, it presents a sober, somewhat technical report on the school systems of seven representative cities, ranging in size from the town of 25,000 to Massopolis. All sections of the country are included in the survey with the exception of the deep South. (Negro-white relations are more profitably examined in “border-line” and Northern communities.) To add to the study’s comprehensiveness, attention is given to the Mexican, Spanish-American, and Japanese minorities in the West.

Though the author is resolutely hopeful in interpreting the results, the conclusions reached by Dr. Brameld after a painstaking analysis of the administrative practices and policies of the schools studied are not encouraging. The highest score given by Dr. Brameld to any single school system for its success in coping with the specific issue of intercultural relations is B—. The average rating of all seven systems is C+. Every school child knows that such a record is far from brilliant.

The indifferent rating is particularly significant because it has been made despite the clamorous awareness of educators of the need for an effective intercultural program. There is no lack of committees, conferences, and resolutions. The implementation is at fault.



The minutiae of Dr. Brameld’s survey, and many of his recommendations, are meaningful primarily to professional school-men and administrators. However, the fundamental theses of the study are of interest to the general reader. Everywhere Dr. Brameld encountered exponents of the hush-hush philosophy. Apparently half of Massopolis’ principals believe that the best answer to interracial difficulties is: “Don’t bring them out.” In a smaller city, however, there has been an attempt to reconcile two educational objectives: “on the one hand, the objective of forthright attention to minority relations and needs whenever practical; on the other hand, the objective of accepting cultural groups as ordinary citizens and thus avoiding the kind of attention which would exaggerate their distinctions by singling them out for artificial sympathy or melodramatic attention.”

This reconciliation is, of course, the crux of the matter. Unfortunately, the hush-hush policy is practised not only by its admitted advocates. Even administrators theoretically opposed to the silent treatment tend to be “forthright” only in the enunciation of abstract principles. A real classroom or community incident is likely to be timidly bypassed. The air is saturated with pronunciamentos on the virtues of democracy and the equality of its citizens, but the decontamination squad is not sent down. When the explosion takes place more conferences are held.

Any one with experience in the schools is familiar with the procedure. Even when an ugly situation threatens because of incitements whose source is known, teachers will be encouraged to deliver a few platitudes on tolerance. Rarely will any one venture to tread on some influential toes by naming the actual forces at work. In Northern localities where the KKK is no issue, it may be safely strictured as an example of bigotry, but a home-grown variant of the Christian Front will be treated circumspectly. The chief cause of the comparative failure of most so-called intercultural programs is that they rarely get down to brass tacks. The folklore approach, the listing of cultural contributions, dances in national costumes, are in their way useful, but they will do little to allay Johnny Jones’ anger at “Jewish slackers.” Pedagogy must be more direct. It is futile to pirouette around the subject.

Assuming even that the public schools were more courageous than they actually are, they would still have no ready-made panacea for resolving the racial and religious tensions which spring from a complex social environment. Dr. Brameld states as a universal axiom “that where peoples of various cultures and races freely and genuinely associate, prejudices and confusions dissolve; where they do not associate, where they are isolated from one another, these prejudices and conflicts grow like a disease.” The temptation to subscribe to this formulation is great. It is what the social scientists have taught us to believe, and what we would like to believe. However, if this axiom were really sound, the public schools of our large cities, where all racial and religious strains come into close, daily contact, should be little Utopias.

Actually, the reverse is often true. I taught for years in a large public high school where boys and girls of various faiths and national origins enjoyed the habitual and friendly association of the schoolroom. They were generally on good, comradely terms, but their apparently amiable intercourse failed to prevent the flourishing of virulent prejudices. Friendship with the Jewish or Negro boy across the aisle did not keep some savage anti-Semitic or anti-Negro canard from being credited. Perhaps the upholders of the “axiom” will claim that the association was neither genuine nor free, because of bars created by the unconscious. But then, short of the de-conditioning of masses of human beings, no genuine association can be viewed as possible. Obviously remedial measures cannot wait for so complete a revolution of the psyche.

The usual reliance on “association,” like the emphasis on “cultural contributions,” pays an undeserved tribute to the average child’s powers of inference. The knowledge that Sam Cohen is a nice boy, that Haym Salomon financed the Revolution, and that Einstein is a great mathematician, does not act as an automatic antidote to rabble-rousers. The myth must be challenged more directly. An example is the answer of one school when the Red Cross refused to accept Negro blood for its blood bank. The blood of a Negro and a white student was examined in the classroom under a microscope. Such a demonstration of the falsity of a specific charge was worth a hundred assembly talks on “equality.”

Dr. Brameld recommends the vitalization of parents associations and of adult education. The value of such vitalization is incontestable However, the core of interest must center within the school-day itself. Parents associations are notoriously weak precisely in depressed, “trouble-spot” areas where the need to reach the home is greatest. The parents will not join. Classes for adults are not likely to be attended by a tired mother.

The specific strength of the public schools lies in the fact that by virtue of compulsory education they reach all the youth of the land for some of the time. This provides a unique advantage over other social forces. Much of this initial advantage is forfeited when the intercultural program is relegated to extracurricular activities. If the schools honestly wish to play a part commensurate to their opportunities in the fight against the Coughlins and the Gerald Smiths, “education for democracy” must be deliberately integrated into the curriculum. That is the paramount merit of the familiar Springfield Plan. Such integration must not be camouflaged in nebulous phrases, but must be expressed in direct, concrete terms.

Anti-Semitism has become a major issue of our civilization, yet I venture to say that very few high schools make allowance for a unit on the subject in their social science courses. No matter how sceptical we may have become of the possibility of rationally influencing antagonisms whose source is irrational, a field of operation still remains. Young people who are constantly receiving large doses of malicious misinformation in regard to the minorities in their midst should be provided with relevant and specific information. The school is the natural organ for such provision. It may be visionary to expect the American school system to rate A in respect to the greatest task confronting it, but if it has the will, it can reasonably try for B+.

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