In the context of traditional American belief, Section 402 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the simplest, most unambiguous directives ever issued to a government agency. It instructs the United States Commissioner of Education to carry out a survey “concerning the lack of availability of equal educational opportunities for individuals by reason of race, color, religion, or national origin in educational institutions” in the United States and its possessions. Presumably, the wording of Section 402 merely pointed toward an examination of the effects of overt racial discrimination in American schools. What it produced instead was a 737-page document that demonstrated not only the ineffectiveness of schools in overcoming the handicaps of poverty and deprivation, but also the fact that no one knows what the phrase “equal educational opportunities” means, and that, given the conditions of contemporary American society, it can have no meaning. Education in America is patently unequal, it is structured to be unequal, and it can only define its successes by its failures. On the dark side of every conception of “opportunity” lies an equal measure of exclusion and rejection.
No one needs another set of statistics to prove that American Negro children—and many others—are being miseducated, that they are behind in the elementary grades, and that they fall further behind as they move through school. In the twelfth grade more than 85 per cent of Negro children score below the average white on standardized tests of achievement, their dropout rates are higher, and their self-esteem is lower. We can dispute the validity of the tests as indicators of intelligence, but there is not the slightest doubt that if they measure educational achievement, and if they predict future success in school and college (as they do), then the children of the poor minorities in America perform well below average. What the new statistics do provide is solid evidence for the repeated assertion by civil-rights leaders and others that what children learn in school are the rules and attitudes of second-class citizenship, and that the school is a highly effective mechanism not only for advancement but for selecting people out.
Historically, “equality of educational opportunity” simply demanded that all individuals were to have access to similar resources in similar public schools: where children failed, it was because of their own limitations, their lack of ambition and intelligence, not because of the inadequacies of the schools or the society. If the schools were found to favor a particular race or economic group (as they were in many of the desegregation cases), one could rectify the inequities through application of relatively simple standards: the appropriation of equal resources to the education of children of all races, the integration of schools, or the reassignment of teachers. The definition never contemplated the difficulties children might bring from home or the fact that even the best teachers and resources, according to the conventional standards, were keyed to middle-class experience, motivation, and attitude. More important, it never contemplated genuine integration: what it presumed was that only the white middle-class society offered ideals and standards of value, and that whatever the ghetto offered, or what minority children brought with them, was to be disregarded, deflated, or denied. The traditional melting pot was stirred by Protestant hands with a white ladle.
It will be years before the sociologists and statisticians get through with the data in the government’s report, “Equality of Educational Opportunity” that was prompted by Section 402. The study, headed by Professor James S. Coleman of the Johns Hopkins University, was eighteen months in the making, cost $2 million to produce, and included data on 600,000 children and 60,000 teachers in 4,000 schools. It is written, as Christopher Jencks said, “in the workmanlike prose of an Agriculture Department bulletin on fertilizer,” and it is so thoroughly crammed with tables, regression coefficients, and standard deviations as to make all but the most passionate statisticians shudder. (Ultimately, it turned out, even some of the statisticians began to shudder.) Nonetheless, the Coleman Report has probably become the most influential educational study of the decade. It formed the basis of the recent report of the United States Civil Rights Commission, “Racial Isolation in the Public Schools,” it provided ammunition for a federal court opinion on segregation in the Washington schools, it is the topic of conferences and seminars, it is endlessly quoted at meetings, and it became the subject of a year-long study at Harvard under the direction of Daniel P. Moynihan and Thomas Pettigrew (who also wrote the Civil Rights Commission Report). It may be a measure of the times that, where forty years ago we produced educational philosophy and ideology, we are now producing statistics.
The Coleman Report comes to two central conclusions:
- That the most significant determinant of educational success (as measured by standardized tests of mathematical and verbal performance) is the social and economic background of the individual student, that formal instructional inputs—which are not as unequally distributed between races as supposed—make relatively little difference, and that the social and economic composition of fellow students, not materials or libraries, is the most important in-school resource.
- That children from disadvantaged backgrounds (regardless of race) benefit from integration with advantaged kids (regardless of race), but that the latter are not harmed by such integration. Proper integration mixes rich and poor and produces a general social gain: the poor learn more; the performance of the rich does not go down.
The Coleman conclusions substantiate propositions that have been gaining currency in the last few years. If racial integration is pedagogically desirable, then clearly social and economic integration, and the interplay of cultural styles, are even more important. Poor blacks and whites can learn from each other, but rich and poor—under the proper conditions—can benefit even more. The Report’s conclusions on the impact of teachers are not entirely clear, but they do indicate that good teachers and effective educational environments are more important to the disadvantaged than to those who have access (in the home, for example) to other resources. Even so, teachers, libraries, laboratories, and other formal inputs are not as important as fellow students.
Carried to its ultimate, the Coleman Report seems to indicate that schools make relatively little difference, except as a place where kids learn from each other, and that money spent in improving them is likely, at best, to yield marginal results. The first temptation, of course, is to dismiss that assertion as an absurdity: we take it as an article of faith that the public school has always been the great American social instrument, the device that converted the raw material of immigration into an endless stream of social success. Now, oddly enough, the school seems to be failing in the very functions on which its reputation has always been based. It does not seem to be able to bring the most indigenous and American of all “immigrants” into the mainstream or even to give them the educational qualifications that life in the mainstream requires. Given the insights of recent experience, we might now properly ask whether the school was ever as successful or important in the process of Americanization and education as the history textbooks sentimentally picture it. With the possible exception of the Jews, did the school ever become a major avenue of entry for the ethnic minorities of the urban centers? How effective was it for the Irish, the Italians, the Poles? Was it the school or the street that acculturated our immigrants? What about such Americanizing institutions as the political ward, the shop, and the small town? A half-century ago American society provided alternatives to formal education, and no one became officially distressed about dropouts and slow readers. Now the school has become the gatekeeper to advancement, and while it is being blamed for obvious failures, it may actually be doing better than it ever did before.
And yet, despite the accumulation of studies and statistics, we still don’t know how much difference formal instruction makes, except to amplify characteristics that have already been determined somewhere else. The Coleman conclusions indicate that it doesn’t make much difference, but here semantic problems and statistical difficulties begin to get in the way. What the Coleman group did was, in essence, to take schools with students of similar background and try to determine how much difference varying inputs seemed to make. (E.g., given two all-Negro schools, did childen in the school where teachers had better training, higher degrees, for example, perform better than those in the other school?) In controlling for student background, however, Coleman and his colleagues may have underestimated the crucial fact that almost all schools are internally harmonious systems, and that where children come from disadvantaged backgrounds their teachers are also likely, in some respects, to be disadvantaged. Two economists, Samuel Bowles of Harvard and Henry M. Levin of the Brookings Institution, point out in the Journal of Human Resources1 that if the methodology of the study had been reversed, so would the conclusions: that is, if Coleman had controlled for such educational inputs as teacher training, the social background of the students would have appeared to make little difference. They point out, moreover, that Coleman’s Report, despite the vast sample, was unavoidably biased through the refusal of many school systems to furnish data: suburban systems were statistically over-represented while big cities, which have the most severe problems, were under-represented. The most vicious attribute of urban school systems, until recently, has not been their consistent failure with the disadvantaged, but their refusal to produce honest data on that failure. In case after case, they pretended (perhaps because of the historical definition of “equality”) that, despite statistical evidence to the contrary, it was individual children, not schools, that failed. Bowles and Levin contend, moreover, that the Coleman Report’s conclusions that teachers’ traits (verbal facility, educational level, etc.) are relatively unimportant is not supported by the data, which suggests exactly the opposite; that the Report’s data on the importance of class size are useless, and that its conclusions about the effect of integration are questionable since “the processes of residential and academic selection imply that those Negroes who attend predominantly white schools are drawn largely from higher social strata.” In brief, integration is educationally effective among those who are already educationally and socially “advantaged.”
The most significant difficulty, however, is one that the Coleman Report did not create and cannot solve. What does equality mean in education? Does it mean that the average Negro should be doing as well as the average white, and that the resources devoted to his education should be improved until he does? Or does it point to some sort of parity in resources? Or to something else? Coleman himself said that the focus of his report was not on “what resources go into education, but on what product comes out.” He then goes on to say (in an article in The Public Interest2) that “equality of educational opportunity implies not merely ‘equal’ schools but equally effective schools, whose influences will overcome the differences in starting point of children from different social groups.”
Pedagogically and politically, Coleman’s suggestion is pleasant, impossible, and probably undesirable. Pleasant because it has a nice democratic ring, impossible because the haves in the society won’t allow it to happen, undesirable because it assumes that all social and cultural differences should be equalized away, that Negro children (or Chinese or Jews) have nothing to offer as Negroes except problems and disadvantage, and that their culture (or perhaps even their genes) gives them nothing special that might be socially, educationally, or personally valuable. A Negro in this context is nothing but a disadvantaged white.
Since we are now beginning to discover the crucial importance of the very early years of childhood, it is likely that we can achieve a greater measure of equality—to narrow the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged. More effective preschool programs, and a general extension of the social responsibility of the school for children from deprived homes, may make the classroom more effective. But the matter of achieving genuine equality is another question.
As to the politics: the most effective way that a middle-class parent can endow his children is by buying them a superior education, by giving them the head start his advantages can provide, and he is not likely to run slower to let the poor catch up. Given Coleman’s standards, the only way to determine whether schools “overcome the differences in starting point of children from different social groups” is when Negro children from Harlem do as well in College Board scores or reading achievement as whites from Scarsdale. Yet when that happens, Scarsdale will have lost its reason to exist. Is the average white afraid of integration or “equality” only because the Negroes would, as he often says, “drag down the standards” or also because, ultimately, they might succeed? What would happen if the prep schools and suburban high schools, let alone the Ivy League universities, were no longer a guarantee of advantage and ultimate success? What if the game were genuinely open? It has often been said that American economic viability depended in part on the existence of a class of individuals who were available for the dirty jobs that the society requires (try the suggestion that we guarantee everyone a living wage, and listen to the prophecies of economic doom), but is it not equally conceivable that, for many, self-esteem and success are themselves defined by the failures of others? We can assert that technology is taking us to some sort of economic nirvana in which menial work is superfluous and we will no longer require Negroes to do it. And yet, doesn’t the psychology of success always require a class of failures, and aren’t the black, by virtue of their cultural inheritance, always the best candidates? Can we ever maintain a middle class without a lower class, or does it thrive, like Alcoholics Anonymous, on the continued presence of a group of people who, it is assumed, need reform, and from whose failures the successful can draw esteem? Even if we dismiss that as the bleakest kind of cynicism, we are still confronted by the difficulty of a system where cash and power are convertible into educational assets, where educational assets are, in turn, the major qualifications for entry into the life and prerogatives of the middle class, and where the poor have neither. No governmental program is likely to alleviate the inequities.
As to the pedagogy: Coleman’s assumption in talking about the different starting points of children “from different social groups” is that all talent is equally distributed through the population, and that inequities are generated only by social, rather than ethnic or cultural characteristics. The current evidence seems to make the assumption doubtful: it points, indeed, to a very different course of action from the one Coleman advocates. For years there was a lot of condescending talk about the attributes and activities of different ethnic groups (all Jews were tailors, the Chinese ran laundries, the Negro had “rhythm”), and we properly reacted with egalitarian indignity when we decided how silly and pernicious that talk had become. Are we now going overboard the other way by suggesting that all talents and interests, of whatever kind, are distributed absolutely equally through the different ethnic sectors of the population? In establishing criteria for academic success—indeed for social success generally—are we emphasizing certain skills and measures at the expense of others that may be equally valuable not only to the individual’s personality and self-esteem but to the society generally? In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review3 Susan S. Stodolsky and Gerald Lesser report on research that indicates that the relative strengths and weaknesses in different attributes remain constant for various ethnic groups, regardless of whether they are middle-or lower-class. Jews, for example, score higher, relative to the general population, in verbal ability than they do in space conceptualization. For Chinese children, the relative strengths and weaknesses in verbal ability and space conceptualization are reversed. (Similarly, Negroes seem to perform somewhat better in arithmetic skills and space conceptualization than they do in verbal tests; for Puerto Ricans, the pattern is almost the reverse.) Although middle-class children score higher in all categories, the relative ethnic differences are not eliminated. To Lesser and Stodolsky, these findings suggest new distinctions, definitions, and a new course of action. To Coleman’s call for equalization, they want to add what they consider the equally important objective of diversification, of trading on the strengths of different ethnic groups, and helping them to develop those strengths to the maximum. “Beyond deploying all necessary resources to achieve minimal equality in essential goals, further development of students may well be diverse,” they write. “Following our principle of matching instruction and ability we incidentally may enhance the initial strengths which each group possesses. For example, through the incidental enhancement of the space-conceptualization skills of the Chinese children, we may produce proportionally more Chinese than Jewish architects and engineers. Conversely, through incidental enhancement of verbal skills of the Jewish children, we may produce proportionally more Jewish than Chinese authors or lawyers.” There is no suggestion here about producing a Jewish or a Chinese curriculum; what they do propose is tailoring the mode and techniques of instruction to the strengths of particular children.
Studies like this are a long way from producing comprehensive solutions, but they demonstrate how complex the problem has become, how little we know about learning, and how ineffective most current remedial programs seem to be. One of the difficulties, indeed, is determining just what the problem really is. The Coleman Report, whatever its weaknesses, has made the definitional problem painfully clear. When we talk about the education of Negroes, or urban schools, or the ghetto, are we talking about ethnic minorities, a social class, or simply the universal difficulties of operating effective schools, no matter who their pupils happen to be? Clearly there is validity in the charge that some teachers are racially and socially biased, and that the phrase “cultural disadvantage” can be used, like assertions about Negro inferiority, as an excuse for failure, a cop-out for bad teachers. The psychologist Kenneth B. Clark has often pointed out that statements about uneducable children tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and that teachers who talk this way don’t belong in the classroom. At the same time, it’s hard to believe that the same attitudes don’t operate in classrooms full of lower-class Italians or Appalachian mountaineers, or that the Protestant schoolmarms of the year 1900 were altogether openminded about the Jews and the Catholics.
Before anyone comes back with the declaration that “we made it on our own, why can’t they?” let’s quickly add that the economy that permitted making “it” on one’s own is dead and gone, and that when it comes to many contemporary school systems, all children tend to be disadvantaged. What I’m suggesting is that many schools are not educational but sociological devices which destroy learning and curiosity and deny differences as often as they encourage them, and which value managerial order above initiative, good behavior above originality, and mediocrity above engagement. (Yes, of course, there are exceptions.) All too often, they demand styles of behavior antithetical not only to social and ethnic minorities, but also to most other original or “difficult” children, no matter what their background. They are instruments of social selection and as such they screen out misfits for the middle class, regardless of race, color, or national origin. In performing this function, every guidance counselor becomes an immigration officer and every examination a petition for a passport. Lower-class youngsters, wrote Edgar Z. Friedenberg in The Vanishing Adolescent, “are handy with their fists and worse; but they are helpless in the meshes of middle-class administrative procedure and are rapidly neutralized and eliminated by it. . . . They quickly learn that the most terrifying creatures are those whose bite passes unnoticed at the time and later swells, festers, and paralyzes; they cannot defend themselves against the covert, lingering hostility of teachers and school administrators.” This hostility, says Friedenberg, is generated by a reaction to the personal intensity of young men and women who resist personal repression offered in the name of adjustment. “Any individual through whom subjective intensity may intrude into the processes of bureaucratic equilibrium is extremely threatening to our society.” The school, in short, is not an instrument of pluralism, but of conformity. It turns out shoddy goods for the dime store trade; its teachers are not professionals but petty civil servants who teach children to deny their own instincts and honesty, teach them little tricks of evasion, and reject those who are not acceptable for the mold. While the deviants of the upper class may have access to special schools in the suburbs or the hills of New England, the poor have no choice: the law requires them to go to one particular school in one community which, as often as not, treats them as inmates. The school in this instance becomes a sort of colonial outpost manned by a collection of sahibs from downtown. Their idea of community relations is telling parents to encourage their kids to stay in school, help them with their homework, and live the life of Dick and Jane. As a result, the neighborhood school is in, but not of or by the neighborhood.
Given these conditions and the failures of the ghetto schools, the current demands for decentralization and community control are hardly surprising. There is nothing radical about them, except in the view of school personnel who have been trained to suspect community pressure and who regard any overt mixture of politics and education as the ultimate evil. The advocates of decentralization, who feel that ghetto parents should have as much control over the education of their children as the parents of the small suburb, see political action as the only way to make the school effective and responsible: the issue is not a black principal or a black curriculum for their own sake, but making the schools accountable, and developing the sense of participation that is expected to come with it. If parents are involved, they may provide the interest and support that the education of their children requires. The schools will then become their schools, the teachers their teachers. A principal working for parents is going to try harder than one who is responsible only to bureaucrats downtown.
For many militants, the appeal of decentralization—as an essential component of community power (read Black Power, if preferred)—is extremely powerful. At the same time, the concept of decentralization suffers from some serious ambiguities. There are people like Roy Innis, a leader in CORE, who favor a single Negro school district in Harlem, a system as distinct from that of New York City as the schools of Buffalo. For most others, including white liberals, the model is a collection of small districts, each hopefully resembling those of the suburbs or the small town, each immediately accessible to the parents and community. The difference between the two is as large as the difference between Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun: One visualizes a thoroughgoing decentralization—educational federalism; the other calls forth the ghost of the doctrine of the concurrent majority. It is based on the presumption that the Negro community is as distinct from the mainstream as the peculiar institution which helped give it birth and on which Calhoun founded his brand of separatism more than a century ago. Both suffer from what may be an excessive belief in the power of formal education and a conviction that racism and bad intentions, rather than educational incompetence, are the major sources of educational inadequacy.
Yet if this were the whole problem—if teachers and schools were guilty of nothing more than middle-class bias or political irresponsibility toward the poor—the situation would not be as difficult as it is. Even if one grants the possibility of effective decentralization as a political solution (assuming that parents can run schools without turning them into political battlegrounds or hothouses of nepotism), what of the educational solutions? The pressure for decentralization does not stem from some specific educational program that large systems refuse to adopt and which the militants consider appropriate to the problems of their neighborhoods and children. Indeed, if the Coleman Report has any validity—and there is little reason to doubt that children from different social backgrounds do learn from each other—then decentralization, which will help institutionalize segregation, is a step backward. Thus, the Bundy Report, which outlines a plan of decentralization for New York City, and the Coleman Report, one might think, were composed on different planets.
The great possibility of decentralization (in New York, the proposal is to establish between thirty and sixty semi-autonomous districts) is not some large educational breakthrough, but no more, and no less, than the immediate objective itself: giving the community a greater sense of participation and voice in the management of one of its institutions. (In this respect, it is no different from increasing community control over planning, street-cleaning, or the administration of the local precinct of the police.) It is thus a revolt against the “professionals”—the people who took charge, in the name of reform and good government, and apparently failed to deliver the goods. In its unwillingness to trust the experts, the demand for decentralization is frontier populism come to the city, a rejection of outside planning and expertise. Parents whose children attend decentralized schools may (with luck) learn more about political action and school management than their children learn about reading or mathematics: so far, at any rate, the chances for the first outweigh those of the second. The mystery of power is, for the moment, more fascinating than the problems of instruction.
The fact is that no one, in the ghetto or out, has yet developed a vision of what the ghetto schools ought to do, how they should operate, or what an educated Negro child ought to be if he is to be something different from a dark-skinned middle-class white. The existing ghetto schools fail Negroes not so much because they are different from all other schools—as the integrationists once assumed—but because they are too much like them. Local control may introduce diversity and new ideas, but those changes are far from clear. At this point there are few alternative models to the existing public-school program. The current talk about relevance in Negro education—about more Afro-Americanism in the curriculum, about Negro history, about urban problems—and the peripheral efforts to use the arts (painting, the dance, music) as ways of engaging children’s interests have not taken us very far toward genuine educational integration, toward the point, that is, where ghetto children have the skills to compete effectively in the larger world. It has been said again and again that conventional instruction in formalized academic skills is difficult for children whose lives provide few examples of the value of formal education and little reinforcement for work that might pay off in some vague abstract future. Middle-class kids are, in some measure, to the manner born, and they find plenty of reinforcement around them: they often succeed regardless of school. For many ghetto children, instruction, to be successful, has to be immediately attractive or interesting. (There are, to be sure, many ghetto children from families whose ambitions are identical to those of the middle class.) Whether or not “enjoyment,” as someone said, “is a prerequisite to competence,” it is plain that skills for the larger world may appear only remotely valuable in the immediate life of a child. The humanity of children may be very distant from the problems of negotiating the economy. The problem is how to get from one to the other.
The proposals for solving the problem are endless and, as might be expected, they are often contradictory. There is no consistent Negro demand in education, any more than there is a white one. Some Negro parents are as committed to authoritarian teachers and rote learning as the village schoolmarm; others regard them as racially repressive and pedagogically useless. (Most Negro parents are probably as conservative about education as any others.) I suspect that part of the anger and frustration in all racial school disputes stems from the inability of the parties to be entirely clear about what they want. Should the schools be more middle class, more white than white, turning out suburban doctors and lawyers, or should they be training men and women who can cope with the outside world but whose energies are directed to the black community and whose loyalties remain in the ghetto? (The controversy is similar to a conventional school debate between advocates of vocational training and college preparation, but the race aspect charges it with explosive overtones.) Whatever the position, the issue is clear: almost inevitably it revolves around the problem of moving the child from where he is to the larger world—resolving the inconsistencies between the attitudes and experience of poverty and the formalized skills and motivation that the world demands. There is no disagreement anywhere that there is a common culture that demands certain levels of verbal and social ability. The question slowly emerging from the current debates, however, is whether that ability must become a universal virtue. Should we be concerned only with the preparation of economic functionaries and the development of conventional academic skills, or also with the growth of human beings whose dignity is not necessarily dependent on middle-class standards of success? Is an understanding of algebraic functions any more desirable than the ability to paint or dance? (The mandated requirements for many jobs—nursing, for example—include verbal abilities that are higher than those the job actually require; the stipulated credentials are not necessarily related to the characteristics the jobs demand.) Are we establishing norms that tend to undervalue characteristics that all of society could well use, and for which certain children might be especially well prepared, or do we have to make all children into replicas of the middle class?
For the next several years we are likely to hear more and more along this line. In its most extreme form, the argument says that not only is the American school an instrument of the white middle class, but that the overriding emphasis—in school and out—on high verbal and cognitive skills is itself a form of racial and social bias. The rational mind, with its emphasis on a high degree of verbal and analytical facility is, in a manner of speaking, our thing. We invented and perfected it, and for the last fifteen years most curricular reform has been directed to the task of putting a larger and more powerful dose of it into the classroom. Thus we have, even more thoroughly than before, arranged education to separate the sheep of privilege from the goats of deprivation. Increasingly, we will now have to confront questions about what has been excluded: Are we missing something more intuitive, personal, and intangible? Is it possible to extend the Lesser-Stodolsky kind of analysis to include—along with assessments of verbal and mathematical characteristics, and the ability to conceptualize space—things like affective and intuitive qualities, creativity, and some general feeling for the poetic, the visual, the musical?
Because these things are difficult to test, and because their cash value has usually been remote, the schools tend to disregard them, or to assign them to a secondary level of importance. Of all the things that make life rich-the arts, the various elements of literary and personal sensitivity, social and political involvement, philosophy, religion—very few have even a minimal place (except as lip service) in the public school program. One may not be able to mandate such activities in a large compulsory school system, but it is possible to offer them as alternatives to the public school, and one can conceive of all sorts of programs for doing so. The issue here is not to turn every ghetto school into an academy of the arts, but to offer diversity—teaching the skills of a trade or of an art with as much of a sense of importance as we teach mathematics or history. The objective, in each instance, is to draw upon the experiences and interests of the kids, to give them a sense of motion and relevance, and to provide choices, not only as to school and school control, but also as to style of learning. We have, with the single public system, and the instruction it offers, created a single standard of success and failure (and the large hippie element seems to indicate that the standard is not acceptable even to some of those who might meet it). Perhaps we have to recognize the principle of pluralism not only in a cultural context but in an educational one as well. A few years ago such suggestions would have been regarded as racist slurs, but it is now the black militant who regards Swahili as desirable for Negroes as Latin.
Carried to its extreme, the argument leads to a romantic trap, a wishful attempt to arm the weakest members of a technological society with the least effective weapons for dealing with it. It may be nice to think that there are dishwashers with the souls of poets (or even with the skills of poets), but that thought provides no foundation on which to base an educational system. There are, in our culture, a variety of important and rewarding functions that require no extensive verbal or mathematical skills (despite the exclusionist tendency of certain trades and professions to impose arbitrary educational standards for membership). Nonetheless, there remain certain levels of verbal ability without which few people can survive, except in the most menial situations. In our ambiguity and guilt about middle-class life, many of us hold a corresponding ambiguity about those who are left outside the mainstream: the happy hillbilly, the engagement and passion of the ghetto, the uninhibited poor. What we disregard is that, given the choice, most of them would elect to live like us; because of educational deficiencies, they do not have the choice. There is, said a Negro sociologist, only one way out of the ghetto, “and that’s out.” The reason, finally, that so few of them make it has little to do with differences in culture, or the fact that teachers and administrators are ignorant about the lives of the children assigned to them; it is because they still don’t know how to teach. Negro schools are bad because all schools are bad. We simply don’t know very much about how children learn. This is, in the end, what the Coleman Report proved. It may also be the greatest single contribution of the civil-rights movement.
But to say that greater diversity, the provision of educational options, and a new emphasis on intuitive learning can be carried to extremes is not to deny the validity of the idea, either in the ghetto or anywhere else. For the past decade we masculinized the schools with mathematics, physics, and with a variety of new toughminded curricula. Educational criticism in the next decade may well concern itself more with the soft side of things—with non-cognitive approaches, and with a reaffirmation of Deweyan ideas. There are a number of people who are talking seriously about a “curriculum of concerns,” educational programs that begin with the interests and experience of kids, not with predetermined sets of skills to be learned. Most of the ghetto experiments that seem to have potential are pure Dewey: letting children talk their own stories and developing vocabulary and writing skills from them; trips to factories, galleries, and museums; stories and poems about the streets of the city, and even about addicts and junkies: These things, too, can be carried to undisciplined extremes. None is a cure-all, but nothing in education ever is. The very nature of the enterprise is unsettling and troublesome. Education and maturation mean change, and that, in turn, means dealing with new problems, new elements every day. Equality is relatively easy to define in employment, in housing, or in medicine. It is impossible to define in education because the very nature of the enterprise demands distinctions and produces diversity.
Are we then to abandon integration and concentrate exclusively on the problems of the classroom? Plainly the answer is no. No, because it still seems—at least to some of us—morally important; no, because, lacking better tools, it still appears to be an effective technique for education; no, because any alternative to integration is, despite immediate attractions to the contrary, unthinkable. Yet if integration is to have any meaning, it must be a two-way street—integration not only between races, going both ways, but also between the school and the community, school and job, culture and culture. If equality of educational opportunity means merely an effort to improve the chances of the disadvantaged to run the race on our terms, things will never be equal and whatever they have to offer will be lost. Are we really courageous enough to provide a broad range of educational options and not to worry about who’s at what level in which track? Are we really interested in education or merely in grades, credits, and diplomas? In the structure of the existing school system, segregation, repression, competition, and failure are all essential parts. Every class has a bottom half, and it tends to include, numerically, as many whites as blacks. Until we are ready to stop selecting people out, almost any conception of education is going to involve some sort of segregation. Our democratic professions might be vindicated if the ranks of the successful were as well integrated as the ranks of the failures, but would that solve the problem of education? What would we do with the failures if they were a statistically average shade of tan? The fundamental issue is not the equality of Negro schools, but the lives of all young men and women, no matter what their category of stigma. “If urban educators are failing,” says Robert Dentler, the director of the Center for Urban Education, “they are failing where the newly emergent culture of the urban society itself has failed to specify either ends or means for the educator or his clientele. . . . We are in a period when the place of all children in this culture is in transition.” What the problem of Negro education has done, or should be doing, is to alert us to a far larger range of social and educational questions, and to the fact that the goal of maximizing human potential is still a long way off.
1 “The Determinants of Scholastic Achievement—An Appraisal of Some Recent Evidence,” Winter 1968.
2 “Toward Open Schools,” Fall 1967.
3 “Learning Patterns in the Disadvantaged,” Fall 1967.