I will write commentaries on various contemporary educational issues and post links to my published articles.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Brand New Teacher

I am pretty much out of it now, the education game. Retired. Most semesters I still teach a course in the History of Education in the United States to teachers at Queens College, City University of New York. I think a lot about my work over the years in schools at various levels, and I write a bit in a vain effort to make some sense of schooling in America and of my own life as a teacher. I wish I could pronounce both a success, but I cannot.
In my early years as a teacher, despite many experiences that should have lessened my enthusiasm, I believed that schools were the answer for any social and personal problems that came down the line, even those not yet perceived by me. I think this initial optimism was in part generated by my own early schooling experiences. I did quite well at a Catholic elementary school in Brooklyn during the 1940s, where we had class sizes in the high sixties. Because I could read and write well, I escaped the worst of the beatings meted out by the young and barely- educated Franciscan brothers who struggled to keep order, and I got along tolerably well with my classmates, because of my willingness to pass my answers to test questions along to them. In high school I fared less well because I actually had to pay close attention to explanations offered by Mr. Ellinghaus about sine, cosine and tangent, to memorize long lists of vocabulary words and verb endings to pass Brother Benignus’ daily quizzes in Latin class, and to read long passages about the Congress of Vienna. I had not the time, the attention span, nor the discipline for any of this. Basketball, girls, and drinking beer while hanging out with my friends were my top priorities. But I enjoyed literature and writing, which saved me, at least, from being tossed out of St. Francis Prep.
I went on to St. Francis College, also in Brooklyn, where, helped by a few enthusiastic teachers, I fell in love with Socrates’ questions about the meaning of justice, friendship, and goodness, Thoreau’s essays on nature, politics, and living the good life, Edmund Wilson’s treatment of the Russian Revolution, and a thousand other new ideas and understandings. I had less success dissecting my very own fetal pig, and turning various assignments in on time. But the essential educational deed was done. I had been welcomed into a world I might have caught only glimpses of on my own, and sustained in it by a structure of enthusiastic teachers, reading assignments, and the good conversation I found among some faculty and fellow students. Without that college experience I would have wound up as a really inept back office clerk somewhere because, although I had a disdain for the American success ethic, acquired through my religious upbringing and college reading, I certainly couldn’t, or at least didn’t want to do anything that required mechanical skills, heavy lifting, or standing out in the cold, heat or rain.
I never saw my college experience as a preparation for a career; it just turned out that there are jobs in schools that allowed me to, even rewarded me for, pursuing my own interests, and, trying to pass them on to others. Teaching, unlike selling mayonnaise or automobiles, seemed a good answer to Socrates’ question about how best to spend your life. Only later did I think that my choice might well have reflected a lack of social imagination. I knew precious little, after all, about the world and its doings; priests, cops, firemen, and most of all teachers were the few occupations immediately visible to me.
Since school was the place in which I found the books, ideas and camaraderie that have sustained me throughout my life, I had rather high expectations for the ways in which school might impact on others and on the larger society. But I have come to see that my interests and my own conception of school purposes are quite limited models. Various players in the educational game look at schooling quite differently than I. (I am happy that my internist was more taken by his fetal pig, than I by mine.) Students and parents look to the schools for all sorts of things: social and economic mobility, personal growth, the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity. Others may be interested in creating an informed democratic society or an efficient workforce, or in using the schools to create a more racially integrated society, or to end poverty, or to help America compete militarily, scientifically, and commercially with others nations in the world. I hardly exhaust the possibilities.
The champions of these various purposes carry with them the same kind of optimistic beliefs as I once did. The rhetoric about schools from Jefferson to the political campaigns of our own day, suffused with the celebration of schooling as the universal social panacea has created a grand illusion. Rather than continue celebrating the illusion, we might better look more carefully at what schools can and cannot do, what they do best, and what they can do in only limited ways. In championing the illusion, we have failed to look at other ways in which some of the nation’s problems need to be addressed.
First Year of Teaching

The spring of 1957 was a busy time for me. Planning to graduate in June, I was finishing up my undergraduate coursework, and working evenings supervising young people at a community center in Queens. I had a summer playground job set up and was looking for a teaching job in the fall. I had enrolled in a graduate program in philosophy at Fordham that I was also to begin part-time in the fall. And I was getting married in August. I was 21, excellent at formulating long-range goals, but not very good at sorting out everyday priorities and accomplishing small but necessary tasks.
Someone had suggested to me earlier that I take some education courses as an undergraduate so I might teach while I put myself through Fordham’s masters program in philosophy. I took two courses, but never did student teaching. A faculty member at St. Francis mentioned that the population in the Shirley-Mastic area, on eastern Suffolk County’s south shore was expanding rapidly and that the school district there, William Floyd, was looking for teachers. I had rarely been outside of the five boroughs of New York City and certainly never as far east as Shirley.
. Two classmates went out there for interviews, were immediately hired, and encouraged others to follow suit. Four more of us wrote letters and drove out together in a car that my friend, Tom Young had borrowed from his older brother. At the time the district ran its K-10 program out of one building sending its 11th and 12th graders to the neighboring, but much more upscale, Center Moriches district. During my two- year stay they expanded into a full K-12 program, and since then have developed into one of the larger school districts on Long Island.
Jim Coles, a young man in his 30s, introduced himself as the building principal. He told us he was pleased to hire fellows from a Catholic college, because he knew we would be good disciplinarians. My friend John Flanagan and I had sat in chairs furthest from Jim Coles’ desk because with our sense of discipline derived from our Catholic education and our new-found maturity we had had a couple of cans of Budweiser in the car coming out and didn’t want to get too close to the principal.
John was hired as a sixth grade elementary teacher and Joe Dionisio, the fourth member of our group, as a seventh grade English teacher. Tom Young and I were offered jobs teaching the 7th and 8th grade ‘contained class.’ “You would just have to teach those kids for one year, and then I’m sure we could find a regular job for you the next year. ‘Contained’ means we don’t let the students out in the hall. They are not departmentalized. They don’t move from class to class. They stay in one room with one teacher. Some of them are just not good learners; and a few have little behavior problems.” Tom signed on for the 8th grade “contained class,” and I for the 7th grade. Jim Coles told us he would like us to sign the contracts right there, as he wanted to wrap up such matters. We all did. No one there had seen our college transcripts, inquired about student teaching, discussed teacher certification, or in my case heard me speak a single word. I had known I was irresponsible and expected to mature any day soon. But I’d trusted that responsible, if disapproving, adults were running the world, running places like schools, but this experience opened the door a bit to other possibilities.
The night before my first day of teaching in the William Floyd school district I decided that rather than plan my first teaching day, or my next three days step by step, I would simply re-read two essays on education by the philosopher Martin Buber. The essays focused on relations between teacher and student, and on questions of educational purpose. They were thoughtful and inspirational pieces. I would recommend them even today to young teachers, but not as an exclusive means of preparing for a first day of teaching, or for any day of teaching. I evaded the unpleasant and unfamiliar task of scheduling my teaching day for the same reason I avoided getting college papers in on time, or preparing for tests in subjects that did not interest me. My approach, however foolish, was in line with my practice of doing only that which I enjoyed, and with my narrow view of educational purpose with its focus on reading literature and philosophy.
All fine and dandy, but what I lacked was some preparation for the craft, for the day- to- day practice of teaching. I came to understand the necessity of learning that craft, and to expand my notion of what a good education is to include specific preparation for the daily tasks we all face in the work world. Later, as a teacher educator, I was intrigued by just what form such an education in the craft of teaching would take and how it might best be related to the grander visions of educational ends I had been drawn to in college. I found much worthwhile in learning and practicing a variety of techniques, following recipes and routines, but always with an eye to how each fits in to a larger educational project.
One task that filled in the time for me on my first day of teaching was the distribution of books to my seventh grade contained class. I had given one of the students, John Ward, the chore of going to a bookroom and returning with a set of textbooks. I told the kids my name, took attendance, showed off my name- pronunciation skills, smiled a lot, distributed some books that were already in the classroom, and tried to do some rudimentary record keeping. Suddenly the class in front of me erupted in laughter, punctuated by hands slapping the desks, and feet stomping on the floor.
“What’s going on?” I shouted into the din. Several students looked toward the door. There was John Ward, book cart beside him, energetically giving me “the arm,” with a full twist of the wrist, tightly clenched fist, and a little knee raise thrown in to give the universal gesture a personal touch. Nothing in my own school career had prepared me for this. I’m sure the surprise showed on my face, and then the indecision about how to respond. John Ward was way ahead of me. First he denied doing anything. Then he said, “I wasn’t giving you the arm, Mr. Proefriedt. I was doing it to Carl. He did it to me first. I don’t even know what it means. I swear.” Then he rapidly slid into an abject and revealing apology. “That was the bad John Ward,” he said. “From now on, I promise you, the good John Ward is here. You won’t have any more trouble.” The whole situation struck me as so bizarre I burst into laughter, thereby, I suppose, becoming an early contributor to the demise of acceptable behavior in schools and in the larger culture which others date from the 1960s but which I claim began in the Fall of 1957.

“John Ward and Carl Lobner,” I shouted. “Stop that. Stand in the back of the room.”
My wife shook me. “You’re dreaming.”
I sat upright, pointing my finger at the wall at the base of our bed. She told me what I had said. She thought that perhaps I might consider looking for a job in a bank.
I was embarrassed at my own inability to find more creative and effective ways to deal with my star pupils who had found their ways into my dreams. I had begun to work a little harder at organizing my day, not nearly as much as I should have, but the general classroom disorder and woefully poor performance of many of the kids in the class made me feel I wasn’t very good at teaching. This was devastating to me, because I had somehow got it into my head that I would be a natural at it. No such thing.
I gave out one paragraph writing assignments asking the students to explain some short story or non-fiction piece we had just read together in class. Many of them were unable to get through a sentence when I called on them to read aloud. Many wrote one or two illegible sentences in response to my assignment-- not even sentences, just a few scribbled words that showed some vague connection to what we had read. Some few did a little better than that, writing flawed but recognizable sentences and showing some comprehension of the reading assignments I had given them.
Not all the students were slow learners. John Ward and Carl Lobner were both quite bright, and there were a few others in the class who had at least average intelligence. They had been placed in the “contained class” because teachers in “regular” classes had complained about their disruptive behavior. Their behavior in a class with mostly slower students was, of course, equally disruptive. Both John and Carl were foster children who had been bounced from one home to another. In fleeting moments before the year was out each told me a bit about himself. Most of the time they just acted out their problems in the classroom, arguing, fighting, and commenting publicly and often quite humorously, on various scenes around them. I saw the extent to which their emotional distress interfered with their capacities to pursue an education, and came to realize that for so many young people the priority had to be making their lives whole again, before they could address academic tasks effectively. And I saw the extent to which the emotional lives of these children were tied to the larger social and economic situations in which they lived. These were all just glimmerings in my mind’s eye; I was too overwhelmed with my daily routine and with other aspects of my life to pursue them with any diligence.
The members of my class could be quite cruel to one another. And then there would be a few redemptive moments. I watched one young man, John Gaeta, warn his friends not to make fun of a couple of the girls who were less than pretty; nor of Richard R., who could neither count to ten, nor read a single word from the printed page. John was a muscular fifteen, having been left back twice, and had 5 o’clock shadow by noon every day. He once said to me on his way out of class. “Don’t let them get to you, Mr. Proefriedt. Nobody can handle this group.” He may have saved my teaching career.
I, however, was supposed to be saving these kids. It was the first time I had ever been in a situation where I had responsibility for the well-being of others, day in and day out, over a long period of time. I had few relevant skills, lacked the imagination to even define what they might be, and the time and patience to acquire even those like the teaching of basic reading skills which I could see I needed. I was too busy. On Thursday afternoon, I raced out the door at three, and drove frantically to Fordham’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, to take a course in Plato. “Those of you who can’t read Greek are really wasting your time here.” Saturday mornings I was back up there, often nursing a hangover, for a course in Medieval Philosophy: Anselm to Duns Scotus. My wife and I led a pretty active social life, and out in Mastic, where some of my unmarried bachelor friends had taken up residence, we continued the sort of socializing we’d done in college. So I managed to add my own irresponsibility to that of the administration of a district that had thrown together emotionally disturbed and learning disabled kids in the same room, called them the “contained class,” and gave them over to the care of the last two teachers they hired.
At about the middle of my first year of teaching, Tom Young and I stumbled on an amazing convergence of our interests with those of our students. The boys and girls were always complaining that they weren’t allowed to switch classes like the other 7th and 8th graders but were stuck in the same classrooms pretty much all day with Tom and me. As teachers, we found it difficult to prepare interesting lessons in each of four subject areas each day. We devised a plan to simply have my students go to Tom’s room after lunch and his students to mine. I would teach English and science to both classes and he social studies and math. We presented the plan to Jim Coles and surprisingly, were allowed to implement it. The only drawback for me was that some of the 8th graders, having been left back a year or two, were bigger, meaner, more frustrated in their role as students, and more certain that school had nothing in it for them. But most were pleased that they could move from one teacher to another, as the other 7th and 8th graders did, and the switch made our lives easier as teachers. Some of our students would escape from the school building everyday after lunch, and we would hear Norman Bessette, the acting assistant principal, calling their names on the loudspeaker: “Ignacio Abuntilla, Paul Micallif…Report to the main office.” Bessette’s voice boomed into every classroom in the school, but failed to reach the boys who had made their way into a wooded area near the school. At any rate, Tom and I had learned that teachers could affect school matters beyond their own classrooms.
During a good part of that first year I car-pooled several days a week with two fellows in their thirties, experienced teachers, veterans of the Second World War. One taught an elementary class and the other, secondary English. They were both good story-tellers, one focusing on his three years in a Luftwaffe prison camp, after having been shot down while navigating a bomber over Germany, and the other, the son of a horse trainer, on the year he spent after the war, and after finishing college, touring the nation’s race tracks, studying the ponies, and trying to make a living at the pari-mutual windows. Neither ever took on a formal advisory role with me, but they chatted thoughtfully about their own work and listened to my reports of my difficult class. They gave me a sense of not being alone. Anecdotes about classroom interactions would turn into discussions about what was worthwhile to teach to whom, about where we thought these young people were headed in their lives, and how much our efforts had to do with their development. Talking about curriculum matters, the lives of our students, our reactions to them, inevitably led me to embryonic reflections on my own sense of my role as a teacher and as a person. I needed these older, wiser heads, men who were more experienced than I, inside and outside of classrooms, to show me there were other ways of looking at young people, at schools, and at the world than the ones I brought to the table.
At the end of the year, I was told that the woman who had taught the contained class for years was returning from her sabbatical and would resume her work. I was assigned to teach seventh grade English, five classes of it. I had come to like the kids I taught, especially John Ward and Carl Lobner, with whom I often lost my temper. It was hard to be responsive to them when there was so much else to be done in a busy classroom. We have yet to figure out how to handle children like John and Carl within school settings. I was disappointed in my own work. I never had clear and specific ideas of what I might accomplish. But I believed I would do better next year. Like John Ward, I cast off the year as the year of the bad Bill Proefriedt. Next year, the good Bill Proefriedt, more dedicated and responsible, would return as a 7th grade English teacher and succeed at his work. I think that belief that we can make better persons of ourselves drives our culture and our schools: it is always the eve of the New Year, time to shuck off the old self and ring in the new.

Learning How Schools Work: The Hard Way

My schedule in my second year consisted of five 7th grade English classes, a total of about 150 students, the supervision of a huge and noisy “study hall,” held in the students’ cafeteria just before the lunch periods began, a bus duty after school, and whatever other little tasks, like chaperoning an evening student dance, came along. After the difficulties of my first year, it all came as a relief. The students were tracked, 7-1, 7-2, etc. I gave some thought to the connection between poverty and placement, but not a great deal. The tracking had begun much earlier in the students’ lives, using standardized tests, teacher recommendations, and, occasionally, accessions to parental requests. From teacher and administrator conversations I learned that the local area did not attract professional or even middle class people, and that parents generally trusted the schools to make academic decisions about their children, or did not feel comfortable discussing school matters with the staff. I was at the time extraordinarily naïve about America’s social class structure, and certainly about my own place in it.
I thought there were large differences between the students in the 7-1 and the 7-5 classes in skills like reading comprehension and writing typically exhibited in English classes. The students in the 7-2, 7-3, and 7-4 classes, those predicted by their placements to be closer to average in performance, might have moved easily one class up or down. Wondering about the tracking arrangements and the various interactions I had with the students over the year led me into conversations with my teacher colleagues that began with a focus on individuals but broadened into more general discussions. We questioned what the factors were which resulted in such different abilities in students; we wondered how large the possibilities were for improvement; and we inquired about the extent to which students exhibited similar ability across subject areas, or showed high ability only in certain areas. I found it hard to reconcile my almost religious democratic belief in the infinite possibilities of each individual with the assessments I made in class of students’ learning activities. In truth I have never reconciled the two, and over the years have found the dreamers and cynics who have embraced one or the other pole of this largest of educational dilemmas hopelessly wrongheaded in their decisiveness, and blind to all the complexities of learning in the school policies they have derived from their certainties.
Another perennial educational question began plaguing me early on: what’s worthwhile to teach to whom? Compared to other school districts that I worked in or with during my career, William Floyd, at that time, had little in the way of any purposeful standardization of its curriculum. (Most districts today err in quite the opposite direction.) I was told to follow the various texts given me: a literary anthology, a grammar handbook and a workbook with grammatical exercises in it. One day, well into the year, I spied in a glass-enclosed bookcase in Jim Coles’ office a series of thin New York State Department of Education curriculum guides. One of them was for 7th grade Language Arts. Pay dirt, I thought. Here at last I would find out just what I was supposed to be teaching in my classroom. No such luck. Jim Coles said he’d never been able to find the key to the glass door of the bookcase. The previous occupant of the office must have taken it when he left for another district. The guides were probably outdated anyway. He would see if he could get me a more up to date one. My own idea of effective action at the time was to stop by Coles’ office on occasion and stare wistfully through the glass at the unattainable curriculum guide. I would no more have thought it my place to contact the mysterious state education department in Albany in 1958 than a peasant faced with a blighted crop in an ancient kingdom would have thought to contact the court bureaucracy thousands of miles away.
I believed then, and do now, that it was a useful thing to teach, among other things, basic writing skills to my English classes. The question was how best to do this. I gave small writing assignments and corrected all the spelling and usage errors I found, admonishing students to look at my corrections and to avoid repeating their errors. The papers piled up on my desk at home and in the back seat of my car as I tried to correct everything. The students went on repeating their errors. I collected common ones, and copied them on the board. This worked better. I taught grammatical concepts so the students would understand why one formulation was correct and another not. I had to explain the concepts of “singular” and “plural” when I talked about agreement between subject and verb.
When I had students diagram sentences on the board so they would gain more facility with sentence structures, Barbara A. asked, “What is this for? Will it help us get jobs?” I tried half-heartedly to answer her questions, pointing out the tortured connections between understanding grammatical concepts and effective writing, and effective writing and employment. I added the point that learning wasn’t just for future employment, that writing was a process that helped us to understand ourselves and the world around us. Glazed looks, puzzled faces, shuffling feet signaled me that my effort at philosophizing in a seventh grade classroom wasn’t working.
I retreated to snide humor. “There is a sentence diagramming factory in Patchogue.” Some took my remark seriously. Lenore R. explained that Mr. Proefriedt had been joking. The question of the relevance of what I teach, however, has stayed with me over the years. It is hardly immediately clear what subjects and topics should be taught to whom, and with what purposes in mind. The question is rarely raised and pursued by school people and others in our day with the high seriousness it deserves.
The starting salary for new teachers at William Floyd in 1957 was $4100. The next year it went to $4300. I also moved up one step and so in 1958-59 was making $4500. Of course, we had rented three rooms in a house for only $75 a month. We teachers grumbled among ourselves about money, class size, loud speaker announcements during classes, bus and cafeteria duties, and a whole set of perceived injustices. Some of us searched for ways to participate in the decision-making process which affected our lives.
There was of course no teachers’ union in Mastic in the late fifties. We read about the union in New York City trying to gain power in the schools. The National Education Association at that time was controlled by school administrators and was opposed to collective bargaining as “unprofessional.” We teachers were marched off to a conference in a neighboring district at which a local district school superintendent warned us against teacher union organizers, telling us about teacher union leaders meeting secretly in a New York hotel room with Jimmy Hoffa. All very “unprofessional.”
We were paid once a month at William Floyd, and some of us teachers, playing it close to the line, would put our cafeteria lunches on the cuff in the last week before payday. Jim Coles asked us not to do that. Mrs. E. the woman who ran the cafeteria might tell her brother-in-law on the school board. He might think it very unprofessional. Hearing some of us newer teachers talking about organizing a group and going to the school board with a formal set of demands, one veteran teacher, told us, “Boys, boys. Don’t do anything so foolish. You’re still wet behind the ears. I drink my suds with these guys (the school board members). They’ll take care of us as best they can. Wally (Wallace Thomas, the district principal) wouldn’t like it if you went over his head.”
Like many other new teachers, I initially conceived of my work as taking place in a classroom, but I came to learn that there is a whole student culture extending far beyond it: student government, publications, intramural and interscholastic athletics, pep rallies, drama club, band, chorus, school sponsored dances, fund-raising activities, and much more. I recognized the educational value of many of these activities, and the consequent need for faculty participation in them. Some of them, however, took on a life of their own, quite outside of any educational purpose.
There was one teacher who seemed to be in charge of the social life of the school. She was the eminence gris behind the planning of class trips and dances. In the teacher’s lounge she spoke of how burdened she was with buying balloons, and getting the decorating done for the latest student dance, and let us all in on which junior boy was taking which sophomore girl to the dance. She seemed to love the busyness of it all, and her own role at the center of it. I felt the need to inform her of that perception of mine one afternoon in the teacher’s lounge when she was complaining that “Wally,” had asked her to do one more thing, take responsibility for a soda machine, the proceeds from which would be used for student activities. “C’mon,’ I said, in my diplomatic fashion, “Stop complaining. You love all this stuff.”
Within a couple of days I was summoned to “Wally’s” plush office, dramatic in its difference from any other space in the building. My first contact with the man. He told me he would like me to take on an added duty, personally walked me down a hallway to the soda machine, and explained how I should oversee the stacking of soda whenever the deliveryman arrived, sign off on amounts delivered, extract change from the machine at regular intervals, count and record the take, and bring the money and paper work to his office. Like a man bestowing a prize on an earnest competitor, he presented me with the key to the machine. I had been taught a lesson in the ways of school politics.
Over the next few weeks I realized that the soda deliveryman came almost every other day, and that I had to leave my class whenever he arrived, and oversee the delivery. I spoke to Jim Coles and told him I thought it was a bad idea to leave my class alone, and that it was more important for me to be teaching than dealing with soda machines. He encouraged me to take my complaint to “Wally,” assuring me he was a reasonable man. I made an appointment and again entered his imposing office. I made my complaint, undoubtedly in high moralistic style, and requested to be relieved of my task. “Give me the key,” he said, and dismissed me.
The next morning Tom Young arrived at my classroom door. He said that he had heard that not everyone teaching this year would have their contract renewed for the next year, and that unwillingness to engage in student activities outside the classroom would play a large role in the decision. Finally, he told me directly that he had been told by Jim Coles, who had been told by Wally Thomas (nobody likes to deliver bad news), to let me know that I had better look for a job in another district for the next year. I need not worry. Jim Coles would write me a good letter of recommendation. There was no teacher union in place to which I might appeal. An untenured teacher had no recourse in the law. Many teachers expressed sympathy with me, but no one, understandably, sought to organize any public protest.
For some days after I received the news from Tom, I felt a real sense of failure. I had, after all, lost my first job after college. Maybe I just couldn’t cut it.
The anger I felt about the circumstances of the firing was, however, therapeutic.
The great soda machine fiasco was not a life altering experience for me, but it did get me thinking a little differently about how schools worked, and about how I ought to respond to the problems I faced within them. I had seen precious little in the way of interest in real educational issues and willingness to grapple with them from any of the school administrators at William Floyd. These people really had quite other concerns: order, public relations, the preservation of their own power, and the enhancement of their ambitions. Wally’s decision not to renew my contract for the next school year was not based on any interest in the quality of my teaching; he saw my argument that it was more important for me to be teaching than servicing a soda machine, as a criticism of his judgment, which indeed it was, but more importantly as a challenge to his authority and to the order of things at William Floyd.
I had made a large mistake in believing like some knight of old that the rightness of my cause and the power of my reasoning alone would guarantee me victory. When I walked into Wally’s office I naively believed he would not only see the moral force of my argument but respect me for having made it. In the weeks following the news of my imminent departure, I thought a bit about the need to add cunning and necessary silence to what passed for my strategies in dealing with people in power. I also resolved that when I landed a teaching job in another district I would try to organize teachers first so that we might more effectively make changes in school policies and practices. I saw it would be wise to forego my practice of hectoring those in power until I had by uniting with other teachers, some of my own. Questioning the reasonability and rightness of my own positions on school policy and practice was not yet on my agenda.
The little dramas of my own life as a new teacher were as nothing compared to the great national school drama we were all watching on our television screens during the two years I taught at William Floyd. On September 4, 1957, the day I began teaching, Orville Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas, ordered his state militia to stop black children from entering Central High School in Little Rock. In doing so, Faubus violated the earlier Brown v. Board of Education integration decision. President Eisenhower ordered the militia withdrawn. We watched on television as whites rioted in Little Rock until the black children withdrew from the school. At the end of September, Eisenhower sent in Federal troops who, to the jeers of a white crowd, escorted nine black children back into the school.
My initial awareness of racial conflict in the country had come about a decade before I began teaching, when my father took me to a baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1947 to see Jackie Robinson, the first black player admitted to the major leagues. At eleven, I had not realized there was not a single black player in major league baseball until I read about Robinson in the sports pages of the Daily Mirror and New York Journal-American. I was truly puzzled by the fact that blacks had been excluded by those in power up until that time from playing major league baseball, and I began to develop a dumb sense that right and wrong were not categories just applicable to the behavior of us kids. Great moral issues permeated the larger adult world.
While I was in college, the Montgomery bus boycott led by Rosa Parks followed quickly upon the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and Martin Luther King emerged as a the leader of the civil rights struggle. We watched these events on our T.V. screens. In an ethics course I took in my senior year a classmate mumbled a racist comment as two young black kids from a local junior high walked by. John McDermott, the instructor, glanced out the window onto Butler Street and back at the fellow who made the comment. “What’s with you, pal?” he admonished. “Race is the most important moral issue of the day, and you’re on the wrong side of it.” The remark built on my Jackie Robinson experience and heightened my sense that whatever work I chose in the future, I had some responsibility to make a contribution on the right side of the great moral issues of the day.
The scenes from Little Rock were only the first of many school integration dramas the nation would watch during my own first decade of teaching. Governors George Wallace of Georgia and Ross Barnett of Mississippi gained national prominence in their televised performances defying integration orders at their state universities. Race conflict was going to be the central fact of American education and society over the next half-century.
In 1957, too, the Russians sent up Sputnik, their space satellite, and we responded by asking: what’s wrong with American education? Why had the Russians beaten us into space? We began to fund science and math education and worry that our school curriculum was not rigorous enough to face the challenges of the cold war. In Vietnam, the cold war was slowly heating up. I would be caught up in all of these issues over the next decade as the schools began to respond to them.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Review of Derrick Bell's book

Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

In this book, Derrick Bell tries to answer the question of why the great expectations for integrated schooling and equal educational opportunity for African-Americans set in motion by the 1954 Brown decision have not been met. His answer to the question of why Brown has failed was forged in the experience of his work from 1960 to 1965 in the South with the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund attempting to ensure that the relief ordered by the court in the second half of the Brown decision, the integration of school systems, was carried out. Bell praises the courage of those local Black people who risked their livelihoods and often their lives in an effort to make real the court’s promise of integrated schooling. But he comes eventually to question the integrationist project in which he is engaged. In the middle of a case in Leake County, Mississippi, Bell broods on the manner in which the local judge treats him and his clients, allowing the local school board people to introduce irrelevant evidence, turning his back when he and his clients speak. Bell becomes more and more aware of the deep-seated racial patterns he is fighting against. The judge recesses the school case and warmly greets a group of new immigrants, applying for citizenship. Bell recognizes that the children of these new immigrants, because they are white, will be immediately welcome to the schools of Leake County, Mississippi. It will be easier for them, too, to buy homes and find employment.
Bell asks himself: “Why was I trying to get these children admitted to schools where they were not wanted, where unless they were exceptional they would fare poorly, probably dropping out without a diploma, perhaps responding to their hostile treatment and getting into difficulties that would result in their expulsion?” Some of the black parents had told him they wanted a well-funded neighborhood school for their own children and he had convinced them to follow the N. A. A C. P.’s integrationist path. Bell continues his rethinking of this path as he watches whites move away from districts which have been ordered to achieve integration by busing, or send their children off to private schools. He observes black students being tracked into separate classes in “integrated” schools. He notes the militant resistance of whites to school integration, and the courts’ consequent unwillingness to enforce the rights which supposedly had been established with Brown. He concludes that his and the other N.A.A.C.P. lawyers’ “zealous faith in integration blinded us to the actual goal of equalizing educational opportunities.” (113)
Bell seeks to understand why Brown has failed, but it is an understanding which is also a stance taken toward the judge in Mississippi, and toward a white power structure generally, to whom he and others have appealed for simple justice and been met with rationalization, hostility and the denial of previously established rights. Over time, he develops an explanation designed not only to understand Brown and it failure, but also to generally explain race relations in America, and to provide a realistic jumping off point for African-Americans seeking change.
Bell’s theory, oversimplified, is this: African-Americans will only achieve some limited success in pursuing their own goals in America when those goals are consonant with the goals of significant elements in the white power structure. Bell calls this interest-convergence theory, seeing Brown as an example of it, but also pointing to a number of other historical examples. The victory for African-Americans is always less than what was deserved, indeed, sometime, only symbolic. But it is enough to provide a certain legitimacy to the American democratic claim; indeed, it is often a cause for celebration among white liberals and some African-Americans. But Brown, in Bell’s analysis, like other apparent victories for African-Americans, contained a secret covenant. The integration of schools turned out not to be a permanent right achieved by African-Americans. As soon as there was significant resistance and disorder created by the integration decision, it was essentially withdrawn. The achievement of integration by African-Americans was only fortuitous, not permanent. African-American interests had briefly coincided with America’s view of itself as a democratic nation, and especially with its desire to project that image on the world stage during the cold war, when it’s apartheid policies drew scathing criticism from the Soviet union. But in the face of disorder caused by white resistance to school integration the rights of blacks were sacrificed. Such a sacrifice of black rights was nothing new. To resolve disputes among white political leaders, the framers of the constitution had sacrificed the hopes of blacks, slave and free, to be included among those guaranteed liberty by the new government; Republican Party leaders had after the war supported civil rights for blacks, in order to garner black votes, an example of Bell’s interest-convergence notion. The rights were fortuitous, not permanent. They were sacrificed when Republicans agreed, among other things, to withdraw Federal troops from southern states in return for the resolution of the disputed presidential election between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in favor of Hayes. Without the troops, over the next two decades gains made by blacks in terms of land and businesses owned, jobs acquired, money saved and elective offices attained eroded. Lynching and other forms of intimidation were rampant.
Bell interprets not only a variety of historical events within this interest-convergence, silent covenant, sacrifice of black interests to settle disputes between white elites framework, but also indicates that contemporary issues like the death penalty, drug-sentencing, and reliance on test scores for college admission can profitably be understood from the same perspective.
In Bell’s eyes, the Supreme Court in the Brown case erred in acting from the assumption that segregated schooling was an aberration, and hence easily fixable, rather than recognizing it as one manifestation of a deep-seated racism which functions as a regulative force in the larger society. Bell sees the racism as one way in which elites pacify white have-nots, giving them a group to whom they can feel superior, rather than giving them real access to economic and political power.
In response to a colleague’s question: “how might the court have framed their intervention differently from, and better than, the way they actually chose?” Bell offers an only partly ironic alternative decision of his own. Again I oversimplify its content. He notes at length the depth of racism in American society, and the unlikelihood that any judicial intervention calling for integrated schools could be implemented. He suggests provocatively that Plessy v. Ferguson be reaffirmed, but that the “equal” part in “separate but equal,” now be taken seriously. The court will closely monitor whether school resources are actually equalized, and whether local school boards have black representation on them equal to the percentage of black students in the school system. If equalization does not take place, then Bell suggests the courts’ sanction would be to order school integration. Bell argues that his hypothetic strategy would have a better chance of achieving both integration and equality than the Brown decision. I think he succeeds admirably here in pointing up the hypocrisy of the “separate but equal,” slogan, and in provoking the celebrants of Brown to rethink their assumptions, but his version of a court intervention, given his convincing analysis of the depth of racism in American society, seems as likely to fail as the school integration orders offered by the Warren court.
If there seem to be contradictions in Bell’s alternative to the Brown decision and in his suggestions for how black activists might more effectively respond to American racism in the future, that is because any public policy direction they take in their reform efforts runs into precisely the kinds of racist barriers that Bell describes. His strategies are piecemeal and radically experimental. In education, he looks with interest at such non-integrationist black self-help efforts as improved local public schools, independent black private schools, Catholic schools, charter schools, vouchers. He speaks of keeping on in the face of racism, of “making a way out of no way.” His various suggestions run the gamut from conservative to radical in our conventional political vocabulary. He calls for imagination fueled by a realistic assessment of the place of African-Americans in American society. Black students should work harder because they have to in order to succeed. Activities like sit-ins will make the cost of racist policies too high. Clever legal strategies that help African-Americans and also appeal to the self-interest of white elites should be tried. Sometimes, however, you must fly in the face of interest-convergence thinking. Black newspapers should be encouraged, and the use of the internet. Most importantly activists should adopt a confident, realistic attitude in their own interactions with white society. Refuse to accept the dominance of whites in workplaces. Speak truth to power. The attitude matters Above all, let white elites know you understand the game, a strategy which Bell models in this book. Do not chase after illusions. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr: “it is hopeless for the Negro to expect complete emancipation from the menial social and economic position into which the white man has forced him merely by trusting in the moral sense of the white race….” It is in this stance and not in his list of piecemeal strategies, which will change as new conditions present themselves, that Bell sets a consistent course. Or, as Emerson said, “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.”


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