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A Heritage of Disrespect?

Dear Diane,*

"They never had a formal education, and they don't understand the value of
 education," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said of the poor. "The old Norman Rockwell family is gone."

Bloomberg got properly chastised for these words, but they get at the heart of the matter. We have a heritage of disrespect for the poor. Either they don't know what they're doing or they deserve what they get. (While we insist on bragging about our rags-to-riches family histories to prove the latter.)

Meanwhile, over the past 100 years we have raised the bar from a few years of schooling to a high school degree and now a bachelor's degree. If you can't do it, well, you had your chance. Its value? It's measurable to dollars and cents in your pocket. Yes, Siena College always knew better, Diane.

At the same time, the gap between the poor and rich has grown exponentially, and the amount that's inheritable has grown apace. And, the odds of running into each other in the grocery store, the post office, or at a local meeting—ala Rockwell—has grown ever more remote.

I have in front of me a beautiful book of photographs called "Pioneers in Education;" It's about National-Louis University where I spoke a few weeks ago. The authors note that the nation's founders valued education from the start. Thus the founding in 1636 of Harvard, then Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, and Columbia—all before the American Revolution. But education for "the masses"? (Or women, or people of color? Almost zilch.)

The idea of educating everyone—universally and freely—is not as ancient as I am. When I was born in 1931 a majority of Americans had not dropped into high school.

It wasn't and isn't the poor who, ala Bloomberg, failed to "value" education. It was those with far more power and resources who made the rules that kept them out. It took an enormous battle, led by labor unions and do-gooders, on behalf of our natural thirst for knowledge and self-respect. How dare the elite question the value others placed on getting a good education for their children? But it is part of our shared history to do so.

Even the "pioneers" honored in the book above cheered the move of the predecessor of National-Louis University (to quote the blurb) "from the dangerous South Side of Chicago to beautiful Evanston."

And it's not a lot better now. Visit Evanston and then Chicago's South Side. Our schools of education have done a lot to try to "convert" teachers to a greater understanding—even empathy—for those they serve. But their work requires uncovering generations of put-downs and deeply entrenched beliefs that are reinforced by the difficulties teachers face in classrooms and schools. The humiliations of being a K-8 teacher or even a K-12 teacher when I entered the field in 1963 were constant. The one hope for self-respect lay behind closed doors in a world of children. We've opened the doors, making teachers more vulnerable, not less.

Organizing unions a half-century ago helped us, but it takes two sides to produce contracts. Contracts adapted themselves to the top-down model in place as often as they fought against it. Insubordination remained the mortal sin. Strikes were illegal, and until the late 1960s few K-6 teachers were militant, accustomed as they were to both "children first" rhetoric and being treated like children.

As the historian of our schools, have I got it wrong, Diane? Do you think we can we overcome this history? Probably only if we have the patience not to expect miracles and the impatient knowledge that schooling's liberating message can resonate inside and outside the classroom.

Schools can't offer all children a decent living. There aren't enough chairs to go around. But we can argue that making sense of the world, having greater knowledge and skill, and the self-confidence and self-respect to stand up for oneself are worthwhile—regardless. Such faith won't overcome the odds of getting the empty chair when the music stops, but it will make life more interesting and maybe get us thinking together about what must change.

That's what we struggled to provide in the public schools my colleagues and I invented 20 to 40 years ago. We succeeded, and hundreds popped up. But friendly foundations and corporate "allies" were seeking faster solutions. They dismissed us as utopian and small scale. Perhaps they also dismissed us because our definition of "achievement" was both grander and more reliable than test scores.

Maybe it isn't in the stars. But only as schools treat adults—parents and teachers—as respected citizens of the school community can we expect them to turn out kids who see themselves as citizens of the larger society. Only such citizens can protect democracy, much less our planet!

I'm embarrassed to admit—I actually believe this.


* Editor's note: This entry was originally published with the headline: "How Dare Elites Question the Values of Others?"

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