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'Moral Communities' and Education

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The speaker leaned in toward his nearly mesmerized audience. "Oh, yes," he said, "you are bucking the Educational System, and the system deserves to be bucked, because the system does not work for young people in this society--period." The theory behind forced busing to achieve social integration, he added, was "an absolute fabrication." It was a "myth," he said, "that somehow people of African ancestry are going to become Anglo-ized." He urged his listeners to battle relentlessly against the concept of "integration as assimilation."

Had the old George Wallace been reborn? Indeed not. The speaker was Tony Brown, the black syndicated columnist and host of public television's "Tony Brown's Journal." He was addressing a conference on "Neighborhood-Based Independent Schools." The conference was sponsored last fall by the feisty National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (NCNE) of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit research and demonstration group that, among other things, helps minority groups achieve self-sufficiency through economic enterprise. These two days shattered some of the prevailing myths about private education (for example, that it is elitist and anti-minority) and also pointed to a startling change transforming public education and the American nation: namely, a breakdown of the integration ethic and subsequent confusion over what it means to be an American.

Intrigued by reports of minority-run independent schools in several American cities, the NCNE decided to investigate the scope of this phenomenon. To its surprise, the group uncovered 250 such institutions and concluded that the actual number was "much greater." According to discussions at the conference and a summary paper, these schools are commonly established by parents who "see their children trapped in an educational system that promises low achievement." They are located in some of the nation's worst neighborhoods, cater almost exclusively to nonwhites, have poorly paid staffs, and rely on funds raised by the parents themselves, often "at great financial sacrifice." Nonetheless, they claimed to have achieved "unparalleled" results in student achievement and learning.

A clue to the reason for the schools' success came from Joan Ratteray, an NCNE staff member, who noted that most of these schools had "curricula guided by a formal cultural or religious doctrine that provided educational discipline" and a sense of common purpose. This was in line with research, discussed in books like Michael Rutter's Fifteen Thousand Hours, showing that the moral "climate" of a school and the degree to which it enjoyed "shared values" and the pursuit of a common good were critically important to general educational effectiveness.

More dramatic, however, was the staggering diversity of guiding cultural and religious doctrines at these schools. This diversity suggests the progressive breakdown of the "integration ethic"--the goal, pursued with vigor in recent decades, of creating a color-blind, discrimination-free, "integrated" society. Melvin Hodges, for example, represented the all-black First Christian Academy of Baton Rouge, La., and blasted public schools for being "too often left to sinful, worldly teachers--dancing, prancing, pant-wearing women, and ungodly atheistic men." He termed Christian education "an absolute necessity if Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian ethics upon which it has been based are to survive." Mwalimu Shujaa described the African People's Action School in Trenton, N.J., which drew its vision from the African Socialism of Tanzania's Julius Nyerere. Nita Gonzales reported that her Escuela Tlatelolco began as a "freedom school" in Denver during the late 1960's. She stressed that her institution's academic program was tied to a strong cultural and political focus on Mexico. And so on through a fascinating, troubling kaleidoscope of colors, purposes, religions, and ideologies.

In his address, Mr. Brown argued that "the fundamental problem in this country [today] is a clash of cultures." America was not, could not, and should not be a "socially integrated society," he said. Instead, "America is a culturally pluralistic society, a society in which many cultures, many backgrounds, live side by side. None of them can melt." The rapid expansion of these minority schools, he concluded, clearly testified to that fact.

To be sure, the emergence of minority-controlled independent schools reflects, in part, a broad-based disillusionment with public education among critics on the left and right. Yet it is important to note that the collapse of the integration ethic and the crisis facing public education are related. The effort to "integrate" young people into a shared American ethos and the "common-school" movement have always been intimately linked.

While the public schools that sprang up over the course of the 19th century reflected many impulses, at their heart lay belief in the democratic need to build an educated populace for the effective functioning of the republic, and the cultural need to assimilate--or "Americanize"--the waves of non-Anglo-Saxon, non-English-speaking immigrants pouring into the United States after 1840. By the late 19th century, the common school was becoming a potent patriotic symbol for many Americans, the very source of nationhood.

This "Americanization" task usually meant acculturation into a diffused kind of Anglo-Protestantism. It was a synthesis seen most clearly in the McGuffey's Readers, the classic moral model for middle-class 19th-century Americans. Yet despite such narrow origins, this scheme of "common values" proved adaptable enough to accommodate the largest share of new immigrants, and to create a shared sense of Americanism. One large group--Roman Catholics--did remain outside the "consensus" and set up its own alternative schools. But over the decades, even this system drifted toward the American center.

And while it is true that the religious base of the American "value consensus" slowly eroded during the 20th century, its middle-class orientation seemed, until recently, to remain solid. As late as the 1950's, the leaders of American public education could point to the general acceptance of their cultural, nation-building mission. According to John Childs, an educator writing in the 1950's, the public schools of that era demonstrated American faith "in the possibility of controlling the human enterprise in the interest of cherished ends, or values.''

But the political, social, and cultural shocks of the 1960's and 1970's fragmented that fragile shell of a consensus. National cohesiveness, dependent on a set of middle-class conventions, values, and traditions, vanished with amazing rapidity and a nearly infinite array of alternatives took its place.

Writing in Daedalus in 1980, Robert Wood, then-superintendent of Boston schools, concluded that "Americans, for almost a generation, have grown increasingly unsure of themselves, their governments, and supportive institutions of family, church, and neighborhood that traditionally served to reinforce the individual personality. ... The concept of national character--of what it means to be an American--appears to have been effectively shattered. ..."

By the opening of this decade, then, an inner contradiction emerged in the public-school enterprise. On one hand, public educators still claim that the work that clearly sets them apart from the private schools is the binding together, or integration, of a pluralistic society through the inculcation of "public values." For example, the National Education Association (NEA) declared in 1982 that "Free public schools are the cornerstone of our social, economic, and political structure and are of utmost significance in development of our moral, ethical, spiritual, and cultural values."

But on the other hand, the educational hierarchy has, at the same time, come to deny that there is or should be any single national identity. In its vast array of 1982 policy statements, the NEA never once referred positively to matters such as patriotism, sexual modesty, family stability, religious belief, the free market, or traditional American ideals. Yet it forcefully encouraged "the movement toward the self-determination of American Indians," supported the Hispanic quest for ''educational self-determination," affirmed the right of schoolchildren "to live in an environment of freely available information, knowledge, and wisdom about sexuality," and expressed belief in "multicultural/global education" as "a way of helping every student perceive the cultural diversity of U.S. citizenry so that children of many races may develop pride in their own cultural legacy."

Claiming to be the only hope for social integration, but at the same time actively engaged in the negation of national identity through support for an absolute pluralism, the dominant voices in public education are engaged in an unwitting collective suicide. Regrettably, this is an act that also threatens to destroy the special character of the American nation. As the public-school advocate and writer John Egerton notes, the public schools today "reflect the soul and substance of a nation gagging on its own divisive juices."

In this situation, the NEA has substituted the exercise of raw power for moral direction. "Political Power for Educational Excellence" served as its 1982 convention slogan. At its annual gathering, Willard McGuire, the organization's then-president, graphically described his association as being at "war" in "every schoolroom and in every state capital and in every congressional district."

In sum, we face a society exploding with diversity and awash in pluralism, a society in which the goal of "national integration" and the means of "public education" are breaking down because we no longer really know what the terms mean. Should we try to save public education? Some on the conservative and libertarian side say "no." They argue that moralities and values today must be treated as private affairs; that the United States can no longer sustain a common vision of the virtuous life; that coexistence resting on "active pluralism" is probably the best we can now achieve.

Yet there would be a loss in such a conscious effort toward the moral "ghetto-ization" of American life. For the experience of the 20th century suggests that the roots of modern evil lie in just that kind of institutionalized public amorality. Liberty, in fact, depends on a widely shared conception of the desirable society, a value scheme against which we can evaluate normalcy and deviance, define our heroes and villains, reward merit, ground our laws, and resolve the myriad conflicts that arise in daily life.

Our problem today, suggests the social historian John Higham, is not preserving pluralism, but "rediscovering what the participants in our kaleidoscope culture have in commmon."

But in the face of a disintegrating national order, what is the alternative?

There is a twofold agenda that might allow us to preserve morally sound education during a troubled era and also recover our sense of national identity. Over the short run, I believe that a "moral community" and cultivation of a sense of shared purpose will be beyond the reach of public education as it currently exists. In consequence, public policy should instead aim at nurturing small centers of virtue. There, at least, children can be absorbed into some community of shared values and purpose and thus gain the accrued educational benefits.

One way to accomplish this would be to enact a generous tuition tax-credit plan, tied to a federal "voucher" system for the education of children from disadvantaged families. Such a plan would give every American family access to these "moral communities"--not just those able to pay "twice" (once in taxes, once in tuition). In addition, radical deconsolidation of the public-school system--down as far as the single-school level--could have the effect of weakening bureaucratic and union strangleholds on the schools and returning them to partial community control, where parental and neighborhood moral judgments could again play a role.

Over the long run, we need to transcend the reality of American pluralism and restore the "vital center" to American life. The necessary task, in the words of the education researcher Gerald Grant, is to "reinvent a modern equivalent for the McGuffey's Readers, a provisional morality that expresses some of the common beliefs of a democratic pluralist society." Historical experience suggests that the morally evocative bonds of family, children, and revealed religion will form the core of such a renewed American belief system.

The alternative to such initiatives seems to be descent into the anarchy of moral individualism; a rush into voluntarily constructed, yet grimly isolated, religious, ethnic, and racial ghettos; and an accelerated turn toward a cramped, lifeless, and highly litigious society. We can do better than that.

Vol. 03, Issue 28, Page 24, 18

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