The Grand Itch


One gray afternoon in the 1990s, while on a motor trip home from Philadelphia, I stopped by my old high school, the Henry C. Conrad High School in Woodcrest, Delaware, a near suburb of Wilmington. Standing on Boxwood Road, outside the chain-link fence, I noticed something odd about the building — broken windows, patched with wood or cardboard. I had never seen such damage before, not during my school days. But I simply assumed the damage was a reflection of the destructive tendencies unique to contemporary times.

It was later that I discovered that the building I had gazed at was no longer a high school. Conrad High was, by then, Conrad Middle School. The old high school had closed long ago — caught up in a huge forced busing plan to achieve “racial balance” throughout the northern New Castle County schools. The plan was referred to, mellifluously, as “metropolitan dispersion.” It did achieve dispersion, but not the kind intended by its authors and advocates.

I had never seen such damage before, not during my school days.

All such plans began with the so-called landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The court decided that racial segregation in public schools, in and of itself, denied minority students equal educational opportunities. “Today,” the court declared, “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” And they went on to say, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” And then came that crucial paragraph: “We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in the public schools, solely on the basis of race, even though physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”

Education is the most important function of state and local governments? The mind reels — more important than maintaining the police? the firemen? the courts? Is education at taxpayers’ expense a right, or is it a privilege? — or is it, by now, a dubious activity forced on the public by its government? And what about those tangible factors? One might argue that, in the Brown case, tangible factors were the only proper concern of the court.

The court went on to say that “to separate [children in grade and high school] from others of similar age solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The court quoted an earlier decision by a lower court: “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.” That was plausible, although hardly requiring the justification that the Court found in “modern authority” — in particular, a magisterial tome by Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal entitled The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. The well-known footnote eleven in the complete Brown text documented the Myrdal influence. Concluding a list of several authorities was this notation: “And see generally, An American Dilemma (1944).”

Education is the most important function of state and local governments? The mind reels.

Having moved away from equality of tangible things and into the realm of psychology and sociology, the Supreme Court effected a change in the judicial climate. Separation of the races by neighborhood — which, of course, led to a different racial makeup in each school — became the equivalent of separation by law. And the federal courts, whether to eliminate the “achievement gap” between black and white students, or to compensate for the sins of past discrimination, mandated forced busing to achieve “racial balance.” In New Castle County, Delaware, in 1978, Federal District Court Judge Murray Schwartz ordered a busing plan into effect that Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist described as “draconian.”

Well before this, all the Wilmington schools had opened to black students — the elementary schools in 1954, the secondary schools in 1955, and the high schools in 1956. Of course, the schools were neighborhood schools and no more “racially balanced” than the neighborhoods where they stood. But the intellectuals were lurking — they had discovered a social ill and thought they had a cure. In 1966, sociologist James E. Coleman published a report entitled Equality of Educational Opportunity. In it, he maintained that inner-city black children, however undisciplined, when seated among middle-class white children, would accept the disciplined ways of the white kids as their own. And eventually, because of their increased discipline, the achievement levels of the black kids would equal those of the white kids. Coleman, whose undergraduate work was in chemical engineering, had gone on to study sociology at Columbia University. He was a true social engineer. But alas, here he miscalculated the stresses and strains — when busing to achieve “racial balance” was undertaken, the results were often the opposite of what he had predicted. The black kids maintained their rebellious ways, and the racially balanced classrooms assumed the chaotic quality of inner-city schools. Perceiving the threat to their children’s wellbeing, the white middle-class parents did a gallopade beyond the horizon. And perceiving this white flight, Professor Coleman did, as they say, a one-eighty, renouncing his report in 1975.

But by that time, the integrationist choo-choo train had gotten up plenty of steam. Forced integration had become an accepted social remedy — and a compensation for past injustice. And in New Castle County, later government actions were seen as compounding the past injustices. One such action was the state’s Educational Advancement Act of 1968, meant to consolidate its smaller school districts without referendum. It exempted three of the bigger districts, including that of predominantly black Wilmington. Thus, complainants saw the Act as resegregating the public schools. Other actions of similar effect were the construction of new highways and subsidized housing, which supposedly encouraged white flight, while maintaining urban-black isolation. The earlier idea that “discrimination was forbidden, but integration was not compelled” was overwhelmed by the felt need to make amends.

Alas, Coleman miscalculated the stresses and strains when busing to achieve “racial balance” was undertaken.

And making amends meant creating new victims. Eleven school districts in northern New Caste County were compressed into one. The students were hauled hither and yon to create the same ratio of black to white in every school. Some traditional high schools in the county, including Conrad and P. S. duPont, were closed and their mascots and other memorabilia thrown away. Two other high schools, Wilmington and Claymont, eventually closed for lack of students — no one wanted to attend. Students spent as much as three hours a day on buses, and participation in after-school activities became difficult, if not impossible. And the busing went on and on — the city kids rode for as many as nine years to the suburbs, and the suburban kids rode for as many as three years to the city. Thus, the busing plan, known as the “nine-three plan,” made every school day a nail-biter for many parents.

By 1993, the State Board of Education had had enough — it petitioned the Federal Court to declare that unitary status he been achieved — in other words, to kindly throw out the busing mandate. But an organization called “The Coalition to Save Our Children” arose with a consent order. The order listed conditions under which the board would be spared further litigation. These included the mandatory monitoring of the schools’ racial makeup with certain quotas to be maintained, “conflict management” that blamed the teacher for disruptive students, “culturally sensitive” examinations for minority students, programs for teachers in “cultural awareness,” a $1.6 million-dollar appropriation for alternative programs for “seriously disruptive” youths, and — believe it or not — a lower passing score for minority-teacher certification. There were other conditions, of course, all meant to assuage the problems caused by previous efforts at educational salvation.

The Delaware legislature was having none of this sort of nonsense, and in 1996, Federal District Court Judge Sue Robinson ended the busing mandate. In the year 2000, the legislature passed the Neighborhood Schools Law. Once again, the kids could go to school close to home. But of course, neither the court decision nor the new law could restore the missing high schools. The old Wilmington High School building is now occupied by the Charter School of Wilmington and something called the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. This last is a so-called magnet school, which brings me to the fate of Henry C. Conrad High School. Having withstood the strife as Conrad Middle School, the building was closed for renovations in 2005 and reopened in 2007 — transformed into the Henry C. Conrad Schools of Science. This latest Conrad emphasizes biotechnology and health sciences for students from grades six through twelve.

Students spent as much as three hours a day on buses, and participation in after-school activities became difficult, if not impossible.

But wait a minute — schools of the arts? schools of science? What’s going on here? These schools present specialized curricula — aimed at whom? The answer is obvious, of course, and most people are either too polite to laugh, or have little knowledge of recent history. The magnet schools are meant to attract the same middle class that fled the forced busing mandates — and thus restore “racial balance”? Well, no — the term has been replaced by “diversity,” but the absurdity of it all is still manifest. The magnet school turns diversity into an end with the curriculum as the means. It represents yet another theory to undo the mess created by the previous theory — there will always be another theory, and another, and another.

There was a time when the traditional schools worked reasonably well — even in the inner-cities. They taught and trained young people from all walks of life, according to their individual aptitudes and ambitions. But that was before the theorists took over, before real children became “the child,” before “look-speak” replaced phonetics, before the “new-math” replaced the multiplication table, before sex education became a sine qua non — and, of course, before “diversity” was equated with “racial balance.” All these later wonders sprang from the minds of the theory class, those individuals, mainly academics, whose reputations are built by outdoing one another in imagination, often while reality grows small in the rear-view mirror. Why couldn’t sociologists have predicted the effects of forced busing — if they truly understood human society? Perhaps, in the interest of education, the federal government should stop financing the theory class.

The magnet school turns diversity into an end with the curriculum as the means. It represents yet another theory to undo the mess created by the previous theory.

One cure for the problems of public education — a system of vouchers — has been widely advocated, especially by the late Professor Milton Friedman. These money-substitutes would give all parents a choice of private schools and allow market forces to improve the quality of education. But in such a system, the government could still get one foot in the door of every schoolhouse. Suppose some future Obamacrat decides that the government won’t cash the vouchers unless the schools presenting them have a unionized staff, or a specific ethnic balance, or accreditation by the same old educationist bureaucracy? With such restrictions, the quality of education could easily decline to its pre-voucher level. You say the public wouldn’t stand for it? Well — they’ve recently stood for things equally bad.

As for Supreme Court Justices, their lower-court colleagues, and lawyers in general — they do their best work when they address themselves to matters of law. When they develop that peculiar eczema identified by Mencken — the itch to save mankind — they become dangerous.

* * *


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Jon Harrison

"The black kids maintained their rebellious ways, and the racially balanced classrooms assumed the chaotic quality of inner-city schools."

That's a very broad statement. It's presented with no qualifications, no statistics, and no specific references. Listing a bunch of sources at the end of the article doesn't allow the author to paint with so broad a brush. Or at least it shouldn't.

One of the interesting aspects of this particular list of sources is its generally one-sided nature. Anyone can write a "sourced" article based only on sources that agree with his or her preconceived ideas. That however does not constitute an objective analysis of the issue being discussed. I agree with some of the assertions made here, and I believe there's some evidence to back them up. But this is a polemic masquerading as an objective treatment. As such it fails intellectually, although its red meat aspects will satisfy many Liberty readers.

One of the problems that occasionally crops up here is the tendency to let pass things that resonate ideologically, irrespective of the facts or the weight of the evidence. Whereas if something doesn't resonate in that way, the author is asked again and again to justify his views, even if those views are based on fact and widely recognized as such.

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