Early Child Development and Care Vol. 175, No. 3, April 2005, pp.
Struggle and moral purpose in American education 50 years after Brown
Phillip Wishon*a and Jennifer Geringerb
GECD41033.sgm Taylor and Francis Ltd
Madison University, VA, USA;
of Northern Colorado, USA
(Received 12 March 2004)
James PhillipWishon Development s. Main 0 1000002005 University800(online) StreetHarrisonburgVA 22807USA 175 Taylor & Francis 2005 Madison Original Article 0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 Early Childhood Group Ltd and 10.1080/0300443042000230429 Care
Fifty years ago, on 17 May 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine that had effectively legalized ‘educational apartheid’ some 58 years earlier deprived racially segregated children of the equal protection of laws guaranteed by the fourteenth Amendment. The historical significance of Brown is overviewed in this article, the continuing struggle in America for equality of educational opportunity is documented, and the need for advancing moral purposes in the education of young children is highlighted.
Keywords: Moral purpose, American education Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were ‘inherently unequal’. With its momentous decision, the Court effectively reversed a decision that it had made some 58 years earlier. By upholding the Louisiana Separate (rail) Car Law in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, the Supreme Court enabled the expansion of the doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal’ into many aspects of daily life in states throughout the American South, where segregation became an institution. Restaurants, schools, public facilities, hotels, theaters, public transportation, and soon adopted ‘separate but equal’ policies to segregate African Americans from Whites. It was not until 1951, when, with the encouragement of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas sued the city school board on behalf of
*Corresponding author. James Madison University, 800 s. Main Street, Harrisonburg, VA 22807, USA. ISSN 0300-4430 (print)/ISSN 1476-8275 (online)/05/030243–05 © 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0300443042000230429
244 P. Wishon and J. Geringer his eight-year-old daughter Linda, that the injustices perpetuated under the auspices of the ‘Separate but Equal’ doctrine began to crumble. Undeterred by earlier court rulings that Plessy controlled the case and that all-black and all-white schools were substantially equal, Brown and the NAACP took their case to the US Supreme Court. On 17 May 1954 the Court ruled that segregation in public schools deprives children of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Chief Justice Earl Warren read the momentous opinion for a unanimous Court, which included the assertion that desegregation would now proceed ‘with all deliberate speed’. The vagueness of that phrase, unfortunately, permitted the continuation for decades of practices that prevented millions of minority school children from realizing the full promise of equality of opportunity. Sadly, vestiges of the economic and sociopolitical obstacles that were put in place after Brown to impede racial integration (e.g. inequities in educational experience and opportunity; marginalizing the poor of society; intolerance in many aspects of work and community life) remain with us. Such discriminatory practices served as a catalyst for the student protests and Freedom Marches that launched the civil rights movement and the ‘war on poverty’ in the 1960s (Wishon, 2004). The struggle for social justice and equality of opportunity for all continues yet today. As the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education is commemorated in 2004, the disparity between the advantaged in our society and those residing at the margins of American society is thrown into sharp relief. America is losing sight of many of its young children; in a society that has become increasingly hostile to them, millions of America’s young children face a future that holds little hope. Burdened by poverty, prejudice, poor health and emotional isolation, children at the margins can seldom count on the protection of healthy, knowledgeable, caring parents. For many of them—young refugees from the ruin of the American dream—violence has become their first language. Because of inequities of wealth, opportunity and acceptance, and the deforming effects of our social history on the poor, on racial and ethnic minorities, and on many young women, asserts Wishon (2003), we have felt—we still feel— the passion of life to its tip. Approximately 36% of black children, 34% of Hispanic children, and 14% of white children in the United States live below the poverty level. Twenty-three percent of all children live with only their mother—12.7 million households—of these, nearly 60% live in poverty. Over half a million children live in foster homes. An estimated 2.8 million children are victims of abuse or neglect (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). Each year, more than one million youth come in contact with the juvenile justice system. Of these, more than 100,000 are detained in some type of residential or detention facility (Bachman et al., 2000). Ironically, American schools are being re-segregated; and questions persist about the progress being made in a multi-racial society. America has two school systems today—not by law, but in practice. Fifty years after Brown, most schools in the United States are overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly black (NAACP Legal Defense
Struggle and moral purpose in American education
and Educational Fund, Inc., 2004). Indeed, American schools are more segregated now than they were in 1969, the year after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr (Orfield & Lee, 2004). For a nation so diverse, whose citizens hold so many faiths, education could be a civil surrogate for an America ever in search of a covenant. Education should bind us—its beneficent effects should cut across class lines, racial lines and gender lines. It is time to recognize, however, that education in the United States is characterized by nothing so much as the inequitable impact it has had, and continues to have, on millions of poor and disaffected young Americans. In communities across the United States, schools with a high percentage of minority and poor families struggle with substandard facilities, inadequate supplies and overcrowding. In such schools one finds the highest percentages of under-qualified, poorly paid teachers, the highest percentages of under-performing children, and the highest rates of school discontinuance (Wishon, 2004). Fifty years out from Brown, the portrayal of education as the bastion of social justice and human enlightenment has found little purchase because of the fatal narrowing of discourse to issues wedded almost exclusively to narrowly focused, high-stakes testing and matters of economic utility. Conversations about schooling in America today threaten to become monopolized by policy-makers enthralled with high-stakes assessment and accountability practices that threaten to reduce the education enterprise to a process that is mechanical and banal. Narrow, high-stakes, ‘blame and punish’ accountability practices that prevail in so many schools today are vexing because they accord little respect for practitioners’ own values and dreams for a better society. Such policies challenge our humanity because they often deprive us of the grace of civilized human discourse. Such policies often wound the sensibilities of practitioners who care about healing children’s hearts, who care about lifting children’s spirits, and who care about salving the insults of an all-too-frequently cynical—if not oppressive—society. One of the important lessons one might learn from Brown is the realization that who we are and what we value most deeply are at least as important as what we know. America needs schools that do far more than help young children develop narrowly-focused intellectual skills. According to Stephen Macedo (2000), schools must also prepare young children for a civic life in which they will live with fellow citizens of very different views to develop policies and institutions that can advance shared goals of peace, prosperity and democratic deliberation. Our struggle to recapture the moral center of educational practice is not easy when, as we have witnessed far too often in communities throughout the country, conscience, caring and confidence become the first casualties. Eudora Welty, one of the most prominent American literary figures of the past century, devoted her life’s work to lifting the veil of indifference to each other’s human plight that falls between people. American public education may do well to devote itself to such a cause. The prevailing question before professional educators today is whether we will devote ourselves most passionately to matters of conscience or to matters of ambition and economy? Do we have the courage to impart a
246 P. Wishon and J. Geringer conscience to economic utilitarian imperatives? Can we retrieve the arts and humanities—conversations with children about the human impulse to civilize rather than to savage—from the outer reaches of the curriculum? Such are the challenges that we must embrace with passion potent enough to change society. Early education is a living entity with a past, a present and a future. What we focus on, what we are drawn to and how we interpret the faint signals that our past sends says as much about who we are and where we are headed as does anything in this world. A commitment to promote social justice and advancing education as a moral endeavor is a cause that speaks across time and cultures, binding us to our ancestral colleagues and friends who stepped forward in their moment in history and filled the breach that threatened the welfare of America’s children. We must make concerns of the poor and those in whose lives respect and social justice have been rare commodities our concerns. To prevail, we need each other—common travelers with an enduring legacy, linked together by this time, by this place and by our willingness to make overcoming indifference and bigotry our civil religion. The moral challenge of this moment—the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—is to advance education as a compassionate concept by infusing conscience into the curriculum. Is it too much to imagine that among today’s kindergartners for every future scientist there will be an artist? For every engineer, a poet? For every warrior, a peacemaker? For every injured spirit, a healer? We impart significance to matters of conscience when we make social justice, democratic ideals and protection of the environment prominent features of the curriculum. Matters of conscience prevail when human wellness, ecstasy of the arts and intimacy among communities of learners are elevated in the curriculum to positions of importance, not merely added on when time permits. In the history of no other species save humankind are episodes of abuse, torture and genocide chronicled. Except for humankind, members of no other species are so selfindulgent that they would destroy irretrievably entire ecosystems to satisfy their vanity. Unlike the imprints left by all other animals with whom we share the planet, the imprint left by the human mind is too often lamentable. Indeed, our unrelenting conceit leaves one wondering how much longer we can sustain a civilization that destroys the very things it was built upon. Only humankind has the power to plunge the world back into darkness; only our often famished civil impulses prevent us from spreading ruin unhindered. We will help determine in large measure the kind of future our children will have and the kind of world they will inhabit. We must claim the future and bond with it. If there is to be harmony between our ambitions and the imperishable regard we must have for each other and world, the decisions we make now regarding education will help make it so. It is our obligation—our privilege—to imagine societies that are less oppressive and to take whatever action we can to make them more humane. The most significant American domestic drama of the twentieth century—the struggle for civil rights for women and for racial, ethnic and other minorities—continues to be played out. Its denouement and, hopefully, the subsequent enhancement of our national fabric will be determined by this generation of children’s persistent
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displays of humanity as they mature. Whether in our intimate relationships or in our public institutions, as we confront the causes of our deepest societal problems, questions of conscience loom large. If we care about our children and the future of society, education for conscience, including the denunciation of dehumanizing aspects of human discourse, is a moral imperative. In the final analysis, this is the cause that shall grace public education and confer dignity upon our work. Should we forsake this mission of conscience, we invite the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man—the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope (Wishon, 2003). References
Bachman, J., Johnston, L. & O’Malley, P. (2000) Monitoring the future study (Rockville, MD, National Institute of Health & Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan). Macedo, S. (2000) Diversity and distrust: civic education in a multicultural democracy (Boston, MA, Harvard University Press). NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (2004) Unequal education: 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education (New York, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund). Orfield, G. & Lee, C. (2004) Brown at 50: king’s dream or the Plessy nightmare? (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Civil Rights Project). US Department of Health and Human Services (2000) Trends in the well-being of America’s children and youth (Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office Office of the Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation). Wishon, P. (2003) Renewal and professional cause: a vision for the next generation of teacher educators, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 24, 93–97. Wishon, P. (2004) Brown v. Board of Education at fifty, Young Children (in press).