You Can't Make Them Learn

Formerly a college teacher of broadcasting and a Tv producer-director, and now a free-lance writer, Dave Beckman spent this past year, while completing his work at New York University for a doctorate in Mass Communications in Education, as a substitute teacher in various Brooklyn secondary schools. Much of his teaching was in junior high schools in the stums, and in the pages that follow he gives us his sobering conclusions drawn from that experience.


IT IS fiction to say that what takes place in the Negro and Puerto Rican slum schools of New York City is education. The administrators know it. The teachers who are living a professional lie know it. The children know it.

In a real sense, the kids are the most realistic. Everyone directly involved knows that, except for a very few, those attending “special service schools” (in New York we no longer have “slums”) are incapable of being educated; but the kids accept it as a simple fact, complaining only that they are forced to attend schools they can get nothing from, whereas the administrators and teachers insist on continuing to play their game of make-believe.

Now, to assert that it is education which takes place in a good many of the so-called betterneighborhood schools of New York, or elsewhere, for that matter, is equally fictitious. (I spent my three years of high school in the intellectually stultifying atmosphere of what is generally regarded as the best in Brooklyn.) Here, the criticisms leveled by the Bestors and Kickovers against watered curricula and the “total” (or “social adjustment”) approach to education have validity. Here, something can be done, and insofar as it is not, the perpetuation of this fiction is educationally inexcusable.

But in all the talk about the alleged failure of contemporary American education, let us begin to refine our criticisms and imbue them with some real meaning by differentiating realistically. If, in the better neighborhoods, the fault is education’s, in the schools about which I am writing, the failure is society’s. The major initial and prerequisite remedies all lie totally outside the realm of education, and society cannot shift to the schools the responsibility for correcting failures only it can right.

I base what I say here on direct observation as a day-to-day substitute in more than a dozen Brooklyn special service junior high schools while completing my doctorate. I believe my experiences in the classroom, and especially what I have learned from many informal conversations with teachers and administrators in faculty lounges and teachers’ lunchrooms, have given me a comprehensive view of the situation existing in the New York City slum schools.

My single greatest impression is that of the overwhelming enormity of human waste in terms of the unrealized potential of hundreds of thousands of Negro and Spanish-speaking children. In any one of these slum schools, there are some six hundred to eighteen hundred children who, though just entering adolescence, have already been relegated to the human scrap heap. Most were condemned at birth to a lifetime of work at some menial occupation whose remuneration will barely allow survival. Yet, there is serious question as to how many of these children can expect even this. As automation increases, it displaces the uneducated and poorly educated, who are rapidly becoming a class of unemployables, a class containing a vastly disproportionate number of Negroes. This, more and more experts are coming to believe, is the number one problem which will face us throughout the rest of the century. Dr. Conant devotes much of his most recent report on education to the alarming proportions unemployment has already reached among Negroes who either have recently quit school or have completed what amounted to a meaningless program of high school studies.

This is the late which awaits well over half the twelveand thirteen-year-olds I have been teaching.

To WALK into a classroom in one ol these special service schools and conduct a reading lesson — and then only if it is a better class — is to hear eighth-graders reading at a fourth-grade level. At the end of the semester I sat in a faculty lounge listening to a teacher boast with considerable pride, while marking report cards, that her eighthgrade class had risen, on the average, three months in their achievement-test scores and were now reading at a fourth-grade level. My look must have revealed my thoughts, since another teacher remarked to me with deadly seriousness, “In this school, anything not a loss we consider a gain.” The other six present all expressed agreement.

However, it is seldom that one can just walk into a classroom and conduct a lesson at all.

When I began teaching in September, I would ask the kids what their regular teacher had last been doing with them, in order to see if I could pick up the thread. As often as not, the reply was, “Nothing.” At first, I thought they were conning me, in order to get out of doing some work. But I soon realized, as the regular teachers freely admitted, that what they said was literally true. The one basic fact of pedagogical existence with which a teacher must forever contend in these schools is the impossibility of conducting a sustained lesson.

Generally, it takes at least ten minutes to gain a semblance of order. Often the whole forty-minute period is spent in trying to achieve discipline. (I should state here that 1 am not just speaking of my own experiences, since a per diem sub is fair game at even the best schools.)

But what these kids know, if nothing else — and it is a major reason why they do know almost nothing else — is that they have the force of numbers on their side. And this assures them the victory almost every time.

When a third to half of a class is unruly (conservative estimate; charitably descriptive word), you cannot write up a referral card on every child. Even if you could and the punishment for being written up were detention, you could not keep half the school in after dismissal each and every day. Also, many teachers are afraid that an unusually high number of referrals will label them incompetents, unable to maintain discipline. However, while the administration would be annoyed with any teacher who did write up every misbehaving child, it would not be for the reason the administrators have led the teachers to believe, since they also know the score. It is simply because punishing the unruly would impose a burden upon the administrators with which it would be physically impossible to cope.

In the so-called better schools, with their predominantly middle-class student populations, there is never more than one or two disorderly children in any one class. In these schools, even whispering is punishable by a demerit; and too many demerits mean that a parent will be called. I think I established a record for conduct demerits which still stands in the seventh and eighth grades of the school which I attended. Yet I never did anything worse than talk in the halls when changing classes or whisper an occasional joke to a nearby classmate. To utter as mild an epithet as “damn” within hearing distance of a teacher was unthinkable. But I have given up counting the number of times that twelveand thirteen-yearold girls, as well as boys, have talked back to me in four-letter words.

I now pretty much limit myself to writing demerits for profanity — not just the use of dirty words, since many of the kids seem to know only a single adjective, which you will overhear fifty times a period in their personal conversations — and referral cards for serious fighting and physical threats personally directed against me. Sometimes, though, I wonder why I even go to this trouble, since often on returning to a school I find nothing has happened to the offending child. “Aw, yuh know Mr. ——, he don’t never do nuttin’ to yuh!”

And he don’t never, too!

What the effective method of discipline, if any, is, I certainly do not know. But one thing I am sure of is that it is not belting a kid. Except where the safety of a child is involved or a teacher is first struck — actually struck, not just threatened — there can never be any justification for hitting a pupil. Yet, despite the fact that corporal punishment is specifically prohibited by New York state law, in fact constitutes felonious assault, I have walked through the hall of a slum school many a time and have seen kids being slapped and pushed around by teachers. Just the other day, while teaching at one special service junior high, I brought a particularly unruly child to the administrator in charge of discipline. It turned out he was an old customer, and before I could even say what this kid — a rather slightly built thirteenyear-old — had done, he was reeling from the force of a glancing blow across his head.

I cannot believe that top officials at the Board of Education are ignorant of the widespread existence of such a practice. Yet, only when a child is seriously hurt, as is inevitable as long as physical punishment is allowed to go on unchecked, is any official action taken. I spent one full week at a vocational high, temporarily filling in a sudden vacancy created by the firing of a teacher who had struck a boy so hard that he broke his own wrist and hand, and nearly broke the boy’s back. Here was a good example of the type of excess we could expect were we to accept the questionable argument of those, especially on the more Neanderthal of the New York newspapers, who contend that the solution to the discipline problem lies in giving teachers — not every one of whom, incidentally, is himself a model of stability — carte blanche to inflict corporal punishment. I got to know this boy later when I was filling in on subsequent occasions at his school, and it turned out he was one of the quietest and most serious students in a very difficult class.

On my third or fourth day of subbing, I was having some trouble with one of those obnoxious, yet at the same time likable, wise guys, who kept coming back at everything I said with some sort of crack (many of them surprisingly quick and clever). I shot back at him, “One more remark from you, buster, and I’ll report you to your parole officer.” You can imagine my shock when this kid actually proceeded to pull out a probation card, proudly flashing it in my face, and six other pupils immediately followed suit. In this seventh-grade class of twelve-year-olds, the crowning distinction was to have been officially labeled “J. D.”

Is it any wonder, then, that, while filling in for a history teacher at the end of the semester, I would find that kids who were scheduled to take an exam the next week on a whole term’s work, which should have covered a period from the Revolution through the Civil War, were just starting to study Jefferson’s first Administration? Or, that in taking over for a science teacher at about the same time, I found that the class was just finishing the first of the three units of work which the term’s syllabus called for? Is it any wonder that when I asked the kids in the history class when the Revolution was fought, I received serious answers such as 1492 and 1925?

Do not get the idea that these are isolated examples selected only to make my case; they are examples which, as any teacher in these schools will sadly tell you, are quite typical. Yet, despite everything I have said so far, these kids are by no means stupid. All the anthropological and psychological evidence we have proves beyond any doubt that absolutely no differences in native intelligence exist between any one racial or ethnic group and any other. The innate intelligence present in any statistically valid large number of Negro or Puerto Rican children will show the same distribution of dull, average, and bright as will be found in any random group of AngloSaxons. And, in many immediately apparent ways, the slum kids thoroughly demonstrate the truth of this. I am constantly amazed, for example, at the command and comprehension of spoken English almost all the Puerto Rican children I have encountered exhibit, including many who came to the mainland only a year or two ago. Why, then, can’t they be educated? Essentially, as their classroom conduct shows, because they don’t give a damn!

And, if we give the question some serious reflection, what else should we expect? The five hours per day they spend in school seems to contradict almost everything they know to be true from the other nineteen. Even where the physical plant is one of the new, modern glass-and-tile structures — as have been eleven of the sixteen special service junior highs in which I have worked so far — school only serves to heighten the contrast with the hovels from which so many emerge in the morning and to which they return at three o’clock.

LET us take the seventh-grade social science (history) unit, which in the New York City schools deals with New York state.

What possible importance can we expect it to have to these kids, for example, that the Erie Canal allowed Ohio farmers to ship their produce cheaply, when many have never even been to midtown Manhattan, just across the East River? More than a few do not even know they live in Brooklyn.

When this, or any history or English unit, stresses the promise of America, its guarantees to all men of equality before the law, what could we expect the reaction of these kids to be — assuming they could even comprehend what it all meant — when they see their mothers and, where there is one present, their fathers, also, exploited in the service industries — restaurants, hospitals, hotels, and laundries— with which New York abounds? Our beneficent legislators specifically exempt these establishments from even the coverage of the ludicrously inadequate minimum-wage laws, fully aware, of course, that it is Negroes and Puerto Ricans they are discriminating against, in fact if not in name.

Can a kid who sees his mother wondering how she will pay the rent tomorrow, or trying to stretch some fatback and hominy to feed seven children, really be expected to care about algebraic equations, the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, or the maudlin sentiments of a poem by Emma Lazarus, one to which their whole existence gives lie?

The presence of books in the home, concern with and discussion of serious ideas and contemporary affairs, a realization of the importance of education in obtaining some success ten or fifteen years from now — all these are the luxuries and accouterments of the English-speaking white world. They can have little meaning for children in an environment dominated by the vital task of trying to exist from one day to the next.

But even though these kids have no academic knowledge, most have seen and lived more of life in their twelve or thirteen years than have any two of their teachers in their collective seventy. While we would have never dreamed of telling a teacher to “partake of parthenogenesis,” is it not somewhat absurd that in addressing a highly literate audience I feel I have to euphemize what a twelve-year-old girl has no compunctions about stating openly? Why should we be surprised that these children do not think it a terrible thing to say, when many, living in oneand two-room apartments where everybody sleeps together, have been witnessing it all their lives? As comedian Jackie Wakefield puts it, “Nobody needs to tell these kids the facts of life — they have a front-row seat!”

Since the proscription of sexual activity is primarily a middle-class convention (even discussion of sex with a youngster, if no longer taboo, is still difficult and embarrassing for most parents), why should teachers expect these lower-class slum kids to manifest our middle-class attitudes toward sex? Realizing this, I was not very surprised when the attendance officer at one admittedly large special service junior high, with whom I was having lunch one day, told me that with the school year less than three months old, the twentieth pregnancy among this student body of twelveto fourteen-year-olds had just been discovered.

But it was at that same school — where, incidentally, there is a cop on continuous duty and no girl may leave the room unless accompanied by another girl — in fact in the very same class where I was so taken aback by that retort to my “parole” remark, that I was attempting to teach something called Group Guidance. Behind me, at the front of the room, was a neatly printed sign headed, “A good citizen of Suchandsuch Junior High School always — ”, followed by a list which included these items: shows good manners; respects the rights of others; gives only constructive criticism; never talks back to his elders; is cooperative; never makes fun of other people. The lesson plan I was given — one of the few, I should note, that I have ever seen — instructed me to show the kids why these rules “help insure a rich and happy life.” (Really, that is what it said.)

The maudlin goody-goody, middle-class morality expressed within this set of rules would be enough to induce nausea in the son of any local Rotary president who was possessed of more than a modicum of perception and sensitivity. But this, remember, was intended for a class of twelve-yearold slum kids, among whom seven boys admitted to having been convicted of some offense serious enough for them to have either received a reformatory sentence or been placed on parole.

Does the curriculum consultant at the board who devised this program of study have any inkling of how absurd it is to tell a child whose father or “uncle” is a violent drunk, or whose mother is a whore, that he must never talk back to his elders? Does he really expect such a child always to respect the rights of others, when if he happens merely by accident to walk into the “turf” of a rival gang, he’ll get the “what the curriculum expert probably never heard of” knocked out of him?

ALTHOUGH education as a study in itself is as stagnant as its critics believe, it does contain one area, educational sociology, in which there is taking place some of the most exciting research and meaningful theorizing to be found in any of the academic disciplines today. Chief among its contributions is the vast evidence it is accumulating to prove that contemporary American education is almost completely dysfunctional for perhaps one half of the schoolchildren in the United States.

This is because the American school is a middleclass institution, staffed, administered, and ruled by middle-class persons all sharing the same belief that it is education’s main job to perpetuate middle-class values. This middle-class culture is essentially verbal, and so our education system places the major stress on the verbal skills of reading and the ability to express oneself in writing and orally. But the culture of the lower-class children, the only culture they knew during the important, formative six years of their lives before they entered school, is one which stresses the physical much more than the verbal. This, incidentally, is why these kids score so much lower on I.Q. tests, which we have only lately come to realize are really not tests of innate intelligence because of their built-in middle-class verbal bias.

Thus, while the sight of kids constantly pushing, shoving, and fighting may go against the teacher’s middle-class grain, the fact remains that this physical expression is as native and normal to lower-class pupils as is verbal expression to the teacher. A number of the older faculty members I have met, teachers who seem to have a genuine affection for these children and therefore never tried to transfer to a better school, have come to realize this. One sees them constantly slapping and pinching the kids and booting them with a knee in the rump — always being careful, of course, not to hurt them. And the kids love it. This is how they are used to having expressions of love and affection demonstrated to them by their families and friends, and these teachers, having come to gain and make use of the insights, are, as a result, among the most popular with the children.

Let me state here as emphatically as I can, however, so that there will be no possible misunderstanding, that I, at least, have yet to meet a teacher in any of these schools who seems to exhibit the slightest prejudice toward these kids because of their being Negro or Puerto Rican.

Many dislike them. Some even find them disgusting. With the exception of the few mentioned above, almost all see them as the natural enemy in a tactical war between “Us the teachers” and “Them the little bastards.” But if the kids are regarded as “little bastards,” it’s just that, and never “nigger bastards” or “spik bastards.” It is their racial and ethnic backgrounds which caused society to impose the conditions on these children that make them lower-class; but it is the result, their “lower-classness” — not the cause, their being colored or Spanish — to which the teachers object.

Here we get at the heart of the problem. If most of the teachers are unable to reach or understand these kids, with the result that the two groups sit in the classroom facing each other like enemies across a battle line (and at junior high level, education pretty much reduces itself, in the final analysis, to the interrelationship which exists between teacher and child), it is because as teachers they are the embodiment of that far-distant other world of the white and English-speaking middle class. This world is as foreign to these kids (even though in crowded New York it may exist literally just across the street from their slum, where suddenly the squalor ends and a vast area of block upon block of upper-middle-class apartment houses begins) as the world of Balinese culture would be to us.

One of the great myths which New York City has managed to create about itself is that it is a great melting pot in which nearly 8 million people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds mingle and live, as the city’s slogan says, “in peace and harmony.” In fact, it is seldom that one will find, say, even middle-class Irish and middle-class jews living in the same neighborhood. But with the exception of a few areas, they probably could, if they wished to, and this is the important thing.

However, as far as Negroes and Puerto Ricans are concerned, we have succeeded in caging them in ghettos as effective as any which European cities of the Middle Ages created for the Jews.

Within residential segregation lies the genesis of the problem of why these kids are uneducable, and also the key to its solution. As long as we persist in keeping Negroes and Puerto Ricans strictly segregated, their social and economic ills will prevent their children from responding to and benefiting from education. Therefore, in trying to solve this problem, which I cannot stress too strongly is much larger than “schools,” we must recognize the most painful fact of all: for the bulk of truly lower-class and ghettoized Negroes and Puerto Ricans today, there is almost nothing which can be done!

After having asked the Negro to wait almost a hundred years for what should have been his by 1870, we continue to condemn the bulk of the urban colored population to another two or more generations of deprivation and second-class citizenship, although, as Ralph Bunche has said to those who argue for moderation, “No Negro has ever been known to enjoy his rights posthumously!” But, as brutal as it may be to accept, it is better to face up to this reality and attempt to act realistically — note, I did not say moderately — within the conditions it imposes than to continue entertaining our self-deluding and reassuring fantasies that special service schools, with their slightly reduced class loads, new buildings, and a few extra remedial reading teachers thrown in for good measure, will be able to do a job they cannot possibly accomplish. If we persist in this, we will only succeed in postponing the realization of true equality, if it can ever be achieved under these conditions, for four, five, or more generations.

Right now, there is a numerically sizable, though proportionately minute, group of Negroes — remember, New York City alone has a colored population of over a million, or more than Mississippi’s— who have achieved at least the economic requisites of middle-class status. It is composed mainly of civil servants, teachers, and a few other professionals. While these Negroes also remain in the ghetto, it is only because they can find no place anywhere else where they can live.

There is a city law prohibiting discrimination in the renting of apartments in multiple-dwelling buildings; but in terms of enforcement, it is a farce. However, suppose this multiple-dwelling law were enforced and a meaningful law applying to private home sales were passed? There are enough of these economically middle-class Negroes today to bring about the beginning of the one condition which can end segregation: a scattering of Negro families living throughout every area and community of the city and its suburbs.

To a large degree, any prejudice unfounded in fact stems from a fear of the unknown. Residential proximity will lead to the direct knowledge that the only way in which a colored person differs from a white person of the same social class is in his color. This realization, in turn, will lead to a lowering of the barriers to employment and jobadvancement opportunities that Negroes now face.

The Negroes remaining behind in the Harlems and Bedford -Stuyvesants — and unfortunately, vast numbers will for some time to come — will realize that the situation is not entirely hopeless. As they see. hear, and read of relatives and friends who are making it, more and more of them will hope that their children can also get ahead. This is exactly the pattern which enabled initially lower-class populations, such as the Slavs, Irish, and Italians, to make their much more rapid class ascent. And the reason they were able to accomplish this so much more quickly was, of course, that as whites they were never ghettoized as strictly as Negroes are.

There is a solution to this problem of meaningless slum school education; but it is a three-part solution, each component of which is necessarily antecedent to the next. First, society must tear down the ghetto walls and lessen the economic pressures. Then, with escape possible and the immediate economic pressures relieved, the family, which is the second component, will see that there is real hope, and that this hope can best be realized by taking advantage of the opportunity for schooling. When the parents instill this understanding in their children so that the children want to be educated, then, and only then, can education perform its function adequately.