March 23, 1998. If sometimes you think that the flame of thought radiates brightly among those who are responsible for educating our country’s children, if you think that your faith in public education should be as firm as was that of my parents, you may want to consider the following example of witlessness coming out of San Francisco.
The San Francisco School Board unanimously decided to require students to read at least one book by a minority author. This was a compromise with a proposal by two members of the Board, Steven Phillips and Keith Jackson, who wanted to demand that four out of seven books students have to read be by minority authors. The principle that an ethnic quota be established on books that students in San Francisco’s schools be required to read was accepted. It is claimed that the current English curriculum is "too white" and that it should be more multicultural.
The racial/ethnic quota is being made because, according to one of the sponsors, they are trying to "provide the best writers from the culture of the students as a way of engaging their attention in some sort of creative way." Apparently Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Mark Twain—those currently required—do not engage the students’ interests and are not creative. One of the Board members claims (without any evidence) that many students perform poorly in school or drop out because they are alienated by the curriculum. He says the curriculum is outdated, and that "the student population has dramatically changed over the past twenty years." That is why "we’re not succeeding as a public school system across this state and country with African-American and Latino students."
The purpose of education, in a district that "is 90 percent students of color," according to Phillips, "is not to glorify Europe, but to let students see themselves in the curriculum." He contends that Chaucer and Shakespeare should be given no more weight than Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Furthermore, Phillips says that "Students read a lot about George Washington and Columbus, but little attention is paid to the traditions and culture of African-Americans or Latinos. They’re fed up with it."
After the School Board voted, a teary-eyed Phillips said: "The district has just made writers of color part of the core curriculum and, in doing so, San Francisco is sending a message to the rest of the country that this is a new day in public education."
As this story was first reported on television, the vast majority of students, administrators, and teachers I saw interviewed were in favor of the proposal. It was pretty disheartening to see them mouth the same sentiments about multiculturalism, diversity, and the students’ self-esteem. Then, just as I was slipping into despair, another high school student was interviewed—it happened that she was black—and opined that she did not think this was a good idea. When asked about the establishment of a quota system of books to be read based on race and ethnicity, she said: "Gee, I don’t know. I always thought that we should read books because they are good, not because of who wrote them or where they were written."
I was very grateful to this young woman. I was grateful that someone had said something entirely sensible and non-ideological on the subject. Hope returned to my heart. After all, the very best thinkers that human kind has produced would concur with her, regardless of their ethnicity. Chinua Achebe, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Richard Rodriguez, Ralph Ellison, never mind Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, and Twain, would support her opinion entirely. Furthermore, they would argue—and have argued—that the purpose of education is to overcome the ethnic tribalism that some human beings have always been prone to.
Have we lost hope in the human mind? Cannot teachers and educators make the once hallowed argument that the purpose of education is to allow the student to meet an example of human excellence, to remind him of what is best in the chronicle of human experience?
We should proudly argue that the purpose of education is to elevate the human mind above time and place, to overcome the current dogmas—in short, to free the human mind, to "dwell above the veil" as DuBois said. W.E.B. DuBois, the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, understood well that to be truly free one had to become educated. He thought that studying the best books ever produced in the history of the human race would be the essence of an education. He made friends with the minds represented in those fine books. So he could say that when he sits with Shakespeare, "he winces not." Shakespeare’s capacious mind—he was the only poet to write both comedies and tragedies—opens itself to those who study. It doesn’t matter what your race is, where you are from, or what century you are reading in. DuBois called this freedom.
Apparently, modern "educators" do not think that the human mind is created free. The San Francisco Board of Education seems to think that our minds are imprisoned by our color and our cultural background; that this constricted view of human possibilities is what should be taught in schools; and that being instructed in this doctrine will make the student feel better about himself and want to stay in school.
If the San Francisco Board of Education is correct, education is no longer possible. We are all trapped in an intellectual ghetto from which there is no escape. But they are not right; they are wrong on all counts.