Back a while ago, I was reading a story in the local paper about Shocking Numbers Of Kindergarten, First Grade Suspensions and thought I should write about it. I didn’t. Later that day, I wound up in a FB conversation with an old friend—very, very smart fellow, mostly in the science-and-money smarts—who claimed that Americans were less free than they had been. I pointed out that this was only conceivably true for values of American that don’t include women, Jews, people of African descent, people with physical disabilities, people with mental illnesses, etc, etc, etc. He then clarified that he was troubled by a diminishing respect for freedom of speech, as evidenced by both restrictive speech codes in colleges and restrictive speech norms in businesses, as well as that first grade boys are getting suspended from school for pointing their fingers in a gun shape and saying “bang”.
And it struck me, you see, that I really think that these things are intimately connected. Well, the parts that aren’t nonsense are intimately connected—the idea that speech norms are more restrictive now than at some particular point in the past, rather than restricting different things, is just blind ignorant. And part of that blind ignorance is the assumption that American means a particular kind of American, with particular mainstream views, or perhaps views close to one particular edge of the stream. A hundred years ago, you might be kicked out of college for expressing views that were not racist or sexist. Fifty years ago, you might be fired from work for expressing views that were not homophobic. Twenty-five years ago, when I was in an unusually liberal college, you would be shunned and possibly expelled (or informally made to understand you ought not return) for expressing racist views. Now, I expect, you could be shunned or expelled from many places for expressing homophobic views. The change in these things is connected to the expansion for what it means to be American.
I don’t mean to say that it has been uniform progress—it’s much, much more complicated than that. But on the whole, in a general sense, the arc of American-ness has gone out and down, towards including more people and different people. (Not altogether off this topic is Jon Bernstein on the changing national self-image) And it’s not actually easy to remember that, always—in much the same way that when you tour historic houses, it’s not easy to remember that there were more servants than owners. So if you think about the history of schools in America, you can look past that arc of American-ness and miss how much of America was not present in the schools of previous generations. The black kids, of course. The rural kids, the immigrant kids. The troubled kids. The crippled kids. The dumb kids. As we thought of them then. Kids that would have been in a “home” are now in schools, mostly; a lot of kids that might have died are now in schools, mostly.
So just as a fellow might very well say Americans and be thinking of, well, straight white men, or even straight white affluent well-educated men—or might be comparing (straight white well-educated male affluent) Americans of fifty years ago to (gloriously diverse) Americans today, a fellow might be comparing a classroom full of kids from a Golden Age to a classroom full of kids now, not realizing that there were an awful lot of kids that weren’t in that Golden Age classroom at all. You have to compare today’s classroom to yesterday’s classroom-field-orphanage-street-factory-hospital-cemetery.
We are now coming close, finally in this generation, to fulfilling our theoretical commitment to universal education (within our borders). But as in so many areas we haven’t really thought about what it costs to actually do it. And education is really expensive. And a classroom of kids that speak different languages, have different disabilities and abilities, have different gender roles and expectations, different class roles and expectations, different cultural roles and expectations… see, that’s really, really expensive. And there will be failures. Not just because education doesn’t work, which is very true. Also, though, is that we’re attempting something really difficult, gloriously difficult, amazingly magnificently Americanly difficult. We’re attempting something worthy of us as a nation: educating everybody, together.
I’m just saying: it might help if we remember now and then that it’s a lot harder than putting a man on the moon.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,