Did Rutgers Just Fulfill the Dreams of White Supremacists?

He’s off the hook. Professor James Livingston has been cleared of charges of racism and harassment by Rutgers University. He might be relieved, but hidden in Rutgers’ decision is a kernel of racial thinking that might dismay Livingston and the rest of us.

Yale White Student Union_1542397045372.jpg_62387087_ver1.0_640_360

This isn’t what he wanted…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH may remember this oddball story. Last summer, historian James Livingston caught grief for his satirical (and IMHO hilarious) anti-white FB rants. As a resident of Harlem, the white professor expressed dismay at the gentrification and suburbanization of the neighborhood. As he put it,

OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them — us — us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would be my dinner, and the place is overrun by little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white. I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about my access to dinner. Fuck you, too.

And, in a later post,

I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant, all the while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan–you know, as in sophisticated “European”–commitments.

Did these anti-white rants mean Livingston was racist? That he would not be fair to the white students in his classes? That he was guilty of discrimination and harassment? Recently, Rutgers said no. According to documents posted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Rutgers concluded that Livingston’s posts were beyond humor, but they were not “pervasive,” nor were they directed toward any of his own students. Most important, Rutgers noted that no students had ever complained about Livingston, even in the months following the scandal.

its okay to be white

…or this.

Buried in this apparent vindication of Professor Livingston’s rights to academic freedom, though, is a nugget that should cause great consternation to Livingston and his ilk. To wit: Prof. Livingston defended himself, in part, by saying that there can be no such thing as racism against white people. As the dominant class, Livingston contends, white people by definition can’t be the victims of racism. Portentiously, the university disagreed. As Rutgers put it,

The University makes no such distinction, but prohibits discrimination based on any race, in a blanket manner. As such, from a legal and Policy perspective, “reverse racism,” to the extent it is defined as offensive or intimidating conduct directed at another because he or she is white, is indeed possible and prohibited.

I think it’s a safe guess that Rutgers didn’t mean to do it, but this chunk of legalese seems to confirm the fondest dreams of alt-right pundits. For decades now, conservatives and right-wingers have argued that white people deserve to be treated as just another protected class.

Just recently, we’ve seen a spate of campus activism based on this notion that white students deserve protection, too. Would this Rutgers ruling set a precedent?

Professor Livingston may have won his battle, but did his victory lose a war?

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Where Progressivism Dies

Country-club Democrats are willing to make a lot of sacrifices. As David Freedlander reminds us, rich progressives have long been eager to pay for benefits for other people, such as cheaper college or higher minimum wages. When it comes to school, however, affluent progressives have always had a much harder time denying their own kids the vast privileges that come with rich-kids’ educations.

goslin-2

Goslin at work.

Progressive coalitions have always been held together loosely, and today’s Democratic Party is no exception. As Freedlander points out, most of the energy of the “Democratic Socialist” wing comes from the more educated, more affluent, whiter wing of the party. As Freedlander puts it,

Energized liberals, largely college-educated or beyond, have been voting in a new breed of activist Democrat—and voting out more established candidates with strong support among the party’s largely minority, immigrant, Hispanic, African-American and non-college-educated base.

When it comes to educational privilege, however, we see the coalition breaking down. Freedlander mentions

Upscale parents in Democratic neighborhoods whose liberalism vanishes when it comes to bringing in students from poorer neighborhoods (as on Manhattan’s Upper West Side) or pooling PTA funds between richer and poorer schools (as in Santa Monica, California).

It was ever thus. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, for example, progressive reforms in places such as Pasadena, California lost steam when conservatives “proved” that progressive pedagogy meant worse schooling.

In the early 1950s, in Pasadena at least, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin enjoyed enormous popularity among the affluent residents. He maintained a lot of that support even when conservative activists began to accuse him of introducing progressive reforms, including racial desegregation. When conservative activists accused Goslin of sneaking socialism into the schools, progressive Pasadenans still supported Goslin.

His support collapsed, however—even among politically progressive affluent white Pasadenans—when those affluent supporters were told that Goslin’s school reforms threatened their children’s privileged educations. In Goslin’s case, it was the abolition of traditional report cards that sealed his professional fate. Progressive Pasadenans supported racial integration, in many cases. They even supported socialist ideas, to a limited extent. But they would never support schools that didn’t prove that kids were learning.

Zoll, Progressive Education Increases Delinquency

Progressives didn’t even mind a little delinquency, but they couldn’t stand lower test scores…

As David Freedlander writes, affluent progressives these days balk at any change that threatens their children’s educational privilege. We probably shouldn’t be surprised at the durability of this issue. When so many Americans view education as the key to achieving or maintaining economic status, it would be hard to imagine things any other way.

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a progressive parent happily paying a little more in taxes to support progressive causes, but it’s hard to imagine many people—progressive or otherwise—sacrificing the best interests of their children, no matter how good the cause.

The End of Public Schools

Maybe the dream died a long time ago. Or maybe it was all only a dream. The more time I spend researching the rise and fall of America’s first major multi-city urban school reform, though, the more and more depressed I get that America no longer has a real public school system, if it ever did. News from the Southwest this morning reminds me that we lost our public-school ambitions somewhere along the way.

Here’s the latest: Chalkbeat describes a newish network of charter schools that started in a Texas border town. The IDEA network (originally “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement”) serves mostly low-income students, mostly Latinx. As have many charter networks, it claims big successes in improving student test scores and sending graduates to college. And as have many charter networks, it has attracted criticism for siphoning off lower-need students from public schools and for its dictatorial methods.

And from a historian’s point of view, there’s the rub. As I’m finding out these days as I research the Lancasterian mania in the early decades of the 1800s, old dreams for America’s public schools were big. Lancasterian schools were lauded for improving basic academic skills of low-income students, but they fell apart because low-income parents wanted something more than mere holding pens for their children. They wanted their children to attend schools in which they could mix and mingle with students of all economic backgrounds; schools that did not segregate off poor children to be yelled at and drilled with basic academic skills.

Public schools were supposed to do all that. They were supposed to be schools for the entire public, not only those who could afford tuition. Most important, they were intended to do more than train students to do basic math or literacy. Public schools were supposed to teach the young public–all the young public–that they were America. They were meant to attract all students together, not segregate out the poor for harsher treatment.

Lancasterian schools didn’t do all that. And today’s crop of “no-excuses” charter schools for low-income students seems to have smaller ambitions as well. Some charter schools hope to yell at students to make them be better citizens. Students sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula.

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out [sic] to be) with as little noise as possible.

That was what “no excuses” looked like 200 years ago. Public schools—REAL public schools—were supposed to be different. They were intended to be a meeting ground for all children. They were the embodiment of an American educational dream—a place where rich and poor could learn together, with equal chances for all.

I don’t blame parents and students for choosing the best available school. Not at all. But I lament the loss of the bigger dream, the hope that public schools would bring the entire public together.

Chicken? Egg?

At the very least, it has to be in the top five least surprising headlines for any experienced classroom teacher: “Home Life Influences School Performance.” Yet the idea that students’ lives outside of school are decisive parts of their school performance has had a surprisingly contentious history. This week we see a renewed interest in the interaction between educational performance and alleviation of poverty.chicken and egg

As I’m finding in the research for my new book, Americans have long assumed that improving schools would simply and quickly eradicate poverty. In the early 1800s, school-reform celebrity Joseph Lancaster promised that he could eradicate poverty with his simplistic school plan. His fans believed him. For example, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton lauded the Lancasterian reform

as creating a new aera [sic] in education, as a blessing sent down from Heaven to redeem the poor and distressed of this world from the power and dominion of ignorance.

Or, as the New York Free School Society wrote in 1814, thanks to the “Lancasterian system of education,”

the darkness, which has overshadowed the minds of the poor, will gradually disappear.

The assumption that better schools could “fix” poverty has been so strong that a fifty-year old sociological report on the subject remains controversial. As historian Leah Gordon has noted, the Coleman Report of 1966 suggested, in part, that changes in schooling could do little to improve students’ lives.

As James Coleman wrote,

For most minority groups, then, and most particularly the Negro, schools provide little opportunity for them to overcome this initial deficiency; in fact they fall farther behind the white majority in the development of several skills which are critical to making a living and participating fully in modern society. Whatever may be the combination of nonschool factors poverty, community attitudes, low educational level of parents-which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and nonverbal skills when they enter the first grade, the fact is the schools have not over-come it.

Coleman’s work was controversial at the time and it remains so. Can it really be true that schools don’t hold the golden ticket to economic mobility? That making schools better isn’t the first and best way to help people improve their lives, economically?

Or, as Coleman suggested, was the key to improving lives and increasing equality to be found outside of school, in factors such as family income, family education levels, and other non-school factors?

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This just in: Benefits for students benefit students.

Writing in Chalkbeat recently, Matt Barnum reviewed studies of the relationship between improving students’ living conditions outside of school and those students’ educational achievement. Not surprisingly, when students had better home conditions, their school performance improved. As Barnum wrote,

A large and growing body of research . . . [shows] not only that poverty hurts students in school, but that specific anti-poverty programs can counteract that harm. These programs — or other methods of increasing family income — boost students’ test scores, make them more likely to finish high school, and raise their chances of enrolling in college.

Seems obvious, right? As every teacher knows, though, it really isn’t only one thing or another. In order for students to thrive in both school and life, it makes the most sense to improve everything at once.

If we want students to do better in life, we should work to improve schools. And if we want students to do better in school, we should work to improve their lives.

Where Are All the Books about This?

It’s a question that has stumped me for the past twenty years, and Stanford’s Larry Cuban brings it up again this morning. Where are all the books about conservatism in American education?

fight for local control

There ARE great books out there…

Professor Cuban makes the crucial point: Public schools in the USA have always been driven by all the same contradictory impulses that drive political life. Some people want schools to be more progressive; others want them to be more conservative. As Cuban puts it,

The contradictory obligations of reforming schools while conserving traditional knowledge and classroom practices has been in the DNA of tax-supported public education for well over a century. It won’t go away. Those cheerleaders for the next new reform need to understand this paradox at the heart of U.S. schooling.

As I started my graduate work lo so many years ago, I was curious about the deep educational conservatism that I saw, felt, and heard as a teacher. To my surprise—and, to be perfectly frank, fueling my academic ambition—there were not shelves and shelves of scholarly work analyzing conservatism in education.

To be sure, there are some historical works out there. Prof. Cuban mentions my look at twentieth century educational conservatism and Diane Ravitch’s Left Back.

There are other books he could have mentioned. Michael Apple’s Educating the “Right” Way, or Herbert Kliebard’s Struggle for the American Curriculum, for example. Hearteningly, newish books have come out that plumb the depth and diversity of conservative activism in American education. Cam Scribner’s The Fight for Local Control, for instance, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s Classroom Wars. And I’m sure SAGLRROILYBYGTH could point out another key title or two.

classroom wars

…but where are the REST of the great books?

But considering the vastness of the topic, the lack of academic work about educational conservatism still baffles me. As Prof. Cuban points out, conservative ideas and impulses have always been at least as powerful as progressive ones. As Cuban writes this morning, if the first obligation of public schools was to serve as a way to change students and society,

The second obligation was for the tax-supported school to actively conserve personal, community and national values ranging from inculcating traditional knowledge, obeying authority including that of teachers, show respect for religious beliefs, practicing honesty, and displaying patriotism.

If these conservative assumptions about the proper role of school are so very influential, where are all the academic studies of them?

Of course, it’s not at all difficult to find conservative how-to books about schools. From the Gablers to Dorothy Sayers to everyone in between, there have never been a lack of guides to make schools more conservative or more authentically conservative.

When it comes to an academic understanding of the meanings and activism of conservative thinkers and activists, though, we still have a decided gap between what happens (and happened) in schools and what academics talk about.

So where are the armies of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and classroom researchers?

How Historians of Religion Get It Wrong

More proof, if any more were needed. If we want to understand religious identity, we can’t limit ourselves to thinking only about religion itself. A new LifeWay poll finds that a lot of church-going Americans, and a majority of young ones, prefer to pray with people who share their politics. Too often, religious historians (I plead guilty) tend to ignore the obvious implications.

lifeway politics poll

It’s no coincidence: For most of us, our religion matches our politics and vice versa.

Most important, this poll reminds us that people define their religion in all sorts of ways. For a lot of us, other factors play at least as big a part in making up our religious identity. For many people in this poll, for example, politics were as much a part of their church identity as religious factors.

If course, the notion that “religion” means more than “religion” won’t be any surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. There are a million factors that go into making up a person’s religious identity. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, for example, what makes a college “Christian” is much more than a fierce commitment to any particular theology. Where schools stand on political issues, sexual issues, and even humdrum pedagogical issues played at least as big a part in whether or not a university was considered reliably “fundamentalist” in the twentieth century.

What do the new numbers tell us? A small majority (51%) of church-going Americans of all sorts thinks they agree politically with other members of their church. A larger majority (61%) of 35-49-year-olds thinks so. Evangelicals (57%) are more likely to think so than, say, Lutherans (31%).

Almost half (46%) of respondents like it that way. And MORE than half (57%) of young (18-49-year-old) churchgoers do.

So what?

As we’ve harped on in these pages, understanding religious people means understanding more than just their religion. But when historians or journalists read the self-conscious writings of religious people themselves, especially religious intellectuals, we tend to get a skewed perspective. Religious people, for obvious reasons, tend to explain their own thinking in religious terms. They tend to explain why they support or oppose trends or ideas based on religious justifications.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, morally or otherwise. The problem comes when historians or other writers take those religious explanations too plainly at face value. We end up misunderstanding everything.

Let me offer one painful example. In Fundamentalist U, I tried to trace the history of race and racism at white-dominated evangelical colleges and universities. Some of those schools, most famously Bob Jones University, justified their racial segregationism in religious terms. Jones asked, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” His answer in 1960 was an insistent “yes.”

is segregation scriptural

There was more than theology at play then, and there is now…

For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, it would obviously be an egregious error if we only looked at Jones’s theological rationalization of his segregatory practices. Much more was at stake, including Jones’s Southern roots, the school’s Southern traditions, and the ferocious racial politics of 1960.

In short, as these poll numbers remind us, if we really want to understand religious life, we can’t limit ourselves to religion alone. If we want to understand American culture at all, we need to start with the knowledge that religious identity is only one slice of what makes a religious person. And we need to be willing to contextualize–though it feels disrespectful and impolite–the actual assertions of religious people themselves, when they talk as if religion and theology are the only things that matter to them.

Can This Professor Be Racist?

Should he stay or should he go? The alt-right has been howling for James Livingston’s professional blood. Rutgers seems willing to punish him. Is this a case of academic racism? Or of academic freedom? I know there are no simple equivalencies among different sorts of racism, but it seems to me we DO have a relevant precedent for this case.

livingston 1

Rude, yes. Racist?

Here’s what we know: History professor James Livingston attracted a lot of negative attention for his anti-white screeds on Facebook. He railed against white people for their sense of entitlement and their arrogant ignorance. As he put it,

OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them — us — us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would be my dinner, and the place is overrun by little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white. I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about my access to dinner. Fuck you, too.

And, in a later post,

I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant, all the while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan–you know, as in sophisticated “European”–commitments.

Is this racism? And therefore cause for dismissal? Livingston says no. He defended his comments as partly satirical, partly ridiculous, but also non-racist. There is no such thing as anti-white racism, Livingston explained. As he put it,

Racism is the exclusive property of white, mostly European people in this part of the world (the western hemisphere), because such people were able to impose their will on 9 million Africans via a labor system called slavery, and benefit from the economic and social capital of that system unto this day—regardless of their class standing, then or now.

Rutgers disagreed. The administration concluded that Livingston’s comments violated the university’s discrimination and harassment policies and damaged the university’s reputation. As the administration explained,

Professor Livingston clearly was on notice that his words were offensive, yet instead of clarifying that he meant to comment on gentrification, he chose to make another belligerent barb against whites. Given Professor Livingston’s insistence on making disparaging racial comments, a reasonable student may have concerns that he or she would be stigmatized in his classes because of his or her race. As such, Professor Livingston’s comments violated university policy.

What to do? Can the university fire a tenured professor for offensive comments? Rutgers says yes. The administration announced it will soon decide the proper disciplinary action, up to and including discharge. Will Creeley of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says no. As he told IHE,

Rutgers has effectively subcontracted out its obligations as a public institution under the First Amendment to outraged internet mobs. . . . The real concern for us is that this is part of a trend, and if would-be internet trolls see that flooding universities with hate mail and being loud online is a successful way to silence faculty members whose views they disagree with, that will be repeated.

How can this baby be successfully cut in half? How can an academic’s right to freedom of thought and expression be balanced with a university’s duty to protect its reputation and its students from angry professors?

To this reporter, it seems like we’ve been here before. Rutgers could follow the example of Penn last year. SAGLRROILYBYGTH might remember the case of law-school professor Amy Wax. Wax had already attracted negative attention for her recommendation of “bourgeois culture.” In a radio interview, Wax noted that she hadn’t had any top-notch African American students in her class. People were outraged.

What did Penn do? They didn’t fire Wax. They defended her right to academic freedom. But they DID remove her from teaching a mandatory class. It would not be fair to force students to take a class from a professor that had such pre-conceived notions about racial disparities, they concluded.

Could Rutgers do something like that here? As the Rutgers administration noted, students were leery of taking a class from Professor Livingston, who clearly has preconceived notions discriminatory against white people. So just have Livingston teach optional courses. Make a public statement condemning his attitudes but defending his right to speak them publicly.

Would that be a fair solution in this case?

Why Harvard Can’t Be Fair

Throughout American history, earnest reformers have hoped to use schools to level out the playing field. It has never worked—at least never as well as we would hope. Why not? A recent piece in the New York Times helps explains a key fact about schools and inequality that is glaringly obvious yet surprisingly hard to see.

For most of us, the logic of schools and social reforms feels pretty straightforward. When we see inequality in our society, we think that school reform can help fix it. After all, it makes sense that better education will allow students from lower-income homes to move up the economic ladder.

Lecture flyer 1

How to save everyone, c. 1834

As I’m arguing in my new book, this logic has always dominated educational and social thinking. Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster swept out of London to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He promised a new type of school that would—in the words of this lecture advertisement—

Collectively afford the means of utterly exterminating ignorance in any State, Country, or Nation.

It didn’t work. Lancaster’s schools hoped to “uplift” the poorest children of every city. They couldn’t. Today’s piece in the New York Times helps explain why they couldn’t back then and they can’t now.

These days, as Asian-American applicants sue Harvard about racist admissions policies and New York elite high schools scramble to make their student bodies more representative of their city, there are still strong factors standing in the way.

As Natasha Warikoo and Nadirah Farah Foley explain,

Who deserves to get an elite education?

That question is being debated in Massachusetts, where court papers argue over Harvard’s use of race in its “holistic” admissions process, and in New York City, where politicians are trying to increase the number of black and Latino students at top public high schools.

But the answer has always been obvious: only the elite.

How does it work? In the case of Harvard admissions,

Harvard applicants who are recruited athletes or children of alumni enjoy significant advantages, and these candidates are disproportionately white and well-off.

As the authors put it succinctly,

In our highly unequal society, education systems have consistently found ways to favor elite, white applicants, whether it’s through slippery definitions of “merit,” giving added weight to athletes or children of alumni, or fighting to change admissions policies to schools in which Asians are more overrepresented rather than those where whites are.

Or, as we at ILYBYGTH like to say, schools can’t reform society; schools ARE society. In other words, schools are not external levers with which reformers can lift people up. Schools are all intensely bound up within the unequal mechanisms of society itself. If society is biased against poor children, or non-white children, or any sort of children, then schools will be too.

How to Break College

Left or Right; SJW or TPUSA; the news from Washington shows that campus activism is hitting higher education where it hurts. Activists should forget about inviting Milo or occupying quads. Instead, they should recognize their true power and consider what target they want to point it at.

Here’s what we know: Due to student activism from both left and right, universities in Washington state are feeling a financial pinch. At Evergreen State, for example, widely publicized left-wing activism has led to a steep drop in applications and enrollments. At the University of Washington, campus Republicans received a six-figure settlement due to their complaints about unfair treatment.

That sort of dollars-and-cents bottom line is the kind of thing school administrators can’t ignore. By and large, they can endure endless accusations of racial insensitivity from the left. They can blithely listen to accusations of biased “totalitarian” campus climates from the right.

But if colleges lose enrollments, they wither and die. And if they lose lawsuits, they can’t function.

So here’s the question for this generation of student activists: What is your real target? Just as in the SDS years, students need to be strategic about their aims, because they have the ability to inflict serious damage if they choose.

sterling hall bombing

Sterling Hall, University of Wisconsin, 1970

From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?