From the Archives: Bad Students Are in the Eye of the Beholder

I wish these dispatches from the 1800s didn’t sound so depressingly contemporary. As I do my research into the roots of America’s public schools–like I’ve argued recently at WaPo and HNN–I keep hearing the same bad ideas brought up over and over, literally for centuries. As I found out today, the ugly politics of racism in America’s schools sometimes don’t seem to have changed all that much, either.

InkedAfr Observer quote 1_LI

From Freedom’s Journal (NY); reprinted in The African Observer (Phila.), June, 1827

I’m working these days down here in sunny Philadelphia, digging through the amazing collections of the Library Company and Historical Society. Today I came across lots of accounts of the Lancasterian public schools for African-American students in New York and Philly. I wish I could say I was surprised at one thing that jumped out at me.

Consider the report of Benjamin Bacon. Bacon was white, and he examined Philly’s African-American schools and reported back to the all-white Board of Education. Some of the schools were fine, Bacon reported, even great. One school offered a full hour of musical instruction after the regular school day and students were learning all sorts of academic and artistic stuff.

But some of the schools were terrible. The school on Oak Street met in a “dilapidated” building. It was so crowded that students

are obliged to crawl under, and others over the writing desks, to get to and from their places.

Bacon visited in the middle of February and the students were all freezing because all the windows were broken or missing. So…given all that, how did Bacon explain the poor academic performance of some students? He blamed “The irregular attendance of scholars,” which he thought

imposes extra labor upon teachers, prevents a thorough classification, and makes the recitations less spirited than they otherwise would be.

To be fair, Bacon excused some of the students’ irregularities as “unavoidable,” but he definitely did not blame the teachers, about whom he had this to say:

Of all men and women who labor for the good of others, none are more worthy of appreciation than the faithful teachers of our colored schools.

That wasn’t how everyone saw it. Two African-American school visitors had a very different diagnosis. They visited segregated public schools in New York and found an obvious culprit for poor student performance: unqualified teachers. As they wrote,

We suspect, it is unnecessary to mention, that much depends on the teacher, as well as the pupil. We are so skeptical, that we cannot believe, that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children. Enemies may declaim upon their dulness [sic] and stupidity; but we would respectfully inquire, have they not had dull and stupid instructers; [sic] who, if placed in any other than a coloured school, would hardly be considered as earning their salt: but we must be silent, as any one who possesses a few qualifications (unnecessary to be here named) is, in the general estimation fit to keep a school for us.

I wish I could say I was shocked that white and black observers came to such different conclusions based on similar evidence, but we all know the same kinds of things go on today. It is all too common for observers to blame students for their own crappy educational conditions.