Monday, March 31, 2008


I guarantee that the controversies I'm reading about in the 1840s French-Jewish press are far, far more interesting than the "revolt at Horace Mann." I remember private school. Yes, the teachers resent the students. And yes, this is totally understandable. But also, rich children do not choose their social class any more than do poor or middle-class kids, so there's kind of the question of, if they hate rich people so much, why do certain teachers choose to teach at a school with one of the wealthiest student bodies in the nation? It's not as if schools in rougher areas don't need teachers. In other words, not so interesting.

As for the anti-PC backlash, the big picture has, of course, been missed. NYC private schools, despite what one sees on "Gossip Girl," are largely Jewish. Private school education involves (or did, 100 years ago when I was experiencing it) a whole lot of being instructed on what "we" (read "you, the student") did to "them," whether the discussion was of Native Americans or American blacks, i.e. "white guilt." When few of the students' families had anything to do with anything happening in America before 1920, when the students' ancestors were in pretty rotten situations through all but the most recent history, something is a bit off in the classroom dynamic. Yes, the Horace Mann students are privileged, but are they even white? I'm not sure. If we asked a white supremacist, we'd have one answer.

While most of the time the student response is solemn nodding along about what "we" did to "them," at times you'll get an outspoken Jewish reactionary, typically egged on by one or more anti-PC parents. That's what seems to have happened at Horace Mann. The answer is obviously to teach that slavery was wrong without getting too excited about the connection (weak at best) between the students and the Pilgrims, the students and slaveholders, the students and... anyone but the students. The students can be made to feel American without creating a revisionist history of their own families' experiences.


Miss Self-Important said...

You would think that someone would've advised the 8th grader against masturbating w/ a mop to entice a boy. I'm pretty sure that, in the history of the world, that has never worked.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Reading that reminded me, boringly enough, that I'm almost out of Swiffer wipes. Swiffers are for floor-cleaning only!

Withywindle said...

NYC private schools are largely Jewish? -- I take it we're not including Catholic schools as private schools? Do you have any data to back this up? I don't necessarily disbelieve, but I'm not sure I believe it either.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I don't ever check a box declaring myself Jewish, and I'd imagine few do, so I don't see how there could possibly be numbers. A Jewish last name, of course, does not mean anything particular, so if someone's gone and counted those, not too useful. As in, I'm sure somewhere someone has a number, but I wouldn't imagine it means much. I'm going by the number of people I went to school with who also, say, went to Hebrew school, and the number of people at Hebrew school who went to private schools.

And I'm including neither Catholic nor Jewish day schools in the category of private schools. I'm thinking of the Interschool plus some others. I'm sure Jews are a minority at these schools as elsewhere in the US, but a far more significant minority. Enough, including those with one Jewish parent, and including other non-WASP students as well, to make the discussions of what "we" did to "them" a bit awkward.

Withywindle said...

A somewhat smaller claim, in the second rendition.

I feel conflicted. I would rather have all American children taught to identify with notres ancestres les Puritanes. If the choice is notres tres mal ancestres les maitres esclavagistes and "whaddaya mean our ancestors?", it's rather a choice of evils. But in a balanced curriculum, I do think all American children ought to be taught to feel responsible for all America's sins, as well as proud of all America's virtues.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The claim hasn't changed in scope--given how many Jews are in America, even 30% would merit "largely," no?

Would you ask a teacher of a class that was 98% black to make the students feel responsible for slavery, and if so, how would you go about this? And why would the choice ever have to be between ignorance and a constructed identification with people who are not, in fact, your ancestors?

Withywindle said...

1. I have always understood "largely" to mean "majority."

2. Yes, though I grant the practical difficulties. I would assign Edward Jones' The Known World.

3. The choice would only be necessary given a caste of teachers unwilling to teach a self-confidently patriotic history, and to instill a conviction in their students that the most important identity they possess is that of American--that their ancestors, in the only sense that matters, are everyone from Winthrop and Smith on down. Goodman and Schwerner, to choose two random examples, presumably identified with America in this broad, historic manner.

Miss Self-Important said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle has a point--from Abraham Lincoln's July 10, 1958 speech:

"We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves---we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men---descended by blood from our ancestors---among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe---German, Irish, French and Scandinavian---men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'' and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The problem with the 'nos ancetres les Gauls' is that however great it sounds in theory, students and families reject it often enough that it cannot work. You go to school and learn that you, YOU had slaves, to really drive the point home, then in the afternoon go to Hebrew school when you learn that somehow, after this fabulous life on the plantation, you, YOU ended up in Auschwitz. At a certain point even children have historical awareness, and children, thinking of things in a more concrete way than do adults, will feel that they've been lied to.

AParrish said...

On a different note, I thought one of the most interesting things about the article was the claim that the new principle was controversial because he didn't have much private school experience. In my own interviews for teaching positions at prep schools, I have been shocked at how many questions have centered on my having attended a public high school myself. I never know if I should defend my public high school or point to my graduate degree in literature as a means of response. The idea that you have to "get" private school culture in order to be an effective (or manipulate-able?) administrator or teacher is really disturbing.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: Complexity, not lies ... more than one identification at a time is possible ... Perhaps the teachers are what need improvement, not the subject matter?

Anonymous said...

Conflict between "you" at Auchwitz and "you" at the plantation big-house? "You" were at neither -- it's an imaginary community, and kids will learn to identify with one group, the other or (sacre blue!) both.

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