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Soft bigotry

01/21/02 12:00AM By Libby Sternberg

Basketball fans might remember the 1986 death of University of Maryland hoop star Len Bias. He passed away from a drug overdose just after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.

His death created a firestorm of criticism of college sports programs. The man in the middle of that inferno was then-University of Maryland Chancellor John Slaughter. Like Bias, Slaughter is an African-American. At the time of the controversy, Slaughter believed that university sports programs provided a door to college education that might otherwise be closed to minority students.

It was a door that had slammed in Slaughter's own face more than once. Raised in Topeka, Kansas, Slaughter dreamed of becoming an engineer. If it had been up to his high school guidance counselors, however, Slaughter would not have even gone on to college.

Slaughter wasn't particularly gifted in math. Like many minority and disadvantaged students, he was shunted into high school "trade" courses and away from college prep programs. He persisted in following his dream of becoming an engineer however, taking longer than usual to finish his college degree because of the gaps in his high school education.

The education philosophy that led to Slaughter's detour began in the early twentieth century, writes education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravitch. It was then that professional educators began to believe they could "bridge the gap between school and society and make the schools socially useful." This meant identifying early on which kids deserved academically rigorous college prep programs and which ones just weren't up to the task.

Not surprisingly, it was the poor - mainly immigrants and racial minorities - who were most effected by this philosophy . They "were pushed into undemanding vocational, industrial, or general programs," Ravitch writes, "by bureaucrats and guidance counselors who thought (these children) were incapable of learning much more."

Such policies, Ravitch explains, were packaged in rhetoric about democracy and 'meeting the needs of the individual child,' yet they encouraged racial and social stratification in American schools.

Surely we have moved beyond this, you would think. In our enlightened time, we must recognize that education is the door to wisdom as much as to a successful career. That, in fact, the workplace changes so rapidly that it is more difficult than ever to adequately prepare any child for a single specific job. And that a liberal arts education with high academic standards is more likely to produce critical thinkers than so-called feel-good courses that stress self-esteem over real achievement and mastery of facts.

Think again. The progressive education movement still believes that it's the schools' job to sort kids according to some self-evident map to their destinies.

Part of that map is the child's parents' schooling. As one progressive educator has put it, "there is no better predictor of a child's success in school than the level of schooling attained by his parents."

By the way, John Slaughter's father Reuben only attended school through the third grade.

I'm not here to argue that every child is going to be a college chancellor or an engineer or even a whiz at trigonometric function. But is it right to send them the message that they are incapable of even striving for these goals? That was the attitude that sent John Slaughter to trade school instead of to programs that would have prepared him for college.

And that is the attitude that President George Bush has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Just as we swept segregation from schooling in the last century, it's time to sweep these more subtle forms of segregation from schools in this century.

This is Libby Sternberg from Rutland

--Libby Sternberg is a freelance writer, former Chair of the Rutland County Republican Party, and is active in education issues.
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