Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America

by Paul Tough

This interesting book continually makes reference to liberals and conservatives in its account of Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve education in the United States:

In education circles, there bitter disagreements over charter schools, and the debate was politically charged. Teachers at charter schools were usually nonunionized, and many conservative policy groups touted the schools as a free-enterprise solution to the nation’s choked educational bureaucracies. Liberals were more likely to oppose charters; many suspected that the Right’s sudden interest in inner-city education was nothing more than a cloak for a campaign to weaken unions and undermine the public school system. (p. 7)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a confidential internal memorandum for the Department of Labor in 1965 titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, and James Coleman in 1966 wrote a report for the U. S. Office of Education titled Equality of Educational Opportunity. The Moynihan report, as it came to be known, addressed “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The Coleman report was also critical of the families of African-Americans. Paul Tough quotes sociologist William Julius Wilson as follows:

“the controversy surrounding the Moynihan report has the effect of curtailing serious research on minority problems in the inner city for over a decade, as liberal scholars shied away from researching behavior construed as unflattering or stigmatizing to particular racial minorities.” (p. 28)

Into this “vacuum,” as Tough called it, came books by the conservative Charles Murray (Losing Ground, 1984) and the liberal William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged, 1987). The authors disagreed and Tough says of the virtual debate:

Murray’s book provided intellectual support for the Regan-era cutbacks in government aid for the poor, and it helped inspire the reforms of the welfare system that were eventually passed in the mid-1990s. Wilson’s formulations underlay much of the Democratic social policy agenda of the late 1980s and early 1990s. (p. 33)

Tough then discusses books titled Class and Schools, written by “Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute,” and No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, written by “Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, well-known conservative writers about race”:

The two sides sniped at each other in web postings and in the pages of the New York Review of Books, with Rothstein accusing the Thernstroms of proposing a “simplistic remedy” and calling their arguments “wildly implausible, “ and Stephan Thernstrom replying that Rothstein was the “chief excuser” of the failure of the education system and accusing him of demonstrating, through his work, “the bankruptcy of current progressive thinking about America’s public schools” And where did Canada stand? He agreed with Rothstein that the public school system needed more money, not less. But on the other basic principles of the education debate, Canada found himself with the Thernstroms, on the right. “I’m for vouchers, I’m for charter schools—I’m for anything that blows up the status quo,” he told me. Canada felt that liberals’ hearts were in the right place on poverty and education, but something— maybe it was their dependence on teachers’ unions, maybe it was the overly idealistic view of how public education worked —had led them astray on this issue. “It is my fundamental belief that the folk who care about public education the most, who really want to see it work, are destroying it,” he said. Anyone who looked at the urban public school system not as an abstract idea but up close, every day, the way Canada had for the past twenty years, would want to blow it up too. (p. 131)

I taught at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in the early 1990s, where there were metal detectors and security guards, just as there are now at Louis D. Brandeis High School on West 84th Street in New York. Brandeis is mentioned in the book as a school no one want to go to. I’m sure that not many of the children of parents able to afford apartments below 110th Street go to Brandeis. On January 24, 1995, I testified at hearings conducted by the State Education Department about safety and discipline in public schools. I argued that Erasmus did not enforce the discipline code as a matter of policy. For a transcript of my testimony click and an account of my career as a New York City public school teacher click here.

Why does Canada feel that “liberals’ hearts are in the right place on poverty and education”? What do Canada and Tough think it means to be a liberal? In my opinion, the difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives are more mature than liberals. Liberals are emotionally needy because they must constantly reassure themselves that they are compassionate and enlightened.

Enlightened? The Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason of the 18th century was a period when many intellectuals criticized those who believed in God, the Bible, and the Koran. These philosophers considered themselves intellectually superior to people who believe our purpose in life is to serve God in this world in order to be happy with Him in the next. Liberals are children of the Enlightenment and are in a futile search for a meaningful life. Also, they interact continually with erudite and intelligent people who believe in the Bible. I suggest that these interactions undermine their self-confidence and make them fear, more than anything else, criticism from fellow liberals.