IN 1975, my wife, our four children and I moved to Charleston, S.C. Many people think of Charleston as a "charming old-world city," a magnet for tourists and honeymooners. But, "peninsular Charleston" -- as distinct from its suburbs -- is where we chose to live.
Enrollment in the public schools of peninsular Charleston is 100 percent or 99 percent black. The exception is a recently reorganized "model" elementary school south of Calhoun Street with an enrollment 15 percent white.
The private and parochial schools of Charleston, except for the Catholic schools, appear about as white as the public schools are black. (About 18 percent of the Catholic high schools' student body is black, and the two Catholic elementary schools are about 90 percent black).
Officially, there is no segregation in Charleston. Its public schools have been legally desegregated, and some private schools do have some black students. But whites who move to Charleston are still told, "No one goes to public schools here."
Though we are white, we enrolled our children in public schools. Sarah was the only white child in her kindergarten class; Lottie the only white child in her third-grade class; William, entering the seventh grade, was one of three white children in a combined sixth- and seventh-grade class. Rachel went to the public high school, which at that time was still starting youngsters in the eighth grade.
We enrolled the children in public schools because we thought it was the right thing to do.
I was urged by a white district superintendent not to enroll my children in the public schools. My children wouldn't find them challenging enough, he told me, because black children just don't have as much innate intellectual ability as white children -- not the kind of talk you would hope to hear from an official charged with directing the education of children.
The private school advocates emphasize the number of private school graduates who go off to "name" colleges. They accept no responsibility for the low-scoring public school students, since they cannot or will not see any connection between their successful attempts to enroll middle- and upper-middle-class students and the test scores achieved by the population that has been left behind.
These are not remote issues for my wife and me. We have four children, all bright, all "college material." It has been one thing to be able to reassure ourselves that the public schools in Charleston are not likely to cause any emotional or social "damage" to our children; it's another thing altogether to decide whether we might not be sacrificing our children's futures for the sake of what the local newspaper still calls, "social experimentation."
Let me put personal anxieties aside and let me try to analyze what's meant by the intellectual and academic "damage" feared by so many parents of white children not enrolled in Charleston's public schools.
Unlike academic achievement, intellectual development cannot be separated readily from moral development. The connection between morality and the sciences, for example, may appear indirect -- but I don't see how a habitual liar or cheat could be a good research scholar or a deeply prejudiced person could be a good geneticist.
The importance of the moral factor is more obvious for me at least when it comes to literature, history, philosophy and the social sciences. In these disciplines, morality -- who you are as a person and where you stand as a citizen -- must make a difference.
These aren't abstract considerations for my family. To be as plain-spoken as possible, I don't understand how American history, literature, and government, for example, can be taught honestly in a school designed to avoid integration.
After all, the purpose of such a school is to avoid one of the most pressing problems of our time and of one's own community. It you are involved with such a school voluntarily, you must, to save to your self-respect, gloss over, ignore, or distort major facts about the society of which the school is a part. You also have to ignore the moral ramifications of your actions. As far as I'm concerned, there can be a lot of reading, writing, and learning in such a school, but such a school fails to favor intellectual development as I understand it.
I want something better for my children. I don't want their "intellectual development" to stunt their moral growth. In education, the two must travel hand in hand.
What do you say to students about South Africa, if your behavior and the educators' behavior complements the behavior of those who appear bent on making your city another Johannesburg? Apartheid anywhere is still apartheid, be it in Soweto, Harlem, or peninsular Charleston.
How do you deal with poverty in Latin America or India, if by your behavior you abet those who favor an elitist and authoritarian view of society and see "left-wing subversion" in every attempt to change the way people who have been treated unjustly live and work?
Whether we like it not, what we are morally depends on the choices we make, the things we actually do. And what we teach honestly and convincingly depends on what we are. Children aren't fools.
This year, as our oldest daughter went off to college and as our son prepares to follow her, we have dared to say about the two older ones, "What they have done has not damaged them; it has helped them grow up."
Our 12-year-old daughter, from the start a sensitive little person, remains earnest and sensitive; but there is now evident in her character what my wife and I have agreed to call an emotional "toughness' (we mean it, of course, in a good sense, having nothing to do with coarseness), and we are pleased by her growth, her development.
My children also know many different kinds of people, and I judge their social development by how well they're able to get along with people of different backgrounds.
From this standpoint, too, I look upon our children's experience in the "black" public schools of Charleston as a boon. They "know" black children now as they could not have known them had they not associated with them in school as full and absolute equals.
This extra benefit, however, has not kept my children from making white friends, some of whom come from the so-called "classy" families (others don't); but we have yet to see around our house for any length of time a child of either race or any income level whom we have not liked personally. According to the notion of social development that my wife and I prefer, our children have been helped -- not hindered -- by their public school experience in Charleston.
Now I come to the development of intellectual powers, the acquistion of knowledge, and good performance on objective tests.
My own children, more specifically our 18-year-old daughter, Rachel, who graduated from high school last spring, and my 16-year-old son, William, who will graduate this year, profited from their experience at Charleston High. Let me explain why I say this.
There are certainly several good teachers in the school; and perhaps the experience of being minority group members in classes for so many years gave Rachel and William insights into certain widespread problems in our society they might not otherwise have had. Then, too, each child gained a year through advancement-placement considerations. Eventually, there may be other indirect benefits, too.
Our children have done well academically despite the high school's problems. Rachel graduated as valedictorian, did better on her PSAT and SAT exams than her private school friends, and gained admittance to every college she applied to, several of which offered her scholarships. She decided to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is now a Johnson Scholar in their Honors Program.
William also is doing well academically. He too was a high scorer on his PSAT and SAT tests, and is at this writing a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. Last summer he was one of 275 high school students in the state selected to attend the South Carolina Governor's School, a six-week, all-expenses-paid, residential program at the College of Charleston. He enjoyed it in every way; corresponds now with "guvvies" all over the state; and look forward more than ever these days to going on to college.
I cannot say that I've seen any signs that my two younger children have suffered intellectual or academic disadvantages because of their experience.
Twelve-year-old Lottie reads a great deal, and is fairly "far ahead" for her age. Nine-year-old Sarah -- much more physical, less quiet, and not as methodical -- has begun to read rather well on her own this year, even though she still enjoys having good books read to her. Both are doing well in the other "basics," too.
Admittedly, the returns are not all in. But our children are doing better than just "okay," and that is something, indeed, compared with what is supposed to happen to white children who enroll in Charleston's overwhelmingly black public schools. The prevailing mythology in white peninsular Charleston had them destined for disaster.
Unless Charleston is an anomaly, the idea that separate means unequal is still as true as it was when flagrant racial discrimination was the rule, the common denominator.
The public school -- whether it's in Charleston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or any other city or town, large or small -- is the only regular institution in our society in which children and adults of every class, color, and economic level can have sustained and intimate contact as equals.
In public school systems throughout the United States there are problems upon problems, mountains of them, it sometimes seems. But to have the liberty to enroll one's children in a public school "where democracy is happening" every day is a satisfaction our family wouldn't swap for anything, anywhere.
We're staying in Charleston. Our children will remain in its public schools. And my wife and I will continue to work to rectify the wrongs that have been done to public education.