After finishing The Post's report on the School Board's 6-4 defeat of Superintendent Vincent Reed's proposal for an academic high school, I was saddened -- for the lack of understanding and imagination by the board's majority and for the indifference with which they rejected a proposal to give talented students the best preparation for college and to give the poor among them -- black and white -- a fair shot at scholarships or, at least, acceptance at good universities and colleges. What is equal education opportunity all about?
And I thought about Classical and my experience there.
Classical High School in Providence, R.I., is not as old or as famous as Boston Latin, but it is venerable enough and in the same tradition and line of work -- college preparation through application of minds to a rigid course of study and application of bottoms to chairs.
Forty-five years ago -- it seems like yesterday, so vivid are my memories of Classical -- I was a young English instructor there. If I may spill over, bliss was it in that day to be teacher at Classical but to be a young teacher was very heaven. t
Classical was an old, yellow brick pile, dirty on the outside and musty within, in a scruffy section of town. Nevertheless, by definition of purpose, it was elitist: it was not for every student in the system, for not every student in the system wanted to go to college or was equipped to go.
But this does not mean that Classical was a school for the elite, the offspring of old Providence families. True, these classes were well represented in the student body. More numerously represented, however, were other classes, creeds and national origins -- the sons and daughters of first- and second-generation Americans whose roots were Irish, Italian, Polish, French Canadian, East European Jewish, whose fathers were day laborers, factory workers, store clerks or whatever. There were some, but not many, blacks. At that time, the black population of Providence was very small.
As with the students, so with the faculty -- a medley of national origins. Most of the teachers had gone to Classical, and this provided a continuum, a learning tradition and an esprit to the school.
The curriculum was broad or narrow, depending on one's educational viewpoint, with firm requirement and limited elective. Four years of English and mathematics, a year of ancient history, a year of American history, at least two years of classical language and two of modern, a year of science. The student could elect either Latin or Greek (four years of the former and three of the latter were offered), or French, German, Spanish or Italian, and chemistry or physics to meet the requirements.
Courses were rigidly prescribed. In English, each year, a Shakespeare drama, a novel with impeccable credentials, hefty dollops of a poetry, and an extended piece of prose essay, argument or criticism were required.
Not exactly a utilitarian education, it could be argued. But if your objective was preparation for college, then this stern regimen was utilitarian.
There was a hitch, of course. Those were depression days, and many families could not afford college education. Scholarships were relatively few then, and a lion's share was gobbled up by prestigious private schools -- St. Paul's, St. Mark's, Groton, Andover, Exeter, or Choate. They were old hands at knowing where the scholarships were and at drilling students to compete successfully for them.
A group of young teachers at Classical decided there was no reason why a public college-preparatory school should not enter this fray. They decided also to begin small. Six target scholarships and six seniors -- not the best in the class but the unquestionably needy ones -- were chosen. A teacher from each discipline undertook to drill each student for two hours a week on how to prepare for college boards and competitive scholarship exams. All six scholarships were won -- a great day.
But Classical imparted more than college preparation. I offer for the defense Old Ma Gregory, teacher of Latin and Greek, and a martinet.
My English class followed Ma's Greek class. From the corridor, I would sometimes watch her through the glass-paneled door. She would snap her fingers and point to one student after another as she called for Greek verb forms. When the bell rang, she would say, "Stand!" They stood. "March!" They marched.
"My God," I thought, "how awful, how dreary."
And then that June Ma Gregory retired, and there was a great testimonial dinner at a country club, and it seemed that most of the city's and state's public life was there -- doctors, lawyers, professors, school teachers, City Hall, members of Congress, state officials. All had been Ma's students.
And Ma gave a graceful speech full of literary allusions on what a gold mine was embedded in the classics and what they had meant to her. And everybody cheered for Ma.
So those former students did not go home at night and read Homer and Virgil. But once this drill sergeant had given them a glimpse of the golden isles and a taste of what great literature is all about, they were thankful for it.
So what relevance does all this have to the dispute at hand? I recognize that the discriminations and disadvantages historically imposed on blacks are of an entirely different order and degree from those once visited on national minorities and long since surmounted. I know the D.C. school system is 97 percent black.
But what are the school board opponents of an academic high school really saying? "We refuse to fund such a school because so few blacks would be able to benefit from it that it would simply be another white power center?" Are they prepared to deny equal opportunity to those blacks and whites who qualify for, and want, the best college preparation the city can provide? Are they determined -- to steal a phrase from William Raspberry -- "to equalize down not to equalize up?"
If so, what a shame, what a pity, what a deprivation -- for the blacks, the whites, the city. And what a setback for equal opportunity.