TWO WONDERFUL STORIES about public education came out of New York City last week, both reported in The New York Times. City College, an open-admissions, taxpayer- financed institution rejoiced when it was announced that two of its graduates had won Nobel Prizes in chemistry. Moreover, the two, Dr. Herbert Hauptman and Dr. Jerome Karle, were members of the class of 1937, as was the 1959 prize winner for medicine, Dr. Arthur Kornberg. In addition to these classmates, City College boasts four other Nobel laureates among its alumni, for a total of seven. College officials say this is more than any other public institution in the nation.
Unlike the large state universities in other parts of the country that draw students from every economic level, City College was established primarily to provide a free education to the children of the poor. Youngsters whose parents were immigrants attended in large numbers, paying, in 1937, an annual fee of only 50 cents. The achievements of the college's graduates and their contributions to this country have been exemplary and fully justify the public investment in talented, hard-working young people who could not otherwise afford an education.
The second story involves an extraordinary man and a spectacular gift. Eugene Lang, a millionaire industrialist, grew up poor in East Harlem. Five years ago, he was asked to address the sixth grade graduating class at P.S. 121 from which he had graduated 50 years before. Instead of the usual "work hard and you can succeed as I did" speech, Mr. Lang issued a challenge to the children: if they stayed in school and graduated from high school, he said, he would pay college tuitions for each one of them.
Parents, children and teachers were astonished by the offer, but Mr. Lang was serious and took steps to help the youngsters meet the challenge. He established bank accounts earmarked for each child immediately. He hired a young social worker to keep track of the children on a day-to-day basis and to counsel their families. He saw that they received private tutoring and special SAT preparation courses. And, most of all, he seems to have instilled a determination in these children and their parents that they will succeed. In a neighborhood where dropping out of school is the norm, all 51 of the youngsters still in New York remain in school -- now in 11th grade -- and all but one expects to go on to college.
Mr. Lang's personal commitment extends far beyond the mere promise of money. He has given the children a special self-confidence, a belief in their ability to achieve and the encouragement of someone else who is certain they can meet this challenge too. These are important factors in inspiring youngsters -- even future Nobel Prize winners -- to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and to strive for education and advancement. Mr. Lang recognizes this, and has, by his generous gift, done something splendid for these Harlem children.