The Surfeit of Unworkable Virtue

A Libertarian Approach to Schooling

July 24, 2007e

I wonder whether the time for compulsory racial integration of the schools hasn’t passed. It doesn’t seem to accomplish anything that anyone wants.

The lunge toward integration of course began after 1953, and made a certain moral and intellectual sense at the time. Regardless of denials and justifications, blacks were indeed oppressed until then, and did indeed have schools hopelessly underfunded in comparison to those of white children. (I was a kid in small-town Alabama in 1956-57. Don’t even try to tell me that it wasn’t so.)

Things being very bad, some form of remediation was morally desirable, and the various solutions proposed were both well-intentioned and at least superficially plausible. If whites persisted in giving blacks wretched schools and ignorant teachers, which they did, then, it was thought, putting all children in the same school would settle that. Blacks had never amounted to much scholastically, but then they had always been slaves or serfs; it was not implausible to hope that with better schools they might rise. Certainly it was worth a try.

Southerners said it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t. This failure was probably the greatest misfortune ever to afflict the US. A half-century later, a yawning gap persists between the scholastic performance of blacks and whites. The gap has proved intractable under every nostrum, program, fad, or form of social shuffling. Nobody in his right mind can argue that the country hasn’t tried. The gap doesn’t close.

What now?

Distinctions exist between segregation, desegregation, and integration. Segregation is compulsory separation. Integration is compulsory togetherness. Desegregation is freedom of choice. That is, parents send their children to schools of their choosing. This, I submit, should be the law of the land. The result would be voluntary segregation since the races don’t much want to be together, but why isn’t it their business?

It seems to me that we should ask: What is better for the children? Has integration benefited the kids? If so, which kids? How? Or has it harmed them?

Integration does not appear to have helped black kids, who almost always end up at the bottom scholastically. The reasons can perhaps be debated, but it is what happens, and it shows no signs of changing. Further, being with white kids is not necessary to the advancement of blacks. The best schools I have encountered for blacks in terms of academics are the Catholic schools of downtown Washington, DC, almost entirely black.

However, compulsory integration does hurt white children. Whatever the reasons, whites have a greater interest in studying. White parents tend to want their progeny to learn mathematics, history, the sciences, occasionally the English language, literature, and the arts. White parents, or many white parents at any rate, want rigor in these courses. The enstupidation of America has reached the point that much of the population ruts and gobbles at the moo-cow level, yes. Still, the aspirations of whites remain much higher than those of blacks.

Blacks do not seem interested in European history, or literature, or languages, or the sciences, or mathematics. Neither in integrated schools nor in de facto black schools does one hear them demanding thicker books with bigger words and smaller pictures. I would happily provide these things, but they don’t ask. Perhaps the current policy of trying to impose on them a European culture that isn’t theirs, and that they show no signs of wanting, should end.

Since it has not proved possible to raise black children to the levels preferred by whites, the schools have sought to disguise the failure by diminishing academic rigor for all. This harms whites.

Why not let black parents decide what should be taught to their children? It is their business. I am perfectly content that black kids study physical chemistry and classical Greek, or Swahili and Ebonics, or anything they choose, or nothing at all. It is neither my business nor my problem. Should blacks ask me, I would suggest that in my view being able to read well should be an aim. I would recommend for them the course of study that I want for my own children. But if they did not want these things, as they seem not to, I would suggest that they manage their own schools as they saw fit.

Would it not be better to offer the races a choice and let things settle out as people chose? You could call this policy something like, say, “democracy,” or even “freedom.” Note please that I am specifically not suggesting reinstitution of compulsory segregation anywhere, and particularly not in the schools. A black child who wanted to go to an academically rigorous, predominantly white school should be permitted to do so.

My interest here is partly selfish—to avoid condemning white children to schools dumbed down and unable to insist on standards of schooling and behavior that, as a white, I regard as important. To avoid charges of consigning black children to poor schools, I would happily agree to provide black schools with twice the money per student of the white schools. They could set standards as they chose, choose such courses as they chose, and hire such teachers as they chose. I do not see how this could be called mistreatment.

It could, however, be called “multiculturalism.”

One hears much chatter about “diversity” and its never-explained virtues. But I note that those who most promote it least practice it. How many professors at Harvard bus their own progeny to deep black schools in downtown Boston? Do congressmen in Washington send their budding gifts to eternity to schools in, say, Anacostia? Any city has large regions of almost pure diversity to which these rich white kids might be consigned, and I promise that they would learn a great deal from it. Almost instantly. Oh yes. Do we have any takers?

Let me have my culture, and I will let you have yours. I do not question your right to teach your children as you think best. Do not question my equal right. In fact, whatever your culture, if you want to attend the schools of my children, I will require no more than minimal criminality, civilized comportment, and academic compatibility. Welcome, whatever your color. If you are, say, Chinese, and want to maintain your Chineseness at home, or want egg rolls served in the school cafeteria, or want Chinese taught along with French and Spanish, I say, “Great.” We can do this. When diversity means learning something instead of screwing up the schools, sign me on. But it usually doesn’t.

One thing seems certain: You cannot have in the schools two readily distinguishable groups, one of them being politically sensitive, the two differing utterly in academic intentions and achievement, in behavior and language, without shortchanging one and probably both. Differences in outcome are invidious and invariably engender lower standards. Experience shows that when the races can separate, they do. The benefits desired from forced integration have not materialized. Perhaps it is time to try something else.