Schools in Our Age of Intolerance

It takes more than a new curriculum to help students feel safe and respected in public and private classrooms

17 Jan 2020 | 03:39

This moment of racial and religious tensions in New York City and its surrounding communities presents a test for the city’s schools to rise above what divides us to produce unity and sense of safety. That even physical safety seems tenuous shows how far we are from the emotional security all students need in their schools. Students must feel that their educational institutions are not alienating but supportive of their identities, providing nurture and order.

Anti-Semitic attacks in Jersey City, Monsey, and Crown Heights bring home the horrors of Pittsburgh and pogroms. That is the history New York City's Jewish population experiences when such violence is perpetrated against us.

No less is the history of Black, Latinx, and other racial and ethnic groups who, in this country, have been so often violated physically and socially, deprived of full citizenship, even humanity.

Within our schools, public and private, disruptive issues of race and religion surface with regularity. Anti-Semitic and racial tensions on the two campuses of the elite, progressive Ethical Culture Fieldston School have been well-documented. Criticisms of some ultra-Orthodox yeshivas' curricula for lacking secular studies continue to roil relations among those institutions, the City Department of Education, the State Education Department and within the Jewish community itself, as independent schools like Brearley side with the yeshivas to avoid their own regulation.

Public schools are experiencing boycotts by Teens Take Charge supporting integration, aided by political and community leaders. On the opposite side, demonstrations against integration efforts in the Upper West Side's District 3 and Queens' Forest Hills and Jamaica communities in District 28 have stunned onlookers with their echoes of segregationist Southern opposition in the mid-20th Century.

How much this affects individual students is unclear. But adults are certainly unsettled and their anxiety can percolate through schools' social fabric.

The Search for Solutions

How can administrators and teachers best address actual incidents like the Monsey attack as well as the more subtle, long-term effects that such incidents can have on young people?

Solutions must go beyond one-off lessons to include broad curricular re-examination, structural reforms that “walk the walk,” and civil conversations across and within racial, religious, and ethnic communities. A good first step, perhaps more symbolic than of wide-spread importance, is the Schools Chancellor's announcement last week that public school students will gain free admission to the New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, beginning with all eighth and tenth grade public school children from the volatile precincts of Borough Park and Crown Heights and extending to free admission for all children over age 12 across the city

No doubt a one-shot visit can change lives, but more extensive curricular interventions, like that designed by Lisa Berke, are more worthwhile. Writing in the Daily News on January 7th, Berke, a teacher at Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School, describes her carefully crafted lessons that we can only hope are emulated by the entire system as it rolls out a promised new, broadly defined diversity curriculum in the coming months.

And that's a good thing, too. Though the Hanukkah attack in Monsey and less violent but still troubling incidents in Brooklyn prompted the DOE initiative, this is not only about anti-Semitism. It is about intolerance against any and all groups seen as "other". A curriculum based on defending one group is bound to alienate others who, themselves, are historically and currently oppressed here or, indeed, elsewhere in the world.

Walking the Walk

But New York State has long required such curricula, and where has it gotten us? Education Law § 801 requires "courses of instruction in patriotism, citizenship, and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery (including the freedom trail and underground railroad), the Holocaust, and the mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1850." Add whatever other topics you want. Without external social validation and reinforcement, it's just another day in school that might include (yahoo!) a field trip.

If we're going to talk the talk, we've got to walk the walk. We've got it backwards if we think schools will change society. Schools are society. A racially segregated system teaches that segregation is okay. A city where Chasidim can be roughed up or worse without across-the-board outrage teaches that anti-Semitism is okay. Where immigrant families are subjected to ICE raids or separated at the border, xenophobia becomes okay. If LGBTQ students fear for their lives, sexual and gender paranoia become okay.

It's not okay. But don't expect our schools to fix it if we're unwilling to fix it ourselves.

David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and The City University of New York Graduate Center.

"We've got it backwards if we think schools will change society. Schools are society."