It is — and should always be — very moving when the president and first lady show public grief at a mournful recognition of young lives lost, especially when those lives are taken in or around public schools, at moments of particular innocence.
The Newtown, Conn., massacre claimed 20 children; they were recently joined in endless silence by just one. At 15, Hadiya Pendleton of Chicago had been a good student, a dreamer and a member of a marching band from a school called King College Prep. But then, on Jan. 29, a gangbanger shot into a group of kids and killed her. He was not held back by her having performed in Washington at events surrounding President Barack Obama’s second inaugural.
Being just a mile from the Windy City home of the president did not save Pendleton; nor did being an innocent teenager (one who had appeared in an anti-gang public-service ad, sounding very radiantly optimistic) do much for her in the face of a fatal lead slug that came flying her way. Boom, splat, fall. Rushed to the hospital, pronounced dead. Over. Warm shortly before, soon cold forever.
Of course, something must be done about all of this violence, which the president spoke of in a passionate conclusion to his State of the Union address. Very good, but there is more we have to face and handle. There is a problem just as serious as the murder of children, whether in cities or suburbs. It is the problem of intellectual genocide that largely defines our public schools.
As with guns, the numbers are staggering but much, much larger. Intellectual genocide is so thorough a problem that even the energy giant Exxon Mobil — in a naked bid for positive publicity that might sop up the disaster remembered in the Gulf — runs ads about improving our education as part of its “Let’s Solve This” campaign. The problem that needs to be solved? America having fallen into the middle of the pack in education compared with its peers around the world. China and India are leaving us in the dust, covered with the footprints of better-prepared runners.
Though many snicker about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s weight being a huge obstacle to his presidential nomination, the Obama administration could learn some things from his battle with the Garden State’s powerful teachers unions.
Back in 2011, Christie told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer exactly how he felt about a labor group that put its own interests before those of children: “I believe the teachers in New Jersey in the main are wonderful public servants that care deeply. But their union, their union [leaders] are a group of political thugs.” It was a smart and accurate move to separate the teachers from those who speak for them, and so often make obnoxious demands that put students behind the interest of union leadership power.
Now, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have had some successes, like the Race to the Top program, which gives funding to states that use data to increase accountability and give more power to parents by opening more charter schools. And across the nation, states are using more rigorous means to evaluate teachers, no longer content to hand out raises for seniority alone.
Christie just happens to be the most vociferous opponent of the intellectual genocide that Condoleezza Rice once called “the civil-rights struggle of our day.” She knows what she is talking about, having ascended from segregated Birmingham, Ala., to Stanford University — and from there to become one of George W. Bush’s closest foreign-policy advisers. But this civil-rights movement is beyond color, with our public schools failing to do more than a mediocre job when assigned to increase the skills of students, across all lines of division.
Ignorance remains the deadliest force of all. But there are, sure enough, bright lights of hope in the very same communities that are often plagued by gun violence. I have long written about — and will continue to write about — the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which helps so-called kids of color get to college and stay there until they graduate.
Praise also is due to Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy network has expanded out from Harlem to offer opportunities to ever more children around New York — even as she meets with opposition from misguided supporters of the teachers union, like the NAACP.
Guns, schools — these are not easy battles to fight. But we must fight them. For the children of Newtown. For Hadiya Pendleton. We need to step up.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.