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Return to the Blackboard Jungle

School psychologist Bernard Chapin outlines the ills of progressive education in Escape From Gangsta Island.

By 6.26.07

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Few can attest to the unintended destructive consequences of well-intentioned progressive administrators in the American public school system as well as Bernard Chapin. As school psychologist with more than a decade of teaching and administrative experience, Chapin spent years braving the halls of an inner city school in Illinois, drawn to the challenge and opportunity to effect real change. The proud educator participated in a real turnaround of the decimated school, too, until a cadre of do-gooders decided a "hip-hop environment" would be more conducive to learning than the stuffy old schoolhouse model. At least the school's new policy of enabling students to write up teachers paid dividends, prompting enlightening teacher evaluations like, "Mr. Coolidge is a punk ass bitch who sucks as a teacher." Chapin, an occasional AmSpec contributor, details his trials and tribulations in a sometimes harrowing new tome Escape From Gangsta Island: A School's Progressive Decline.

AmSpec: Despite being "fully immersed in the welfare state" in an inner city school full of students who worshiped "the 'playa' and 'pimp' as the highest forms of existence," you write of being "one of those rare Americans who actually loved going to work in the morning" before the spell of progressivism took over your school.

Bernard Chapin: Working with children is a unique joy as their endemic spontaneity and honesty are seldom seen in one's interactions with their fellow adults. It's easy to laugh at the notion of "making a difference," but that's often what happens when you work with children. Should one be a male in a setting devoid of men, you are held in unique esteem due perhaps to novelty alone. Also, I'm an adult who has by no means forgotten what it was like to be a kid. I'm more apt to take an empathetic view of many of their behaviors; whereas, those for whom childhood was an unsightly blur would not be as kindly disposed. Over the course of 12 years I've never had one day of work in which I went home depressed or angry about anything a child said or did. Were that I could say the same thing about my interactions with coworkers.

You also describe starry-eyed colleagues who arrived railing against "white privilege" and economic inequality, only to quickly burn out and exit far short of their lofty goals. I found these stories very poignant. First, for the teachers whose dreams were scuppered so quickly, of course, but more so for the students who need positive role models.

BC: Well, here "making a difference" must be contrasted with "getting kids to act the way you want." Those colleagues I described viewed children under an ideological lens that depicted them as inferiors. They were there to "save" them. When their largesse was not met with gratitude they would become irate with both the children and the community. They saw inner city kids as ideological constructs rather than as human beings. Anytime you go into a situation with such a malignant perspective you're doomed to disappointment.

What kind of changes, perhaps in training or attitude, would help potential educators prepare to make a difference where they are needed most?

BC: We need to get the utopians and leftists out of the education schools, which simply cannot be done. I taught seven master's level courses at National Lewis University from 2001 to 2003, and I cannot tell you how shocked I was by the worldview of those teachers-to-be. They had been completely indoctrinated. They were so brainwashed by multiculturalism that I unintentionally managed to get myself into an argument with a few students over whether I had the right to say that life was better in America than it was in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The students all happened to be women. Can you imagine what would have happened if they went overseas to check out the situation for themselves?

In a section I taught of Quantitative Research Methods it was brought to my attention that the previous instructor had included in her syllabus that "there was no such thing as objectivity." The next class I spent twenty minutes explaining why she was wrong: "Now class, we know that nothing is ever 100 percent objective, but, of course, contrarily, nothing is ever 100 percent subjective....Truth does exist....Were I to say that the Second World War didn't happen and you were to say that it did then there would not be two equally valid perspectives on an occurrence; mine would be wrong and yours would be right." Predictably, I did not last long at National Lewis.

Despite how jaded the public at large seems to be about the education system these days -- especially in poorer city neighborhoods like the school you describe -- I think many people will still be a bit shocked to read about the "primitive romper room sessions," where you, teachers, and other administrators -- adults! -- spent three days of paid bonding time. Did any of your colleagues actually buy into this stuff?

BC: You're right. The public would be shocked to know about what goes on in some educational settings. Basically, Eastlands' curriculum which was built around our teachers taking the exercises they learned into the classroom for the purposes of bonding with students. These activities were supposed to get them to gel into a cohesive unit. By skipping about, coloring together, and having special lunches everybody was supposed to become a team in which everyone cared deeply about one another. The idea was for the room to cease being adversarial and to morph into a community. Well, it proved to be as effective as General Gamelin's battle plan for the defense of France. Education, in America, takes place within a closed arena. Most outsiders, particularly those without children, have no idea as to what actually goes on.

You write efforts by progressive administrators to create a "hip-hop environment" at your school to decrease truancy failed because a "school's version of fun can never compete with the street's version of fun." Do you think this type of attitude has had its day in the sun and is on the decline? Or is it still the wave of the future?

BC: That's hard to say. The testing movement may save the schools yet as it decreases the opportunities of activist teachers to propagandize in the classroom. By "teaching to the test" their time becomes rigidly structured and it cuts down on their ability to create mischief. Schools should inform, guide, and uplift the masses. They should not approach them at their own level. One thing I always do is play classical music. I make a point of telling students something about the composer and provide information about the genre. You'd be surprised and pleased to discover just how many kids are riveted by the sounds of Bach, Beethoven, and Sibelius.

In one of your book's most harrowing moments, you turn a corner while giving a school tour to see a close friend on the ground being viciously beaten by a student and struggle to subdue him, only to watch a few minutes later as the principal massages the belly of the attacker saying, "That's alright baby," and essentially takes his side. After another attack on a teacher you witnessed, you were pressured to downplay the violence in a report and more than once asked to overlook illegal activity. What effect did this overt permissiveness have on teacher morale and student behavior?

BC: Wasn't that sickening? I still think of that 15 minute melee at least a couple of times a month. I don't know how you can maintain morale after an incident like that. Our Principal tried to prevent the teacher from filing police charges because the negative attention accrued would make her appear as clueless as she actually was. The character of Wanda in the book was barred from leaving her classroom to go to a student's trial for battering her. She was the main witness. She put in for a substitute many days in advance but was denied relief on the day of the trial. She left the building anyway...and received a reprimand. You can't have morale when the staff has to worry about being struck from both above and below.

Even though you have changed the names of administrators and the identifying features of the school, the portrait you paint is more than damning. Are those you write about aware of the book? And, if so, have they made any attempt to answer the charges lodged within its pages?

BC: Yes, they're very aware of it, and no, they would never, ever respond to anything I said. Once you leave your job, intellectual weaklings like that no longer have a position to hide behind so they'd never want to see me again. They also would have no interest in debating me, or even Daffy Duck for that matter, in regards to any subject. Mindless extroverts tend to fare poorly when the rules do not allow for the silencing of other side.

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