A Response from Noel Ignatiev

To the editors,

I read with interest the article by Arturo in the July-September issue, “Why Prisons Are Built As Schools Are Closed Down.” I was particularly struck by the report that the closing of schools has led to as many as fifty students per class and students sitting on the floor because there are not enough chairs, no ESL programs, and no guidance counselors.

I started kindergarten in September of 1945 at the Blankenburg School at 47th and Wyalusing. I attended Blankenburg through the 2nd grade. I don’t remember much about the school, except that more than forty children in a class were common. At the end of the second grade, my family moved and enrolled me in Lea School at 47th and Locust, which I attended through the 8th grade. At that time the neighborhood was mainly white but not part of the University of Pennsylvania’s expansion area. Lea was supposed to be a good school; I remember classes with more than forty pupils taught by one teacher, who taught art and music along with academic subjects and no teacher’s aid, which meant she – always she until the 8th grade – got no break except for when we were at recess or lunch. There was of course no ESL in those days, and little demand for it; the handful of immigrant children, mainly from Eastern Europe, were integrated into the regular classes and picked up the new language with relative ease, as children will. (My father told me that when he started grade school at 40th and Girard, an area then mainly Yiddish-speaking, in 1912, he spoke no English, but picked it up right away; there were no ESL classes – or rather, all the classes were ESL.) There was a library, which we visited once a week, and a guidance counselor for students in the 8th grade seeking advice on high schools. (Most Lea graduates attended West Philadelphia High across the street; a few, including myself, went to Central or Girls High, exam school located across town that required long subway and bus rides.)

My sister started kindergarten at Lea School in 1957, part of the baby-boom generation. She informs me that for the first years her classes always had at least forty children and sometimes as many as forty-eight, with children often sharing a seat at a desk, with one teacher who also never got a break.

I repeat: Lea School was then considered a good school, and by today’s standards would probably be regarded as excellent. There were no metal detectors, no guards, and no reason for them; the most serious “crimes” were childhood pranks (My favorite was planting “bombs” which I made in my chemistry set on the trolley tracks on Spruce Street, which made a loud bang when the trolley passed over them.); all the graduates went on to high school, and many later went to college, mainly Penn or Temple. My brother still attends reunions of the people who lived around 47th and Sansom Street in the 1950s – what I call West Philly white people reunions – and he informs me that most of those from his day worked in trades and professions, and some became rich.

If these tales have any point beyond the ramblings of an old man, it is this: classroom conditions, including class size, teacher qualifications, library, gym and other facilities – computers did not exist then – have little to do with how much children learn. The main thing is, do the children feel there will be a place for them in the world they will enter when they finish school. The people I went to school with did, and though I cannot be sure of this so I think did most of those of all races and classes who attended grade schools in Philadelphia in those years.

If I may point to two other cases I have heard about: after the Civil War, when the New England schoolmarms came to the south and opened schools for the newly freed slaves, conditions (and pedagogic methods) were about as bad as can be imagined for the students of all ages packed together. Similarly, in the freedom schools run by the Zimbabwe African National Union (when Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia and Robert Mugabe was still a liberation fighter), there were no classrooms (because of the danger of bombing) and the blackboards consisted of the sand, where teachers wrote letters and numbers. Yet in both of those situations students learned – because they saw a purpose in it.

I guess my point is that, while I agree on the whole with your analysis of the reasons behind the cutbacks in education, I think it is a mistake to place much stress on “saving” the schools as they are; a new world is needed, and the struggle around the schools has to incorporate and embody that vision.

Noel Ignatiev

2 thoughts on “A Response from Noel Ignatiev

  1. The problem with comrade Ignatiev’s piece is that it doesn’t in fact take into consideration the massive response by many non-white students (mostly Black and Latino youth) who have been active participants across the US in fighting for their schools to remain open. From the perspective of capital, it entirely makes sense to redistrict and promote private or charter school education in order to extract Surplus Value–since a private school is a firm in effect. It also makes sense for capital to keep schools which are public in disrepair in order to alleviate public revenues and offset expenditures and let the local working class population effectively bleed.

    The question though, is how to attain a working-class perspective on all of these events? The problem is that working class students and teachers are not only finding themselves at odds with one another, but that this division is beginning to afford opportunities for the capitalist class and state to conduct a divide and rule strategy. Since these divisions are latent within a class that has not yet learned the value of sticking together, or of addressing their problems with each other, the struggle will necessarily be conducted unevenly and bound to fail. Only by fighting do workers gain the experience and confidence needed to effectively change their conditions, and only by fighting together do they earn a glimpse into what unified class power feels like.

    All of that takes time, however. We do not enter the struggle as militants saying behold, you are doing it all wrong. Education isn’t worth it, your school isn’t worth it; rather, we critique education as a whole and launch demands. Every material advance which the class wins, it must be on guard to defend it and take it to then next level–but they first have to getting their footing on the first step.


  2. It’s the Left and their cherished socialist “Welfare State” that is to blame for these and all of society’s ills. Yes, I mean that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s