- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

What a great time for the neo-segregationists of American apartheid. At Oberlin High School in Ohio, a parents’ group has complained about the black history class being given by a white teacher. The black teacher who used to give it has a scheduling conflict, and the Oberlin Black Alliance for Progress thinks the white substitute won’t be good for the students.

“When you talk about slavery, students need to understand it is not our fault,” says Phyllis Yarber Hogan. “Our ancestors did nothing wrong to be enslaved. How do you work through that when the person teaching it is the same type of person who did the enslaving?”

Leave aside the fact black Africans and Arabs also “did the enslaving” and, unlike whitey, still do in parts of that benighted continent. We’re talking here about “comfort levels.” One can well understand that self-respecting black students forced to learn about slavery from some self-abasing, cringe-making, guilt-ridden white liberal might well feel a little creeped out. But it does make you wonder whether separate “histories” whose teachers are selected on the basis of race is such a good idea. And, incidentally, aren’t there any white kids in the black history class?

In New York, meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg has just opened Harvey Milk High, the city’s first public school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Are there many transgendered 13-year-olds, even in Manhattan? Mike Long, the chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, has blasted the city for a frivolous use of taxpayers’ dollars. “Is there a different way to teach homosexuals?” he asked. “Is there gay math?” Well, there’s gay economics (John Maynard Keynes), but I’ll save that one for another day. And, as Oberlin’s black history class illustrates, one should never underestimate the resourcefulness of the identity-group lobbies.

“Everybody feels that it’s a good idea,” said Mayor Bloomberg, cutting the ribbon and cutting to the chase, “because some of the kids who are gays and lesbians have been constantly harassed and beaten in other schools and this lets them get an education without having to worry.” As in Oberlin, it’s about every student’s right to a “nonthreatening learning environment”, and, if he doesn’t actually learn anything in the nonthreatening learning environment, he’s still better off than if he’d been in the nonlearning threatening environment of most New York high schools.

Mike Long is missing the point. Schools today are not primarily in the history or math business. Instead, they teach “self-esteem.” The late Bill Henry, in his wonderfully gloomy book about political correctness, summed it up in the banner fluttering proudly over the entrance to one Midwestern schoolhouse: “We celebrate ourselves.” That’s the spirit, kids. If you can’t get a prize for Latin, give yourself one just for being you.

This is a novel approach to education. For example, the animating philosophy behind the traditional British boys’ school is to reduce self-esteem to undetectable levels within the opening month of your first term. Incidentally, they’re also excellent places to get homosexuality out of your system: they were Gay High before Gay High was cool.

But, even though to some of us the self-esteem levels of American youth seem alarmingly high, the British system has no chance of catching on. We celebrate ourselves. And, as black history and gay high school and transgendered kindergarten suggest, ultimately the best place to celebrate yourself is without anyone else getting in the way.

Now it’s true that, when I was in high school, certain boys were picked on for being gay. None of them was actually gay, as was demonstrated in the fullness of time. They were just a bit weedy, preferred stamp-collecting to sports, not entirely at ease in the communal showers, etc. Would they be allowed into Mayor Bloomberg’s Gay High? Or would they be held over in Straight School to keep getting beaten up? And isn’t it the case that, in the absence of gays, the fellows who picked on them will just pick on someone else? If you were the four-eyed fatso at Straightsville Academy, wouldn’t you be feeling a little nervous now all the transgendered crowd have been transferred to Gay High and you’re the most inviting target? Wouldn’t you be agitating for the right to go to Bulging Middle School?

After all, in a victim culture, why should only those in fashionable victim groups reap the benefits? Even presidents have been damaged by high school, as Bill Clinton revealed after Columbine, when he said he could still feel the sting of humiliation at being the useless lardbutt who was last to be picked when they were choosing teams. He put it better, I thought, when he told his Whitewater confrere Susan McDougal a few years back that he loved being governor because “women are throwing themselves at me. All the while I was growing up, I was the fat boy in the Big Boy jeans.” Who knows? If those big-haired cheerleaders at Hot Springs High hadn’t given him the brush-off, Paula might never have had to suffer that unwanted pants-drop, nor Kathleen that breast-grab, nor the Sudanese the bombing of their aspirin factory. Perhaps today he would have transferred to Hot Springs Gay High and become our first gay president instead of our first black one, and it would have been George Stephanopoulos who brought the sexual harassment suit. Or maybe he would have had so much counseling to make himself comfortable with who he is that the lonely fat boy would have been transformed into a narcissistic psycho, gone postal in the cafeteria, been taken out by a SWAT team, and that Sudanese aspirin factory might still be standing. Whatever their merits from the broader geopolitical perspective, these scenarios don’t really have much to commend them in education terms.

Wouldn’t it be easier simply to abolish high school? There’s barely any pretense at scholarly rigor, and it seems an awfully expensive way of providing nonthreatening environments for self-celebration. Before the First World War, most Americans left school at eighth grade or before. If we resumed that system, those who wished could get jobs, the rest could take four years off before going on to college and becoming Doctors of Anger Management or Bachelors of Queer Theory.

But, if that’s politically unviable and if it’s unrealistic to expect Mayor Bloomberg’s schools to crack down on bullying, wouldn’t it be more cost-effective just to move all the bullies into Bully High School? There they can bully each other to their hearts’ content — or, as the educators would say, celebrate their identity in a purpose-built mutually threatening learning environment.

Mark Steyn is a senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group and North American editor for the Spectator and is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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