Sunday, May 03, 2009

Of Myth & Myopia

William E. Carlotti

Spring 1983

Of all the issues that divide the Lower East Side Community, the issue surrounding the education of the children attending the public schools of this community seems to generate the greatest amount of community division. And, it is in the issue of education that it becomes apparent that the Puerto Rican, Black, and Asian American majority of this community, who constitute 98% of those who send their children to the public schools of District One, remains a politically unrepresented, economically depressed and even an oppressed segment of the community, dominated by those residents of the community that do not send their children to its public schools.

Never has a population of such peoples struggled so hard and fought so consistently and bargained and cajoled in so many different ways to attempt to acquire the support of those who, on other issues such as the need for low-cost housing or the need for reliable, affordable medical care or the need for changing a bus route, have a clarity of perspective which other communities would find enviable.

Yet, on the question of the education of the children of this community, the myths of the past and the myopia created by the political and economic self-interests of the present, stand as formidable obstacles to those amongst us who would transform or even revolutionize the backward educational expectations and practices of the District One School Board that keep this District at nearly the bottom rung of educational achievement of all of the other Districts of the City even while it is the smallest and one of the most easily managed and administered.

Stephen Siteman’s recent article (April 1-14, ’83) in the East Villager, GETTING THE SHAFT, shows that he has his heart in the right place and it is with considerable apologies to him that I feel impelled, in the interest of the children of this community, to debunk some of the pervasive myths about the history of education on the Lower East Side that his article perpetuates. A bleeding heart, no matter how well-intentioned when it is accompanied by a head buried in the sand, can have a much more devastating effect on the lives of people that the heart is bleeding for than even the most vicious and outlandish attacks.

Siteman’s ridiculous notion that the schools of the Lower East Side “in their nearly one hundred years of existence before World War II, admirably fulfilled their duty . . . of educating their children to be informed citizens of a democracy,” is so patently the uninformed repetition of the myths and illusions of the “Good Old Lower East Side” that it is almost tiresome to have to recite some of the awful facts regarding the education of the immigrants that flooded these streets in the early 1900s.

In those years, the schools of the Lower East Side were hopelessly overcrowded; health and sanitary conditions in them were dangerously insufficient; and thousands of children simply didn’t attend the schools, begging in the streets for survival or providing the child labor for the burgeoning industry of the Lower East Side – the garment industry.

Truancy, the measure of the children absent from the schools who were registered to attend the schools, reached epidemic proportions. Of the children who attended the schools, an average of 32% were three years or more overage (the 1900s phrase for three years or more below grade level) and less than 10% of the children from these schools graduated from high school.

Masses of children worked both in the garment industry and at home on what the garment manufacturers called home-work. Orphan asylums were bursting at the seams, filled with children who were found existing in the streets and alleys of the Lower East Side and these orphanages registered death rates as high as 80% of the children admitted from the streets of the Lower East Side.

The child mortality rate (children under six years of age) for the tenements of the Lower East Side was 114 deaths per thousand. Overcrowding in these tenements raised the population density to a density greater than that of Hong Kong. It was typical to find twenty people, including boarders, living in a two-room flat.

Not only did those who ran the schools of the time fail to educate the masses of the children who attended them but, in their failure to educate them, invented the thesis of the inherited genetic basis of intelligence and proclaimed that these Southern and Eastern Europeans had emerged from an “inferior racial stock” of Europe that made them uneducable in comparison to the “superior race of Nordic-Aryans” that had preceded them in the immigration to America.

It was in this period that the first major American I.Q. Test, the Stanford-Binet, was introduced by Lewis M. Terman and it was in this period that Cyril Burt’s study of twins, based on falsified data, was popularly introduced to support the genetic determination of intelligence. And, it was this thesis and its instruments, the psychological tests and I.Q. tests, which were turned against the immigrant families and their children when the schools failed to educate them.

Although the developing educational psychology department of City College had already instituted the use of an “Otis Intelligence Test” to measure the “intelligence” of children throughout the City and on the Lower East Side, it was not until Henry Goddard was commissioned by the United States Public Health Service to test the incoming immigrants on Ellis Island that the question of intelligence began to receive widespread attention. According to a “scientific” paper that he produced as a result of the testing (which included measuring the width, length, and circumference of the head which he believed was connected with intelligence), he reached the conclusion that 80% of Hungarian, 87% of Russian, 83% of Jewish, and 79% of Italian immigrants were feebleminded. The number of Eastern and Southern Europeans deported because of “feeblemindedness” increased by 350% in 1913 because of the tests.

It was, however, the version of the Stanford-Binet assembled by Lewis Terman for use on Army recruits in 1916 that had its telling impact on the immigrant population. An enormous number of books, articles, and “scientific” papers appeared as a result of the tests based largely on Yerkes’ report on the Army test data. It was claimed that the average American had a mental age of 14 and thus that democracy could not work, and even efforts to improve the standards of living, health, and education for people like those on the Lower East Side were folly.

A number of books discussed the fact that the recent Polish, Russian, Jewish, and Italian immigrants scored well below the people who had immigrated earlier from England, Germany, and Western Europe.

Professor Carl Brigham, in his Study of American Intelligence, argued that the lower classes breed too much and upper classes don’t breed enough and so, since intelligence is inherited, over the years the average intelligence of Americans will decrease. On this basis, he argued, immigration should not only be restrictive, it should be also highly selective. In addition, Brigham advocated the compulsory sterilization of those that the tests found defective.

Brigham became Secretary of the College Entrance Boards whose Examinations for entrance into College were known as the College Entrance Board Exams but which have now evolved into the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT).

The direct result of all this testing and measuring for “intelligence” for schools on the Lower East Side was that the City virtually stopped the building of schools, the Board of Education introduced double sessions into the schools according to the “Gary” plan, and then created ungraded classes – the 1900s version of Special Education.

In 1909, 71.5% of the children attending the public schools of New York City were the children of immigrant parents. 98% of the children attending the schools of the Lower East Side were the children of immigrant parents. In 1909, Elwood P. Cubberly, the Dean of Education at Stamford University, whose writings became the standard for the administration of public education for more than a quarter of a century, wrote in his Changing Concepts of Education that,

“The most severe test for the schools are posed by the southern and eastern European immigrant groups who have come to the country after 1880. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conception of law and order, their coming has served to dilute tremendously our national stock and to corrupt our civic life, and, the problem of proper housing, living, moral, and sanitary conditions, honest and decent government, and proper education have everywhere been made more difficult by their presence.”

The immigrant was “investigated” and “studied” from childhood to the grave. Their effect on politics and citizenship, their insanity and illiteracy, criminal tendency and pauperism, blindness and deafness, feeblemindedness, occupation and destination, -- all were looked into – and, everywhere and in everything the immigrant was found wanting – a MENACE to our national development.

In 42 volumes, published under the guise of scientific scholarship, the United States government documented the shortcomings of the Southern and Eastern European immigrant. If they were Italians, they were not the Italians that claimed Rome. If they were Greeks, they were not “genuine” Greeks descended from Hellenes. The Jewish, Polish, Italian, Russian, etc. immigrants, we were told, were hardly human at all – their head shapes were different, their bodily structure faulty, the weight of their brain deficient. The caliper and the ruler, first used in the United States to measure life for death, later became the instruments for the German Racial Courts under the Nazis. Between 1903 and 1923, the developing Educational Psychology Department at the City College of New York measured the heads (width, length, and circumference) of some 50,000 New York children to establish their “cephalic index” as part of the battery of psychological evaluations to determine the children’s “intelligence” for school placement.

H. H. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office (funded by the Carnegie Foundation) wrote in 1917,

“The science of psychology has developed to a high stage of precision that branch devoted to the testing of individuals for natural excellence in mental and temperamental qualities … when the knowledge of this science becomes generally known in Congress, the body will then be expected to apply the direct and logical test for the qualities which we seek to measure in immigrants.”

Lewis Terman (developer of the Stamford-Binet I.Q. Test at Stamford University) and Henry Goddard were members of the Eugenics Research Association. They were concerned with improving human breeding by cutting off the defective “germ plasm” of the feebleminded. Margaret Sanger, portrayed as the heroine of the introduction of birth control to the poor, was also a member of the Association.

Between 1907 and 1928, under the influence of the eugenicists, 21 states practiced eugenical sterilization. California, under the influence of the forever active Terman’s Human Betterment Foundation, accounted for 6,500 such sterilizations in this period.

Later, a German version of the I.Q. Test was used by the Nazis to assign nearly a million people to be disposed of as “mental defectives”. Aside from the Nazi’s concerted drive against the entire Jewish people, those labeled “mental defectives” constituted the second largest group of the millions of people that met their deaths in the concentration camps.

In 1921, the National Academy of Science published a volume summarizing all of the intelligence testing gathered about the American draftee. The immediate practical application of the data was not to a black and white question but to the question of immigrants. Black Americans were already in segregated schools with an inferior curriculum. What appeared from the data was that the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe scored lower on Terman’s tests than the Black draftee. Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe scored lower than immigrants from Northern and Western Europe.

In 1918, prior to the publication of the data, Madison Grant co-founded the Galton Society and published his Passing of the Great Race. According to Grant,

“…the majority, calling itself ‘the people’, deliberately endeavored to destroy the higher type and something of the sort was in a measure done after the American Revolution by the expulsion of the Loyalists and the confiscation of their lands, with the resultant loss to the growing nation of good race strains, which were in the next century replaced by immigrants of far lower type.”

With its praise of the Nordic Aryan type, Grant’s book became a by-word of Hitler’s number-one scientific advisor and propagandist for eugenics, Dr. Alfred Rosenberg. His book, “The Myth Of The Twentieth Century”, propounded a racial theory that the world was divided into races with the “Aryan” or “Nordic” races as the superior race. Grant’s book was of the same ilk and Grant’s special treatment of the Jewish and Italian people was particularly interesting to the Nazis:

“Recent attempts have been made in the interest of inferior races among our immigrants to show that the shape of the skull does change, not merely in a century, but in a single generation. In 1910, the report of the anthropological expert on the Congressional Immigration Commission gravely declared that a round skull Jew on his way across the Atlantic might and did have a round skull child but, a few years later, in response to the subtle elixir of American institutions as exemplified by an East Side tenement, might and did have a child whose skull was appreciably longer; and that a long skull south Italian, breeding freely, would have precisely the same experience in the reverse direction. In other words, the Melting Pot was acting instantly under the influence of a changed environment.”

Grant’s sneer was directed at Franz Boas’ work against the immutability of head shapes. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Immigration, Grant made these observations:

The country at large has been greatly impressed by… the army intelligence tests…carefully analyzed by Yerkes and Brigham. The experts…believe…the tests give as accurate a measure of intelligence as possible…the questions were selected with a view to measuring innate ability…Had mental tests been in operation…over 6,000,000 immigrants now living in this country…would never have been admitted.”

In 1921, after intense debate, Congress passed the legislation to limit the number of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to 3% of its population in the United States according to the 1910 Census. After Yerkes, Terman, Goddard, Brigham, Laughlin, and company were through with the matter, the permanent immigration law was passed in 1924 which reduced the percentage to 2% of the various groups based on the 1890 Census when, it was asserted, the “superior” Nordic stock was dominant. The 1924 Immigration Law was explicitly passed based on an exclusionary racist policy designed to keep the “inferior” blood from Eastern and Southern Europe from American shores. This inferiority had been shown “scientifically” by the psychologist’s tests that had clearly demonstrated that the innate intelligence of the Polish, Jewish, Russian, Italian, Irish, etc., was 25-30 I.Q. points lower than the “superior” Nordic/Aryan/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon that had immigrated in an earlier period to America.

In the midst of all of this, New York City decided to hire the “professional experts” to study the failing New York school system. In 1910, these experts produced what has become known as the Hanus Report. Henry Goddard, who was an active participant in the drive to restrict immigration, was one of the experts preparing the report. When viewed outside of the context of the whole hysteria about the immigrant, the report appears to be simply concerned with administration, curriculum, professionalism, etc. Diane Ravitch, in her Great School Wars of recent publication, has chosen to interpret the report in this light but a reading of the report itself leaves no doubt about its intent.

Henry Goddard, writing in 1912, just after the report was issued, was never clearer about the educational purposes his participation in the production of the report intended to accomplish:

“Here we have a group who, when children in school, cannot learn the things that are given them to learn, because through their mental defect, they are incapable of mastering abstractions. They never learn to read sufficiently well to make reading pleasurable or of practical use to them. The same is true of number work. Under our compulsory school system and our present course of study, we compel these children to go to school and attempt to teach them the three R’s and even higher subjects. Thus they worry through a few grades until they are fourteen years old and then leave school, not having learned anything of value or that can be of help to them to make even a meager living in the world.

…no amount of work in the slums or removing the slums from our cities will ever be successful until we take care of those who make the slums what they are…If all of the slum districts of our cities were removed tomorrow and model tenements built in their places, we would still have slums in a week’s time, because we have these mentally defective people who can never be taught to live otherwise than as they have been living. Not until we take care of this class and see to it that their lives are guided by intelligent people, shall we remove these sores from our social life.

…They are multiplying at twice the rate of the general population, and not until we recognize this fact, and work on this basis, will we begin to solve these social problems.”

Writing in the Hanus Report (after he had concluded that approximately 80% of the immigrants were feebleminded), Goddard asserted that

“The attempt to make citizens of this class of children by the same method that is used with normal children has been tried, and has failed…Under the compulsory education law we are getting more of them in our schools and have finally driven them into ungraded classes. Having learned something of the lesson that experience has taught us, we have consented to devote nearly half of their time to manual training, and we have seen beneficial results.

…book work is practically useless for these children, and that our work with them, instead of being half-manual, should be all manual and vocational. Careful psychological studies of the type of mind possessed by these defectives show that they are incapable of dealing with abstractions and that everything is abstract with them that does not concern those things that enter into their daily life and experience.” (Emphasis in original)

The practical consequence of the report was to lend support to the Gary Plan of education but also to firmly establish in the New York City school system the elimination of a standardized curriculum in favor of a tracking system. While the Gary Plan, which blatantly sought to establish such a system, was defeated by parental opposition amongst the immigrant grant groups, the ungraded classes and different curriculums for different children became slowly institutionalized by subtler, unannounced means.

Cubberly made the matter clear:

“Every manufacturing establishment that turns out a standard product, or a series of products of any kind maintains a force of efficiency experts to study methods of procedure and to measure and test the output of its works. Such men ultimately bring the manufacturing establishment large returns, by introducing improvements in processes and procedure, and training the workmen to produce larger and better output. Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw product (children) are to be shaped to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing in the schools come from the demands of twentieth century civilization, and it is the business of schools to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down. This demands good tools, specialized machinery, continuous measurement of production to see if it is according to specification, the elimination of waste in manufacture, and a variety in the output.”

So, when the schools of District One appear to be failing because the children are not reading or doing math on grade level; and if there are nearly 2,000 children of the 11,000 children of the District assigned to Special Education classes (the modern ungraded classes); they are being manufactured according to the specifications necessary.

The racism which confronted the Polish, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hungarian, Russian, Ukrainian, etc., immigrant children attending the Lower East Side schools, and which eventually culminated in the 1924 Immigration Law stemmed from the academician’s “scientific” division of Europe’s human population into three distinct “racial” groups. According to the academicians of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Europe was divided into the “superior” Nordic/Aryan/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon group and the “inferior” Alpine/Celtic/Semitic and the Iberian/Mediterranean/River-Bed groups. These groups, they wrote, could be distinguished by the shape of the head which, they maintained, was genetically passed on, without change, from generation to generation. According to their “scientific” findings, the shape of the head served to fix the intelligence of these “racial” groups (also distinguished by skin color, hair color, and eye color) and the psychologist’s I.Q. tests administered en masse to the immigrant groups entering the United States confirmed the “superior” intelligence of the Nordic/Aryan/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon type.

In an attempt to disprove this “scientific” truism of the time, Franz Boas actually ran around measuring the heads of 18,000 individuals from immigrant families. His summary of the measurements was presented to the United States Immigration Commission. What his actual measurements showed was that head shapes varied within the immigrant families, within generations, and between generations. In short, that brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, cousins, children of the same families and within and across immigrant groups all showed variations in head shape and that these changes were “so definite that, while heretofore we had the right to assume that human types are stable, all the evidence is now in favor of a great plasticity of human types, and permanence of types in new surroundings appears as the exception rather than as a rule.” What Boas’ work conclusively revealed was that the cephalic index – “as a measurement of anything other than the size of a person’s hat – was as scientifically viable as the Flat Earth Theory.” The “scientific” racists of the time, however, weren’t confused by the facts.

Madison Grant, who later became president of the New York Zoological Society, published his Passing of the Great Race in 1916 and it became an international best seller. The impact of the book is described by Constantine Panunzio in his Immigration Crossroads which was contemporary to the time:

“The idea has been expounded before this by Gobineau, Chamberlain and William III in Germany in the form of the super-race theory. But it was left to Madison Grant to devolve it in his book in such a striking manner as to stir America…The amazing extent to which this idea seized the American mind can be gathered from the literature. Being a theory difficult to prove one way or the other, it swept whole regions like a gigantic fire, by the momentum of its ego-centric heat. It played an important part in stimulating wartime prejudice and in paving the way for restriction of the immigration of southern and eastern Europeans.”

The racist theories and practices against Southern and Eastern Europeans persisted in the United States up to and even after the Second World War when it took the death of some 50 million people from all over the world to defeat the Nazi practitioners of the theory.

Joan Washington’s well-intentioned and complimentary letter in response to Part I of this series misses the point entirely when she describes the Southern and Eastern European immigrants to the Lower East Side as “the dreaded underclass of that time”. The racism directed at these immigrants was merely appended on to, added on to the already existing, long history of racist practices and theories directed against the Africans in the United States.

When the immigrants came to the Lower East Side, African Americans were already here and they have remained on the Lower East Side as a significant component of the Lower East Side community during the massive flood of immigration between 1880 and 1920 and remain here to this day.

Any of the practices and theories of racism in the United States have always had as their central focus the disenfranchisement, segregation, discrimination, and denial of opportunity against the African American, and the period of the mass immigration of Europeans to the Lower East Side in the late 19th century were no different.

There are those who, when they have examined the experiences of the immigrant, would attempt to deny that the central focus of racist oppression in the United States has been the African American – just as there are those who, when they realize that 15,000,000 were exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps, would attempt to deny that the central focus of the Nazi extermination policy was to dispose of the entire Jewish people.

When the Irish arrived here in the mid-1800s, the African American was living in what was then called the “Five Point” section, what is now the area surrounding City Hall. When the Southern and Eastern Europeans arrived here, the African American was living on Bleecker, Sullivan, Thompson, MacDougal, and Carmine Streets. What was, in the late 1800s, called “Little Africa” by Jacob Riis, has become, in 1983, “Little Italy”. The African Free School Number 2, founded by the New York Manumission Society, was located at Grand Street. There was the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Grove Theatre – all located on the Lower East Side.

Aside from the fact that the schools of the Lower East Side failed to educate the mass of the Eastern and Southern European immigrants that attended them, the African American was segregated and discriminated against and the “scientific” racism directed against the immigrant was multiplied dozens of times when it was directed against the African American.

Rather than admirably “fulfilling their duty…of educating their children to be informed citizens of a democracy” as Siteman contends (from earlier East Villager article) the schools of the Lower East Side have been the central figures of the most vicious racism that the academicians could “scientifically” muster.

The response of the immigrants to these attacks ranged over a broad spectrum – from fighting and organizing to change the nature of the institutions, including the schools, that confronted us; to a stubborn refusal to accept the practices, including those in the schools, which denied us our humanity, finding shelter and comfort in the associations, relations and cultures that we had brought with us; to changing our names, dyeing and greasing our hair, changing our noses and plastering our faces with white powder and assimilating, as far as we were permitted, that which confronted us with hostility, biding our time until time ceased to exist.

The vicious racist assault against the immigrant, instead of producing a unity with those who had historically been the central focus of the assault, produced the denial that the immigrant had anything in common with the descendants of former slaves. Slowly, but as surely as racism was firmly imbedded in United States society, the immigrant was separated and separated themselves from the African American.

The real melting pot of America worked wonders and the Second World War completed the task. Gone was the world of the despised Alpine/Celtic/Semitic Mediterranean/Siberian races and the superior Nordic/Aryan/Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon and presto-chango – here was the new world of the “superior” whites and “inferior” non-whites.

No more statistics on the number of overage Polish, Italian, Jewish, Russian, Hungarian, Irish, etc., children in the schools – there were now the statistics of the percentages of Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Asians, etc., reading below grade level and of how the whites score higher on the City-Wide Achievement Tests and the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) and the Law School Admissions Tests and the Medical College Admissions Tests and how “whites” score higher than “non-whites” on the Intelligence Tests and on the Teacher Competency Tests.

The children of the immigrants, now firmly established amongst the symbol producers (the sociologists, psychologists, linguists, educationalists, anthropologists, economists, etc.), having successfully molted in the melting pot, discard the terms of their own victimization and invent the terms and the instruments of the continuing victimization of those victims that they found here.

The normal statistical curve becomes the new hangman’s noose; the group subtleties of the grammar, syntax, and semantics of language become the new cephalic index of intelligence; and “reverse” discrimination becomes the new police dog and fire hose of higher education.

The children of the immigrants, however, having bided their time, respond to the theory of the genetic basis of intelligence with their own theories of the environmental basis of intelligence; the fact that both of the theories assign “inferior” intelligence to the same centuries-old victims of racism in the United States is of no consequence to these children of the immigrants. After all, their theories are based on the “scientific” findings of cultural deprivation, pathological families, matrifocal or father-absent families, emotionally handicapped children, non-verbal interactions between parents and children, etc., etc., etc.

And so, the new “scientific” racism and its advocates insist that they must run the schools of District One.

1 comment:

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