The Courage to speak bluntly

Dr. Irene lmpellizzeri offered these remarks before the Cathedral Club of the diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. on May 18, 1992.
Irene lmpellizeri is a member of the New York City School Board, a champion of sound public education and an outspoken critic of school policies which undercut parental responsibility.
For her courage to speak bluntly on these important issues, she received a special award from the Catholic League’s Long Island Chapter.
Although her observations are specifically about the schools of New York City, her message rings true in every American school district and in the hearts and minds of caring parents everywhere.

While it is usually a treat to be invited out, it is a particular pleasure to be invited by my friends in the Cathedral Club.

You bring together Catholics in the law, the judiciary, public service, the business community, education – to analyze current secular world issues in the light of church teachings – and to work to keep the faith alive in the Brooklyn Diocese. Your principles and purposes are as vital, vibrant and crucial today as they ever were. You have been implacable in your support of these principles, within the sacred circle of faith and good works, especially those works which encourage the young scholarship winners.

Never in my memory as a New Yorker has there been a greater need in this City for an organization like the Cathedral Club. Never has there been a greater justification for the dedication and endless hard work which it has taken to maintain the activities of the Club.

And so, I am honored to have been asked to address you tonight. As you have heard, my career has been in Education, teaching in the schools and deaning in CUNY – although I am also a State licensed psychologist and do pro-bono work with young people, most of whom attend our pubIic schools.

You are from other fields, but you probably know some public school teachers. Certainly, your tax dollars are there in the schools, and this City’s future is dependent upon what takes place in the classrooms and how forces outside the school influence what goes on in the classroom.

Tonight, I will not give you any oratory about why public schools are a good thing. It is a little late for me to be thinking about why public schools are a good thing: one way and another, I have served public education in New York City for 48 years.

Fortunately for you, I am not going to float any schemes for reforming school finance, or for getting more money for education out of the fiscal authorities (although we need all the money we can get), or even just for re-ordering national priorities. You will hear quite enough of that in this election year. I want to talk to you about morale, in the schools and what has happened to it.

So I shall start with what we in public education in New York City felt … and I propose to use the word “love” for those feelings, because love includes exasperation, quarreling, and grief … the love, then, that we have felt over the years for the public schools of New York City.

Most of us who taught in the New York City public schools got into the habit of referring to the City’s schools simply as “The System” – as if there were no other system in the world.

”The System”. It does not sound much like a pet name. It is not one of the usual terms of endearment. All the same, if we define a system as “an arrangement of things in which the things themselves gain meaning from their mutual interaction”, then the public schools of New York were a powerful system. We and our students gained meaning – and we felt ourselves gaining meaning – by interacting with each other. We gained meaning from our interaction with an administration that respected professional integrity. We even gained meaning by interacting with the Board of Examiners.

However, most people do not love a system just for being systematic, just for its definable scope, its mutual agency, its intelligible order, its standards. Such attributes are impressive rather than adorable. What was there about “The System” fifty or forty years ago that enlisted such loyalty and effort and forbearance?

Gratitude was part of it, of course; because during the Great Depression ‘The System’ had offered status and security that the young college graduate could hardly find elsewhere. But I think it was really something else; it was the pervasive sense of sharing a mission – and in New York City the mission of the public schools was particularly rich in psychological and anthropological complexity. For in those days we professionals were not simply handed political solutions to sociological problems.

The difference between a living system and an inanimate system is that in the one we share a mission, in the other we are merely part of a process. In the one we exercise judgment and act; in the other we execute orders and perform.

But true as that statement is and important as it is, the most important truths about schools are not to be found in that sort of abstract statement. They are to be found only in the phenomenology of education. Let us start with some phenomenology – first, what it is (or was, and should be) like to teach school; second, what it is (or was) like to teach school in New York City.

Obviously, people do not go into teaching because they want to discover new things about the universe (the way scientists do) or to create new images of the universe (the way artists do). Those are not the kinds of meaning I was talking about when I said we “gained meaning.” Most of us go into teaching because we want to mean something to somebody – specifically, to the young. We address ourselves to the young because the young of our species grow up by experience, so to speak. They do not grow up like larvae or pupae, or even like chickens and calves, according to some genetic program of maturation, modifiable chemically, perhaps, but more or less set. To use a sentimental figure of speech, it is thrilling to look at a child across a classroom or a counselor’s desk and glimpse two or four or a half dozen possibilities looking back at us out of two eyes – some good, some sad, some terrifying.

Our job is to interact with those possibilities, however faint they are, however flickering, however shy. If we do not interact differently with different moral possibilities in the same child, we are not teachers.

Among our chief rewards is to meet or to hear of a former pupil who is (say) in a Broadway show, or who is a social worker, or who writes; who has achieved something – even if it is only a little decent happiness – and to think, “I stood by that possible actor when he was about to be overwhelmed by the possible thief or the blowhard – his rivals inside the same body.” Or “I helped that young professional woman hold out against the equally possible girl who would have been at the disposal of any violent young male. And I did it when I wished I could go home, get my shoes off, and relax.” Or “I corrected that potential journalist’s book report in a strict and encouraging way, when I could have written ‘Sp.’ and ‘Pet.’ three times each in the margin and ‘Keep up the good work, Lou!’ at the end and let it go at that.” In the nature of things, growing children can have very little experience of being what they are at any moment, and no experience, even in imagination, of what they might become. The possible selves offered for their consideration by the entertainment they now get are degraded, and never were very convincing. But sometimes a teacher can say later, “I knew he had it in him. I knew it before he did. Perhaps I helped him keep his courage up.”

Egotism, of course. But school teachers are entitled to a little private and retrospective egotism. Hope is hard work and deserves its rewards.

That is the generic work of teaching. It goes on, or used to go on, and it should go on, in any working school, whether in the Bronx, or in Greenwich, Connecticut.

But if the school happens to be in a community where many or most of the youngsters come from poor homes, it makes much more strenuous moral demands on teachers. For here the children have to escape out of poverty, with its culture of unblameable failure, into economic competence, with its culture of responsibility.

That is difficult enough in a small community, where there are some examples of social mobility. But in the inner city, a high proportion of poor children have to carry out their escape without having before them – in the round and really there, credibly and reassuringly there – any moral models except their teachers.

‘Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve, and hope without an object cannot live.”

It may be that I am misapplying Coleridge’s lines, but I am not trivializing them.

When I said earlier that the mission of the New York City public schools was particularly rich in psychological and anthropological complexity, I was thinking of the Statue of Liberty and its verse about the tired, poor, huddled masses and the wretched refuse of Europe’s teeming shore. No other city has so comprehensively and so massively welcomed – if you can call it welcome – surge after surge of immigration. For a hundred years, New Yorkers have seen them tumble out of the steerage and begin to work their way up into America: the Germans and “Bohemians,” the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern European Jews…

They concentrated in neighborhoods, and some of them concentrated in certain occupations, but we could watch that sequence of nationalities – or recognizable parts of it – in politics, in the professions, even (Was it Diane Ravit who pointed this out?) in organized crime. We certainly watched it among our colleagues in the System: the clusters of Irish and then Jewish names moving up from the ranks to the chairmanships, to the principalships, to Livingston Street and the superintendencies, and then making place for the next cohort.

There was plenty of jostling and plenty of narrow-eyed ethnic suspicion, but each group in turn did teach the children of the next group to arrive and did remove language barriers, and empathize, and provide models and – hope.

Of course, those were the days before society acquired the strange phenomenon of non-ethnic, non-racial minorities – self-defined minorities – such as the underclass – with agendas that had nothing – perhaps less than nothing to do with acculturation . .. .

The emergence of the new minorities remind us of the difference between a community and an aggregation which Disraeli noted in the industrialized society of his day. He said, “There is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a disassociating than uniting principle.”

He draws a terrifying picture of the formation of an underclass – a picture that is relevant today. In the City where we work, there is little or no community any more. There is aggregation – the forming of groups. And the difference is profound. Communities have consciences. Aggregations have programs. Communities work by civility. Aggregations get their ways by stridency. (I might add that when an aggregation is particularly determined to get its own way, it announces itself as a “community.”)

The fundamental difference between a community and an aggregation is really the difference between what is in one’s interest and what one desires - between one’s hope and one’s appetites.

A community shares a hope; hope is an activity of the spirit. An aggregation simply wants, with a brutal urgency. The human mind is so complicated that intelligence and other gifts of the spirit can actually regulate desire – or it can be prostituted to desire.

A nonjudgemental culture – an indifferentist culture – a nominalist culture – a polymorphus-perverse culture, if you will – puts desire ahead of interest, because desire can be so readily expressed; it has that beet-red infantile immediacy. In such a culture, hope is replaced by the arithmetical sum of appetites.

Those appetites have made their way into much of our lives in this City. They are a large factor in explaining the recent turbulent changes in the school system.

But before we go on to consider these changes, let us think for a few moments about the psychological preconditions of the past successes of the school system.

First, as to the personal progress of the child.

It depends on – it almost consists of – learning to reach decisively beyond the present. In the Nineteenth Century romantic language, it is the conquest of Time by the Will. (We shall return to the Will a little later.) In classical terms, it is the seeking of a good more enduring than transitory gratification, more satisfying than the mindless indulgence of appetite. The saddest immaturity – the most stultifying, from the Latin stultus, foolish – is to accept appetite as a rule of life. The most debilitating weakness is to be unable to defer gratification. The most grievous failure in life is the lack of self-discipline.

Self-discipline is not an instinct; it is learned from adults, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes painfully. Even when learned in childhood, it often falters in adolescence, when desire takes on new forms and an anarchic intensity, and when the young brain is awash with hormones and with the erotic imagery of popular culture. The adult who tells an adolescent “You have the right to obey your impulses” is guilty of treachery to the adolescent as well as to the community.

Second, as to the social and economic progress of the individual.

This also depends on a sober concern for the future and a respect for those institutions such as the family which provide for the future. That may not seem so pressing to the rich, who have a long way to slide, though not as long a way as they may think. But if the children of the poor are taught that they need not be constrained by the social order and its civilities and its prudential demands; that they have the right – unearned, – to set their own standards, or no standards at all; that they are mysteriously able to “think for themselves”; without serving any apprenticeship to reality, without in fact learning to think – as distinct from feel or want – they will never, never escape from poverty.

Only recently have we begun to go behind phrases like “breaking the cycle of poverty” and to distin- guish between the circumstantial poverty and normative poverty, poverty that becomes the norm, between the so-called “working poor” and the so-called “underclass.” The working poor may not be employed, but they are employable, or would be except for some bad luck or old age. The underclass is not really a class so much as a caste; it has its own way of life; it has the strange cultural property of reducing members’ desire to escape; or as Professor Banfield says, “its members prefer the ‘action’ of the street to any steady job” – and I will add, to any commitment.

If we accept youngsters’ feckless or undisciplined behavior on the grounds that it cannot really be prevented – “You know they’re going to do it anyway”- we objectively (as the Marxists used to say) push them towards the underclass.

Third, as the progress of ethnic groups.

The immigrant groups that have “made it” quickly in American society – various Asian groups are the latest – have had one striking characteristic in common: they brought to this country a strong sense of family, a simple respect for parental authority. It is characteristic of the various groups that have not fared so well that family structures and authority had, for one reason or another, been weakened. It is clear that any school policy that shields children from their parents’ traditional values and authority – any practice of addressing children over the heads of their parents – tends to hinder the progress of the group and to “emancipate” more and more of its children into the underclass. At no time have I been more aware of the danger to the family than during the episodes last year on the condom distribution policy that constituted what the media describe as the most bitter battle in the history of the City’s public schools.

Anyone who attended the hearings in the Hall of the Board of Education and heard the loud hissing when speakers used the words   “family,” “marriage,” “man and woman” and “children,” would agree that there are strong forces in this City opposed to the family.

The Chancellor’s program, passed by the seven-member Board 4-3, distributes condoms without giving an opportunity for parents to refuse consent. In the recent Staten Island case, the court struck down the petition by parents that an “opt-out” provision be instituted.

Almost 100 years ago, Chesterton wrote that “the family instinct is the indestructible minimum of morality; the one germ of social consciousness. Whatever institution or idea we trust as a substitute for the family becomes a cold temple. The builder of that cold temple shall see his folly: the gradual dehumanization of his own children before his own eyes.”

Well, the school System has survived political predators, exparte theoreticians, social engineering by amateurs in large private foundations, the censorship of the past by the self-appointed future – and no doubt it will survive its present demoralization and the demoralization of society. But it will not survive intact. That is already clear.

I have used the term “demoralization” as a pun. I mean it to refer both to morality and to morale. I take as my text some often-quoted lines by one of the greatest of 20th century poets:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Yeats wrote those lines before I was born, and they have been applied at intervals to quite a number of different situation- in each of which they have seemed quite apposite. Our feelings turn out to be much the same when civilization is assaulted, no matter by whom. I shall apply the lines yet again to current affairs, and I beg you to observe that the application, though sordid enough, is not trivial.

There seems to be an extraordinary celebration going on around us, a celebration of the momentary, of the barren, of the terminal, of the involuntary, of the gross – a death-culture, in fact.

We still work hard to extend the time and the spaciousness of life; to reduce cruelty, towards animals as well as humans; to cure sterility and the natural forms of infant mortality. And yet we are inventing machines to make suicide less unattractive; establishing a broader right to “pull the plug” on the helpless; asking why we should not break up a deformed neonate for parts; making movies that dwell lovingly on death-agonies, decaying flesh, cannibalism, mutilation, torture. We are encouraged to collect orgasms – you have only to look at the covers of magazines that once guided young adults in the formation of families and which now guide them in the achievement of perfect orgasm – and to savor “climaxes” over and over on videotapes, because for us the orgasm is the end, not the beginning.

Any celebrity who lacked at least one alcoholic parent and who was never the victim of child abuse finds it hard to compete for our attention, because we consider a healthy family a contradiction in terms.

We cannot face the continuity of life because the continuity of life implies moral responsibility for our acts.

And to those who want to assume moral responsibility, the new “liberating” shibboleths are very daunting.

“The best lack all conviction.”

It is hard to act on one’s moral convictions in a society that has more and more withdrawn its protection from innocence and extended it to irresponsibility.

Recently, a leaflet made its appearance in the high schools of our System, this one published by the New York City Department of Health with funding from the Federal Centers for Disease Control. It is a practical little handbook for teenagers even suggesting techniques and equipment, such as condoms turned into “dental dams” for use in oral as well as vaginal sex. It suggests how boys may approach partners – presumably female, though perhaps not exclusively so, – and those approaches have a certain endearing enthusiasm: “getting down with you is great. It could be even better if we used rubbers. How about trying the red ones tonight?”

Now, the “gay organizations, to do them justice, have been scrupulous about telling their clients and catechumens that while the condom is (I quote their instructional materials) “the only way to make [sex] safer the condom does not make sex safe.” I have never seen them leave off the R. The implication is clear; we may take it as the expert’s judgment that there is no safe sex. And the implication is equally clear; anyone who takes youthful sex lightly is implicitly shrugging off a number of predictable and painful deaths. The New York City Department of Health (and the Centers for Disease Control) are also careful never to leave the R off “safer”, but their enthusiasm for condoms is wonderfully infectious: “Condoms can be sexy! they come in different colors, sizes, flavors, and styles to be more fun for you and your partner. You can put them on together.” These authorities, in fact, exhort the students, “Use your imagination!”

What is distinctive about this governmental educational material in pamphlet form is that it features “The Teenager’s Bill of Rights.” The rights are stated in the first person, presumably to avoid the offensive image of an adult telling a teenager what his rights are. Thus the first two rights are: “I have the right to think for myself. I have the right to decide whether to have sex and who to have it with.” (We may put the bad grammar down as verisimilitude.)

The sixth is: “I have the right to ask for help if I need it.” Those of us who have learned the new language of “concern” can translate that as: “I can go behind my parent’s back.”

Quite apart from the overweening circumvention of parents, quite apart from doctrinaire insensitivity to the needs of the children of the poor, how are we to evaluate someone in a position of trust who tells a child, “You don’t have to play Russian roulette, but if you do, as is your right – and it’s so exciting! – it’s much, much, much safer if you take out most of the cartridges and leave only one or two?”

William Butler Yeats appeared to believe that each successive age in the world’s history had an ideal or ethos that could be summarized by one image; and in the poem I quoted, he says that the age which for nearly twenty centuries has revered the image of the baby in Bethlehem is now ending, and that a nightmarish new age, symbolized by a pitiless beast “with lion body and the head of a man,” is about to begin.

It is an interesting choice of images, is it not? Yeats was not exactly a Christian or a Jew, but when he says that the rocking cradle “vexed” this new creature with the animal body and the human head, and that this new creature will take charge of our souls, I sometimes fear he was a prophet.

Still, I am loath to engage in the sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that the New York City authorities engage in when they say of the children – in the children’s hearing – “Oh, they are going to do it anyway!” That’s a philosophy of despair. I reject it. Perhaps there still is some freedom of the will for institutions as well as for individuals.

I advance hope; hope that the people who love the New York City schools also will challenge the prophesies. I have confidence that the Cathedral Club will feel the implicit duty to help defend the institutions of education against expedient abuse.

Such defense cannot help but take a tortuous and uncertain path – mediating between the current requirements of the System and the abiding imperatives of our consciences. I do not have to review these issues of conscience for you. You know what they are. They are excruciating to us precisely because we are conscientiously trying to do what our system was originally designed to do.

And what should be our weapons in the defense of the schools? They are two in number. One is a conviction that the children of this era are as capable of being wholesome, productive members of society as any who have gone before them; the other is the courage to speak bluntly and truthfully about what is going on.


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Written by Bill