"FIRST GOD made idiots," observed Mark Twain. "That was for practice. Then he made school boards."
And then, in a real fit of pique, he made Keith Jackson and Steve Phillips.
These are the two members of the San Francisco School Committee who want students to be taught to judge books by their color. They have proposed a strict racial quota for reading lists in the city's public high schools — of seven books to be read in class each year, four must be by nonwhite authors. (Another version of the proposal sets the quota even higher, at seven out of 10.)
To the politically correct fanatics, "Huckleberry Finn" is not a great American novel, but merely a great white novel.
Perhaps Jackson and Phillips were inspired by the Ebonics imbecility last year in Oakland, where school officials voted to teach black schoolchildren ghetto slang instead of correct English. Perhaps, in a passion for "multiculturalism," they are so open-minded that their brains have fallen out. Perhaps they hate people who love literature.
In any case, they are insisting that the School Committee remedy an English curriculum that is "too white." The vote is scheduled for March 24, and the omens are bad. Dan Kelly, the board's vice president, has gone on record with the comment that "Huckleberry Finn" had "a bias against African-Americans." Only a nitwit would say something so ignorant about a novel the surpassing theme of which is the decadence and moral blindness of the slave-owning South. But nitwit or not, Kelly has a vote. Juanita Owens has a vote, too. She doesn't object to divvying up reading lists by race but wants additional quotas adopted for gay and lesbian authors.
Jackson explained to the San Francisco Chronicle last week that the reason black students in the city's public schools have a D average is because literature of "the white, European establishment" is more than they can handle.
"Black children learn differently from other children," he said. "It's an environmental impact from where they come from. It's some type of handicap."
Jackson is black, of course. A white board member who said something so revolting on Monday would be an ex-board member by Tuesday.
Probably there are some wonderful teachers left in the San Francisco public schools, and maybe some wonderful principals. There must still be some wonderful parents who haven't fled for the private schools or the suburbs, or surrendered to the incessant pound-pound-pound of racialism that dominates the city's education system. But there can't be too many, or the streets would be thronged with furious protesters howling for the heads of Jackson and Phillips. The very fact that their proposed regulation hasn't been crushed by a wave of outrage — or laughed into oblivion — tells you all you need to know about the collapse of public education in San Francisco.
Only a politically correct fanatic would want children to be taught that what matters most about a book is the color of the author's skin. Or to believe that the only books worth their interest or enthusiasm are those written by members of their own ethnic group. Or to think of "Huckleberry Finn" not as a great American novel, but a great white novel; or "Go Tell It On The Mountain" as a black novel; or "Song of Myself" as a gay poem.
"There's no such thing as a writer of color," the British author Christopher Hitchens said last week. "You're either a writer or you're not."
But to the fanatics, all writing must be refracted through a personal prism of race (or class or gender). Never mind that one of the timeless tests of great writing is the ability of an author to transcend the parochial and express the universal. Never mind that the authors most worth reading are those who can see beyond the surface of a particular man or woman to the inner truths common to all men and women. The themes of race/class/gender have been dealt with in numerous masterpieces — from Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" to Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" to Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." But to Jackson and Phillips and the school officials who judge literary "diversity" by the color of skin, Shakespeare, Paton, and Lee are merely three white authors. And three of those are enough.
Ebonics was premised on the belief that stroking black students' "self-esteem" mattered more than getting them to speak and write decent English. This San Francisco nonsense goes further: It elevates minority self-esteem above the need to expose kids to the classic literature of the English-speaking world. Afrocentric "history" goes further still, actually mangling historical truth in order to inflate self-esteem. What's next? Diversifying science and math?
In a school that is mostly nonwhite, after all, isn't it a bit insensitive to force all students to learn geometry according to Euclid, a dead white Greek? Who says that light travels at 186,000 miles per second, or that E=mc2? That may be fine for Jews who identify with the culture that produced Einstein, but how about recognizing the equal validity and importance of Hispanic physics?
Wait for it. The "diversity" steamroller isn't going to stop with English, literature, and history. If Mark Twain is just another white guy, Isaac Newton is, too.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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