Alison Stewart’s First Class begins with her mother, Carol Stewart, as she watches the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Carol, a retired biology teacher, marvels, “What a magnificent display of what Homo Sapiens is capable of in his most civilized state?” That evening, when asked about Washington D.C.’s Dunbar High School marching band, Carol comments, “I can’t believe those girls were switchin’ their behinds … That is not what young ladies should do!”
In a , I contrasted the disciplinary excellence that was required at the Dunbar of 1954 with the chronic disorder and frequent violence of the school a half century after desegregation. The elite Dunbar also had a different type of discipline – a professional and academic discipline that allowed its graduates to produce a stunning record of academic, legal, medical, and artistic achievements. This disciplined culture led to a more subtle conflict between the Dunbar of the glory days and as a neighborhood school that has (predictably) failed to overcoming the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and generational poverty.
During the first two-thirds of First Class, Stewart recounts numerous examples where Homo Sapiens did not act in a civilized manner. In almost every case, it was white racists who behaved disgracefully, betrayed professional discipline, and violated legal and democratic principles. The Dunbar culture was the antithesis of this disrespect for constitutionality and academic canons. Its African-American educators understood that they couldn’t fight fire with fire, counter violations of American and community values with the same type of behavior. Their answer required more than holding students to high standards of conduct. Dunbar instilled an overall culture of dignity and dedication.
For more than a half of a century, Dunbar and its predecessor, the M Street School, cultivated a respect for academic conventions, as well as learning, and of statesmanship, as well as legal thought. They understood the need to be “twice as good” as their competition when playing by the white system’s rules. Examples of this traditional rigor, from rejecting the use of a preposition to end a sentence with, to a suspicion of Afro-American studies in the 1960s, pervade Stewart’s narrative. A chapter’s title, “Elite Versus Elitism” addresses the tension between the need to always exhibit first class professionalism and to live in a world where simple justice was denied to most African-Americans.
Stewart writes, “Rightly or wrongly, the faculty felt the way to preserve Dunbar was to keep the academic bar astronomically high.” The school wasn’t a democracy but a meritocracy, or even a dictatorship. “Being a Dunbar student was a way of life,” she explains, and it was illustrated by its Latin motto, Adveris Major, Par Secundis (Greater in Adversity, Equal in Prosperity.)
Stewart does not describe the Dunbar elites as perfect. Contrary to the urban legends, Dunbar did not enforce the infamous “paper bag” rule of discriminating against darker skinned students. There was the specter of “intra-racism,” however, and status-consciousness definitely existed. Favoritism occurred, and academic tracking was seen as essential.
It has been said that, rightly and wrongly, institutions are “frozen thought.” Stewart tells two stories that should always be heeded by school reformers. The first occurred in the 1960s, when an outstanding Dunbar educator, Madison Tignor, was promoted to principal of another D.C. school where he was challenged by the “New Strivers” or students who challenged tracking, and demanded more freedom expression and Afro-American studies.
Being a Baby Boomer, I’m inclined to support the “New Strivers” and I was very disappointed to read that Tignor apparently took an unethical action against their leader. Being a white teacher who has frequently witnessed these sorts of intergenerational disputes within my city’s black middle class, however, I have rarely felt compelled to make judgments of the participants in such disagreements.
Nothing in Stewart’s narrative undercuts my experience in which many middle class blacks defend an enduring value system that is deeply held because their traditionalism was developed as a shield from the extreme threats of Jim Crow. When treated with respect, members of the black middle class are more than willing to participate in a dialogue over new policies that generate discomfort.
On the other hand, Stewart’s second story reconfirms my experience which says that reformers must invest the time for conversations that are often uncomfortable. It is a shame that militants in the 1960s were often too impatient for such discussions, but the youthful overreach was understandable. The failure to communicate during the chancellorship of Michelle Rhee remains incomprehensible. Michelle Rhee told Stewart that she was aware of Dunbar’s past, but she sure didn’t act as if she understood it. Rhee came in like an “ER crash unit” and in 2007 she tried to instantly impose her ideology.
Stewart recalls one of Rhee’s most infamous performances – where she violated the basic discipline of constitutional democracy. Under questioning of the (then) Councilman Vincent Gray, Rhee testified that she had disobeyed the city council’s directive to cut summer school in order to save jobs and, instead, fired teachers.
Gray, who would later defeat Rhee’s patron, Adrian Fenty, in the mayoral race, explained that the firing of so many black teachers hit a nerve. “Michelle Rhee just doesn’t understand middle-class black people.”
Many others have documented the tone-deafness that cost Rhee her job in D.C., but Stewart gives a unique perspective in the way that it undermined efforts to improve Dunbar. She recounts her 87-year-old date to a Dunbar reunion and how the event gave her a unique insight into what would go wrong when Rhee tried to impose revolutionary, not evolutionary, change on the school. Stewart explains how Rhee selected a New York school management organization, Friends of Dunbar, to turn it around. She explains how the outsider who would run the transformation, George Leonard, got off on the wrong foot when he told alumni what he would do to save Dunbar, as opposed to soliciting their advice.
Leonard, the Friends, and Rhee may have started out making unforced errors that created “a case of ‘How dare you call my ugly sister ugly?,’” but their arrogance did not end there. A reader could be forgiven for jumping to the last quarter of First Class, where Stewart details the hubris that brought them down.
Even if readers start with the more timely part of Stewart’s masterpiece, they must go back to the beginning and savor her entire narrative. Key themes, such as the need for disciplined school environments and the need for reformers to slow down and listen, will jump out. However, readers must take the time to wrestle with the book’s nuance. The history of a school even transcends the educational themes. First Class must be also be read as the cultural history of how a first class set of professional and academic ethics grew in response to extreme outrages. While not giving answers, it raises questions about how change should occur in a society that thinks, rightly or wrongly, that time-honored traditions are too old-fashioned.