Thursday, September 20, 2007

European dream

I attended a very white high school in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Looking at my high school yearbook, out of my graduating class of 550, I count less than ten faces "of color." And when I say "of color" here, I'm including the Asian students and the kids from the A.B.C. program: the handful of kids brought in from inner-city school districts to get "A Better Chance."

About the only minority my school district had managed to integrate was the Jewish population. I can't really even estimate for you what portion of the student body was Jewish because they didn't look different and they didn't self-segregate. All I know is that many of my friends were Jewish and many were not, and either case was perfectly ordinary. You may think that integrating the Jewish population is no big deal, but considering the fact that a big chunk of my town had been explicitly chartered as "no blacks and no Jews," I feel like integrating the Jews at least showed some good improvement.

In history class, we learned about segregation. We learned about "separate but equal." We learned about the civil rights movement and "separate is inherently unequal" and about forced integration through busing. Just imagine this charming scene of all of these lily-white young faces learning such things from a history book instead of from real life experience. We also got to learn about things like "de facto segregation" and "white flight."

And thus my white liberal high school teachers encouraged me to think about racism.

I've talked about how difficult it is to avoid racism -- the gut level sentiment that those guys aren't just ordinary people like us -- and I concluded long ago that one of the most effective and painless techniques is to have people of different races and ethnicities interacting with each other in their daily lives, and especially to play together as children, as in Martin Luther King's dream.

But I figured that realistically I'd be one day be faced with a choice between sending my kids to an integrated school or a good school, and not have an option that includes both. As a high school student I fretted over this question, and I basically concluded that I would probably end up sending my future kids to a school system as white as the ones I attended because it wouldn't be fair to my kids to shortchange them on their education for the sake of my idealism.

Fast forward to today. I chose my neighborhood here in Bordeaux, France based on its proximity to downtown and to the tramway line, not the school district. And when my kids reached school age, I was pleasantly surprised with what they got.

It would be a whole additional article to describe how impressed I am with the quality of the education my kids are getting -- the curriculum, the materials, the outings, the programs, and how closely their development is followed. And I didn't have to make the unfortunate choice that I thought I'd have to make. The school is about a third white non-Muslim, about a third Muslim or of Muslim origin, and about a third "other" including black, asian, various hybrids, and many whose ethnic origins are difficult to identify precisely. From the names and from the fact that we're near a large synagogue, I assume some of the kids are Jewish as well. I wouldn't consider moving out to the suburbs to take my kids out of this school.

In France, the education is run 100% at the national level. Every kid of the same age in all of France has the same basic curriculum. The teachers are hired and assigned at the national level. In the U.S. -- as you know -- education is 100% local.

As a consequence, in the U.S. an individual school district or school can experiment with an innovative new program or teaching style that could prove to be very effective and catch on in other places. Impossible in France. As a consequence, in the U.S. if one community wants its kids learning an additional subject that the next town over doesn't want to bother with, they can add it to the public school curriculum. Again not possible in France. As another consequence, the disparity between the rich kid's education and the poor kid's education is dramatically greater in the U.S. than in France.

The disparity creates a vicious circle in the U.S. where bad schools get worse -- as parents who have an interest in their kids' education and who have the means to get their kids out of a poor school will do it.

I'm not claiming that French schools are perfect in the diversity-peace-and-love department. Far from it. Yet I feel like some very positive options exists in some cities here, and I haven't seen anything quite like it elsewhere. Watching the interactions among the kids, teachers, and parents at our school, I get the impression that nobody's even aware of the racial/ethnic differences. I can't tell if it's P.C. politeness or if it really is that after a certain amount of time living in the city you stop worrying about it. And the school does an impressive job of teaching the kids about France -- instilling them with the idea that they're all French -- while at the same time recognizing the diversity by teaching stories and songs from Africa and other countries and having programs where parents whose native language is not French (like me!) come in and read stories or sing songs in their native language.

Recently my little family took a trip by train, and as usual the kids spent most of the train ride drawing and coloring. Nico was getting ready to color Batman's chin, so he asked me for the "beige" (the French term for caucasian flesh-tone). I looked down at the handful of colored pencils I'd brought and found I'd forgotten that one. Before I had even a moment to think what to do, Nico said "That's okay, I'll just use brown," and grabbed the brown pencil out of my hand and colored Batman's face with it. He then proceeded to draw a bunch of other people and colored their smiling faces brown as well.

I feel like I shouldn't have been surprised: it's just a color, after all -- it doesn't mean anything.

Well, it shouldn't mean anything. That's my European dream.


David Christian said...

Hey clhanson,
I went to the same school as you did growing up, about 8 years later (we'll see if that gives you a hint as to who I am ;). Nothing had changed.

It may not be surprising then that I feel the same way - I want my kids to grow up in an integrated environment so they'll have an simple way to avoid that gut reaction that I struggle with. We'll see how it goes if we end up raising our kids in NYC. People tell me it's impossible, but I see kids around.

Anyway, I just wanted to drop a quick note to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. I couldn't figure out a way to send a private mail. It is wonderfully written, and talks about things I care about. And every once in a while I get to learn something about my sister ;)

Anonymous said...

my guess: St. Louis Park.

I live in downtown Minneapolis. My kids are going to schools with a lot of diversity.

Cyn Bagley said...

Hi there,

I was pretty interested in the German system too. In some ways it can be good. However, I saw one case where a young adult could not go to college because his parents had decided that they were middle class... As you know college is also on a national level. Because his parents refused him college (the kid was brilliant with language and electronics), he had to pay for his own college and work at the same time.

So yea, there are problems sometimes...

beatdad said...

The city where my older son lives is so diverse that almost any school he goes to is "integrated."

We did however have to choose between our neighborhood school and a better school. Both schools were public; one was just in a more affluent neighborhood. The school was turned into a magnet school because all the neighborhood kids went to private schools.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey David!!!

I think I have a guess as to your identity. :D

I'm glad you like my blog!!! I think it's probably feasible to raise kids in NYC. If you're still interested in sending an email, it's chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.

Hey C.V. Rick!!!

Close, but no cigar! It was Edina. That's cool that you're in downtown Minneapolis -- it's really a nice city.

Hey Cynthia!!!

Yeah, I don't mean to make it sound like I think the European system is perfect. It's just kind of interesting to analyze a different system.

Hey Wayne!!!

I hear that the Pacific Northwest has some pretty nice cities in general. It's a little unfortunate though to be in a situation where the public schools are struggling to find enough students because so many of the parents have just given up on them...

Baconeater said...

In Ontario, Canada Roman Catholic schools get publicly funded because of a deal made at Confederation (in 1967). We have faith based schools for other faiths, but parents have to pay out of pocket for them.
One politician wants to fund all faith based schools "to be fair." Talk about a step back into the dark ages as far as teaching myths to the kids on public dough.
Not only that, but it will created a mess. What is to stop 75%+ students from going to schools of their parents faiths, and who will pay for the busing and even the building of new schools "just to be fair"

The France system sounds great.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Baconeater!!!

Wow, public funding for religious schools??? Yikes!!! There area lot of great things about Canada, yet some unexpected oddities as well...

I don't want to exaggerate the situation in France, but my natural optimism makes me want to highlight (and encourage) things I see as positive. Urban centers tend to be cosmopolitan throughout the world, and French cities are the example I know best, but I'm planning to do another post soon about urbanism in general. :D

Anonymous said...

Wow. France: So close and yet so far. We're still trying to kick out the "black sheep" here. Sigh.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

Actually, I'm a little curious about what the situation is like in Switzerland since it looks like we'll be leaving France and moving there. Zurich is pretty cosmopolitan so I'm hoping it won't be too bad...

To All:

My high school best friend has written her thoughts in response to this article on her own blog here: School history.

Isn't blogspace cool? I just can't get over this multidirectional rather than top-down flow of information we get here! :D

Anonymous said...

OMG, I will be so happy if you move to swizzy! I'm all giddy just thinking about it.

Then again, maybe IRL we wouldn't be BFFs automatically, lol. :-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

Yep, I'm moving to Switzerland. I'm sure we'll have loads of fun together!!! We can form the Swiss branch of the exmormon organization if there isn't one already...

Anonymous said...

Wow! I loved reading that. Like a breath of fresh air.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Nicholas!!!

beatdad said...

The schools I referred tO are in Oakland Ca. One of the hopes we had in moving to Eugene was that our kids would go to the neighborhood schools.

So far we are happy with what we see; our daughter doesn't start until next year.

Moving to Z├╝rich? I have a couple of friends who live there; one of whom is a graduate of Rutgers.