The Inclusive School

by John H. Fischer - 1964

The present argument for the "inclusive" school rings a novel change on the old theme of how a genuine democracy can balance an equalitarian ideal with the facts of human difference. Is it probable, for example, that in this seething time of tragic racial conflict, the route to democratic color-blindness lies paradoxically through a heightened consciousness of color?

President of Teachers College, Columbia University, and formerly superintendent of the Baltimore schools, Dr. Fischer is chairman of the Advisory Committee on Human Relations and Community Tensions, appointed by the New York State Commissioner of Education. In May, 1964, the Committee presented a special report on the problem of desegregation in New York City. His present argument for the "inclusive" school rings a novel change on the old theme of how a genuine democracy can balance an equalitarian ideal with the facts of human difference. Is it probable, for example, that in this seething time of tragic racial conflict, the route to democratic color-blindness lies paradoxically through a heightened consciousness of color?

IT HAS NOT BEEN A LONG TIME, really, since teaching could accurately be called a quiet profession. Although in every generation some of the most stimulating—and disturbing—people have been teachers, those who preferred to be neither disturbing nor disturbed could, until quite recently, find satisfying seclusion in the classroom. A few such havens may still be left, but every year they become more difficult to find.

Today few teachers or school administrators have any choice but to be involved in many of the most perplexing, most controversial, and most important issues and efforts that now engage the world's attention. In the highly developed countries scarcely less than in the struggling new nations, the school is increasingly being viewed as the foundation, the instrument, and the symbol of virtually every good thing toward which modern man aspires.


In a large and growing number of American communities the most difficult questions school people now face are those arising from a new awareness that what we have been calling equal opportunity for education is not enough; that opportunity alone is of limited usefulness at best until access to it is also equalized. The difficulty is magnified by the fact that the groups for whom such access is often obstructed are the racial minorities who most need education in order to prepare themselves for effective participation in the culture and the society.

Part of what we face is the universal and universally troublesome question of how best to respect the role and protect the rights of ethnic minorities, a problem many countries face and few have solved. To the extent of the similarity, the counterpart of the American dilemma is found in many places, but in certain important details the situation in this country differs to the point of uniqueness.

Sometimes it is said that those responsible for schools should take no account of the racial, social, or national backgrounds of their students—that, on the contrary, fair and equal treatment is possible only when teachers are colorblind and beneficently neutral toward all the antecedent differences of students. On its face, this argument is plausible and appealing, for at first glance it seems the epitome of nondiscrimination and democracy. The trouble with it is that it can be and is used to justify ghetto schools and to rationalize teaching that overlooks massive obstacles to learning.

Teaching and the management of schools would be easier and simpler if we could disregard the conditions that follow on injustice and perpetuate prejudice. And we could, of course, if we could quiet our consciences or close our eyes to educational consequences. To ignore in the school the peculiar handicaps the American Negro pupil suffers because of his history and status in this country, or to fail to teach so as to compensate for those handicaps, is to be irresponsible and unrealistic. When schools are as deeply imbedded in the life of the nation as ours are, when so many hopes rise and fall on the outcome of a family's efforts to educate its children, when education is the key to so many other opportunities, no public school that ignores the special conditions affecting its Negro pupils can be either faithful to its duties or effective in discharging them. The limitations and disabilities that now afflict the vast majority of Negro pupils reflect at once the deeply urgent needs of children as persons and the central social problem of our time.


The school's obligation to deal directly and deliberately with racial differences and relationships should not be interpreted to mean that the school can carry the entire burden alone. The history of the current crisis is long, tragic, and complex, and we shall not dispose of it overnight. Nor is it possible now to specify everything that is required to set things right or to lay out precise timetables for all the steps that must be taken. But neither must we assume that because the problem of racial discrimination has been with us for three and a half centuries, we have another three in which to find solutions. As one observer put it recently, this country has already wasted fourteen generations of Negro talent and it dare not waste another.

The rate of change is of the essence of the matter. In any social change, a reckless pace can lead to extra trouble; but in the field of race relations, America's experience with high speed has been, to say the most, limited. We shall need to distinguish much more sharply than we have between the degree of good order that adds stability to speed and those forms of systematic retardation that are designed to serve obstructionism.

The problems of racial discrimination and deprivation have been intertwined with every aspect of American society and with most of our institutions. To counter the predictable difficulty of the changes that must come, intelligent and imaginative approaches will have to be devised in many fields and in many ways. As the economy, the culture, the political system, and religious forces have been part of the cause, each must be part of the solution. Moreover, the response must come not only in the public sector, where we allow the government to speak and act for us, but even more vigorously and directly through our private behavior. The dilemmas we face are not matters merely of abstract reasoning, theoretical justice, or intellectual exercises in liberalism. We confront deeply personal issues of conscience and morality.

The only simple part of the struggle for equality is its moral aspect. Here the principles are starkly clear. They have been the heart of our heritage for as long as the memory of our civilization runs. At the beginning of our own national existence almost two centuries ago, we Americans put the matter in unmistakable terms when we declared without equivocation or modification that all men are created equal, each endowed by his Creator with the same inalienable rights. And long before that declaration, the spiritual progenitors of our culture had enshrined the doctrine that each man is his brother's keeper, that all men share the common obligation to love their neighbors as themselves.

To build a nation, or even a single school, upon these moral foundations has never been easy, but we shall not be honest with ourselves if we treat the effort as less than necessary. In our time, the requirement is utterly inescapable.


To fill the gap between our principles and our practices will require commitment and action by many agencies and institutions, but the most powerful and promising single means we possess is the school. Every other effort to establish genuine equality of opportunity among our people depends finally upon a strong and effective system of education. The outlines of the school's task are well known. We repeat them so often that they lose their impact. But they are the direct translation into policy, curriculum, and pedagogy of the moral bases on which our society is predicated. To the degree that the school's traditional purposes come true for a child, the words freedom, equality, democracy take on meaning for him. But when the school fails to relate these ideals to the child's own world, to the realities of his experience, what others call with confidence the American way of life must remain for him a fiction or a fraud.

It is the school's obligation to see that for every pupil three main goals become visible and attainable:

It must help him to make the most of his capacities.

It must enable him to acquire the intellectual skills necessary for a life of continuous learning.

It must prepare him to find for himself a productive, significant role in the world and offer him reasonable hope of filling it with satisfaction to himself and his fellow men.

The record of success of many American schools in providing such opportunities for disadvantaged children is by no means impressive. Some schools have failed because they have never had a chance to succeed. A community or a state that will not support decent schools for its children can hardly expect those children to become well-educated men and women.

In other places, where the schools are better, those responsible for them often pay more attention to the fortunate than to the unfortunate among their pupils. Too many of us who teach are ready to accept credit for what we get rather than for what we give. A school whose pupils happen to come from superior homes is almost invariably credited with higher "standards" than one whose students live in poorer surroundings. The unhappy consequence is that disadvantaged children often find themselves rejected because their very presence is considered a hazard to the school's reputation. If the medical profession followed a comparable philosophy, hospitals would build their standing by admitting only patients in vigorous good health!

Other schools fail to meet the needs of children from depressed minorities because of a restricted conception of what opportunity means. Even schools which open their doors freely to all comers often overlook the crucial truth that no situation is an opportunity except for those who can see its possibilities. The chance to learn means nothing to a child until he has been taught that learning can be rewarding for him. In children, as in adults, attitudes induced by the present environment and reinforced by centuries of repression are not reversed by the simple process of unlocking classroom doors.


Genuinely successful school programs for disadvantaged children will require more than open doors, warm hearts and a sympathetic reception. Good intentions alone are a pathetically inadequate response to the professional and technical problems of teaching large numbers of young people whose counterparts we have never before seriously tried to educate beyond basic literacy. The transition of these youngsters from a chronic condition of discouragement and rejection to an environment in which ambition and upward mobility are normal expectations poses serious cultural and educational difficulties—for the children and their parents as well as for their teachers.

We face, therefore, an urgent need for basic studies which will involve all we know and all we can learn through the social and behavioral sciences, in the professional specialties of education, and from every other field of study and experience. To bridge the gap between the culture which the schools traditionally represent and that which characterizes most of the unschooled population of the country calls for curricula, teaching materials, and forms of pedagogical practice which most of our schools have scarcely dreamed of, much less developed. But the need for new knowledge in no way justifies delay in using what we now know, or what we are able now to do, imperfect and incomplete though these may be.

Nor do our present shortcomings justify further delay in desegregating schools. The effects upon Negro children of separate education in schools that other groups vigorously and consistently disapprove for their own children are apparent and deplorable. Where, for geographic or other good reasons, separate schools may for a time be unavoidable, we have no choice but to do the best we can within them. In virtually all such schools, the opportunities for improvement are impressively visible. But we must constantly emphasize the essential importance of bringing children of all races into school together. Action to accomplish this must be taken deliberately, systematically, and rapidly wherever it can be taken without clear damage to the educational opportunities of the children involved.

The desegregation of the schools is by no means all that is required to bring Negro Americans into the mainstream of the nation's life and culture, but it is an indispensable part of a broader program. Those who contend that Negroes, like every other ethnic or national minority in our history, should find their own way into the common current overlook or misunderstand important historical facts.

The position of the Negro minority in the United States has been from the beginning uniquely different. The statement that the Negro is simply where the Irishman was a century ago is a deceptive generalization which the facts will simply not support. Whatever other problems the Irishman had to face, nowhere in the country was he forced by law or official ingenuity to send his children to a separate school, nor when he entered a public vehicle was he directed to a segregated seat.

Precisely because we have so long discriminated privately and publicly to depress the Negro's status and to keep him isolated, we must now undertake no less deliberately, privately and publicly, both to reverse the customary practices and to redress their effects. This means inviting, encouraging, persuading the Negro to become an active participant in the affairs of his community and the country. The process could hardly be begun in a more appropriate way or one more likely to be successful than by making the Negro child a wholly accepted and respected member of the common school.


But is it true, as some say, that when culturally deprived children enter a school with more fortunate pupils, they depress its quality? Is the inevitable price of integration a leveling down of the school? Of course it is possible for such effects to occur. All too often they have occurred, not because of racial differences but as a sequel to social, cultural, and economic changes in neighborhoods to which the schools, for whatever reasons, have been unable to make suitable adjustments.

The point is that deterioration in teaching and learning is not inevitable.

A good book loses no value for a child of high reading ability because another child in the class reads less well. A teacher capable of introducing children to the orderly wonders of mathematics is not diminished in his skill because some of his pupils need it more than others. A school's effectiveness is measured not by the capability or the experiences of pupils before they enter it, but by the quality of the teaching they receive within it. Those who fear that Negro children must ruin any white class they enter are as wrong as those who insist that no Negro class can be any good until it has a few white faces in it. What is required are school policies, curricula, and facilities intelligently designed to meet the needs of modern education; professional staffs prepared by training and temperament to treat every pupil with respect and seriousness; and enough support, monetary and moral, to enable each staff member to work to the level of his highest competence.

The most compelling argument for integrating schools is that all our children of whatever race must learn to live in a world in which no race can any longer choose to live apart. In the modern world, isolationism has become an absurd anachronism. Anyone who so quarantines a child that he may know only people of his own race damages that child's chance to learn to live intelligently, sensitively, and responsibly in the only world he will have to live in as an adult.

Nor can we absolve our responsibility simply by adopting a policy of nondiscrimination—opening all doors and letting nature take its course. If we accept the proposition that children learn from each other as surely as they do from books, if we agree that they must learn to live in a multiracial world, it follows that we dare not leave some of their most important learning opportunities to chance. A laissez-faire policy which allows the student body of a school, so to speak, to form itself with no regard for the educational consequences must then be as unacceptable as pure permissiveness in allowing children to find wholly by accident the facts they learn or the books they read.


If our schools are to prepare our children as they should, as in all reality they must, the schools themselves must become more, and more deliberately, inclusive. They must move in this direction not to offer grudging charity to those who have been excluded, but for the clear educational benefit of all pupils. It is one of the paradoxes of our time that the figure of the shrinking earth describes only relationships of space and time. With respect to human relations, the world each of us personally inhabits grows steadily and rapidly larger. No man today has any choice but to be part of a greater and more diverse community. To forego the opportunity to educate our children faithfully and imaginatively for this larger world will be to fail them tragically and inexcusably.

Those who share the responsibility for the decisions, the judgments, the actions required to make America's schools more broadly and more deliberately inclusive must be prepared to confront not only the demanding dilemmas of policy formation, but the sometimes even more perplexing details of classroom management and personal guidance. To concede that there are no easy formulae for performing these tasks is only to state a superfluous truism. But in the search for useful criteria to appraise policies and practices to carry us toward a school at once genuinely educational and truly universal, we shall hardly find a better standard than the one John Dewey gave us at the turn of the century: "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy."

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 66 Number 1, 1964, p. 1-6 ID Number: 2416, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:16:09 AM

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