Steven Wilson, founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based Ascend Charter Schools, was fired by the board of directors after a petition on, apparently started by students at one of the charter schools, complained that an essay he had written was racist and exemplifed “white supremacy.”

Two charter-school advocates, one employed by the Walton Family Foundation, the other from the IDEA charter chain, defended Wilson and demanded that the board reinstate him. Their letter to the board was published in the rightwing EdNext.

The essay is a lengthy complaint about American public schools, asserting that they are deeply anti-intellectual and that children have been deprived of “intellectual joy” since the very inception of public education.

He argues that all children without exception should participate in “intellectual joy,” which would seem to me to be an unassailable position.

However, the critics of his essay say that it is an assertion of “white supremacy.” The board fired Wilson.

Now about that essay.

As a historian, I find much that is troubling in his depiction of the history of public education. It is true that public schools were not temples of academic learning in the 19th century. Most children left school when they were old enough to work. It was a mark of accomplishment to finish the eighth grade. Parents wanted their children to have just enough education to do what was necessary in daily life. The McGuffey’s Readers were almost universal. The McGuffey Readers contained excerpts of essays and poems that most students probably didn’t understand but memorized for recitation. The typical stuff of grades 1-8 was not deeply intellectual, that’s for sure. Most teachers were barely high school graduates. College attendance was still rare, limited only to the children of wealthy families, and they did not become teachers, which was a position of low esteem and low pay. High schools were rare until late in the 19th century, and they too leaned heavily on memorization and recitation. Most taught Latin and Greek, which no doubt gladdens Wilson’s heart. History textbooks were mainly recitations of wars, battles, and big events in the life of the U.S. or Europe. There was little about other nations or cultures. Private schools were not great temples of academic joy either.

It is fair to say that Steven Wilson would have been disappointed in the intellectual quality of most schools in the 19th century, whether public or private.

In the 20th century, the big urban centers of the nation were swamped with one of the biggest migrations of history, the transit of Europeans to the U.S. Most were illiterate or didn’t speak English or both. The big city classrooms typically had a poorly educated teacher trying her best to school some 80-100 children in her classroom, usually sitting two at the same desk. Not too much intellectual joy there.

I wrote a book about anti-intellectualism in American education. It is called Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform.

I tried to disentangle the strands of the progressive movement. Some progressives were concerned about the health and well-being of children and worked together with settlement house workers to better the lives of poor urban children. Some were interested in political activism and wanted the school to be the instrument to remake society (a hopeless endeavor). Some wanted the schools to be child-centered and to focus on the needs and interests of children. Others, including some of the child-centered progressives, were openly disdainful of the academic curriculum. Be it noted that there was good reason to be disdainful of the academic curriculum as it was then construed. Students spent endless hours memorizing words from textbooks or readers, then reciting them to the satisfaction of their teachers. Memorization played a big role–too big a role in the academic program. Even the Committee of Ten, the illustrious education leaders who called for a revamping of the academic curriculum in 1893, urged the use of active learning and projects to enliven instruction in history. Given the low standards and rock-bottom salaries for teachers, it was hard to imagine that the typical public school would ever be a beacon of intellectual enlightenment.

I was hyper-critical of anti-intellectualism, but unlike Wilson, I never smeared all of public education as an intellectual desert, openly hostile to ideas and determined to belittle the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. If you don’t see schooling in its historical and cultural context, it is easy to dismiss them as scornful of academic learning.

I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. My public schools were typical of the 1950s. What mattered most was sports, clothes, pop music (Elvis!), pop culture (James Dean!), and popularity. San Jacinto High School had good teachers and mediocre teachers. I had abysmal instruction in U.S. history, but a stellar teacher of English and American literature who left her classes longing for more, and whose door at “sign-up time” always had a long line of students eager to learn from her. No gifted classes, no AP courses, no test prep. Yet somehow I managed to get admitted to Wellesley College, one of the nation’s best colleges. And somehow I managed to hold my own in a class where at least half the students had gone to the nation’s best private schools. And all I had was a public school education!

Wilson’s jeremiad about public schools is insulting to public schools and their dedicated teachers, for sure. What’s more, he blames John Dewey for the dissolution of the curriculum, repudiating liberal education, and denigrating academic teaching. But anyone who read the first-hand accounts of the Dewey School at the University of Chicago would know that Wilson is dealing in second-hand stereotypes. I wrote about it in Left Back:

Teachers at the Dewey School created projects and activities to enliven the studies that were taught by rote in more traditional schools. They wanted to show that the traditional subjects, so often taught without any imagination, could be turned into exciting learning experiences. Far from being hostile to subject matter, they continually experimented with different ways of involving their young students in learning about primitive life in the Bronze Age; Phoenician civilization; early Greek civilization; the voyages and adventures of Marco Polo, Prince Henry of Portugal, Columbus, and other explorers; English village life in the tenth century, the story of William the Conqueror and his conquest of England, and the Crusades; American colonial history; the European background of the colonies; Shakespeare’s plays; science; mathematics; algebra and geometry; English, French, even Latin. (Left Back, p. 171).

If there were a Dewey School today, the curriculum would be multicultural and would reflect the cultures and interests of the students, it would explore the crimes of colonialism and imperialism, but one thing is certain: it was NOT anti-intellectual. In fact, it would be accurate to say that the teachers at the Dewey School were trying to find ways to ignite the love of learning and to connect history to their students’ lives and interests.

Wilson was also in error in setting the “Life Adjustment Movement” in the 1920s. It was a post-World War II craze.

Wilson defends the Common Core and asserts that it demands “intellectual performance” of a high quality. I find this bizarre, since the Common Core is lacking in any curricular coherence; even E.D. Hirsch Jr. has abandoned it because of its vacuousness. “Regrettably,” Wilson writes, “in many states, governors capitulated to anti-testing forces and retreated from the Core.” There is more that is wrong with the Core than the testing—with its absurd passing marks—that accompanies it.

But the students (or teachers) who wrote the petition against his essay were insulted for other reasons. They thought his essay was racist. They accused him of “equating a liberal education to whiteness,” thereby displaying a sense of “white supremacy.”

The petition says:

The underlying message here is that a liberal education is whiteness, whiteness is therefore intellectual, and any challenge to a liberal education is a challenge to whiteness, so any challenge to whiteness is anti-intellectual. The article later reinforces the importance of this liberal education by stating such an education “empowers them to escape poverty and dependency.”

Perhaps it was these sentences that troubled them:

“Just as schools are organizing to overcome these challenges [e.g, overtesting], they face a new threat to intellectual engagement. As schools strive to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive and to ensure cultural responsive teaching, there is the growing risk that these imperatives will be shamefully exploited to justify reduced intellectual expectations of students. One document widely used in diversity workshops, including in the training of all New York City administrators and principals identifies 13 ‘damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.’ One is ‘objectivity,’ which is manifested as ‘the belief that there is such a thing as being objective’ and ‘requiring people to think in a linear way.” Anti-intellectualism often takes the position that there are only subjective perspectives. Another is the ‘worship of the written word,” where ‘those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued’…But how tragic it would be if any child was taught that a reverence for the written word was a white characteristic. What would they make of Frederic [sic] Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook’ in The Fire Next Time? As writers, they were deeply learned and dazzling stylists. Their words explode on the page, inspiring millions in the urgent work of racial justice. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive message to teachers and their students. This too will surely come to be seen as another wrong turn on the way to equal educational opportunity.”

He then goes on to discuss a closed door conversation in which he refers to the word intellectual, and someone in the group says that the word “has a connotation. Intellectual speaks to colonized and oppressed.” The group prefers the word rigor.

But, he says, when the session is over, the members of the group tell him to ignore the discussion.

Clearly the students (if they were students) who reacted strongly to his paper did not ignore it. They thought his paper was patronizing and racist and that it reeks of white supremacy.

They see his crusade for intellectualism as elitist and condescending.

His defenders from the charter sector accused the board of succumbing to “racialist bullying.”

Clearly there is a failure to communicate.

On all sides.

Since I am a historian by training, not a teacher, I can’t weigh in on how to teach “intellectual joy.” I know that being an intellectual won’t make one a good teacher; I have seen very well educated people give up as teachers because they were unable to connect to their students. Clearly something in Steven’s tone sent a message that he did not intend. The critics of the essay had antennae that he did not understand.

I asked my friend Anthony Cody, who is an experienced teacher who taught science in the Oakland public schools, about engaging students’ love of learning, and he offered this advice:

When I think of how we go about igniting passion for learning in students, it has more to do with connecting to their experiences and building on them — stretching them to consider new approaches that still relate to their realities. The conception of “intellect” in this essay seems to me a rather abstract one, which would struggle to inspire most of the teachers I have worked with over the past decade. 
For me, one of the most valuable things we could do for students would be to get their teachers actively engaged in a lively intellectual process of questioning what, why and how they are teaching. When that lively process is taking place within a school, it will infect every classroom and provide students with a variety of models of inquiry, experimentation and reflection, all of which are the basic processes of intellectual growth. That is why packaged curriculum and prescriptive standards and timelines are the death of real thought in our schools.