The Chicago in which I grew up was a city of neighborhoods. My neighborhood was an area of blue collar, immigrant traditions, isolated by industry, railroads, a drainage canal, and busy arterial streets. It was located in the depths of Chicago. It was an urban village; unique as any small town in rural America or hamlet in Europe.
My grandfather had built the house in which my mother grew up; in which I grew up; was the house I bought and began my married life. On the corners were grocery stores, bakeries, and taverns. The names were Slavic, German, Italian, and Irish.
At the heart of the area was the public school which drew to it the children of immigrants and the children of the immigrants’ children. My mother had attended the school, then my brothers, then me, and then my nephews. My new wife taught in the school and I substituted there. The neighborhood and school was a catchment area for the generations.
The school was a beacon of hope and it did, indeed, light the way to social mobility for many. But the school was also an extension of the home and neighborhood. Goals and values coincided. The absolutes of our morals and ethics at home and at the Church were reflected in the school. Even though the public school moved us imperceptibly but inevitably into the mainstream, it moved us in synchrony with basic foundational values with which there was common agreement. To us, a “relative value” was whether or not your uncle was a nice guy.
I wish I could say I was a success in school. I was a daydreamer and a classroom menace. The fault was mine. So while I was credentialed, I was not educated. My education was serendipitous; it came from within the home, from my reading, and from those in my neighborhood as I observed the linkage of events and people, each with another over time.
Consequently, I graduated in the lower third of my high school class. This made no real difference since no one in the family as yet had gone to college, employment in the factories being readily available. I wanted no factory so I spent some years in the dungeons of mailrooms before ascending to the rarified air of an office where I was the “office boy.”
I decided to go on active military duty, having joined the National Guard. At Ft. Benning, the public school again played a role, this time through two Chicago teachers who had gotten their degrees from Chicago Teachers College, a Public schooling college where tuition was $20.00 a semester, being supplemented by the City and State. Entrance requirements consisted of having to prove that you were breathing and could walk. Later I discovered the academic selection process took place in the classes. By the end of the first semester, those of us experiencing public school social mobility were a much smaller group.
I worked as a waiter and, later, from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. as a copy boy for the “Chicago Suns-Times•. The neighborhood was still home but the world was expanding. My true academic life had begun and it culminated in an honors degree, and in employment in the inner city poverty areas of a Chicago, which were about to burn in racial riots.
The neighborhood schools were disappearing under the historic, unprecedented in-migration of rural poor whites and blacks. Also disappearing were the moral and ethical certitudes, as curriculum makers struggled to make learning “relevant” to the new arrivals. Schools became agents of social change and the
synchrony of home, community, church, and family values slowly unraveled.
I had entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, gained a research assistantship, and began an examination of society, history, philosophy, and schooling; their interrelationships; their changes. This examination continues to this day.
Now I am at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A stranger in a strange land. A villager who mourns the loss of the values which had sustained those he loved; those who trusted the public school to sustain core beliefs and the strengths of family and neighborhood; those for whom the beacon has been
extinguished in relativistic and cynical examinations of human values. A villager who realizes that villages and villagers are anachronistic in this sophisticated age. But a villager who recognizes in the home school movement the echoes of those strengths which sustained the immigrants in hostile environments.
Today my interests are in the examination of the possible rejuvenation of learning within the traditions which I knew in that village. Today I “study” a “movement” familiar to me through the echoes of my village. It is important that the public see that home schoolers may actually be the keepers of that flame. Once this realization takes place, maybe some productive reciprocity between public and home schooling might develop rather than a continuing guarded antagonism. I hope my work might further that outcome.
Editor’s note: Dr. Russell Doll, School of Education, University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas City MO 64117
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