Thursday, May 27, 2004

Revising Brown's Meaning

There's been a lot of discussion this month about the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, and whether desegregation has been good for American schools, whether the manner of it worked, etc.

I fear lost in the discussion here is main effect of Brown: it wasn't just about desegregating schools. The decision was about a fundamental principle of American life and values, which is we're not supposed to draw distinctions among people, most especially in public life as defined by the government.

On that point, Brown was deeply and fundamentally conservative, in that it clearly articulated the idea of equality as being one of equality of opportunity, of treatment, and of basic standing before the law and government. No matter that the outcomes may not have been what were intended for the schools, or that unintended consequences blighted the attempt to reform schools.

I'm always concerned about the fate of the public school system. Common education really was a founding principle, and free public education was one of the great innovations of the 19th century that the US brought to the world. I don't have the magic bullet for inequality. But I do know without the guiding principle of equality in the first public institution a person experiences, and arguably the fundamentally most important of one's lifetime, we are subject to petty divisions that become major ones.

it makes me pause in this election year to think that the two major candidates are both elite prep schoolers, with as much direct feel for the shared experience of a public education as I have for skiing vacations at Vail or duck-hunting junkets with Supreme Court justices.

At the same time, more than the schools, what seems lost in these retrospectives is a clear sense of how we return to e pluribus unum. That's the meaning of Brown.

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