Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2005

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Good intentions gone bad

Good intentions gone bad
Michael E. James is professor of education, chair of the education department and coordinator of the College’s elementary education program.

Professor of Education Michael James examines the myth of "no child left behind" in his new book, The Conspiracy of the Good.

by Mary Howard


Mike James, professor of education and department chair, has strong feelings about public education in the United States.
“I am increasingly doubtful that state coercion cloaked as ‘higher standards’ can keep children from being left behind,” he says.

A member of the faculty since 1990, James has recently published his second book, The Conspiracy of the Good, which argues that educational testing, uniform standards and competition are no substitutes for social justice and equality.

James grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and in the book he uses his hometown and Charlottesville, Va., as examples of communities whose schools failed despite the good intentions of citizens. While Pasadena is best known for the New Year’s Day Rose Parade, James maintains that it is also a center of inequities that the city publicly disavows in regard to race and racism, social segmentation and the inequalities of housing and education.

The book, which looks at the two cities from the late 1880s to the present, features excerpts from a diary James unearthed in a Huntington, Calif., library written by a college-age woman who spent the winter of 1887 with her family in Pasadena’s hilltop Raymond hotel. Showing the town through her observant but naïve eyes, James begins to reveal a community that “has never come to understand its common past.”

With 30 photographs — and through interviews he obtained by tracking down eyewitnesses, official documents, records of meetings, and accounts in local newspapers — James introduces many of the colorful figures who struggled for or resisted reforms. Interspersed with the Pasadena narrative, chapters on Charlottesville, Va., provide a larger context, showing that Pasadena’s Western, de facto segregation had much in common with the U.S. South and its more notorious, legalized exclusion and condescension.

“Progressive, well-meaning, good-hearted men and women, who often espouse ‘good intentions’ in the name of ‘helping those in need,’ have ended up doing more harm than good,” says James.

The following is an excerpt from the book’s introduction:

What has occurred in a city like Pasadena allows us to focus intently on how Southern California and the West built their institutions at the same time they marketed themselves as the Promised Land. A place as near physically perfect as the mind can imagine, Pasadena, as well as all of Southern California during the latter decades of the 19th century, was to many the Christian “City on the Hill,” the mythic Utopia. Pasadena has been a beacon for wealthy and working class alike throughout its history. During the first half of the 20th century, its schools were touted as some of the most progressive in the country. Its air was clean. Its streets were safe. Its natural beauty was superlative. Yet beneath this marketed vista of “Paradise Found” was a community in conflict with the very forces it publicly disavowed: race and racism, social class segmentation, and the inequalities of housing and education.

The tension that is produced when the rhetoric of Paradise collides with preservation of power is the central theme of The Conspiracy of the Good. By examining how the struggle for an inclusive community was contested during the expansion of Pasadena’s institutions, especially its schools, we get a clearer picture of the larger issues that define the history of power, race and class struggle in this country.

The Conspiracy of the Good, however, is not confined to Pasadena. Although I initially set out to write a book on the history of civil rights ands community building in a single Western city, the book became (as 10-year projects can) much more. I wanted to better understand the struggle that ensued as various groups — defined by class, color and politics — clashed over how best to characterize “the community.” I began the book with an unproven assumption (more like a hunch) that the civil rights movement was somehow “different” in the West. Growing up in Southern California, in a working-class community 20 miles from Pasadena, I was convinced that the Western states somehow were unlike the rest of the country. That idea was nurtured by countless references to Western distinctiveness, both contemporary and historical. In fact, there is an academic cottage industry that bottles that feel-good elixir. It is called Western “exceptionalism,” but as historian Patricia Limerick, the past president of the Western History Association, confesses, too much has been made of Western differences. Herbert Gutman, the venerable labor and working-class historian, went further. He argued that regionalism is a gimmick that has been passed along to ward off attempts to create a more progressive synthesis of the American experience. The West remains different, but it is because of topography and climate, not culture, economics or politics — despite the fiction of California’s so-called flamboyant culture.

As I began my research on Pasadena and the West, however, I decided that my work needed a larger context. Therefore, I added an additional location, a second city that I believed would provide another perspective to my analysis. I wanted a community similar in size and “character” to Pasadena, and since the book was focused on civil rights, it was logical that the other city would be in the South. After spending the summer of 1992 as a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I chose Charlottesville, Virginia. The history of Charlottesville, a city like Pasadena with a rich and problematic past, has helped me understand more about the shifting meaning of other staples of our national self perception, like “community,” “neighborhood,” “race,” and “civil rights.” Throughout the history of both cities, I found those concepts constantly undergoing redefinition. Today, the “neighborhood school,” the defining slogan during the school desegregation wars in the 1960s and 1970s, no longer arouses the same passions it once did. Now, in both cities, the “neighborhood school” has come to mean something very different.

What I learned from Charlottesville and Pasadena convinces me that the historiography of civil rights can no longer be isolated to a single region — the South. Nor can it be viewed as the single message of black versus white. By seeing the struggle primarily as “race relations,” we miss the many structural developments that help us better understand why, as the new millennium begins, the gap between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and the rest of us is greater than at any time since the second half of the 19th century. America has become, in Andrew Hacker’s words, “Two Nations.” Hacker’s division is color, but if we continue to see our segregated society as divided only between black and white, we fail to get the crucial nexus of race and social class. I want to make it very clear that I am not dismissing race and racism from my story. Nor, to paraphrase sociologist Jack Bloom, am I suggesting the primacy of class over race. Whites, rich and poor, labor and the business elite, have profited from racism. However, as Bloom wrote, racial practices are embedded within class and economic and political systems. By the study of those systems, over time we can come to better understand how race and racism have been used to justify inequalities.

Michael E. James is professor of education, chair of the education department and coordinator of the College’s elementary education program. He is also the author of Social Reconstruction Through Education: The History, Philosophy and Curricula of a Radical Idea.

The Conspiracy of the Good: Civil Rights and the Struggle for Community in Two American Cities, 1875-2000, Professor of Education Michael E. James, Peter Lang Publishing, 2005, 385 pages, nonfiction.


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