Not enough can be written about public education. Its inadequacies are more complex and nebulous than they appear in books and films that feature unorthodox, shapely teachers, impervious to cynicism, touching the hearts of hardened city teens. Fortunately, there are talented, serious people in some of our nation’s most beleaguered districts laboring after real change, and none too soon. The institution is embattled, yet no other problem, if fixed, promises to resolve so many more.
Hypothetically, when an issue is this important, anything that keeps the conversation going is good. Washington Post reporter Alec Klein ’90 ought to be admired for writing an affectionate and well-researched tribute to Stuyvesant High School, and dragging the American reader once again into urban classrooms and hallways. Why BAM reviewer, David L. Marcus ’82 (“What a Good School Looks Like,” Arts & Culture), strives so keenly to sell its relevance as an education reform manual remains, for me, a point of confusion.
As Marcus mentions, Stuyvesant tests its applicants and admits a small percentage of those who apply. This is tantamount to “creaming,” the sometimes covert (but in screened schools explicit, and not necessarily odious) practice that deliberately constructs a student body predisposed to strong effort and high performance. Students with special needs and those hobbled by bad elementary and middle schools are not represented here. The neediest kids—the majority—are absent from the equation.
In this context I fail to see how Marcus can characterize Stuyvesant as a school that produces scholars “in spite of itself.” He calls Klein’s book “an optimistic look at the potential of secondary education,” but this is a choreographed and unrepresentative sample. One can really track the progress of reform only so far in a learning community this heavily edited.
I expect Klein’s book to be a good read, but I question Marcus’s diligence in heroizing it. If he is eager to champion visionaries clocking thankless hours on the ground to repair public education, there are plenty to be found, and I urge him (and Klein) to visit some of New York City’s new (unscreened) public high schools. The success stories there are not so prearranged.
Joe Pinto ’99
In his review of Alec Klein’s A Class Apart, David Marcus implies that schools like Stuyvesant High School succeed despite themselves. The review emphasizes Stuyvesant’s recent shortcomings instead of its 103-year-old tradition of academic excellence and its contributions to American intellectual life—not only in mathematics and science but in business, law, literature, theater, and film, too. Stuyvesant has also shaped Brown through prominent alumni, including Brown Trustee Matthew Mallow ’64 and former provost Robert Zimmer, who is now president of the University of Chicago, as well as current and past Brown faculty, most notably Professor Emeritus of Geological Sciences Bruno Giletti. Other eminent Stuyvesant alumni include four Nobel laureates in the sciences and economics, actors James Cagney, Ron Silver, Tim Robbins, and Lucy Liu, archaeologist Oscar Muscarella, political pundit Dick Morris, attorneys Bernard Nussbaum and Richard Ben Veniste, writers Frank Conroy and Gary Shteyngart, and musicians Thelonious Monk and Walter Becker (cofounder of the rock band Steely Dan).
This past June, I met Romeo, the football captain profiled in Klein’s book, at the Campaign for Stuyvesant’s annual awards ceremony. The stepson of Brown Literary Arts Professor John Edgar Wideman and recipient of the Campaign for Stuyvesant’s scholar-athlete award, Romeo has enrolled at Harvard, where one of his professors could be eminent physicist Lisa Randall, who was the Stuyvesant classmate of another prominent physicist, Columbia professor Brian Greene.
While Marcus chose to end his review by noting the failures of our educational system, I, instead, wish to reflect upon successes like Stuyvesant, since I am quite proud to be one of its alumni.
John Kwok ’82