Phyllis Chesler Interviews Carol Gould

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Diane Abbott is Right: An American View
Last uploaded : Monday 29th Jan 2007 at 15:37
Contributed by : Carol Gould


Recently the Labour MP Diane Abbott wrote an editorial about the issue of ‘school-leaving’ in Great Britain.

She would like to see the age for leaving school raised from sixteen to eighteen. Notwithstanding the miserable image of the United States abroad, and the constant tirades I receive about the stupidity of Americans, I do feel the educational system in which I grew up is a sound one.

When I first arrived in Britain in 1976 I was puzzled when people told me about ‘school-leavers.’ To me this seemed to connote some sort of social pariah. In my childhood someone who left school was either a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ a gang member or an individual suffering from a serious learning disability.

Perhaps my upbringing is not exactly typical of my generation, but I cannot remember anyone in my circle ‘leaving school’ let alone avoiding university and graduate school. In fact, when I came to Britain it was my first experience of meeting women who had never been educated beyond the age of fifteen.

My late mother, born in 1914 into modest surroundings, was a social worker by the time she was in her twenties and was also a graduate of the distinguished Philadelphia Normal School, where only the best and the brightest graduated to first-class teaching qualifications. In those days my mother had to endure anti-Semitism at every stage of her education and professional life but she did manage to get that advanced degree.

It is perhaps a little-known fact in Britain, where I have been at the receiving end of some mightily insulting remarks about my education from women whose intellect and cultural awareness is painfully wanting, that most Americans go to college. Universities that catered to the oppressed minority groups have existed for generations, hence the impressive number of ethnic groups and racial minorities advancing to academia and to all areas of the professional world.

My family was not affluent and it was a terrible struggle for them to finance my sister and me to college level. I worked at three jobs to pay for university; in those days despite my fine academic record at the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls I was not able to get a scholarship for further education because 1) financial aid was given first to ethnic minorities and 2) my parents earned just enough to be on the cusp of ‘financially needy.’

One of the things that irks me about British students is their refusal to take menial jobs. I worked in the college cafeteria and at a concert agency where I took people’s credit card numbers until I was blue in the face. How I managed to secure a first-class honours degree I do not know. My late father, and his mother, a young widow, worked in an exhausting job six days a week so that he could attend New York University at night to secure a civil engineering degree. \

When I visited Philadelphia and Washington last year I met scores of hard-working college and high school students who took immense pride in doing a good job at a diner but who were pursuing gruelling degrees at the same time.

Another aspect of the American educational system that does not exist in Britain is the incentive to young men and women to go to college with either sports or ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarships. Or both. Donald Rumsfeld was a champion wrestler and football player at New Trier High School and went on to be an outstanding student at Princeton University. He also did ROTC and spent several years as a navy fighter pilot and instructor, staying in the Reserves until he was 57.

Gong back a bit further, the GI Bill of Rights afforded thousands of American war veterans with an opportunity for university and graduate school and for housing. The Veterans’ Administration, pioneered by General Omar Bradley between the world wars, is run like a corporation and puts our British facilities for veterans to shame. I was able to come to Britain to do my postgraduate degree with a VA educational grant because I am the daughter of a World War II veteran. (My late mother was a WAC.)

Here in Britain we have a serious problem with anti-social behaviour. I am not for one moment saying there is not a problem in the USA with juvenile crime. However if Britain is to compete in the world, with China and India, and perhaps Russia very soon fast becoming high-tech centres, we cannot keep allowing young people to avoid college and graduate school.

Another aspect of British culture that disturbs me greatly is the decline in standards of behaviour and language. The USA still possesses a quaint puritanical streak, in which Janet Jackson baring a breast during the all-American phenomenon known as the Super Bowl elicits horror from thousands of homes across the nation. I am not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and Russell Brand, nor do I think rap lyrics advance the cause of decency.
( many African-American parents and groups have condemned these, and the black churches across the USA have been trying hard to get children back into the pews.) Interestingly enough a large swathe of Americans love Baron Cohen and will soon latch onto Brand, but I see a worrying decline in British morals and behaviour that will soon lead to a culture not far removed from the horrific picture painted in ’Children of Men.’

Indeed, in a lengthy report in 2005 in ’Atlantic Monthly’ magazine, the black church community across the USA was described as the single most powerful force in taking young offenders off the street and into work. Youngsters were encouraged by successful members of congregations to take apprenticeships and to participate in local community activities. Crime rates have dropped; if one is seen on television in a gospel choir is this not better, and more fun, than jail?

Poverty and lack of opportunity are still at crisis point in many American cities and rural areas. But the incentives to go to college have always been stronger in the United States than in Britain.

All of the women with whom I went to school, some of whom came from poor and immigrant backgrounds, have achieved professional fulfilment in their lives and have even gone on to doctorates and high-end qualifications. We were afforded an exceptionally good education in the Philadelphia school system, taught by immensely well-educated teachers. At one point the schools had to close on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah because so many teachers were Jewish. I hasten to add that no-one in my family or in my circle ever set foot in a ‘faith school;’ these Jewish teachers were enlightened secularists as were the non-Jewish faculty, many of whom came from generations of teachers and colonial-era pioneers. By the time my late mother went back to teaching the majority of her colleagues were black.

All in all I think the British educational establishment has a lot to learn from the American model. In a recent supplement one of the broadsheet newspapers had a feature about Scottish teachers travelling to the USA to see how things are done.

The American school system is not cowboys and Indians. I reject the notion thrown at me by Britons that Americans’ education is wanting. Harvard and Princeton are still in the world Top Five.

And even if a lad gets into college because he can kick a football, that degree is worth its weight in gold if he does not make the big leagues. British schools are still producing brilliant scholars but we may soon fall far behind nations like China, where a huge percentage of its youth has college degrees. I am where I am today because of Anna Blakiston Day Elementary, Leeds Junior High School, Philadelphia High School for Girls and Temple University. We have dynamic alumni and alumnae reunions and share our accomplishments with pride. It would be wonderful to see the next generation of British girls doing this as well.

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