The rhetoric of equality is a staple of American speech; we devoutly abstain, however, from planning the practice of equality. The amazingly rapid expansion of American education in the past fifty years is indeed an occasion for pride: it is better that children be in school. But it is not entirely—or necessarily—a democratic achievement; expansion has been hardly less rapid in undemocratic countries. Even as we survey the gains, we need to note the cunning survival of old, and the unlooked-for development of new, forms of inequality. In general, the survivals result from the lack of perspicacity, energy and system so characteristic of liberal reformers facing a class society, as well as from the eternal resourcefulness of privilege. The novelties are more likely the result of an apprehension of the needs of a mass society and its bureaucratic elite.
For the purposes of our examination, American schools can be roughly divided into those which are, in class terms, integrated and those which are socially “pure.” The grossest inequality is obviously manifest in the latter, in the exclusiveness often enjoyed or endured by both upper and lower class children. That so much of the current debate centers upon the problems of schools already integrated reveals a surprising disinclination to face the most immediate educational problems. American school districts are organized geographically and in largest part financed locally; this means that insofar as the geography of our cities and countryside is a class geography, the schools—especially on the elementary level—will be socially unintegrated. It follows that they will be dilapidated or luxurious according to the state of the local economy. Our post-war school building program has been predictably spotty, hardly beginning work precisely in those areas where it is most needed. Despite the progress of consolidation and the possibility of federal loans, a large number of Americans attend schools understaffed by underpaid teachers, housed in buildings partially condemned or ugly, dirty and (often) unsafe. In surroundings such as these they quickly learn what one might think was the single intended lesson: that such as they need not dwell very long on the business of education. School does not long detain such children, and they have usually fled in spirit years before they escape in fact.