Blackboard Jungle in Suburbia

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hear today that America’s future is its children. Presumably,
this promised future includes America’s economic future. This
theme has been basic for promoting the tax-funded public school
establishment for almost two centuries.

This theme
is growing increasingly threadbare because, if it is true, then
America’s economic future is thin ice, and we are skating on it.
The thinness of this ice is not readily perceived until we compare
it with the ice of a generation ago. We make these comparisons,
if at all, only sporadically.

In 1955,
MGM released a low-budget black & white movie, Backboard
. Overnight, it became the favorite movie of high
school males.

James Dean’s
Without a Cause
was also released in 1955, but for guys
in their teens, that movie never had the emotional appeal of Blackboard
Jungle. There was a reason for this: Rebel co-starred
Natalie Wood. Nobody I knew was ever going to date Natalie Wood,
let alone worry about not getting a date with her. (A decade later,
tens of millions of us would also not be able to get a date with
her younger sister Lana.) The movie also offered us stereotypically
socialite parents, each at war with the other, each offering conflicting
advice, as Dean’s adult foils. It was all about teenage male anxiety
and finding oneself trapped in a hypocritical world and coming
to grips with one’s socially rebellious attitude toward high society
and getting a date with Natalie Wood, who might possibly provide
meaning for life, but who was dating someone named Buzz. Also,
it had Sal Mineo riding around on a motor scooter. In short, it
was a teenage girl’s movie.

In contrast,
Blackboard Jungle had an urban high school classroom filled
exclusively with teenage boys, who were challenging a newly certified
male English teacher. It was all about macho, at 35-to-one odds.
That was not our world, surely. Prep schools and Catholic schools
were unisex; public schools were not. But this one was a manual
arts trade school, so maybe there really was such a school back
east, we all imagined.

Here was
a movie about males, and therefore it had the same kind of appeal
for us as a World War II army movie. It was about an all-male
teenage world, however unrealistic that was. There was not one
word of dialogue spoken by a teenage female. Guys loved it. (Patton
had the same appeal to us 15 years later: no female dialogue.
Yes, there were a few words spoken by a middle-aged British matron,
but that hardly counted.)

Last weekend,
I bought a copy of Blackboard Jungle for $3.99 plus tax.
I watched it for old times’ sake. Like The
Wild One
(1953), another movie about unmarried rebellious
males, I had seen it numerous times in my youth. I can remember
a midnight movie, aimed at my peers, where the manager brought
back both movies as a double feature. I went. So did my buddy,
Bud Ebersold. The theater was filled.

My wife watched
it for a while. Then she left. The movie still has that effect.
Maybe it’s the dialogue.

that movie, filmed half a century ago, is unnerving. It reveals
the world we have lost. It also shows an imaginary world that
the producer tried to persuade us that we had lost, although I
did not perceive this at the time.

First, there
was class size. There were 35 students. That was common in my
era. The teachers union had not persuaded legislatures and school
boards to cut the size to around 22, thereby driving up the cost
of classroom instruction — though of course not by as much
as adding layers of administrators has cost.

Second, in
what was an urban ghetto, almost everyone was white. The few blacks
on camera were well-behaved, except for Sidney Poitier, who was
merely disrespectful to adult authority. He called the teacher,
"Chief." There was a retarded Italian (played by Lebanese
Jameel Farah, known today as Jamie "Klinger" Farr),
some Irish, and some Puerto Ricans. It was obviously supposed
to be in New York City. It was a multiracial jungle — an
equal non-opportunity school. White flight had not yet begun in
the ghetto.

Third, teachers
were paid, according to the dialogue, $2 an hour.

Fourth, when
the discouraged teacher goes back to his former college professor
to get advice, we hear "The Star Spangled Banner" being
sung in the background by students. When we finally see these
students, standing tall and singing in the auditorium, the males
are dressed in sports coats and ties. There are no Levis to be
seen. In 1955, we should have asked, "Where on earth is this
high school?" Today, of course, we rarely see anyone this
well dressed, even in church. Levis, we see. On women.

(The movie
here is confusing. The hero calls the older man "professor,"
indicating a college’s employee, but the man later offers him
a job "at his school," presumably meaning a high school.
Apparently, a former college professor of English has left the
college classroom to become a high school principal. Even high
school boys knew better. We knew that high school principals were
selected from two pools of academic expertise: coaches and shop
instructors. Also, the outdoor scenes were shot at UCLA.)

Fifth, only
one teenager is armed. He carries a switchblade knife. He heads
a gang. Today, he would be carrying a snub-nosed .357. At home,
he would have an Uzi.

Sixth, this
movie so shocked adults that some cities banned its showing. Senator
Claire Booth Luce and the Eisenhower Administration kept it from
being shown at the Venice Film

I had not
realized at the time how accurate the movie’s characters were.
One of the hapless teachers is a veteran with an artificial leg.
He teaches carpentry. I was taught wood shop in 1955 by a veteran
with a wooden leg. He was the surliest and most kid-hating teacher
on campus, even more hostile than the meanest of the coaches,
who bore an uncanny resemblance to the movie’s vice principal,
whose dialogue is mostly monologue: "Shaddup!"

It only occurs
to me at this late date: there were no coaches. No wonder order
had broken down. A public high without coaches in 1955 was like
a prison without armed guards.


So controversial
was this movie that the producer, Pandro S. Berman, saw fit to
add a written introduction to justify its existence to adults.
Berman was a very successful producer. He had produced a string
of hits with Fred Astaire in the 1930s. He had produced The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
, with Charles Laughton, The
Three Musketeers
, with Gene Kelly, and the original Father
of the Bride
. He knew he had a problem with distribution:
the movie’s theme of juvenile delinquency. So, he added a written
introduction, possibly at the insistence of the studio. Here was
a confession of religious faith aimed at parents, which was to
serve as a political pressure-release valve.

We, in
the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that
is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American

Today we
are concerned with juvenile delinquency — its causes —
and its effects. We are especially concerned when this delinquency
boils over into our schools.

The scenes
and incidents depicted here are fictional.

we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy
for any problem.

It is in
this spirit and with this faith that Blackboard Jungle was

Then, the
screen’s scrolling commercial for adults faded to black, and the
most powerful musical introduction of my generation began, a three-beat
staccato drum roll: "boom, boom, boom/One, two, three o’clock,
four o’clock rock." Bill Haley’s now-memorable lyrics blasted
from the theater’s speakers, surrounding us, and Rock Around
the Clock (1954) got a revival.

The word
"revival" does not do justice to what took place. That
recording went on to sell more than any other rock and roll record
in history, according to Guinness, selling at least 25 million
copies in Haley’s version, from 1954 through the 1970s. In 1955,
it became the defining male song for the first teenage generation
in mankind’s history that had enough discretionary income to fund
its own counter-culture — a counter-culture based on music
more than anything else. It was Haley’s song that got John Lennon
into rock. More than any other record, it defined rock and roll
at the beginning. It was a landmark. Yet it was the movie that
established the song in the annals of music history. It had sold
a modest 75,000 as a B-side a year earlier. The director had heard
the tune when he borrowed a stack of records from Peter Ford,
the teenage son of the movie’s star, Glenn Ford.

That scrolling
introduction was for parents. The musical introduction was for
us. We knew it. MGM knew it. Our parents soon found out. It was
not their movie. It was ours — teenage American boys.

Twenty years
later, the song became the opening theme for the 1970s sitcom
about the 1950s, Happy
, with Henry Winkler and Ron Howard. Winkler’s character,
the Fonz, would have been every middle-class suburban mother’s
nightmare in 1955. Visually, he was one of the kids in Blackboard
Jungle, except that he rode a motorcycle: The Wild One
attends Blackboard Jungle. The producers of "Happy
Days" moved this character into a suburban high school, to
pal around with an adolescent Opie. Where was Sheriff Andy or
Aunt Bea? Would no one sound the alarm? Not even Barney Fyfe seemed
to recognize what had happened. The cultural revolution had moved
to its next phase. By 1975’s standards, 1955’s social deviants
looked cute.

The Fonz
may have looked cute in retrospect, from 1975 to 1984, but only
because there really had been a cultural transformation by 1975.
Parents had been warned on-screen in 1955: "However, we believe
that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any
problem." Apparently, public awareness wasn’t enough.

I never watched
an entire show of Happy Days. By then, I had long since
given up any faith in tax-funded high schools. My peers had been
the first generation with enough money to buy their own culture,
but we had been shaped by the educational system that gave us
the blackboard jungle. What had been seen by adults as a cancer
in 1955 had metastasized by 1975.

It is much
worse today than in 1975.


What was
regarded as urban juvenile delinquency in 1955 would be regarded
as the return of the golden age in the inner city today.

In today’s
junior high ghetto schools, they have metal detectors at the front
doors. It is assumed that some students will be carrying guns.
In high school, it is worse.

In the movie,
one student says of the villain with the knife, "He’s floating
on Sneaky Pete wine." That meant nothing to me in 1955. I
did not know that Sneaky Pete was the generic term given to cheap
rotgut wine, which was popular in skid row districts. Today, he
would be floating on crack or some other readily available illegal
drug of choice on high school campuses.

He would
not be carrying a switchblade. If the teacher was fortunate, the
kid would be packing a short-nose .22. More likely, he would come
back the next day with a .38 or higher and blow away the teacher
and two or three students. This is not going to stop until the
kids invariably head straight for the principal’s office and start
spraying lead. Until then, the phenomenon will be treated by administrators
as an aberration, a non-representative academic event suitable
for an official investigation by a committee headed by a sociologist.

What has
also changed is the spread into the suburbs of what was perceived
as inner city culture in 1955. While classes are smaller, the
threats to students are worse than those faced in the ghetto in
1955. The number of suburban students with sexually transmitted
diseases or drug addiction problems is vastly higher than anything
in the inner city in 1955. So is the rate of unmarried pregnancy.
Suburban classroom discipline problems are not so bad as they
were portrayed in the movie. Pay scales are higher. But academic
performance is worse than it was in the suburbs in 1955 or even

The direction
is clear: down.

If you want
one movie scene that describes the change, rent Lean
on Me
(1989), the true story of a New Jersey high school.
It begins in 1967. The hero, played by Morgan Freeman, teaches
in a mostly white school. Having lost a dispute with fellow union
members, he walks down and out of the high school’s hallway. The
movie morphs forward 20 years. The hallway goes from well-scrubbed
into a litter-filled, wall-to-wall melee of pushing, shouting,
fighting, mostly minority students. Freeman’s character is called
back to become the principal. The movie is the story of a principal
who walks the halls with a baseball bat in one hand and a bullhorn
in the other.

Lean on
Me is described on its VCR box as "the feel-good movie
of the year." In 1955, it could not have been released due
to its language, its sexual subplot, its drugs, and delinquency
on a scale never hinted at in Blackboard Jungle. But Lean
on Me was true. Blackboard Jungle was fictitious.

We’ve come
a long way, baby.

Morgan Freeman
was in my all-time favorite TV movie, The Marva Collins Story
(1981), a Hallmark Hall of Fame production. It tells the story
of a black public school teacher who quits her job in disgust
in 1975 and starts a private school in her home in the middle
of the Chicago ghetto. Her students proceed to learn more than
the products of most tax-funded schools ever dream of learning.

Reagan later offered Mrs. Collins the office of Secretary of Education
which she politely declined. She stuck with private education,
although she has advised several public schools, and most have
dramatically improved their students’ scores.

The movie
is politically incorrect. It implies that there is no legitimate
hope in ghetto public schools. Hallmark has never released this
movie on video, despite Freeman and Cicely Tyson as its stars.


College entrance
national test scores peaked in 1963, even with the addition of
about 50 points on the Scholastic Aptitude Test a decade ago.

Drug addiction
on campus is not even news.

Rates of
violence are up in high schools in every neighborhood.

are front-page news in small towns, but not in cities, Columbine

Whites may
think their children are safe. Yet I lived in a city in the 1980s
and 1990s where I knew white parents who preferred to send their
children to the high school in the black/Mexican part of town,
since there was not as much money there. The white high school
had lots of money and a reputation for big-time drug dealing.

Check the
makes, years, and models of cars in your local public high school’s
parking lot. The older cars belong to the teachers. It’s good
times at Ridgemont High.

Ask parents
about the local high school attended by their child. According
to parents, their child’s high school is Lake Wobegon High. Unlike
all other schools in the suburbs, this school is above average.
The problems are not too bad.

The textbooks
are published nationally and screened by committees whose primary
task is to dumb down the textbooks so that "no child is
left behind," including morons. (I am not kidding. The
practice of placing retarded children in standard classrooms
is called mainstreaming. It eliminates the high cost of special
education programs, but at the expense of the academic progress
of brighter students. The lowest common denominator gets ever
lower.) The effects of dumbed-down
textbooks extends all the way to Harvard, as recent reports
indicate: students’ abysmal knowledge of American history.

Is this a
problem for parents? Not in their opinion. Parents do not read
textbooks. Textbooks are part of a rite of passage. Once you survive
it, you are through forever with textbooks. Textbooks are for
getting through, not for learning anything important. Who cares
what is in them? Not parents.

As for inner
city schools, no one pretends to have any answers. In Blackboard
Jungle, the principal insisted that there was no discipline
problem in his school. In today’s inner city schools, principals
call for another policeman to walk the halls.

Those voters
who pay most of the local property taxes have written off the
inner city schools. They just want to escape busing. Voters whose
children attend inner city schools are lobbying for vouchers and
public transportation into suburban neighborhoods. This is why
vouchers keep getting voted down in the suburbs. Vouchers are
promoted by University of Chicago economists as a way to increase
parental choice. This is why suburbanites vote down vouchers.
They have another term for it: "busing." They want to
keep the blackboard jungle at a safe distance.

knows that Blackboard Jungle has come true — even
people who have never seen the movie.


No one would
dare to call the movie Blackboard Jungle today, for that
would be politically incorrect. The word "jungle" conjures
up mental images of natives. Maybe they would title it, "Dysfunctional
Chalkboard" or "Fast Times at Multicultural High."

If it is
true that America’s economic future is with its children, then
those Americans who expect to retire on their Social Security/Medicare
payments need to re-evaluate their future. The educational performance
of American high schoolers has been falling for a generation.
The inability of non-graduates from high school to earn a decent
living is worse today than it was in 1955, when the teacher tried
to persuade the black student to graduate and not drop out.

This decline
has happened slowly. At each stage of the decline, voters have
decided that things still were not too bad in the local schools,
and just one more bond issue would turn things around. Millions
of people therefore believe what most of the evidence disproves.
They prefer to ignore the evidence. They vote as if they believed
the teachers’ union, namely, that the solution requires higher
salaries, smaller classes, and newer facilities. They are being
prepared by the education Establishment to surrender to consolidated
high schools ("busing").

their educations did not give them either the ability or the willingness
to draw conclusions based on evidence.

The tax-funded
blackboard, whether in the urban jungle or the suburbs, has failed.
But grade inflation has awarded it a C—.

2, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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