Spirit of Skepticism

As I’m reading Baldwin’s “Domesticating the Streets,” I’m thinking about the subtle hints at his own ideology, the implied assumption that the (academic) reader of the 21st century shares this ideology, and what all this says about us as 21st century Americans and academics. Here is an example from Chapter 6 “The Children Are Off the Streets,” where Baldwin is describing the “Vacation Schools” spearheaded by Dotha Bushnell Hillyer and her Civic Club members:

“The students who lived up—or down—to these expectations also gave hints in their letters of the reasons children might have wanted to go to the school. They wrote of receiving dolls, singing songs, and especially going on the picnic excursion. No one mentioned the natural history lectures or the pledge of allegiance. Still, the emphasis on etiquette was unforgettable, and some of the students had also had other bits of advice drilled into their heads. ‘Mrs. Hillyer told us if you want to have houses you should work,’ wrote little Annie Bishoff. Despite the doses of advice and discipline, the vacation school did provide children with a mildly entertaining change from spending every summer morning playing in the street. Children enjoyed the school on their own terms, though only within the narrow limits set by club members and teachers” (158).

Baldwin is suggesting that the children wanted to go to the school for the material gains of prizes (“free dolls”), entertainment (“singing songs”), and food (“the picnic excursion”), and he is further implying that the Civic Club was using such material inducements to attract the children so they could then indoctrinate them into middle class moral standards. He views the moral teaching of the Vacation Schools negatively, as is clear when he describes it as “bits of advice drilled into their heads” and “doses of advice and discipline.”  He privileges the freedom of the streets over the schools when he dubs the latter “a mildly entertaining change.”

First, there is nothing surprising about the marketing tactics of the Vacation Schools. One is not likely to excite children about a voluntary summer program that is going to provide them with all the information they ever wanted to know about natural history and daily opportunities to recite the pledge of allegiance. Second, there is nothing surprising about the children’s reaction to their experience – of course singing songs and getting treats are going to win out over the pledge of allegiance.

But what really interests me is the subtle but clear judgment Baldwin makes against the Civic Club and their intentions (and elsewhere in the book, against all reformists of the progressive era), a judgment he expects his implied (academic) reader to share. Is it so bad that children were taught that “if you want houses you should work”? How else will one buy a house? How bad is it to inspire a work ethic in young children?  Why shouldn’t “little Annie Bishoff” desire a house, and why shouldn’t she learn that getting one takes a bit of work?

I know that Baldwin’s thesis is about the assumptions and prejudices of the middle class, and he sees the attempts of reformists as being blind to their own classist and ethnic bigotry. I would agree with him that the middle class has historically pushed its agenda on the lower classes without considering the values and aspirations of those classes. I also wonder how much what we do as educators in an urban community college is based on our middle class morality. However, I have to ask whether Baldwin (and we, his implied readers) are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Are 21st century academics blinded by an ideology of skepticism?

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2 responses to “Spirit of Skepticism

  • jschristie

    In the end of the next chapter of the book (about the Peddlers)after Baldwin goes through the “Children off the streets stuff,” he writes: “That this solution was achieved without being the major focus of the reform activity is indicative of one important feature of the larger trend toward the segregation of public space: segretation was far easier than purification”

    Pick it apart and I think the issues Jeff raises are clear: First: Baldwin seems to believe (or argue at least) that efforts by progressive individuals to better the lives of others were ineffectual and in the long run, futile. If the Halls, the Hepburns, the Hillyers, and the Parkers had simply let the underground cultures go, things would have been ok, kids would have been more free and ethnic minorities better understood. Secondly, he also seems to be pounding down the point that the segregation of urban space, the dividing of areas and systems of using public space, the breaking down of it for specific populations, classes, functions is inherently a problem because it goes against the utopian ideas of the famous Horace Bushnell. He states: “The produce peddlers’ retreat to the East Side, however, allowed them to esacape the hostility of middle-class people who might have been inclined to purge the streets of pushcarts.” Well, show me a peddler who is happy about abandoning a middle class market. “Escape?” I’m not so sure that’s the way they felt about being pushed to the East Side slums. Finally, just the word “segreation” in the book carries connotations of evil (for us post civil rights people) but doesn’t segration make sense in many ways in this context?

    So what’s going on here? I think we have to think of both these books as dissertations by scholarly people who have taken too many Composition 101 courses taught by freshly minted Ph.D students from University Composition and Rhetoric programs. (Daniela – you there yet?) They are arguing (as taught to do) and arguing too much. The Baldwin book ends each chapter with a summary and then reiterates the same points. Matthew Warshauer loses no opportunity to declare Ct. not the republic of emanicapation and abolition as it may somewhere seem to be. But where the Civil War book makes a point, and convinces me, the Baldwin book raises more questions. It’s filled with a lot of information – some of it fascinating – but the arguement seems less valid. Is there something I don’t see about the value of getting kids off the streets into summer programs that’s bad? Is there something intrinsically wrong with “depriving” young children the opportunity to run around until a moron in a car smashes them? Why is it bad if children and adults are not allowed to use the same urban space? Why is it that creating parks for sports and also for leisurely strolls with parasols of tired husbands of Helen Post Chapman types is a bad thing? Ultimately, why the need for the thesis – except for the academic model – because much of what seemed to have happened is just that: what happened? Things changed and spaces changed and I haven’t even gotten to the traffic chapter yet? Car culture here we come. It’s all fascinating.

  • efarbman

    I love this discussion and the others on this blog. The questions are rich: How does public architecture (parks in this case) both reflect and create cultural values? How do different churches both reflect and enforce those values? How do changes bubble up into the cracks, and from the perspective of the changed world, what can we understand about those old values? Most interesting of all for me, the question in John’s last post: how do our discourse patterns both reflect and constrain our understanding of all these things? It’s such a delight to have this site to check from time to time. Mostly I’ll just relish it passively, but I’ll chime in when I get the whim. –Evelyn

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