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?