October 31, 2006

Errata week: Primary-source misinterpretation

Sorry for the gap in writing about my mistakes: I needed access to my office for today's entry. In my dissertation, Creating the Dropout (U. Penn, 1992), I wrote the following in a discussion on the silencing of race in the construction of dropping out in the 1960s:

In 1962, Georgia's Deaprtment of Education cosponsored a conference on high school dropouts whose participants included the state superintendent and several representatives from the Atlanta public schools. According to a newsletter written by a consultant for the Georgia Association for Mental Health and distributed to counselors and other mental health professionals, "We succeeded real well [sic] in blocking off any consideration of Negro dropouts, in the conference." (p. 174)

The original was a memo from Frank A. Smith to Frank McFall, 20 July 1962, p. 4, in the Georgia Archives, record series 12-6-71, box 11, in the "Dropouts 1962-63 Summary" folder. (The minor error was describing the quotation as part of a newsletter.) At the time, I read that sentence as a straightforward racist comment about complicity in silencing racial differences in educational outcomes.


Over the next few years, though, I reconsidered my reading to some extent. Yes, Atlanta counselors and psychologists were tools of segregation when they facilitated pupil-placement regulations, and they were willing to talk openly about differences in graduation by race in private, even though the public policy starting in 1961 was to be completely silent on race. Yet I decided I was wrong in interpreting that passage as a straight racist comment.  In the end, I think, the school staff and other officials realized they were playing a publicity game (and a losing one, in the long term) rather than just boldly trying to suppress information.  It doesn't make the larger picture any better (still public silence about differences in outcomes), but here's what I wrote in the book Creating the Dropout (Praeger, 1996), with the changed text in italics:

In 1962, Georgia's Deaprtment of Education cosponsored a conference on high school dropouts whose participants included the state superintendent and several representatives from the Atlanta public schools. Frank Smith, a consultant for the Georgia Association for Mental Health, wrote Executive Director Frank McFall after the conference, on July 20, 1962. According to Smith, educators could not "much longer refuse to consider the implications of inferior Negro education." Nonetheless, he thought it more important to keep racial inequality out of the discussion: "We succeeded real well [sic] in blocking off any consideration of Negro dropouts, in the conference." (p. 103)

One interpretation is of school and other public officials suppressing any discussion of race and dropping out.  The other interpretation is of school and other public officials aware that the time of silence was going to end in the near future and still recognizing that their job required complicity in silence. Does the change matter? It may be a matter of subtle shading more than broad interpretations, but I was bothered by my earlier description of Frank Smith as a heavy-handed manipulator. He described manipulation of the conference but was well aware of the changing circumstances in the South.

In the end, I think that makes him and others in a like position more culpable.  It is one thing to be complicit in a regime you think is inevitable. It is another thing entirely to be complicit in a regime you know will end at some point.  Do you choose to help end it, or do you help prop it up a few more days or years?

Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments on October 31, 2006 12:58 PM |