Defying the Culture a School at a Time

The public school around the corner is one of those confident, serious-looking buildings we associate with the early years of the Greatest Generation. Inside, there’s lots of dark wood and shiny floors. Time has added additional layers of gravity; the building dares to challenge whim and fashion. It’s the reason we moved to a small, tree-lined town on the border of inner-city Newark, N.J.

Wouldn’t you know? When the time came for certain momentous decisions earlier this month, we took a look at the building around the corner and kept going, another mile or so, to the local Catholic school. The architecture there is not so impressive: The modern attachment has all the charm and character of a warehouse. But there is no question about its defiance of the culture’s morals and mores. The student handbook declares, in the matter of student hairstyle, that “tails, spikes, lines or other cuts reflecting current trends are not permitted.”

I have no idea what “tails,” “spikes” or “lines” are, but I’m delighted that they are not permitted. I am delighted, too, to learn that boys may not wear earrings and that girls’ jewelry is limited to one ring on each hand and one bracelet. Most of all, I am delighted that still there are institutions willing to defy the dictates of popular culture and its celebration of all current trends, educational and otherwise. School, after all, is a place of learning, not a catwalk for pre-adolescent preening.

Of course, it’s not hair or gold that’s at issue here, but principle: Students in this minimalist box of a building are being instructed in matters eternal, not ephemeral, and they are expected to conduct themselves accordingly.

When the legendary Archbishop John Hughes began building Catholic schools in New York in the mid-19th century, he believed, with good reason, that Catholic children required a haven from the hostile, indeed violent, culture of majority America. A century and a half later, anti-Catholic hostility has taken on more genteel forms (in place of the papist-bashing Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, we have Miramax Films), but the need for a haven from “current trends” is just as critical. It is safe to assume that a school which regulates haircuts and jewelry very likely will not tell students that spelling and grammar are but outdated barriers to true self-expression. Nor would the library shelves in such an institution be swept of great works of literature deemed, according to “current trends,” to be politically incorrect.

Great institutions ought to be skeptical of fashion, of “current trends,” but few these days seem to have the requisite courage. Catholic schools are among the steadfast and stouthearted, daring to challenge their students to put aside the culture’s demands that they be as hip and cool as those media-centric adolescents on public television’s children’s series, Zoom . Bland but serviceable school uniforms, the bane of those who have made fashion slaves of children still in the single digits, may reduce the possibilities for fashion statements, but they also have an amazingly egalitarian quality to them. The rich look the same as the scholarship kids.

Oh, yes: the scholarship kids. Whoever they are, and one cannot tell based on wardrobe, they probably are benefiting from the Archdiocese of Newark’s Scholarship Fund for Inner City Children, which is a New Jersey equivalent of the New York Archdiocese’s Inner City Scholarship Fund. And those programs themselves are benefiting from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which Wall Streeter Theodore J. Forstmann and John Walton of Wal-Mart put together with $100 million from their own wallets. Thanks to Mr. Forstmann, an enthusiastic advocate of school choice through vouchers, and Mr. Walton, Newark’s Scholarship Fund for Inner City Children will add 1,500 students to its program-and 500 of them won’t be attending Catholic schools. (Hold on: You mean to say that the Newark Archdiocese will give scholarships to low-income students who won’t attend Catholic schools? This school-choice issue is pretty complicated, eh?)

The scholarship kids who are in my daughter’s kindergarten class are there for the same reason she is: Their parents want an alternative to government-financed public schools. Most are non-Catholic, which means that they are choosing Catholic school for reasons having little to do with religion. That’s their right, but they are free to exercise it only because of programs like Newark’s Scholarship Fund for Inner City Children and the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Unlike abortion, which government will pay for in order that the poor may exercise their right along with the rich, educational choice remains a right in theory only for most inner-city kids. But like the poor Catholic school kids of 150 years ago, surely they need a safe haven from a hostile world.

They need never know what a “tail” or a “spike” is. But they may just emerge with a few lines of poetry or a chemistry experiment that they’ll always remember.