Beyond Liberation: An Agenda for Educational Justice

by Charles L. Glenn

When this article was written, Charles L. Glenn was director of the Bureau of Equal Educational Opportunity for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He is an ordained Episcopal priest.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 12, 1986, p. 1006. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Education in a multiracial society should place emphasis on growth in character and virtue. It is certainly time that advocates for racial justice began to insist that schools take on the high mission of developing such high qualities.

The only thing that we done wrong

Stayed in the Wilderness a day too long!

Keep your eyes on the prize . . .

There are some of us whose whole adult life, since the early ‘60s or even before, has been devoted to the struggle for racial justice. It may have become our profession -- as in my case -- or simply the commitment to which we cling to define good and evil, progress and retreat.

For me the struggle probably began on a spring afternoon in 1956 when, as a Harvard student doing volunteer youth work in Boston’s inner city, I called the police to report that one of my Cub Scouts had been bitten by a stray dog. An hour or so later a police car pulled up and a beefy Boston cop, without getting out of his car, asked me two questions which I found I was unwilling to answer. The first was, "What color is the kid?" The second, "When are you going back to Cambridge?"

I was not willing to accept that color had anything to do with a hurt child. And instead of going back to Cambridge, I went on to serve as a minister in one of the churches where I had worked with youth. I live in the same community still, and continue to serve as an unpaid part-time minister. For half of the intervening 30 years I have also directed one of the most active state civil rights programs in education. My life has largely centered on racial justice and issues affecting poor children and their families.

I begin with this personal note because I am going to suggest that the time has come for those of us committed to racial justice and the interest of poor children to consider laying to rest the strategies that served us well in the ‘60s and even more recently. For if we cling to the exodus as the exclusive metaphor for our engagement, and to liberation as its dominant theme, we are guilty of neglecting "the whole counsel of God."

When my first son was born in 1967, I named him Joshua, saying "Dr. King has been our Moses, and we’ve followed him in the freedom struggle; our task now is to ‘go up and take the land’ promised by God." But making liberation real requires hard work and decades of construction. I’m afraid that we may lack the courage and patience for that task. Each time I read the Book of Judges I’m reminded of the confusion, division and repeated backsliding that we have experienced in Boston over these 20 years.

During the civil rights struggle of the ‘60s, middle-class liberals like me were content to play a supporting role, convinced that the only real freedom is that which people win for themselves by beginning to act as free men and women and children. We were witnesses of what can only be called a moral revolution, as black youth and their elders in the South took responsibility for their lives and dignity in a way that led to profound transformations.

The contagion spread to northern cities as well, though imperfectly. My own church youth group in Roxbury was transformed in a single night in early 1964. After I and other Boston-area ministers had returned from participating in the "movement" in Williamston, North Carolina, the "freedom choir" from Williamston paid a return visit. With considerable difficulty I was able to persuade a dozen leaders of our youth group to attend the first rally. Those street-smart black kids from the housing projects were emotionally bowled over by the songs and the testimonies of their contemporaries from a small southern town. In the following weeks they spent every waking moment with the visitors from Williamston, catching the infection of their self-respect and purposefulness. Their whole attitude and behavior changed; they became strongly motivated both to protest injustice and to make something of their lives and their community. And they have done so, as I, who am friends with some of them still, can verify.

In those days we saw ourselves as engaged in a struggle, even a war, and enough of us became casualties to justify that image. But that war has largely been won, and we are now in danger of "losing the peace." We have lost our grasp on the original point. Subtly but surely, we have shifted responsibility away from poor people by continually portraying them as victims, and doing battle on their behalf. Civil rights professionals like me have had a special stake in emphasizing victimization.

My point is certainly not that poor people are never victims. Certainly we must remain vigilant against recurrences of overt discrimination and exclusion. But we should not allow this danger to shape our entire effort and blind us to the second-generation problems that have emerged. Nor should we implicitly withhold from those we consider victims the dignity and the responsibility of full citizens.

Christians, in particular, should not fall into the error of environmental determinism. We believe in individual responsibility for sin, as well as in the existence of "principalities and powers" that distort human life and society. In rejecting the idea that the poor are completely responsible for their poverty, we should not fall into the opposite extreme of concluding that they have no responsibility for working their way out of poverty.

It has been my ongoing involvement -- as a pastor serving first a black congregation, then a Hispanic one, and now a largely West Indian and Haitian congregation -- with the lives of inner-city families that has forced me to change the direction of my efforts as a public official. As a state official responsible for criticizing local efforts, it’s possible for me to take a certain perverse delight in the continuing evidence of unequal educational outcomes. But regular contact with the children behind the statistics, and with their families, makes their failure and our failure to help them intolerable.

Three or four years ago we decided to shift the focus of our equity efforts in Massachusetts: instead of emphasizing access to educational opportunities we emphasize the effectiveness of the education provided to minority students.

When we speak of the effectiveness of education we mean whether it gives students a solid foundation for productive and satisfying lives. We are also concerned about the message that schools give to minority and nonminority students about what it means to live in a society which is diverse in race, culture and values, and yet is a nation with a democratic system of government. Do we help them develop a commitment to the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independence, and to mutual respect and accommodation? Schooling that provides only skills without developing character is not effective schooling for a democracy; indeed, Horace Mann believed that it was worse than no schooling at all!

This is the most effective way that we have yet found of empowering poor parents,, of giving them real responsibility for the education of their children. It is striking, by the way, how many liberals object to allowing poor parents to make choices, convinced that such decisions should be left to professionals.

Our monitoring of several hundred urban schools under the pressures of racial change has made one thing very clear: while the elements of failure are depressingly similar from school to school, those of success are unique. They seem to grow from the chemistry of a particular principal interacting over time with particular teachers in the interest of particular children, with substantial involvement by parents in developing and sustaining a sense of common purpose. While schools can definitely learn from one another, there is no single formula. Indeed, the attempt to generalize from the success of one approach in one classroom or school and to impose it in another has highly mischievous results.

We have come to believe that a system allowing parents a choice among schools, if properly organized by an aggressive central administration, can release energies that only diversity makes available, without sacrificing accountability for the effective education of every child. This approach requires a vigorous effort to provide information to all parents about school options, how their own children are doing, and what they should expect of their schools. It also requires a willingness on the part of the superintendent to take action against principals or teachers whose performance does not create confidence on the part of parents, as reflected in their school choices. Choice is by itself no panacea, but it creates the framework within which effective education can be developed, and thc needs and goals of various student/parent communities met.

The demand for distinctive forms of education (most clearly seen in the growth of nonpublic schools) reveals that we do not all agree about the message that schooling should be passing on to the next generation. Therefore it becomes urgent to identify that on which we do agree. What do we want to be sure that every student will learn? What skills do we want her to acquire? What qualities of character do we want him to possess?

The new interest in defining a common content which should be included in all schooling has been perceived by some as a threat of imposed uniformity. They fear that this approach will reverse the gains of the past decade in appreciating cultural diversity. Seen in the context of choice. however, the stress on defining a common content is an essential aspect of encouraging diversity in all those ways in which we can afford to differ as a society.

It was only a decade later that elaborate efforts were made to justify desegregation on the basis of the improved reading scores which it was alleged to produce. It may have such an impact -- the researchers disagree -- but that is irrelevant to the real and original question: What sort of society do we want to be? How do we want our children to feel about people who differ from them racially and culturally? How do we want children who are black (or are members of other minority groups which the Brown decision did not have in mind) to feel about their racial identity, and what it means to participate in American life?

We cannot be satisfied with breaking down racial barriers and achieving some measure of numerical mixing. It would not even be enough to help linguistic-minority students to develop the necessary language and other skills, though this is an essential demand of equity. Only when we have taught children self-respect and mutual respect -- those qualities of character that make a diverse society possible -- and loyalty to the American "proposition" that makes diversity desirable will we have met the demands of equity.

It is true that we have been groping in this direction with our emphasis on "multicultural" education and similar efforts to enrich the curriculum, but they have been too superficial. The qualities which we are seeking to develop do not depend on "head knowledge" of different traditions, or even on experience of various forms of cooking or music, but on a slow but solid growth in character, or -- may I say it? -- in virtue.

Virtue is learned by heroic example (which may, of course, be presented out of many traditions) and by everyday practice. Schools that do not present such examples and provide opportunities for such everyday practice are not effective schools. They cannot, among other things, "awaken the child to cultural values" or "affect [children’s] hearts and minds" in a way that will lead to a society where racial justice and reconciliation are the norm rather than the happy exception.

My late father used to speak of the attractiveness of real goodness, and we should not be shy about seeking to demonstrate that quality and to evoke it in students. We will not, by the way. do so by avoiding any mention of the religious motivations that are central to the virtuous life for most individuals in any culture. And certainly the last thing that schools should do is to reinforce the cynicism of youth by taking an essentially debunking approach to the moral claims of the various religious traditions, as they too frequently do.

The education -- whether in formal schooling or not -- of youth in every society and culture addresses such questions of how we should live and what we should live for. It is a sad paradox that in our society, with its almost unprecedented need for mutual accommodation and the practice of civic virtues, we should be so hesitant about developing the qualities in our children that they will most need if our society is to endure.

It is certainly time that advocates for racial justice began to insist that schools take on the high mission of developing these qualities. Schools that are racially integrated -- assuming that the way integration is achieved promotes unity rather than division in the community -- will have the greatest need and opportunity to provide those daily experiences that make this real for children. They are, quite simply, the best schools, the most effective schools, for our diverse society.