Dozens of no-longer-young alumni gathered at the Bronx High School of Science just before the weekend, with not a single Nobelist to be found in the bunch.
Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.
The school’s relationship with the Nobel committee has drawn attention in recent days because an alumnus, Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz of Duke University Medical Center, won a share of this year’s chemistry prize. Dr. Lefkowitz was Bronx Science Class of 1959.
This was the eighth Nobel given to a Science graduate, the previous seven having been in physics. No other high school in the country has produced so many winners. That point was made abundantly plain to members of the Class of 1962 and a small contingent from the Class of 1952 who convened on Friday in the school auditorium (a place where some of them undoubtedly used to serve a form of disciplinary punishment known as detention).
But prizes are only one measure of a school’s worth, and arguably not the most important. Filling the auditorium seats were men and women in their 60s and 70s who did not need a Nobel to validate their lives. They were doctors, lawyers, business executives, professors and at least one wastrel who became a newspaperman.
High school did not necessarily provide the happiest days for all of them. Nonetheless, Bronx Science helped shape what they would become by teaming them up with other teenagers who — then, as now — had to pass an exam to get in.
Doing well on a test hardly proved you were brilliant. Some Science students, then as now, were probably just clever test takers. But the odds were pretty high — once again, then as now — that the admissions process put together some of the city’s brightest and most motivated young people, and allowed that chemistry to take its course.
“Where else is it cool to be smart?” Valerie J. Reidy, the school’s principal, told the alumni. “Where else is it really cool to be a nerd?”
There are, in truth, some other schools, but her point was well-taken. These haven’t been the best of times, though, for nerds anywhere in the city.
One brainy institution, Stuyvesant High School, recently endured a cheating scandal. Of perhaps more lasting consequence, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other groups filed a racial bias complaint with the United States Education Department. They charge that reliance on a single test for determining who gets into Bronx Science and seven other specialized high schools discriminates against young African-Americans and Latinos. Other factors, like student grades, need to be considered as well, they say.
Mind you, no one seems to suggest that the test somehow has a built-in cultural bias. The Pythagorean theorem is what it is regardless of race or ethnic origin. But black and Hispanic students fare far worse on the exam than Asian-Americans and whites. Their numbers in settings like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science are distressingly low compared with their share of the overall public-school population.
To those who brought the federal complaint, that proved bias. Some commentators have gone as far as to say that the system is rigged in favor of rich families that can dispatch their darlings to costly test-preparation courses beyond the reach of the poor.
Ignored in all this are considerations like student motivation and parental priorities. One Bronx Science senior, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan, acknowledged having been tutored before the entrance exam. But that’s only because “my parents saved money for it — they didn’t spend it on TVs and stuff like that,” she said.
It would be nice if the field were completely level and such courses didn’t exist, or at least were made available equally to everyone. But the fact remains that parents like those of that young woman made choices about what was important to them.
Pampered rich? Hardly. Today’s Science students were instantly recognizable to the Class of 1962. Ethnicities and skin tones may be different. But the classrooms are chockablock with strivers, just as they were 50 years ago: working-class children, many of them born to immigrant parents driven by a fervent belief that education is the path to better days.
“The complaint is saying that it’s racist to subject black and Latino kids to serious competition,” John McWhorter, a linguist who is African-American, wrote in The Daily News. “The likes of Strom Thurmond would have eaten it up.”
Who knows what the federal Education Department will say. It may conclude that a single test is indeed not the best way to go. But it may also want to think really hard before tinkering with a decades-old formula for working-class New York that has helped produce not only Nobel winners but also, more significantly, tens of thousands of no-less-admirable success stories.
E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]