AUGUST 23, 1961
NEW YORK—In its effort toward cleaning up the mess in New York City's school system, the State Legislature has passed a bill which dismissed the city's present Board of Education and set up a committee of 11 persons to submit nominees for a new board. This legislation requires Mayor Robert F. Wagner to name a new board from a list of nominees made up by the 11-man committee.
The mayor seems satisfied with this directive, as it does give him the final choice of the members of the new board, even though he will have nothing to do with the naming of the 11 persons who will submit the names from which he will make his choices. It does, however, mean that he retains the appointive power, and one can only hope that the roster of names he receives will be of the highest quality.
This by itself, of course, does not remedy all the troubles that exist with our present New York City school system. It is to be hoped that the new board will acquaint itself as rapidly as possible with conditions in the schools and keep on visiting these schools till they feel they are thoroughly familiar with the functioning of the highly complicated system.
The physical condition of the schools that now exist are not difficult to observe and changes can and should be made as rapidly as possible. It is hoped that there will certainly be change in the manner in which plans are made and followed through on new school buildings. Educators are quite capable of saying what they need in a new school building but it is the architects and the engineers who should be responsible for the actual construction and for seeing that the requirements of the educators are met and that buildings are well-constructed and safe.
There are some things, however, that are not so easy to see, and for these the city administration and sometimes the State Commissioner of Education have responsibility. For instance, I have a letter before me enclosing some clippings from metropolitan newspapers which appeared a year ago. These stories complain of the fact that the city has been for years violating the standards on class size set up by the State Department of Education. This letter, from a teacher who has been for a long time in the New York City high schools, states that in the coming school year classes are going to be even larger than they have been before, and claims that this problem is more serious than many others that have been making the headlines.
I have long felt that the size of our classes was one of the real problems of education in a big city like New York, where a student needs a friend as well as a teacher. One of the secrets of success with certain problem pupils has been the smaller size of the classes in the schools to which these problem pupils were referred.
In a large city many public school children come from crowded homes where there is little privacy and where there are sometimes family conditions which are far from desirable. This makes it all the more important that the classroom teacher have the time to know her pupils and to become a friend. This cannot happen where the classes are as big as they apparently often are in our New York City schools.
And I think that my correspondent has pointed out an area which should be given very serious thought, in the general reorganizing which must go on in regard to our schools during the next few years. This is a long-term project and one which will require consideration on the part of parents and citizens as well as on the part of the mayor and the state commissioner.
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I have followed with interest the National Student Association Congress being held in Madison, Wis., through the past few days. The leadership of this group has always been liberal and openminded. Now in these sessions the leaders are being challenged by a right-wing student group called Young Americans for Freedom, which seems to be a group having much the same membership and sponsorship as the John Birch Society.
I am confident that the average student on the American college campuses wants primarily the freedom to examine any points of view and to explore new ideas of every kind. In a free society people should have this right. Academic freedom for teachers and students is most important in order that the habit of free discussion and free use of the mind may be prevalent. I fully expect that the young conservatives who are frequently supported by older conservative organizations, if allowed freedom, would find out for themselves that some of the ideas they have accepted are not as wise as they originally seemed.
Sometimes young liberals go too far on the liberal side. But to me the important thing through the years when the mind is being trained is that free discussion be allowed for everyone and that the habit be formed to listen to the arguments of others whether one agrees with them or not. Both sides should have a fair hearing and the majority should make the final decision on any actions taken by an organization.