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Success a Matter of Having the Right Attitude : Passionate Educator Says Public Schools Don't Teach How to Play Game

January 22, 1987|MARJORIE MARKS | Marks is a North Hollywood free-lance writer. and

A question was posed one recent evening in the Valley: "Why are our public schools failing?"

The answer, to hear California State University, Northridge educator Maurice J. Colwell explain it, is fairly simple: bad attitudes.

Colwell, a former social worker who is now a professor of social and philosophical foundations of education, shared his impassioned views with a group of parents at the Country School in North Hollywood.

"You don't have to be smart to succeed in our society, that's baloney . . . , " he said. "There are all kinds of people in our society who make it who don't know from nothing. But they have the right attitude: They rise early, they work hard, they plan for the future, they converse properly, they dress properly, they know exactly how to play the game."

Playing the game "is something you learn," yet it is not being taught in public schools, Colwell contended.

The scene of Colwell's talk was a private school. Nevertheless, the audience, whom he called "worn-out hippies," listened, appearing spellbound.

Jewish Culture as Model

Colwell, whose own early education was in a rough Chicago school, says he is fascinated by the way in which middle-class values are transmitted by families, and especially Jewish families. He is studying the learning styles of California minorities by using the Jewish culture as a role model.

"The whole family is in on it," he said, referring to the way in which middle-class Jewish parents take an interest in every detail of their children's daily life. It is the difference, he said, between the parent whose attitude is "don't worry, leave him alone, he'll be all right," and the parent who manages his child's life like a business, with priorities and ruthless schedules.

"The reason that attitudes are so important is that success in America is based on having the right attitudes. The only difference that exists between people is the way they view reality. There's nothing inborn--I don't care what color people are or where they come from . . . you cannot find any scientific evidence that shows any difference among people."

Consultant to VISTA

Colwell, born in 1922, was a social worker at Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago in the late '40s before obtaining his doctorate in the sociology of education from USC. Later he worked as a consultant for Head Start and VISTA, programs aimed at improving the futures of racial minorities.

After 12 years of working with delinquent children and gangs, Colwell came to the conclusion that their problems stemmed from having "no status" as members of the "lower class." Colwell cites the arguments made by Harvard scientist Stephan Jay Gould, in his book "The Mismeasure of Man," which contradicts racial stereotyping, intelligence testing and other classifications that are often used in our society.

"Nobody was ever born with an attitude. Nobody was ever born wanting to go to medical school or get high SATs," he said. It is the desire to succeed according to society's values--rather than superior intelligence--that makes the difference, Colwell said.

How are the "right" attitudes instilled in children, in Colwell's view?

"Historically, the best place was the great American public school system," he said. "It was fabulous. But something happened to them along the way."

Makings of Elitist Society

The greatest change, he said, is that schools no longer serve as a way for lower-class youngsters to learn middle-class values, upon which conventional success in our society is based. With the increasing isolation of minorities, Colwell said, we have the making of a revolution in which our society will become increasingly elitist and the underclass will proliferate.

Colwell believes that busing represented a rare chance to remedy this.

"With busing we could have solved the problem if we had kept in mind what its purpose was," he said. "The purpose was to take middle-class kids and allow them to come in contact with non-middle-class kids at a very early age so those kids could acquire the attitudes you need to succeed." He defines those attitudes as an inner voice that says, "You've got to get good grades; you've got to get ahead; you've got to be on time; you've got to have delayed gratification. Color has nothing to do with it."

Language Is the Key

Colwell said that attaining higher social class in America requires proficiency in language and that, if we deny bilingual education to children, we are effectively closing them out from the chance to join the mainstream.

"If you don't have language in the United States, you can forget it," he said.

The reason it is so important for Los Angeles' Latino children to have access to bilingual education, he said, is that many of them have very weak Spanish skills. "If you take a kid who has weak Spanish and put him in English you might as well give up the race . . . just discard them on the altar of history."

Colwell ended by saying: "To be able to deal with change and to live with change is what a public school is all about. A public school cannot get stuck in any kind of rut. It's got to be right on the cutting edge. And, if it isn't, then it is not a school. It is training people for yesterday."

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