By Dr. Norman Berdichevsky
Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004 and is regarded as one of the finest secondary schools in the United States with an outstanding reputation for the academic and professional achievements of those who have been its students.
A 1957 survey found that Stuyvesant High School alumni accounted for more Ph.D.s earned in the United States than any other high school.
Among its alumni are the current Attorney General Eric Holder (1969), Democratic strategist, David Axelrod (1972), author and former close advisor to President Bill Clinton, Dick Morris (1964), the country’s most prominent African-American (if we except Barack Obama), Thomas Sowell, distinguished economist, philosopher and historian whose record of achievements and lasting impact on the country will almost certainly surpass all of the above, and myself (1960).
There have also been four Nobel Prize Winners and outstanding engineers, scientists, mathematicians, businessmen, CEOs, union leaders, teachers, writers, lawyers, doctors and judges, astronauts, and musicians. Our most famous graduate was undoubtedly actor Jimmy Cagney (1918).
Sowell did not graduate however and is given just the shortest mention as a “columnist for the New York Post” in the luxurious 100th anniversary volume ‘Stuyvesant High School – The First 100 Years’ Susan E. Meyer; Preface by Frank McCourt; Published by The Campaign for Stuyvesant Alumni & Friends Endowment, Inc.
Why not? The answer is obvious for the same reasons that Holder and Axelrod are celebrated as among the school’s most illustrious graduates and Morris is often spoken of as a “renegade”. Comments about me are in a similar vein.
Sowell is undoubtedly the most prominent black critic of the policies of Barack Obama, of affirmative action and the whole range of welfare and educational policies designed by the Democratic Party during the last fifty years. He has been a senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1990 and is the recipient of the highest awards including the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship in history, economics and political science and the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement.
The luxurious glossy One Hundredth Anniversary Album was designed with an obvious liberal political bias that runs through the entire book. Why should it be otherwise when two of the most powerful men in the government and advisors to the President (Attorney General Eric Holder and “strategist” David Axelrod) are held up to today’s students as examples of great Stuyvesant achievers?
Many of the hundreds of interviews with alumni in the celebratory album expound upon how the school was a hotbed of Liberal-Left ideology and why the 1960 Graduation Ceremony which ended in chaos (a page 1 Feature story of the June 30, 1960 New York Times) “Principal Hissed by Students- He Halts Graduation Exercises“) was the “harbinger” of the radical 1960s that transformed American society.
Typical of the many remarks in the book casting Stuyvesant in the “vanguard role” of young people is my classmate Richard Ben-Veniste, who served in the role of Watergate prosecutor, Democratic counsel on the Whitewater Committee and a member of the U.S. Commission on Terrorism.
He is pictured together with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holding a Stuyvesant tee-shirt on page 211. The editors obviously thought this was insufficient and gave Mr. Ben-Veniste an entire page (134) to reminisce with charges that the former principal of 1960, Dr. Fleidner was paranoiac, a veritable Captain Queeg-like principal who helped me develop a healthy willingness to question authority.
This “healthy willingness to question authority” was never used however to question liberal orthodoxy and conventional wisdom or his now hallowed view of the cancelled graduation ceremony after 50 years.
The Anniversary Album of course would have considered it remiss if they hadn’t reproduced (p.118) the front page of the New York weekly “downtown express” of July 1, 2002 with a photo of former president and serial lecher Bill Clinton at a Stuyvesant graduation ceremony above the headline “Clinton charms Stuy parents and grads.”
I wondered after reading this, how many parents of Stuyvesant girls would have been charmed if “cool” Bill had been the Principal of a coeducational school in 1960 instead of the “square” Fliedner.
The downplaying of Sowell as a “columnist” is particularly glaring and the reason is not difficult to find when one sees the generous amount of text and photographs allotted in the album to Teachers’ Union President Albert Shanker (Stuyvesant graduate of 1946, an iconic union figure, leader of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, and President of the American Federation of Teachers, a favorite target of Sowell).
Ostensibly, since Thomas Sowell did not graduate, he technically cannot be considered an “alumnus”, yet the same reason was not sufficient grounds to skip prominent mention of another “drop out” among those who spent several years at Stuyvesant but, like Sowell, had to resign to go out and earn a living – the great Jazz Musician, Thelonius Monk who attended Stuyvesant in 1935-37, a decade before Sowell.
Monk’s Stuyvesant past is accorded recognition by the photo of the U.S. postage stamp issued in his honor and a fragment of a magazine article about his life and work but the book is almost silent on Sowell.
Sowell, who was born in Gastonia, North Carolina moved to Harlem in the care of his aunt and had to support himself at odd jobs in a machine shop, and as a delivery man for Western Union. He dropped out of Stuyvesant at age seventeen after two years of study so officially he cannot be considered a “graduate”.
After his discharge from the Marines, Sowell passed the GED examination and enrolled at Howard University, transferring later to Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. degree in economics in 1958. He went on to get a M.A. in Economics from Columbia University in 1959, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago.
Sowell has a nationally syndicated column distributed that appears in various newspapers, as well as online websites such as the conservative Townhall.com and The Jewish World Review.
Sowell has used impeccable scholarship to demonstrate what all liberals refuse to acknowledge or even contemplate. Many of them including colleagues and former classmates of mine and later Stuyvesant graduates whom I have had conversations over the years have not only not known that Sowell attended Stuyvesant, they have admitted to me that they do not know who he is.
This did not surprise me in the least, because as a former Stuyvesant boy from a Jewish-ultra-liberal background who shared many of the same beliefs in my early twenties, I have, like Dick Morris, and unlike them, changed my mind on variety of issues that I once believed I knew everything about.
Sowell argues that his examination of the historical record undermines claims about hopelessly deficient black family patterns due to the alleged “heritage of slavery,” and maintains that the dependency induced by the welfare state destroyed much that was stable and commendable about previous black family and community life.
In the decades immediately following the Civil War, blacks achieved higher employment rates and lower divorce rates than whites. Sowell’s bestseller, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” makes the point that much of lower class black behavior and culture was directly borrowed from poor whites in the pre-Civil War South.
Sowell does have this in common with a large majority of the politically active 1960 grads including me in that he has stated that he was a Marxist during “the decade of my 20s.” However, his experience working as a federal government intern during the summer of 1960 caused him to reject Marxism in favor of the free market.
He has done research in many different areas and come to the same conclusion time after time that government employees who administer the minimum wage laws care not that they may be causing higher unemployment of the poor by enforcing that law; their primary concern has always been keeping their own jobs secure.
In his 1986 “Education: Assumptions versus History”, Sowell discusses several all-black public and private schools that achieved high performance standards and actually outperformed many white schools but declined after the Brown desegregation Supreme Court decision.
What is most salient about Sowell’s and Morris’s and my view in general is the approval of strong discipline (a la Fliedner) and academic excellence as the key to success in overcoming all the environmental barriers of poverty, racial segregation and environment.
I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment at Stuyvesant. It was an expansion of my universe to meet boys from all over the city. I reveled in the knowledge that few if any schools offered courses that excited my interest, grabbed my attention and made me feel that I was upward bound – courses in surveying, telescope building and Russian, even though I soon realized that my principal interests lay in the social sciences and humanities.
Russian was offered by a tutor in an after school hours Russian Club although not introduced as a formal subject until a few years later when Stuyvesant became one of the first high schools in the city to offer it.
Nevertheless, the prevailing Liberal-Democratic ethos of many Stuyvesant alumni a la Holder and Axelrod has been reflected in their continued allegiance to the Democratic Party, and support for “affirmative action.” These views have been expressed to me by fellow alumni and appear in the pages of the 100th anniversary album.
At least a dozen of the reminiscences recorded in the album by alumni (including the girls) describe the “heritage” and ethos of “Stuy” (nobody referred to the school by this idiotic nickname when I attended) as radical, non-conformist, “tolerant” (as if this tolerance had not existed in the past) and multi-cultural, certainly more true today with a large percentage of Asian students.
At my 40th reunion of Stuyvesant graduates, in 2000, the chairman of the gathering in the old auditorium spoke as if he were a wounded and scarred veteran of the Spanish Civil War recalling the graduation ceremony that ended in chaos. One of the first speakers at a gathering in the auditorium began with the words….”I have just one thing to tell you all now after 40 years… Fxxk Fliedner!”
This adolescent remark elicited a great cheer and ovation from the alumni of the Class of 1960 present but left me saddened and even angry that so many guys after 40 years, so highly celebrated the maligning of a man long dead, who was put into a most difficult situation, one whose dilemma I believe, those who had gone into the teaching profession, would surely appreciate.
On the contrary, they were still reliving this moment of the graduation debacle as nostalgia, much as most of us would over reruns of Fonzie from “Happy Days.”
It is no wonder that in the run up to the 2012 Presidential Election, I still feel a bond with those other Stuyvesant graduates who are prominent in the epic struggle to decide out nation’s future.
Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.
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