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Social Justice Was Always Essential to NYC’s Public High Schools

New reforms to the city’s specialized high schools are controversial but true to their original, democratic spirit

Annie Abrams
October 12, 2018
Classic yellow school busShutterstock
Classic yellow school busShutterstock

The controversy that erupted in New York after Mayor de Blasio announced that the city’s specialized high schools would no longer base admissions on a single test, appeared to put academic achievement in conflict with social justice. But that’s actually a misreading of the history and original mission of the city’s specialized high schools. A closer look at the life and philosophy Morris Meister, founder of the Bronx High School of Science, one of the most famous specialized high schools in the whole country, shows that social reforms and science education, far from being in conflict, have been interlinked from the very beginning.

Opponents of the planned reforms in New York, who worry that repealing the test will shift schools like Bronx Science too far off their foundations, abound. Recently, Stanley Blumenstein, a former principal of Bronx Science, expressed concern about the de Blasio administration’s new policy that calls for schools to reserve a fifth of their seats for disadvantaged students below the numerical cut-off on the SHSAT, the current admissions exam. He told The New York Times, “It’s strictly a political decision. It is a non-color-blind decision, which is antithetical to the merit-based admissions, which the founding fathers established.” But here’s where Blumenstein and other critics get it wrong because, although Bronx Science founder Morris Meister was a firm believer in merit-based admissions, it was in the context of seeing science education as integral to a democratic social and political vision. Criticizing reforms intended to make the city more democratic by fossilizing Meister’s original vision is paradoxical.

“When we got to the border in Germany, it was necessary for us to be secreted in the basement of a hut until the guard who had been bribed was on duty,” recalled Meister, in a 1966 issue of the journal Science Education. He was born in Gonietz, Poland in 1895. “This lasted a week. We saw no daylight throughout the week.” Meister’s father traveled through Germany to America in 1901 and sent for the rest of the family the following year.

After arriving in America, Meister’s family settled into the Lower East Side. By 1916, he was a classroom teacher. In 1918, he became a naturalized citizen. In 1921, he completed his doctorate in science education at Columbia and married Florence Glickstein. He founded the Bronx High School of Science in 1938, as Hitler occupied Austria and FDR warned in that year’s State of the Union that, “In spite of the determination of this Nation for peace, it has become clear that acts and policies of nations in other parts of the world have far-reaching effects not only upon their immediate neighbors but also on us.” The country braced itself to protect American democracy and Meister understood his job as fundamental to that effort.

Openly acknowledging problems and innovating solutions to them were aims central to the school’s original mission. If a student broke a test tube in chemistry class, he was expected to create a new one in the glass-blowing lab. A New York Times article celebrating the school’s opening reported, “It is the belief of the principal, Dr. Morris Meister, that the laboratory can supply many of the answers that the boys may not find in their textbooks. Students will be encouraged to leave the trodden path and delve into unexplored fields.” Meister welcomed the unpredictability and improvisation inherent to high school education as integral to a healthy democracy.

Bronx Science was widely hailed as a success by the time its first graduating class left. But instead of growing complacent, Meister pushed his faculty to keep innovating. In 1942, he published a report on the new integrated curriculum his teachers developed for freshmen. He explained his sense of purpose, “We write about this work with some reluctance. So much remains to be done; the problems unsolved are so much more numerous than the achievements. Yet the need to tell others must be met, if only for the purpose of clarification and the help which comes from the reactions of colleagues.” Clarity, self-scrutiny, and open communication were hallmarks of Meister’s educational philosophy—perhaps unsurprising for a child exposed so early to the horrors of tyranny.

If this link between his formative years and his professional life seems tenuous, consider an essay he published in 1945, “What’s Ahead for Science in General Education?” Meister argued, “Human blood and substance are being spent in an effort to protect the democratic faith. Yet the sacrifice will be tragic and useless if the scientific spirit is abandoned. Science and democracy are related in a symbiosis. When one grows sick, so does the other. When one grows strong, the other cannot remain weak. In this sense, science does not exist in a totalitarian world, no matter how assiduously and cleverly its technical men operate. The climate of science is the climate of democracy.” During the War, he attended conferences like one called “Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith,” with panels titled “The Authoritarian Attempt to Capture Education,” “Democracy and Education,” “Can Free Communication be Achieved,” and “Science and the Humanization of Society.”

Beyond cultivating an educational climate of transparency, Meister’s specialized high school was founded with the explicit goal of promoting social and cultural progress. In 1946, he argued,

“The public is quite ready to agree that science teachers have a crucial role to play in an atomic age. After our statesmen have labored long and hard to establish reason and peace among nations, and after our political scientists and philosophers have formulated bases for social and economic conduct within and among countries, there is still the task of education in science to be done if blueprints are to become realities.” In other words, he understood science education and humanitarian aims to be inextricably intertwined. A few years ago, Tablet reported on Bronx Science’s Holocaust museum, touting it as a surprising investment for a school devoted to STEM education. But the museum in the school’s basement grounds is the natural legacy of its founder: for Meister, scientific research and political freedom were inseparable because both required the honest assessment and addressing of social ills.

Meister believed that goals for science education had to be aligned with political and social goals. In terms of admissions reform, we need to think critically about the political and social conditions producing the schools’ working definition of “merit.” The most basic Kaplan test prep for the SHSAT starts at $999. Considering recent research that demonstrates how the test has evolved to put some students at a distinct disadvantage because of their cultural and economic backgrounds, it seems very much in the spirit of Meister’s original plan to acknowledge the problem, pay attention to data about it, and innovate solutions. The standard of “merit” on which the admissions exam relies is outdated.

Working backward from clear social and political goals to build an aligned system of science education is more in the spirit of Meister’s legacy than being petrified by fear of change.

Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York City. She holds her doctorate in American literature from New York University.