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The Classroom Versus the Field of Dreams

FOR viewers of the Bill Cosby show, the success story is not that they are seeing a black doctor and a black lawyer but a black showbiz superstar - Cosby himself.For viewers of Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," the success story is not that the black man happens to be an architect - that fact remains incidental to his involvement with a white woman. The role models of blacks are so remote, so far above the actualities of the ghetto, that they seem less role models than mythological figures on a black Olympus. What does the exotic and spectacular success of Michael Jackson or Eddie Murphy have to do with a black male about to drop out of school? To a young black male on an inner-city basketball court, there may appear to be a more direct line to the Magic Johnsons - the superstars of sport. But Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. DuBois professor of the humanities at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is concerned that black athletes send the wrong message to black boys. Confessing that he grew up on the lessons of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson, Professor Gates warns - in Sports Illustrated, no less - that there are 35 million Afric an-Americans and only 1,200 black professional athletes in the United States. "In reality," Gates writes, "an African-American youngster has about as much chance of becoming a professional athlete as he or she does of winning the lottery. The tragedy for our people, however, is that few of us accept that truth." Pointing out that there are 12 times as many black lawyers and 15 times as many black doctors as there are black athletes, Gates wants to transfer the focus from the black "field of dreams." Let blacks cheer Bo Jackson, he suggests, but let them "emulate novelist Toni Morrison or businessman Reginald Lewis or historian John Hope Franklin" - and in the process, acquire the power of knowledge and skills that are predictably attainable through education. Gates is not alone in preaching a less glitzy path to success for those whose tragedy is to live in the world of "Boyz N the Hood" while dreaming of the world of Michael Jordan and Arsenio Hall. In Boston, an organization called Concerned Black Men of Massachusetts tutors young males from the third grade on. And in Detroit, where nearly two out of three males in the 90-percent-black schools drop out, the school board adopted the drastic measure of founding three all-boys schools called male academies, sc heduled to open August 27. By emphasizing an Afrocentric curriculum taught by specially trained black male teachers who would serve as role models and disciplinarians, the schools represent a last-ditch effort to save a generation of black boys from guns, drugs, and early death. Professor Gates would have been amused to note that a story on the male academies appeared in the same position in The New York Times a day after a story headlined "Belated Tribute to Baseball's Negro Leagues." A more important irony may lie in the special attention being focused on black males. The American Civil Liberties Union and the NOW Legal Defense Fund have won their appeal claiming that the Detroit enterprise, however worthy, is guilty of sex discrimination in denying girls access to an equal education. In ruling that the male academies must be opened to females also or not opened at all, a federal judge remarked, "Girls fail too," recognizing that young black women of the inner city are as urgently in need of role models in education as their brothers. If young black men are to be reminded of James Baldwin and Thurgood Marshall, young black women must be encouraged to see themselves in Toni Morrison and Eleanor Holmes Norton as well as Whoopi Goldberg and Whitney Houston. Indeed, if the sad statistics on declining educational standards are to be believed, all young Americans desperately need role models that emphasize achievement and social contribution rather than fame and fortune. The despair and confusion of any segment of young people serve as a reminder that not the least of the purposes of education is to teach students the true nature of success.

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