Blackboard Jungle in Suburbia

June 1, 2004

We hear today that America’s future is its children. Presumably, this promised future includes America’s economic future.  This theme has been basic for promoting the tax-funded public school establishment for almost two centuries.

This theme is growing increasingly threadbare because, if it is true, then America’s economic future is thin ice, and we are skating on it.  The thinness of this ice is not readily perceived until we compare it with the ice of a generation ago.  We make these comparisons, if at all, only sporadically.

In 1955, MGM released a low-budget black & white movie, “Backboard Jungle.”  Overnight, it became the favorite movie of high school males.

James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” was also released in 1955, but for guys in their teens, that movie never had the emotional appeal of “Blackboard Jungle.”  There was a reason for this: “Rebel” co-starred Natalie Wood.  Nobody I knew was ever going to date Natalie Wood, let alone worry about not getting a date with her.  (A decade later, tens of millions of us would also not be able to get a date with her younger sister Lana.)  The movie also offered us stereotypically socialite parents, each at war with the other, each offering conflicting advice, as Dean’s adult foils.  It was all about teenage male anxiety and finding oneself trapped in a hypocritical world and coming to grips with one’s socially rebellious attitude toward high society and getting a date with Natalie Wood, who might possibly provide meaning for life, but who was dating someone named Buzz.  Also, it had Sal Mineo riding around on a motor scooter.  In short, it was a teenage girl’s movie.

In contrast, “Blackboard Jungle” had an urban high school classroom filled exclusively with teenage boys, who were challenging a newly certified male English teacher. It was all about macho, at 35-to-one odds.  That was not our world, surely.  Prep schools and Catholic schools were unisex; public schools were not.  But this one was a manual arts trade school, so maybe there really was such a school back east, we all imagined.

Here was a movie about males, and therefore it had the same kind of appeal for us as a World War II army movie. It was about an all-male teenage world, however unrealistic that was.  There was not one word of dialogue spoken by a teenage female.  Guys loved it.  (“Patton” had the same appeal to us 15 years later: no female dialogue.  Yes, there were a few words spoken by a middle-aged British matron, but that hardly counted.)

Last weekend, I bought a copy of “Blackboard Jungle” for $3.99 plus tax.  I watched it for old times’ sake. Like “The Wild One” (1953), another movie about unmarried rebellious males, I had seen it numerous times in my youth. I can remember a midnight movie, aimed at my peers, where the manager brought back both movies as a double feature. I went.  So did my buddy, Bud Ebersold.  The theater was filled.

My wife watched it for a while.  Then she left.  The movie still has that effect.  Maybe it’s the dialogue.

Watching that movie, filmed half a century ago, is unnerving.  It reveals the world we have lost.  It also shows an imaginary world that the producer tried to persuade us that we had lost, although I did not perceive this at the time.

First, there was class size.  There were 35 students. That was common in my era.  The teachers union had not persuaded legislatures and school boards to cut the size to around 22, thereby driving up the cost of classroom instruction — though of course not by as much as adding layers of administrators has cost.

Second, in what was an urban ghetto, almost everyone was white.  The few blacks on camera were well-behaved, except for Sidney Poitier, who was merely disrespectful to adult authority.  He called the teacher, “Chief.”  There was a retarded Italian (played by Lebanese Jameel Farah, known today as Jamie “Klinger” Farr), some Irish, and some Puerto Ricans.  It was obviously supposed to be in New York City.  It was a multiracial jungle — an equal non- opportunity school.  White flight had not yet begun in the ghetto.

Third, teachers were paid, according to the dialogue, $2 an hour.

Fourth, when the discouraged teacher goes back to his former college professor to get advice, we hear “The Star Spangled Banner” being sung in the background by students. When we finally see these students, standing tall and singing in the auditorium, the males are dressed in sports coats and ties.  There are no Levis to be seen.  In 1955, we should have asked, “Where on earth is this high school?” Today, of course, we rarely see anyone this well dressed, even in church.  Levis, we see.  On women.

(The movie here is confusing.  The hero calls the older man “professor,” indicating a college’s employee, but the man later offers him a job “at his school,” presumably meaning a high school.  Apparently, a former college professor of English has left the college classroom to become a high school principal.  Even high school boys knew better.  We knew that high school principals were selected from two pools of academic expertise: coaches and shop instructors.  Also, the outdoor scenes were shot at UCLA.)

Fifth, only one teenager is armed.  He carries a switchblade knife.  He heads a gang.  Today, he would be carrying a snub-nosed .357.  At home, he would have an Uzi.

Sixth, this movie so shocked adults that some cities banned its showing.  Senator Claire Booth Luce and the Eisenhower Administration kept it from being shown at the Venice Film Festival.

I had not realized at the time how accurate the movie’s characters were.  One of the hapless teachers is a veteran with an artificial leg.  He teaches carpentry.  I was taught wood shop in 1955 by veteran with a wooden leg. He was the surliest and most kid-hating teacher on campus, even more hostile than the meanest of the coaches, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the movie’s vice principal, whose dialogue is mostly monologue: “Shaddup!”

It only occurs to me at this late date: there were no coaches.  No wonder order had broken down.  A public high without coaches in 1955 was like a prison without armed guards.


So controversial was this movie that the producer, Pandro S. Berman, saw fit to add a written introduction to justify its existence to adults.  Berman was a very successful producer.  He had produced a string of hits with Fred Astaire in the 1930s.  He had produced “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with Charles Laughton, “The Three Musketeers,” with Gene Kelly, and the original “Father of the Bride.”  He knew he had a problem with distribution: the movie’s theme of juvenile delinquency.  So, he added a written introduction, possibly at the insistence of the studio.  Here was a confession of religious faith aimed at parents, which was to serve as a political pressure-release valve.

We, in the United States, are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth.

Today we are concerned with juvenile delinquency — its causes — and its effects.  We are especially concerned when this delinquency boils over into our schools.

The scenes and incidents depicted here are fictional.

However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.

It is in this spirit and with this faith that BLACKBOARD JUNGLE was produced.

Then, the screen’s scrolling commercial for adults faded to black, and the most powerful musical introduction of my generation began, a three-beat staccato drum roll: “boom, boom, boom/One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock.”  Bill Haley’s now-memorable lyrics blasted from the theater’s speakers, surrounding us, and “Rock Around the Clock” (1954) got a revival.

The word “revival” does not do justice to what took place.  That recording went on to sell more than any other rock and roll record in history, according to Guinness, selling at least 25 million copies in Haley’s version, from 1954 through the 1970s.  In 1955, it became the defining male song for the first teenage generation in mankind’s history that had enough discretionary income to fund its own counter-culture — a counter-culture based on music more than anything else.  It was Haley’s song that got John Lennon into rock.  More than any other record, it defined rock and roll at the beginning.  It was a landmark.  Yet it was the movie that established the song in the annals of music history.  It had sold a modest 75,000 as a B-side a year earlier.  The director had heard the tune when he borrowed a stack of records from Peter Ford, the teenage son of the movie’s star, Glenn Ford.

That scrolling introduction was for parents.  The musical introduction was for us.  We knew it.  MGM knew it. Our parents soon found out.  It was not their movie.  It was ours — teenage American boys.

Twenty years later, the song became the opening theme for the 1970s sitcom about the 1950s, “Happy Days,” with Henry Winkler and Ron Howard.  Winkler’s character, the Fonz, would have been every middle-class suburban mother’s nightmare in 1955.  Visually, he was one of the kids in “Blackboard Jungle,” except that he rode a motorcycle: “The Wild One” attends “Blackboard Jungle.”  The producers of “Happy Days” moved this character into a suburban high school, to pal around with an adolescent Opie.  Where was Sheriff Andy or Aunt Bea?  Would no one sound the alarm? Not even Barney Fyfe seemed to recognize what had happened. The cultural revolution had moved to its next phase.  By 1975’s standards, 1955’s social deviants looked cute.

The Fonz may have looked cute in retrospect, from 1975 to 1984, but only because there really had been a cultural transformation by 1975.  Parents had been warned on-screen in 1955: “However, we believe that public awareness is a first step toward a remedy for any problem.”  Apparently, public awareness wasn’t enough.

I never watched an entire show of “Happy Days.”  By then, I had long since given up any faith in tax-funded high schools.  My peers had been the first generation with enough money to buy their own culture, but we had been shaped by the educational system that gave us the blackboard jungle.  What had been seen by adults as a cancer in 1955 had metastasized by 1975.

It is much worse today than in 1975.


What was regarded as urban juvenile delinquency in 1955 would be regarded as the return of the golden age in the inner city today.

In today’s junior high ghetto schools, they have metal detectors at the front doors.  It is assumed that some students will be carrying guns.  In high school, it is worse.

In the movie, one student says of the villain with the knife, “He’s floating on Sneaky Pete wine.”  That meant nothing to me in 1955.  I did not know that Sneaky Pete was the generic term given to cheap rotgut wine, which was popular in skid row districts.  Today, he would be floating on crack or some other readily available illegal drug of choice on high school campuses.

He would not be carrying a switchblade.  If the teacher was fortunate, the kid would be packing a short- nose .22.  More likely, he would come back the next day with a .38 or higher and blow away the teacher and two or three students.  This is not going to stop until the kids invariably head straight for the principal’s office and start spraying lead.  Until then, the phenomenon will be treated by administrators as an aberration, a non- representative academic event suitable for an official investigation by a committee headed by a sociologist.

What has also changed is the spread into the suburbs of what was perceived as inner city culture in 1955.  While classes are smaller, the threats to students are worse than those faced in the ghetto in 1955.  The number of suburban students with sexually transmitted diseases or drug addiction problems is vastly higher than anything in the inner city in 1955.  So is the rate of unmarried pregnancy. Suburban classroom discipline problems are not so bad as they were portrayed in the movie.  Pay scales are higher. But academic performance is worse than it was in the suburbs in 1955 or even 1963.

The direction is clear: down.

If you want one movie scene that describes the change, rent “Lean on Me” (1989), the true story of a New Jersey high school.  It begins in 1967.  The hero, played by Morgan Freeman, teaches in a mostly white school.  Having lost a dispute with fellow union members, he walks down and out of the high school’s hallway.  The movie morphs forward 20 years.  The hallway goes from well-scrubbed into a litter-filled, wall-to-wall melee of pushing, shouting, fighting, mostly minority students.  Freeman’s character is called back to become the principal.  The movie is the story of a principal who walks the halls with a baseball bat in one hand and a bullhorn in the other.

“Lean on Me” is described on its VCR box as “the feel- good movie of the year.”  In 1955, it could not have been released due to its language, its sexual subplot, its drugs, and delinquency on a scale never hinted at in “Blackboard Jungle.”  But “Lean on Me” was true. “Blackboard Jungle” was fictitious.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Morgan Freeman was in my all-time favorite TV movie, “The Marva Collins Story” (1981), a Hallmark Hall of Fame production.  It tells the story of a black public school teacher who quits her job in disgust in 1975 and starts a private school in her home in the middle of the Chicago ghetto.  Her students proceed to learn more than the products of most tax-funded schools ever dream of learning. Ronald Reagan later offered Mrs. Collins the office of Secretary of Education, which she politely declined.  She stuck with private education, although she has advised several public schools, and most have dramatically improved their students’ scores.

The movie is politically incorrect.  It implies that there is no legitimate hope in ghetto public schools. Hallmark has never released this movie on video, despite Freeman and Cicely Tyson as its stars.


College entrance national test scores peaked in 1963, even with the addition of about 50 points on the Scholastic Aptitude Test a decade ago.

Drug addiction on campus is not even news.

Rates of violence are up in high schools in every neighborhood.

Shootings are front-page news in small towns, but not in cities, Columbine aside.

Whites may think their children are safe.  Yet I lived in a city in the 1980s and 1990s where I knew white parents who preferred to send their children to the high school in the black/Mexican part of town, since there was not as much money there.  The white high school had lots of money and a reputation for big-time drug dealing.

Check the makes, years, and models of cars in your local public high school’s parking lot.  The older cars belong to the teachers.  It’s good times at Ridgemont High.

Ask parents about the local high school attended by their child.  According to parents, their child’s high school is Lake Wobegon High.  Unlike all other schools in the suburbs, this school is above average.  The problems are not too bad.

The textbooks are published nationally and screened by committees whose primary task is to dumb down the textbooks so that “no child is left behind,” including morons.  (I am not kidding.  The practice of placing retarded children in standard classrooms is called mainstreaming.  It eliminates the high cost of special education programs, but at the expense of the academic progress of brighter students.  The lowest common denominator gets ever lower.)  The effects of dumbed-down textbooks extends all the way to Harvard, as recent reports indicate: students’ abysmal knowledge of American history.

Is this a problem for parents?  Not in their opinion. Parents do not read textbooks.  Textbooks are part of a rite of passage.  Once you survive it, you are through forever with textbooks.  Textbooks are for getting through, not for learning anything important.  Who cares what is in them?  Not parents.

As for inner city schools, no one pretends to have any answers.  In “Blackboard Jungle,” the principal insisted that there was no discipline problem in his school.  In today’s inner city schools, principals call for another policeman to walk the halls.

Those voters who pay most of the local property taxes have written off the inner city schools.  They just want to escape busing.  Voters whose children attend inner city schools are lobbying for vouchers and public transportation into suburban neighborhoods.  This is why vouchers keep getting voted down in the suburbs.  Vouchers are promoted by University of Chicago economists as a way to increase parental choice.  This is why suburbanites vote down vouchers.  They have another term for it: “busing.”  They want to keep the blackboard jungle at a safe distance.

Everyone knows that “Blackboard Jungle” has come true — even people who have never seen the movie.


No one would dare to call the movie “Blackboard Jungle” today, for that would be politically incorrect. The word “jungle” conjures up mental images of natives. Maybe they would title it, “Dysfunctional Chalkboard” or “Fast Times at Multicultural High.”

If it is true that America’s economic future is with its children, then those Americans who expect to retire on their Social Security/Medicare payments need to re-evaluate their future.  The educational performance of American high schoolers has been falling for a generation.  The inability of non-graduates from high school to earn a decent living is worse today than it was in 1955, when the teacher tried to persuade the black student to graduate and not drop out.

This decline has happened slowly.  At each stage of the decline, voters have decided that things still were not too bad in the local schools, and just one more bond issue would turn things around.  Millions of people therefore believe what most of the evidence disproves.  They prefer to ignore the evidence.  They vote as if they believed the teachers’ union, namely, that the solution requires higher salaries, smaller classes, and newer facilities.  They are being prepared by the education Establishment to surrender to consolidated high schools (“busing”).

Apparently, their educations did not give them either the ability or the willingness to draw conclusions based on evidence.

The tax-funded blackboard, whether in the urban jungle or the suburbs, has failed.  But grade inflation has awarded it a C-.