My high-school graduating class of 1970 recently held its 40-year reunion in New York. This has been followed by copious emails between the attendees and other class members who (like me) did not attend but have re-connected via cyberspace. And it's been a typical exercise in baby-boomer myth-making.
My high school in Hartsdale, New York, was one of the first American schools in the 1960s to experiment with mixed-race education. It had been a sedate, middle-class, largely white school when the local education authorities ruled that kids from a nearby, poorer, black district, as well as others from the neighbouring affluent and heavily Jewish town of Scarsdale, should all be bussed into my school. Left-leaning Jewish educators championed this development.
Before long, however, like something out of West Side Story, the school car park was the scene of ugly fights between gangs of black boys and gangs of white boys, armed with chains. Some of the white girls got bullied by their black counterparts (only the tough Italian-American girls knew how to strike back). And the Jewish kids? They edited the school literary magazine, did silk-screen printing and staged plays by Arthur Miller.
Yet genuine inter-racial friendships were formed and our multi-hued, multicultural graduating class would have made civil rights proponent Bobby Kennedy proud. The experiment was deemed a success. And the recent reunion seemed to attest to that - the 70-odd erstwhile classmates in attendance came from all the various backgrounds and, by all accounts, the event was one big multi-racial love-in.
The euphoric emails that followed were full of typically self-congratulatory baby-boomer talk. Weren't we amazing back in the Sixties? We with our bold new counter-culture, our social revolution, our happy-clappy Woodstock and our love beads. Man, we changed the world!
Except that we didn't. None of my old classmates could, or would, confront the glaring truth. By as early as 1985, when I made a return visit to the school, there were few white pupils left. It was almost wholly black and Hispanic. The Jewish and other white middle-class families simply put their kids into private schools or moved away. Today, only eight per cent of the school's pupils are white and academic standards have dropped sharply. Ultimately, this high-minded 1960s experiment failed because, given a choice, most people will reject being guinea pigs. The nirvana of harmonious integration is still, sadly, a long way off. In fact, American schools across the country have been re-segregating in recent times.
Instead of crowing about how we invented equality and social conscience maybe my "radical" generation should view our self-declared mission to make the world a better place as a work-in-progress. Admittedly, this will not be easy while so many of us get dewy-eyed at the strains of John Lennon's druggy, disingenuous All You Need is Love. So we can start by replacing the superannuated callow idealism of our youth with the experience-led pragmatism of our mature years - a prerequisite to doing any lasting good.
Meanwhile, I have set the cat among the pigeons with my email to the Class of '70, pointing out the above. It got a cool reception and was ignored by the sole teacher (Jewish, liberal) who'd attended the reunion and described her glowing recollections of our "proud history" and "great experiment" - omitting to mention that it ultimately failed. And I received a hostile email back from the ex-classmate who, for no reason, once gave me an almighty slap on the school steps. I reminded her of that long-ago incident. She had forgotten it but told me that I'd probably deserved the slap and should "stay in England and have a rotten life".
All you need is love, eh?