05/07/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

The Civic Spirit

Years ago, a progressive friend predicted that it would only be a matter of time before I became disillusioned with the conservative movement. "Those guys believe that government can't do anything right," he noted. "How can you believe that, when you went to a school that proved government can do something right?"

I certainly didn't want to admit it at the time, but my friend was on to something.

I never really thought of Boston Latin School, the nation's oldest public high school, in a political context; had I done so, I probably would have walked away from the right far earlier than I did. When I graduated from Boston Latin in 1995, the only thing I could think of was relief. Finally, the misery was over!

Looking back, however, the experience wasn't really that miserable. Certainly, the hours of homework were fairly burdensome; the memory of my weakness in science courses is still particularly painful, especially because it led to my acceptance of a wholly invalid political argument from the right.

However, I'm now at a point where the positive memories of Latin School outweigh the negative ones. I realize now just how big of a role my English teachers played in nurturing my writing ability. I also realize how crucial the friendships I made were to getting through those formative years.

It's a sign of the extent to which I overindulged in political partisanship that I was reluctant to acknowledge Latin School as an example of the government's ability to do the right thing. Latin School was, in my mind, the exception that proved the rule, as opposed to being an example of how the rule could work. In a way, Latin School is itself a refutation -- or, as Sarah Palin might say, a "refudiation" -- of contemporary anti-government conservatism.

After all these years, I still feel as though I'm trying to keep up with my brilliant classmates. I wish I had appreciated far earlier the fact that I went to school with some of the smartest and most compassionate people in Boston. I also can't help feeling intense shame when I think back to some of my past hyper-partisanship, because, on some level, that hyper-partisanship dishonored the spirit of Latin School.

I'm not sure I ever really got what Latin School was about. I'm not sure I ever really understood that with a Latin School diploma comes a duty to improve institutions, to preserve democracy, to fight for the public interest and the public good. A Latin School diploma is not an opportunity to serve oneself; it's a charge to serve the world.

Of course, one can only serve the world by learning how to work with different people in that world. About a decade and a half ago, Latin School was the focus of controversy over the constitutionality of its efforts to establish a highly diverse student body. I argued then in numerous calls to talk radio and letters to the editor that diversity was not a compelling governmental interest that justified those efforts, and took a fairly dim view of those who argued that diversity was in fact sufficient legal justification for those measures.

After four years of listening to people insinuate that President Obama is an illegal immigrant from Kenya with a burning desire to implement de facto reparations, I've come to realize that diversity is indeed an essential part of educational development. While I still believe that diversity in public education can be achieved through race-neutral means, I no longer believe that a person who feels race-conscious policies are necessary to ensure diversity is by definition a left-wing radical or anti-white. The folks on the "other side" of the Latin School controversy were making compelling arguments, arguments I casually dismissed as so much politically correct thinking.

The core progressive argument in the Latin School admissions debate -- that diversity can in fact enhance education, dispel stereotypes, and lead to greater understanding -- was true. My only dispute was with the way that diversity was achieved. Looking back, I wish that I had not blindly accepted the view that those who believed, as Justice Harry Blackmun did, that "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race," were somehow villains.

One of the most prominent figures making the progressive argument about Latin School's admissions policy was the school's then-headmaster, Michael Contompasis. My view at the time was that Contompasis had turned himself in to the PC police, that he desperately needed to read some Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele, that he was wrong to suggest that a Latin School bereft of race-conscious admissions policies would be less of a school.

Hyper-partisanship has a way of editing history, even the history in one's own mind. The image of Contompasis the "diversity-monger" eclipsed, in my mind, the more accurate image of Contompasis the leader, Contompasis the scholar, Contompasis the fighter for students born with lots of aptitude but little advantage. It was this Contompasis -- the real Contompasis, not the PC bureaucrat I had invented in my mind -- that was revealed in an outstanding Nov. 7, 1993 profile by John Powers in the Boston Globe Magazine:

Contompasis will bend ears, twist arms, skirt the rules, take advantage of the chaos and lunacy of the system, or bypass the system entirely. But his students will get what they need. 'The kids come first,' the headmaster says. 'Everything else flows from that.'

When Contompasis ended his 21-year tenure as headmaster, the Globe noted:

Known as a key academic leader in the Boston public school system who helped mold school reform in the city, Contompasis is seen as a pioneer in teacher-contract negotiations, a big-picture thinker, and a leader willing to make tough and unpopular decisions.

I wasn't one for big-picture thinking when that story was published on July 22, 1998. Just a few months before, Contompasis had testified in U.S. District Court in defense of Latin School's controversial admissions policy, the same policy I viewed as both unconstitutional and unnecessary. I remember laughing when I saw the "big-picture thinker" line.

The memory of that laugh is painful now.

Contompasis had a point about diversity in education, a point I was too politically ignorant to understand.

I apologize for not understanding what he was trying to say.

The friend who predicted my eventual disillusionment with conservatism was right. As is the case with climate change, one can only deny obvious facts for so long. It's true that Boston Latin School is in fact a testament to the good that government can do; it's also true that those who pursued efforts to enhance the diversity of the school's student body demonstrated moral merit, even if those specific efforts were later adjudged to be constitutionally unsustainable.

Boston Latin School represents the best of us, as Americans, as human beings. It represents the civic spirit in all its forms; it symbolizes a citizenry of high intellect and deep compassion. In an age when government's basic ability to do the good and necessary things for society is relentlessly questioned, it is needed now more than ever.