Kathleen Parker

JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. -- Amongst the moss-draped live oaks of Charleston Collegiate School's 33-acre campus -- where children of all ethnicities, religions and abilities work and play together -- the words of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright seem alien and hostile.

His sometimes hate-filled rhetoric is weirdly out of sync with this quiet corner of the Old South, where ancestors of the school's African-American students worked as slaves, perhaps upon these very fields.

The differences between this microcosm of a near-utopian community and the world that informs Wright are as stark as the philosophies of the Chicago preacher and Charleston Collegiate headmaster Bob Shirley.

Both men are radicals, but their approaches to racial harmony can't be confused.

At 72, Shirley is supposed to be retired, following a long career as an educator, headmaster, museum director and Marine. But the world has need of its Bob Shirleys and so he was easily pressed back into service in 2005 -- after a three-week retirement -- when this little school needed a new leader.

I happened to be visiting the nondenominational K-12 school, where my sister-in-law teaches, as Wright's rants were stuck on continuous replay and couldn't help comparing these very different men and their approaches to achieving a more racially balanced world.

Which works best? Inflaming old hatreds and feeding paranoia among the next generation? Or teaching children that what they have in common is greater than their differences?

The answer is obvious, but some people -- both black and white -- are deeply invested in preserving rather than healing wounds.

"You can either pass on a heritage of the world already made," says Shirley. "Or, you can make people who change the world of the future."

Smiling is Shirley's default mode and a blithe spirit buoys his conviction that all children, properly guided, can become masters of their own destiny. His commitment to that goal flowers at the end of each student's senior year with an "Exhibition of Mastery" project that requires independent study and an oral and written presentation before an advisory committee and an audience.

Charleston Collegiate offers an exclusive education, in other words, but Shirley is strictly anti-exclusivity. The school's 285 students include the largest minority enrollment of any private school in the Charleston area at 24 percent, as well as the largest percentage of financial-aid students (25 percent).

The faculty, 75 percent of whom hold a master's degree (two have doctorates), also exceeds other private schools in minority representation at 19 percent.


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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