In The Press
The New Yorker of Jan. 16 contains a long and detailed account of two renowned court cases that resulted from the wave of schoolbook banning that began in the 1970's. The article is by Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire In The Lake, a history of the Vietnam War, and America Revised, a study of American-history textbooks.
Ms. FitzGerald focuses on the 1981 Baileyville, Me., case over the banning of 365 Days, an account by an Army doctor of American soldiers' experiences in Vietnam, and on the banning of nine books from a school district on Long Island, N.Y. The Supreme Court heard the second case, Pico v. Island Trees School District, in 1982.
Ms. FitzGerald makes a distinction between what is popularly held to be at stake in cases of schoolbook banning and the issues on which judges really base their decisions.
To the plaintiffs in several cases prior to Pico, it seemed "absurd and outrageous" that such works as Bernard Malamud's The Fixer and Joseph Heller's Catch 22 could be banned, she writes. "But, as their lawyers soon explained to them, the books were merely lightning rods in these cases. The real issue was the conflict between the proper authority of elected school boards and the rights of students under the First Amendment."
Then, as now, many people believed that voters in a community, not the federal courts, should decide whether a school board has acted improperly by banning books.
In the high school of Baileyville, 365 Days was eventually returned to the shelves. The Pico case was decided in June 1982, in a splintered decision that reflected the complexity of the issue. (The Court's 5-to-4 decision upheld an appellate-court decision to remand the case to a federal district court for trial.)
The judgment was a narrow victory in principle for the student plaintiffs, Ms. FitzGerald maintains, but failed to establish a solid doctrine for future cases: "What the plurality offered was merely a constraint upon traditional doctrines: School boards had the obligation to 'inculcate values' but they could not deliberately 'suppress ideas."'
"How this doctrine might actually apply to any given case of book removal by a school board is still moot."
Which construction is better: "Everyone who leaves after six will miss his train," or "Everyone who leaves after six will miss their train"? Should "disinterested" and "uninterested" be considered interchangeable words? Should we cringe when a bureaucrat uses words like "prioritize" or "implement" or "input" as verbs?
Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at Stanford University, discusses these and other nagging issues of grammar and usage in the December 1983 issue of The Atlantic.
Mr. Nunberg criticizes both the "structural linguists," who insist on following a rigid set of grammatical rules, and the "radicals" who "argue that traditional grammar, as an instrument of racism and class oppression, has no place in the school curriculum." Mr. Nunberg takes a middle ground between the two camps: He wishes that language enthusiasts of all descriptions would show a little tolerance as well as concern for the evolution of English.
When presented with a controversy over usage changes, Mr. Nunberg says, we should make decisions based on two basic questions: "Does it involve any real loss?" and "Is there anything we can do about it?"
Mr. Nunberg believes language critics put current speakers and writers in an unfair position. Critics of modern usage unfairly compare the poor locutions found in advertisements, memoranda from college deans, and gruff New Yorkers, he says, with the language used by the elite of bygone eras. "Our picture of the English of previous centuries," he says, "is formed on the basis of a careful selection of the best that was said and thought back then; their hacks and bureaucrats are mercifully silent now."
The nation's textbook publishers have "gotten off almost without reprimand" during the recent parceling of blame about the "dismal situation" of American schooling.
That is the opinion of Nat Hentoff, a frequent contributor to The Village Voice and Inquiry, who says publishers deserve a large share of the blame. His argument--"The Dumbing of America"--appears in the February issue of The Progressive.
"When subjected to pressure by state textbook commissions and other bodies in the business of 'purifying' what children learn, such highly respectable publishers as Harper & Row, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Macmillan, and Houghton-Mifflin compromise the intellectual integrity of their products rather than lose a sale. So the kids in the classroom get damaged goods."
Mr. Hentoff, attempting to show how textbook quality has declined, focuses on the well-known example of Texas--a state with a committee that adopts a list of approved textbooks from which school districts must choose. "Publishers are desperate to get on the list of approved books because the Texas market is so huge; the state's textbook budget was $64 million in 1983."
One publisher tells Mr. Hentoff: "It would be very difficult to write off the Texas market. If we couldn't sell a book without creationism in it, I imagine you'd see it there."
By bowing to the pressures in Texas, Mr. Hentoff argues, publishers determine the books that will be available in the rest of the country, because it is too expensive to print another edition containing material judged too controversial for Texas. Mr. Hentoff concludes that such self-censorship is more dangerous than the combined activities of all the "professional censors."
Many of the recent reports on schools--particularly Diane Ravitch's history of education since World War II, The Troubled Crusade--are full of "class biases" and do not consider the profound pressures put on schools by outside forces such as the family and the community.
Deborah Meier, the director of a public school in New York City, presents this argument in the winter issue of Dissent. Most of the reports, Ms. Meier says, unthinkingly accept the notion that American schools have fallen in quality because they have pursued equal opportunity for all students at the expense of academic standards. Consequently, to strengthen standards, the reports propose more tests, more homework, and stricter discipline and promotion policies.
Ms. Meier believes such reasoning ignores the different attributes and burdens that children and teachers bring to the classroom. "Writers about schools get away with such pitifully superficial palliatives," Ms. Meier writes, "so long as they operate on a level of rhetoric and abstraction that removes them from confronting the classroom day by day."
She attacks Ms. Ravitch's call for schools to adopt "limited" goals and to stress a "cognitively oriented" school program. Referring to Ms. Ravitch's criticism of the federal Head Start program for economically disadvantaged preschool children, Ms. Meier says: "In accordance with the current demand for 'rigor,' many infant programs have abandoned both a concern for the family and all subject matter, replacing them ... with isolated verbal skills taught in a vacuum of intellectual content."
Ms. Meier also questions prescriptions for schools that do not consider the major role of vocational education, the motives of corporations that get involved in education, and the growth of "standardized tests and standardized curriculum programs tailored to them." On the subject of standardization--a post-World War II development--Ms. Meier complains that Ms. Ravitch "offers not a word."
Judge Jack E. Tanner ruled in December that 14,000 Washington State employees--most of them in jobs dominated by women--were the victims of wage discrimination and must receive pay increases and back pay. The case is being appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Meanwhile, employers (including school administrators) are beginning to discuss the concept of comparable worth.
Writing in the January issue of The Washington Monthly, the Seattle journalist Geoffrey Cowley maintains that the concept of comparable worth is not only inadequate, but destructive. "If the courts are going to define 'discrimination' so broadly that it applies to people who do different things and earn different salaries, they can't just go around measuring it on any scale they like--there will have to be state and federal laws. ... Otherwise, employers will start defining worth any way they please."
The most "pernicious" aspect of the concept, however, is that it in essence gives society's obsession with "credentialism" the force of law. "Advocates of comparable worth don't want to achieve equality or a system of rewards based on true merit. They want a merit-blind system of inequality."
Better ways to fight sex discrimination in the workplace, Mr. Cowley suggests, might be bringing anti-discrimination lawsuits, combating deep-seated cultural prejudices, and fighting the "rigid rules that exist to keep women--and men--who occupy the lower status rungs in their place."
Eighty percent of teen-aged females who leave high school do so because they are pregnant, 90 percent of teen-age mothers eventually join the ranks of the unemployed, and 66 percent of them eventually go on welfare. This is what the future holds for teen-age mothers, writes Paula DiPerna in the January issue of Ms., unless they are fortunate enough to participate in one of the few educational programs specifically designed to break that cycle.
Ms. DiPerna, a freelance writer in New York City, examines one such program--Living for the Young Family Through Education--offered by Bay Ridge High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. The program provides day-care facilities for the students' babies while the students attend classes, along with counseling on such matters as health care and career planning.
The first 1984 issue of The Wilson Quarterly contains a special section on "Teaching in America," with essays by Patricia A. Graham, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Gary Sykes, a researcher on teaching based at Stanford University; Val D. Rust, a professor of comparative international education at the University of California at Los Angeles; and Denis Doyle, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.