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"We often define ourselves more by our misdeeds than by our accomplishments,'' writes Barry O'Neill in the opening line of a March 6, 1994, story in The New York Times Magazine on the authenticity of those famous lists of school troubles, then and now, that are often waved as warning flags by social critics.

The Yale University business professor spotted such a comparison listing on a campus bulletin board and was troubled by certain disparities between the "then'' and the "now'' lists. His search for their true origins is chronicled in "The History of a Hoax.''

The lists, in their various incarnations, are familiar reading for most educators. Mr. O'Neill's version looked like this:

  • Top problems of the 1940's: 1. talking; 2. chewing gum; 3. making noise; 4. running in the halls; 5. getting out of turn in line; 6. wearing improper clothing; 7. not putting paper in wastebaskets.
  • Top problems in the 1980's: 1. drug abuse; 2. alcohol abuse; 3. pregnancy; 4. suicide; 5. rape; 6. robbery; 7. assault.

Though such surveys have seeped into popular culture as a kind of measuring stick for the country's social decline, Mr. O'Neill found them far from scientific. And though he does not consider them a deliberate hoax, he argues that they have been dangerously misused as guides for education policy.

After two months of digging, the author determined that the original source for the lists was T. Cullen Davis, a Texas businessman and born-again Christian. Around 1982, Mr. Davis had compiled a list of 20 modern problems in schools to compare with seven offenses in 1940's schools as part of a fundamentalist critique of public schools.

The 1940's list may be based on data, Mr. O'Neill concedes, but the 1980's list bears too close a resemblance to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics conducted in the 70's, which asked principals to rate not their concerns, but the crimes they had reported in preceding months. "You can't learn how times have changed if you change your question,'' the author notes.

The lists have a twisted history from there. They circulated among conservative publications and dropped a few offenses along the way, down to 17. Then Harper's ran them in 1985 as a quaint read. And though the magazine hinted at the material's strongly fundamentalist origins, its mere publication of the lists, Mr. O'Neill argues, gave them "the imprimatur of a credible publication.''

From a speech by then-Gov. George Deukmejian of California, to the California Department of Education, to the Fullerton, Calif., police, the lists gained a growing audience. And by what the author calls "the best-source-yet rule,'' the most recent and best-known quoter became considered the source.

His tracing of list mania shows that items and their order have changed according to particular agendas. Gallup polls in the late 80's, for example, identified drugs as the public's major concern about schools. The lists at that same time show a quick shift of "drug abuse'' from the number-six slot to number one.

During the same time, however, a University of Michigan study was revealing a drop of almost 50 percent in drug use by high school seniors (between 1980 and 1990). "The experts and reporters repeating the lists were not providing the public with real information,'' Mr. O'Neill writes, "just reflecting public opinion back to the public.''

In 1987, both the columnist George Will and the CBS News reporter Bernard Goldberg gave the lists national attention as presumably factual studies. Both had chopped the list of modern offenses to seven, to match, conveniently, the 1940's list.

The "seven versus seven'' pairing, Mr. O'Neill says, citing the psychologist George Miller to back him up, makes for an easily digestible amount of information. Further, the new balance, he asserts, allowed "some public speakers [to] go sideways across the columns, contrasting yesterday's abuse of chewing gum against today's drug and alcohol abuse.''

By the end of his study, the author had discovered nearly 250 versions of the lists.

"The lists are not facts but a fundamental expression of attitudes and emotions,'' he concludes. "They overlook the successes of American public education, its great expansion since 1940 and its high quality despite taxpayer resistance.''

Successes notwithstanding, an article in the winter edition of The Responsive Community--a special issue examining "The Moral State of the Union''--contends that schools are failing both their students and their communities in ways much more essential than those suggested by low S.A.T. scores or rising rates of functional illiteracy.

Frederick Close, the director of education at the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, writes that the "fundamental tragedy of American education today is not that we are turning out ignoramuses, but that we are turning out savages.''

Using statistics for juvenile crime from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's latest Uniform Crime Report, the author documents a continually rising crime wave among the younger generation. He calls for the institution of moral and character education in the schools to counteract such trends.

Rather than class discussions of current events, he proposes for moral education a broad, historical overview of behaviors borne out over time as morally good or morally bad.

The dialogue, even disagreements, that will ensue among teachers and with students about morality, he writes, are a sorely needed exercise in democratic education.

Mr. Close maintains that only when the curriculum is made sound with moral education, and the school atmosphere kept just by administrators and teachers, can students create their own "moral community,'' in which they take responsibility for their own actions.

The community outside the school is immediately involved in the plan for moral education as well: "We must see every citizen as a stakeholder in this enterprise; both in terms of duty and in terms of prudence, we all share the responsibility to grow good children into good adults.''

"Less school, not more'' is the counterargument offered by John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City and New York State Teacher of the Year, in the winter issue of The Whole Earth Review.

The recent push to tend to community ills by enlarging the role of mass schooling is wrong-headed, Mr. Gatto argues, because schools are merely "false communities'' that drain the lifeblood and energy of families and the true, larger community.

"By pre-empting 50 percent of the total time of the young, by locking people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work ... [public] schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism,'' he writes.

Children are kept falsely separate from adults, stuck in the realm of the classroom for the bulk of the day, he says. And the natural, normal interaction between generations is thus disrupted by the institution of school.

Making school substitute more and more for the family, he concludes, only undermines the very members of the community such schooling is laboring to save. "We should begin thinking about school reform by stopping these places from functioning like cysts, impenetrable, insular bodies that take our money, our children, and our time, and give nothing back.''

"I have begun to fear that singling out groups for special attention does more to foster fear, suspicion, jealousy, and cynicism, than it does to promote understanding, empathy, and community,'' writes Marc Elrich, a Montgomery County, Md., elementary school teacher, in an Op-Ed essay in the Feb. 13, 1994, issue of The Washington Post.

Celebrations of student diversity such as Black History Month may do more to fragment school communities than to empower the groups within them, he says.

From his classroom experience, he argues that "students see their diversity not as a source of strength, but as an indicator of their likely future failure.''

He offers as a case study his 6th-grade class from the last school year. All but two of 29 students were black or Hispanic, all but three qualified for the free-lunch program, and many had been marked as discipline problems. "They had, at the ages of 10 or 11, already effectively opted out of the educational system,'' Mr. Eldrich writes.

And when he showed them a film on the life of the poet Langston Hughes, his black students responded not with pride, but with a list of stereotypes that argued an inherent "badness'' tied to their race.

Students at a very young age are internalizing societal stereotypes of whites and Asians as smart, and blacks and Hispanics as dumb, poor, and without real hope for success, Mr. Eldrich suggests. He quotes one of his A students as saying in class: "Everybody knows that black people are bad. That's the way we are.''

The author argues that the few days in the school year spent on African kings and nonwhite inventors do little to harmonize "the dissonance between the reality of life and the pretty pictures offered in school.''

Teachers, he concludes, must confront head-on the bleak stereotypes their students harbor about themselves. Until teachers show their awareness of the real-life situations their students face, talk of self-esteem and diversity only sinks students further into ideas about their own failure.--CHRISTY J. ZINK

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