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From Babar to Utopia

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In New York a number of high school students I have had occasion to talk with have expressed passionate pleas for exposure to literature they can relate to as well as equally strong objections to the literature they were exposed to as children. Their vehement anger at books and tales such as Dr. Doolittle, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Little Prince surprised me. They were not merely asking for inclusion of texts that represented the stories of African-Americans and Latinos, but for the wholesale reconsideration of what is considered appropriate reading for young people.

My inclination was to sympathize with these young people, yet I felt uneasy about throwing out all the books that I had read or that were read to me as a child. Hence the question of dear Babar. Was Babar so offensive that it should be eliminated? Or so powerful an influence that it was dangerous to young children? More generally, if literature has an influence on children's behavior, then the classics may present a problem for parents and teachers if their content portrays, sanctions, and even models inequity. What to do about kings and princesses? About the triumph of the strong and the mocking of the weak? About the glorification of wealth and the sanction of "deserved" poverty? About the portrayal of some people as civilized and others as savage? Should books that represent these antidemocratic sentiments be a major part of our children's earliest repertoire of stories and tales, or should we avoid purchasing them and sharing them with our children? Should we burn books like Babar?

From Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, by Herbert Kohl (The New Press).

The pervasive preference of the anointed for collective and third-party decisionmaking ("solutions" by "society") takes the form of promotion of "day care" for children. Enabling families to take care of their own children at home by allowing the income-tax exemption to keep pace with inflation and the real cost of raising children has no such support among the anointed. Indeed, this is an idea often pushed--in vain--by conservatives. While the anointed are often ready to spend vast amounts of government money on families, especially in ways which allow outsiders to intrude into family decisions, they are by no means equally willing to let families keep money that they have earned and make their own independent decisions. In family matters, as in other matters, power and pre-emption are the touchstones of the vision of the anointed, however much that vision is described in terms of the beneficent goals it is seeking.

Despite the faith of the anointed in "expertise" and "professionals" in the raising of children, the facts paint a grim picture of the actual results of transferring children from individual home care to collective day care. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that preschool children were from four to more than 12 times more likely to contract meningitis if they attended a day-care center than if they were cared for at home. The incidence of other diseases also rose with the growth of day care.

From The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell (Basic Books).

We call this book Tinkering Toward Utopia to highlight the tension between America's intense faith in education--almost a secular religion--and the gradualness of changes in educational practices. For over a century citizens have sought to perfect the future by debating how to improve the young through education. Actual reforms in schools have rarely matched such aspirations, however. The words "utopia" and "tinkering" each have positive and negative connotations. Utopian thinking can be dismissed as pie-in-the-sky or valued as visionary; tinkering can be condemned as mere incrementalism or praised as a commonsense remedy for everyday problems. Both positive and negative examples of tinkering and utopian thinking abound in the record of educational reform. At the heart of that history lies the complex interplay between the purposes and processes of institutional change.

From Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, by David Tyack and Larry Cuban (Harvard University Press).

The ability of Americans to understand the nature of other cultures is harmed rather than helped by recent calls for multicultural studies. The purpose of the multicultural curricula in American classrooms today is not to confront and understand cultural differences squarely. If that were all there were to it, no one could possibly object to this kind of broadening of horizons. The problem with multiculturalism as it is practiced in the American educational system is that its underlying objective is not to understand but to validate the non-Western cultures of America's various ethnic and racial minorities. Arriving at a positive evaluation of these cultures is far more important than being accurate about them. In some cases, the underlying message is an ecumenical but false one that all cultures ultimately uphold the same decent, liberal values as the writers of the multicultural curriculum itself; in other cases, foreign cultures are held to be superior to those of Europe. This dogma serves to retard, not enhance, our understanding of them.

From Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, by Francis Fukuyama (The Free Press).

This book reports especially on a part of the war that has not yet received much attention: the war of words--or of pejorative labels--that stereotype, stigmatize, and harass the poor by questioning their morality and their values. The labeling of the poor as moral inferiors, which has also been stepped up in the last 15 years, blames them falsely for the ills of the American society and economy, reinforces their mistreatment, increases their misery, and further discourages their moving out of poverty. ...

I write about another "underclass," a behavioral term invented by journalists and social scientists to describe poor people who are accused, rightly or wrongly, of failing to behave in the "mainstream" ways of the numerically or culturally dominant American middle class. This behavioral definition denominates poor people who drop out of school, do not work, and, if they are young women, have babies without benefit of marriage and go on welfare. ... Indeed, the very flexibility of the behavioral definition is what lends itself to the term becoming a label that can be used to stigmatize poor people, whatever their actual behavior.

From The War Against the Poor: The Underclass and Anti-Poverty Policy by Herbert J. Gans (Basic Books).

Since everyone seems to want to train people to think, and since there is a reasonably strong research base showing us how to do this, why doesn't the educational system use the research to teach thinking? Unfortunately, there are some quite real barriers to introducing training to think into our educational curriculum. Some of the barriers are structural or financial and could be charged. Others have to do with attitudes toward education and may be much harder to change. ...

The tendency to try to cover many topics, rather than to concentrate on a few well-taught ones, seems to be characteristic of the U.S. educational system. At the K-12 level, we spend relatively little time on complex systems, especially in mathematics and the sciences. ...

Yet we keep demanding that things be added to the curriculum! While writing this book I heard arguments for teaching computer programming in middle school, ethnic awareness in the university, and aids counseling in every psychotherapy and social-counseling program, regardless of the program's clientele. These propositions, and many others, can be justified on a case-by-case basis. What American educators have generally not done is to consider the inevitable trade-off between widespread but superficial knowledge versus deeper and more focused learning.

From Will We Be Smart Enough? A Cognitive Analysis of the Coming Workforce, by Earl Hunt (Russell Sage Foundation).

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