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Summer Reading on Social Issues

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In the view of psychologist and best-selling author Mary Pipher, the nation is in the throes of a cultural upheaval, pounded by waves of new technology and buffeted by winds of change. And although the electronic community that is the offspring of this revolution allows unprecedented access to global information, it has also precipitated a devastating moral crisis. The strain of this crisis, Ms. Pipher argues in The Shelter of Each Other, rests squarely on the family. The old-fashioned, tightly knit family has fallen victim to a society that prefers MTV watching and Internet surfing to spending time with neighbors or investing in the community.

Ms. Pipher explores the origin of this moral crisis and offers suggestions for counteracting its influences. She points out symptomatic statistics--the average father, for example, spends less than 30 minutes a week talking with his children, and twice as many children live in single-parent homes today as did in the 1970s. Illustrating her argument with examples from her own clinical practice, Ms. Pipher explains how the forces of change have effectively "ripped the walls off of our homes," exposing families to stresses that induce fragmentation and irresponsibility. Everyone can fight these influences, she suggests, by actively and consciously integrating family-oriented practices into their lives, by connecting with relatives instead of with computers, and by slowing the frenetic pace of their daily lives.

Ms. Pipher's first book, the New York Times number-one nonfiction best seller Reviving Ophelia, highlighted pressures facing adolescent girls. In similar fashion, The Shelter of Each Other serves as a rallying cry for families challenged by a complex world. Ms. Pipher has pinpointed the causes of the problems most Americans know only too well and has connected them to broader cultural phenomena. She has attempted to show readers the way back down the path to family-centered values, and in so doing encourages them to take control of their culture before it takes advantage of them. (Grosset/Putnam)

For those who believe that the quality of American culture is in the midst of a quick and dirty downturn, the observations of 23 prominent scholars and thinkers, collected in Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, will be sad validation. Part explanation and part lamentation, this book questions those who abet the downward trend by accepting the mediocre, encouraging the opportunistic, and glorifying the trivial.

The book examines the plight of almost every facet of the American experience in its five general sections: education, arts and sciences, the media, public life, and private life. Though written by authors whose styles and subject matters vary widely--from poet Brad Leithauser and writer Cynthia Ozick to educator Gilbert T. Sewall, journalist and critic Joseph Epstein, and black conservative radio commentator Armstrong Williams--all of the essays in this compilation warn of the consequences of lowered standards. One author points out that while university students were once taught to discriminate between good and bad--from works of literature to systems of thought--today those who do so are apt to be criticized as "elitist." Another writer examines a world in which the sensationalism of science fiction replaces the wonder of science fact. And in discussing the role of technology and the media, the book calls attention to the Internet's tendency to subvert individualism and distort reality.

The editors of Dumbing Down--Katharine Washburn, a free-lance writer and editor, and John Thornton, a literary agent--have put together a collection of essays that are engaging and witty as well as insightful. In addition to compiling the stark indicators of decline, their book encourages and offers suggestions for a quick, decisive turnaround of the nation's grave cultural condition. (Norton)

They can be found in almost every school--the students who are clearly more advanced than their grade level or whose talents make them stand out from their peers. Many of these children are held in awe and even feared by teachers and classmates who may feel threatened by the exceptional abilities of the gifted child. In Gifted Children, Boston College psychology professor Ellen Winner discusses nine myths of giftedness and explains why they are inaccurate and yet so widely accepted.

The author argues, for example, that it is a misconception that all gifted children are talented in many disciplines or that all musically and artistically talented students have high IQs. Nor, she says, is giftedness entirely inborn. In examining these and other myths, the book covers the spectrum of issues in giftedness--both academic and artistic--from parents' roles to school choice to the psychological health of the exceptional child. One particularly interesting section discusses the growth from creative and talented child to creative and talented adult and explains why some gifted children never successfully make this transition. Illustrated with case studies, Gifted Children explains clearly and engagingly the many forces that shape the lives and minds of those at the far end of the bell curve.

Ms. Winner sums up her research and discussion by arguing that we must rethink how we educate these members of society. The gifted programs that exist today, she says, are simply not strong enough to help the most gifted, and those students they do help would be just as well off in regular, albeit improved, curricula. She calls for strengthening education for all students and putting the emphasis in gifted programs on those at the very limits of intelligence. Only then, she says, will society truly be able to nurture and encourage its exceptional students. (Basic Books)

Some 10 years ago, Signithia Fordham made waves among educators with her theory, based on research in a Washington high school, that black students who succeed academically are shunned because of it by their peers. Such achievement, she argued, is considered "acting white" and therefore grounds for exclusion from one's culture. In her new book, Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High, Ms. Fordham continues her examination of the paradox she sees facing many African-American students: They can either succeed academically or be accepted culturally, but not both.

Blacked Out centers around a pseudonymous District of Columbia public high school, which provides a rich background for Ms. Fordham's work. She demonstrates the consequences that befall the black students there who strive for academic excellence, describing the experiences of "Capital High" students from a familiar and understanding vantage point. What is most intriguing, though, is her analysis of the causes of this phenomenon. As the book progresses, she brings into focus a cultural system that values not the competitive, individualistic rigors of academic achievement, but rather the egalitarianism of group cohesion. This is coupled, in Ms. Fordham's analysis, with a society that effectively wipes black achievement out of the public consciousness. The assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, goes on to show how these cultural factors place unique pressures on the African-American student, who must struggle to find an identity among influences that are often diametrically opposed.

Densely but provocatively written, Blacked Out is both social commentary and anthropologic inquiry, providing a unique look into the forces that shape the black adolescent. With connections to curricula, policy, and social science, the book is a valuable addition to the forum of educational debate. (University of Chicago Press)

City Kids, City Teachers: Reports From the Front Row is a self-described "voice" for inner-city youngsters. It aims, the editors say, to dispel the negative reputation that plagues these children. The book portrays disadvantaged students not as victims or underachievers, but as creative, intelligent members of the community who contribute despite their circumstances. The 24 essays that make up this compilation blend anecdote and argument from authors representing both sides of the schoolhouse door.

The book is divided into three sections, the first containing portraits of inner-city students who attend urban schools. The following two examine issues in urban education and their effects on the teachers who must deal with them daily. William Ayers and Patricia Ford, the book's editors, have assembled an eclectic group of writers for their project, ranging from professors to policymakers to poets. In so doing, they have created a mixed bag of essays; some are exceedingly well-argued and focus on important and complex issues. Others are less well-written and tend toward the counterproductive. One essay, for example, is an autobiographical account of one teenager's exploits as he tries to keep from getting caught painting graffiti. Without any redeeming argument against such behavior or a demonstrated understanding of its consequences, such a piece only seems to strengthen the stereotypes the book attempts to dispel. Another essay harshly criticizes cities across the board, but its recommendations for their improvement will likely strike many readers as unrealistic.

Though a few of the selections are less than effective, however, most of City Kids, City Teachers is a worthwhile examination of the condition of inner-city education. The book advocates a new look at urban public schools and a broad-based change in how the public views these schools' students. (New Press)

In the fall of 1990, a 15-month-old infant named David Edwards was killed, suffocated in his crib by his prostitute mother. The child, battered and bruised by the people who brought him into the world, became another victim of the child abuse all too common in this country. Yet what makes his case stand out is the fact that his parents had already been investigated by child-welfare authorities and even had their first child taken away from them. In The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives, Richard J. Gelles places the blame for such a tragedy on a bureaucracy that values the unity of the family over the safety of the child.

This book represents a shift in beliefs for the author, who is a professor of sociology and psychology at the University of Rhode Island and the director of its Family Violence Research Program. Originally a staunch supporter of policies that kept families intact even in cases of continuing abuse by unrepentant parents, Mr. Gelles here reverses his position through a re-evaluation of statistics and research. He points out that half of the children killed by their guardians die after those adults have become known to child protective agencies and that children placed in foster care are not more likely to be abused by their surrogate parents than they are by their abusive natural parents. The child-welfare system, in Mr. Gelles' view, should be child- and not family-centered. With this position firmly stated, he goes on to make specific suggestions for implementing such a program: Child-welfare services, he says, must focus on the most harmful of abuses and must develop alternatives to temporary foster care, such as early adoption and group residences.

Though its tone is often simplistic, The Book of David straightforwardly presents a considerable amount of evidence as it traces the events leading up to the murder of David Edwards. Mr. Gelles' point comes through loud and clear: We cannot simply change the existing child-welfare system and expect to effectively address the problem. Instead, he says, we must refocus our resources across the board to concentrate on creating safe, nurturing environments for all children. (Basic Books)

In a book that some educational leaders are calling the most important on school reform to emerge this decade, Temple University professor of psychology Laurence Steinberg argues that reform efforts have failed thus far because they have focused on the wrong elements. Instead of trying to change teachers and the system, reformers should concentrate more on students, who must be motivated and willing to learn if any school is to be successful. Only by dealing with the forces that affect students outside the classroom, he argues, can educators create environments conducive to academic success and personal growth.

Mr. Steinberg's book, Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do, is based on a study of more than 20,000 students from all social, economic, and racial backgrounds. It details a dramatic decline in students' investment in school and in their motivation to succeed. Much of the pressure to "dumb down" appears to come from peers; fewer than one in five students, for example, say their friends think it is important to get good grades. But the book also underscores the importance of parents' roles in their children's education. More than half of all students, it points out, say that they could bring home grades of C or worse without upsetting their parents. As the author makes clear, no parent who is just as disengaged from learning as his or her child is can provide the support and encouragement necessary on a long educational journey.

Mr. Steinberg argues that there is no shortage of intelligence in U.S. schoolchildren but that apathy--brought about by outside social pressures--is masking its presence. He offers practical advice on reducing these influences.

Beyond the Classroom addresses the reform debate from a different angle of vision: Schools aren't in trouble--children are. This forcefully argued thesis says that no amount of tinkering with educational institutions will be effective until more attention is paid to the needs of the students who walk their halls. (Simon & Schuster)

Child psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, co-author of a recent best seller on attention-deficit disorder entitled Driven to Distraction, now has written a guidebook to the emotional health of the child, one that is meant to allay parents' fears and help them navigate the often difficult years of their child's adolescence. The messages and information in When You Worry About the Child You Love may also be enlightening for teachers and other educators.

The book explains, through anecdotal case studies, the biological basis for a number of behavioral problems seen in childhood and adolescence. Dr. Hallowell, who in addition to his private practice is on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, examines recent clinical research and connects it to behaviors parents and other adults may have a hard time identifying or interpreting. He defines behavioral norms, indicating whether specific emotions are appropriate to a given situation or whether they are symptomatic of deeper emotional or learning problems. He urges that adults view these problems with a clear recognition of their biological underpinnings and their amenability to medical treatment through therapy or medication.

Part research manual and part advice book, When You Worry About the Child You Love has an easy-to-read, conversational style that should make it useful to parents and educators faced with the task of understanding and dealing with problem behavior. (Simon & Schuster)

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