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Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as Letters

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I was struck by the passion and obvious enthusiasm of James Nehring in describing his small "boutique" school in Devens, Mass. ("A Nation of Boutiques," Commentary, Aug. 2, 2000). I can only wonder what traditional schools would be like if the teachers who worked in them displayed equal enthusiasm and optimism.

To the Editor:

I was struck by the passion and obvious enthusiasm of James Nehring in describing his small "boutique" school in Devens, Mass. ("A Nation of Boutiques," Commentary, Aug. 2, 2000). I can only wonder what traditional schools would be like if the teachers who worked in them displayed equal enthusiasm and optimism.

Though I applaud so many of the ideas Mr. Nehring expressed (allowing for frequent interactions among students, making school environments less impersonal, and others), I feel that he is making a serious error in suggesting that "almost anything learned well is better than many things learned poorly" and that the important variable in "high-quality education is not concerned with the topic of study," but how the teaching and learning are done in the school. The error he is making, in my judgment, is one that could possibly shake the very foundations of our free society.

Let's push Mr. Nehring's argument a bit. What will result if schools as we know them (and the curricula that many of them attempt to support) are "torn down" and replaced by unusual and interesting boutique schools? Well, I imagine that the diversity of curricular choices—the diversity of what is taught in those schools—will be very broad indeed. Mr. Nehring mentions a school where his daughters could learn a trade. That doesn't sound too bad. How about a school (small, boutique-like, and having many of the other characteristics Mr. Nehring feels are so admirable) that focuses on athletic achievement? How about one focusing only on technology? How about one that exclusively focuses on the collected work of Stephen King? Those schools could all be small. They could all support frequent student interaction. They could, I suppose, all be pretty decent boutique schools.

However, graduates of those schools would hardly be well-prepared to make informed decisions about living in a free society, and I doubt that anyone would dare suggest that the schools those students graduated from fulfilled anything close to their social obligation.

American schools have not been and should not be concerned only with making sure that students are engaged, irrespective of the content of such engagement. They try to teach children to think, they try to teach children the importance of reflection, and they also teach children about the world, and how they might fit into it. American schools also continue to play an important role in teaching children about freedom and the special responsibilities associated with living in a free society. Though I suppose it could be done, I doubt that the technology-only or Stephen King boutique schools would do the same.

Might students in these boutique schools really be engaged? Might they resonate with the particular and very narrow focus of the curriculum? Might their parents like the situation? Yes, yes, and yes, again. Would such schools be good for our nation? My answer to that question is a resounding no.

"Well-rounded" may be another way of saying dull, but it also denotes a person who is liberally educated and capable of making good personal and civic choices. Proposing that we produce "kids with sharp edges and irregular ways of seeing the world" sounds good on the surface, but is another way of saying that children would have little or no common understanding of our society and a very limited understanding of the world. Surely, this cannot be good.

There are plenty of problems in traditional schools. Mr. Nehring and I agree on that point. But to suggest that curricular choices—what is taught in America's schools—are not important is wrong, and adhering to such a policy would hardly improve the situation. While I really liked Mr. Nehring's final paragraph (suggesting that we become "a nation of boutiques"), I couldn't help wondering if he has ever lived in a community served only by small boutiques. I actually have. It was a great place to find handmade English soap or a videotape of an obscure foreign film. But it was a terrible place to buy groceries for the week or the things I needed to do simple home repairs. Boutiques were simply too specialized to carry them.

Sam Minner

Division Head, Education

Truman State University

Kirksville, Mo.

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 66

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