A LIFE WORTH LIVING: Selected Letters of John Holt, edited by Susannah Sheffer. (Ohio State University Press, $45.) In 1964, the late Holt published How Children Fail, a critique of conventional schooling and what he saw as its brutalizing effects on children. Almost overnight, the unassuming 5th grade teacher became a celebrated school reformer, lecturing about the need for "open'' schools that would reward, rather than punish, innate curiosity. But Holt's status as a reformminded educator was always somewhat ironic, as these letters spanning 40 years make clear. For one thing, Holt was an outsider who believed that the educational establishment rewarded those who most bought into an oppressive system. He himself felt that his lack of teacher training was his greatest asset; it kept him openminded during a time when so-called experts labeled reluctant children "learning disabled.'' Beyond this, though, Holt in the early 1970s came to reject both schools and reform altogether, aligning himself with "deschoolers,'' such as Ivan Illich. Why, he continually asked, should schooling be equated with education when it stifles most inquiry? Even the better schools, he insisted, were fated to end up in the "prison business,'' separating children into winners and losers, preparing them for life as "mass producers and consumers.'' Believing that abuse of power was inevitable in any institution, he even claimed he would rather send children to a school where they were hit with sticks than one full of "Humanistic Educators'' who disguised their power with masks of kindness. But while Holt lost his early idealism, he never surrendered hope. In his last years, he dedicated himself to home schooling, which he felt was the best way to fuse life and learning. While few readers will agree with all or even most of Holt's ideas, these letters remind us of the dangers that can befall children in even the most well-intentioned schools.
THE DEVALUING OF AMERICA: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children, by William Bennett. (Summit Books, $19.50.) To those who followed Bennett's tenure as U.S. Secretary of Education (1985-88), this book will come as no surprise. Now as then, Bennett sees himself as the bold avenger who rides into the American wilderness, attacking moral relativism, politically correct thinking, the National Education Association, and-- most of all--the liberal elite. He likes to say things like, "I appointed myself the hot wire, and I would not be shy about zapping a number of targets at once.'' While some of Bennett's ideas regarding education may be worthy of consideration--greater teacher accountability, a more rigorous curriculum, parental choice, reduction of the bureaucratic "blob''--his posturing is a turnoff, sounding more like bravado than true self-assurance. He claims, for instance, that educational reform is but a simple matter of making a commitment to each child, overlooking the complex problems many children bring to school. And he sees the old common school as a model of moral and civic training, when most such schools were primarily interested in producing compliant industrial workers. Finally, The Devaluing of America is a conservative polemic that resorts all too often to self-aggrandizement and smug assentation.
IN THERE WITH THE KIDS, by David Kobrin. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95.) This book by a veteran teacher and education professor at Brown University is a fictional account of the classroom lives of two teachers. Although we observe both as they prepare extensive lessons--high school teacher Hilary Coles on the Renaissance and 4th grade teacher Mel Stainko on geometry and the French Revolution--In There with the Kids is less a pedagogical guidebook than a celebration of the art of teaching. The book emphasizes the importance of developing a "professional persona''; that is, teachers must teach with the force of their personalities--even revealing certain eccentricities--while at the same time exercising a restraint that places their students, rather than themselves, at the center of the class. The author also does an excellent job of showing us how teachers can make material--Petrarch's sonnets, for example--relevant to students' lives while maintaining integrity of approach.--David Ruenzel