SOUTH OF HEAVEN: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century, by Thomas French. (Doubleday, $22.95.) Journalist Tom French spent the 1988-89 school year at Largo High School near St. Petersburg, Fla., gaining the trust of students who allowed him access to virtually all corners of their lives. The vivid report he's brought back is extremely disturbing, for there is about many of these teenagers--black and white, rich and poor--an appalling hollowness, a spooky absence of emotion. With no knowledge of the past and little hope for the future--they know they live in an age of diminished possibilities-- they act, if they act at all, on the impulse of the moment. Asked to identify their goals, students write "learn to surf'' and "grow my hair out.'' This aimlessness is most apparent in the "pod,'' a windowless building set aside for GOALS kids--kids in imminent danger of dropping out. Here, teenagers exchange Adolph Hitler salutes and talk offhandedly of their impending deaths; a girl sports a necklace made out of beer can tops she's received in exchange for sexual favors. For all of its efforts, the GOALS program makes apparently little difference; out of a senior class of 571 students, only 334 will graduate, the rest disappearing, as if into a black hole. And it isn't just the GOALS kids who are having trouble; other so-called "normal'' teenagers carry guns, vomit after meals, and drink to stupefaction. What has gone wrong? Most obvious is the fact that the malaise of the students mirrors that of their families. Divorce and parental indifference are pandemic; so many kids in the pod are fatherless that a boy says, "I couldn't see having a father, it would blow my mind.'' There is also, French suggests, something "fundamentally different'' about teenagers today--"something connected to the television.'' Uninterested in that which doesn't ostensibly entertain, they are dazzled by a blizzard of images they cannot see beyond. High school, as convincingly portrayed by the author, is an archaic machine that clunks onward for no particular purpose. Characterized by odd prohibitions (for example, only honor students can wear shorts) and sheer tediousness, the school has little connection with students' lives. The whole system of rewards and punishments no longer motivates; somehow, an astute teacher observes, the faculty must show kids that learning is of intrinsic value, that effort is its own reward. Otherwise, as South of Heaven so painfully demonstrates, high school will become but an irrelevance, an oversized waiting room in which listless teenagers kill time.
TALENTED TEENAGERS: The Roots of Success and Failure, by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Whalen. (Cambridge University, $24.95.) The teenage years are a time when exceptionally talented students must convert their raw ability into a socially mediated art or craft. Discovering how and why some succeed while others don't was the object of an extensive five-year study, the results of which are published here. Some of the findings are hardly surprising: Successful teens, the majority of whom comes from cohesive and highly supportive families, have a greater tolerance for solitude and are hence less susceptible to peer pressure. But even more significant is the ability of these teenagers to have what the authors term a "flow'' experience, an optimal state of consciousness in which people, self-motivated and utterly immersed in the task at hand, feel a heightened sense of both mastery and well-being. While educators can't induce this flow experience, they can, the authors claim, make its occurrence more likely. For one thing, since boredom and anxiety are particularly damaging to the flow experience, teachers must present teenagers with challenges that are neither facile nor cripplingly difficult. Furthermore--and this cannot be overemphasized--teachers are most likely to encourage talent when they themselves are practitioners of a given art and craft and not mere transmitters of information. Genuine practitioners provide students with a model to emulate; those fiercely committed to an avocation also are able to catalyze deep interest in others. Thorough and well-documented, Talented Teens is particularly valuable in that its message is applicable to all teenagers, not just to those who are exceptionally talented.
PUBLIC EDUCATION: An Autopsy, by Myron Lieberman. (Harvard, $27.95.) As the title suggests, Myron Lieberman believes that public education is as good as dead. Among the many reasons cited for its inevitable demise are the growing unwillingness of an aging population to foot school tax bills, the inability of an entrenched bureaucracy to respond to calls for change, and the wrongheaded insistence that the public schools be all things to all people. The last obstacle is perhaps the most insurmountable, as the schools, obliged by powerful special interests to be "sensitive'' to a host of political and social issues, invariably end up with a curriculum as ineffective as it is intellectually inoffensive. Essentially, Lieberman forecasts an open educational marketplace, in which children and their parents are free to choose from among a wide variety of schools, both public and private.--David Ruenzel