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BEHIND THE PLAYDOUGH CURTAIN: A Year in My Life as a Preschool Teacher, by Patti Greenberg Wollman. (Scribner, $21.) In this account of a year spent teaching what the author calls the "class from hell'' at a New York City Jewish preschool, Wollman suggests that it is the parents as much as the children who need schooling. While the parents are mostly extraordinarily successful professionals, many are peculiarly tentative about how they raise their children, as if they were reinventing parenting from ground zero. As older parents with consuming careers, they seek peace and quiet and sometimes practice self-denial in order to get it. One couple, not wanting to believe the unbelievable, blind themselves to abuse doled out by their babysitter. A father, when told by Wollman of his daughter's unacceptable bossiness, shrugs his shoulders and says, "Oh, that's understandable; she always gets her own way at home.'' Yet another couple, told that their son seems morose, insist that he's just fine at home, though they themselves have been distraught over their infant's death. Preschool teachers then, as Wollman sees it, must be both detectives and diplomats. They must trace "the issues'' in a child's life and then approach parents tactfully so they can gain critical information without incurring resentment. The important thing, she tells her green assistant, is to avoid making the parents nervous because "nervous parents make nervous children.'' Generally speaking, Wollman succeeds, and by the end of the year the children are happy and productive, the teacher having enlisted the cooperation of the parents. "When parents and teachers work together, so much is possible!'' Wollman gushes. Informative and entertaining as this book is, it also begs a question: Why are these apparently intelligent parents so lacking in common sense when it comes to raising their children?
GENERATION AT THE CROSSROADS: Apathy and Action on the American Campus, by Paul Rogat Loeb. (Rutgers University Press, $24.95.) For seven years, Loeb visited more than 100 campuses in 30 states, talking with students--the so-called Generation X--about social and political commitment. With some notable exceptions, the news is bad. Having come of age in the Reagan-Bush era, these students are often disdainful of a commitment to others, which they frequently perceive as an almost embarrassing identification with the weak and powerless. As chances for upward mobility fade but for a fortunate few, more and more students are willing to compromise moral ideals in the quest for material success. Contributing to this selfishness is the belief, nurtured by the mass media, that 1960s activists were frauds who spit on veterans and eventually sold out to corporate America. And because these students have little understanding of history, they see such people as Martin Luther King Jr. as super-heroes far beyond their reach--not as fallible human beings who had to struggle through almost insurmountable doubts and setbacks. While this somewhat redundant book sometimes exasperates--Loeb tends to define an activist as someone who agrees with his political views--it makes a profoundly important point, too. His prolonged discussions with students reveal that all too many of them seek only the personal happiness woven of family, career, and financial security. The loss of a concern with the common good--the removal of the individual from public life into a kind of cul-de-sac of private satisfaction--is a tragedy that teachers have an obligation to address.
MAKING THE GRADE: How a New York Youth Apprenticeship System Can Change Our Schools and Save American Jobs, by Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. (Little, Brown, $19.95.) Since World War II, Americans have seen a college education as the best way to ensure a well-educated work force. But a surge in college enrollments has led to a lowering of standards and the devaluation of a diploma. And as McKernan, governor of Maine, points out in this unusually sensible book, an overriding concern with students attending college too often consigns other students to lives of economic futility. The answer, as McKernan sees it, is a youth apprenticeship system loosely modeled after those prevalent in Europe, in which non-college-bound high school students, guided by a mentor, learn to apply academic skills to meaningful work in high-skilled industries. The key is to eliminate the traditional dichotomies between the worlds of school and work so that what's relevant to one is relevant to the other, giving the student a sense of real purpose in his or her studies. Finally, McKernan insists that the student-workers be paid, providing them with a sense of self-respect as well as an income. Such apprenticeship systems, now under way in states such as Maine and Wisconsin, bear watching, as their success may help alleviate our youth's social and economic alienation.
--David Ruenzel

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