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HOW SCHOOLS CHANGE

Lessons from Three Communities, by Tony Wagner. (Beacon Press, $25.) The title of this insightful book is a bit misleading, as the book is generally less about how schools change as how they resist change. The first school Wagner explores, Hull High School in Massachusetts, is a case in point. The new superintendent, eager to revive a dispirited school, attempts to implement a number of apparently progressive ideas: Teachers will practice cooperative learning, for example, and develop an across-the-curriculum environmental studies program. The problem, though, is that the superintendent's actions are wholly unilateral; the teachers, without input and unable to discern an overarching philosophical purpose behind the proposed changes, struggle to little avail. The ensuing cooperative-learning groups are sleepy circles of bored chitchat, and the environmental program becomes a mundane exercise in planning field trips. The underlying problem Wagner is getting at here, and in his descriptions of the other schools, is the lack of relevance that plagues most educational endeavors--even those that might make good sense. As we watch confused teachers and indifferent students muddle through one thing after the next, it becomes clear, with some notable exceptions, that no one knows why they're doing anything. The teachers become disgruntled actors, dumbly executing the director's orders. As a solution, Wagner insists that administrators, teachers, and students collaborate to set meaningful goals. This, of course, is easier said than done. But in a vacuum of purpose, teachers and students will resort to old habits, pretending to cover a curriculum that has seemingly been dropped out of the clear blue sky.


STIFLED LAUGHTER

One Woman's Story About Fighting Censorship, by Claudia Johnson. (Fulcrum, $19.95.) When the school board in Lake City, Fla., decided in 1986 to ban "The Miller's Tale'' by Chaucer (along with Aristophanes' Lysistrata), the author argued that the story couldn't be obscene because "Chaucer was funny and pornography usually wasn't.'' But the school board lacked a sense of humor, apparently unable to understand the difference between an imprecation uttered by a fool of a fictional character and an obscenity spray-painted on a highway overpass. The literal-minded school board and its supporters, almost none of whom had read the works in question, were simply unable or unwilling to fathom irony, wit, or dramatic situation--all the things that a literary education hopes to impart. As the debate heated up, the high school principal, hoping to avoid an expensive court battle, suggested simply eliminating humanities from the curriculum. Stifled Laughter would be an amusing if predictable battle between the philistines and the liberal-minded except for the fact that the school board wins the ensuing court case. While we laugh at the buffoonery of the narrow-minded, we recognize that the power of a school board to ban books--in this case, one that is state-approved--is no laughing matter.

--David Ruenzel

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