TINKERING TOWARD UTOPIA: A Century of Public School Reform, by David Tyack and Larry Cuban. (Harvard University Press, $22.50.) Americans increasingly like to talk of public education in terms of the best of times and the worst of times, the best usually associated with the "solid'' 1940s and '50s from which we have ever since been slouching toward disaster. But these so-called "good'' decades, as Stanford scholars Tyack and Cuban point out, were, in fact, characterized by ironclad segregation, the earnest implementation of academic tracking, and the development of comprehensive high schools that critics now assail for their impersonality. It's not that Tyack and Cuban want to suggest that our schools are now better than ever; it's rather that they want to call into question the whole notion of educational progress or regress that they claim is "in the eye of the beholder.'' At various times in our history, proponents of teacher-centered and student-centered pedagogies have taken turns calling each other permissive and authoritarian, each seeing the other as impediments to progress. This is one reason why schools "tinker'' with reforms; to accept or reject them wholesale would mean surrendering the middle ground upon which most educators feel safe. What's fresh about Tyack and Cuban's argument is that they see such tinkering not as mere overcautiousness but as "one way of preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not.'' Attempting to do something radically new without carefully considering all of the implications leads to quick disillusionment and rejection, as happened in the 1960s when teachers discovered that a single untamed child could wreak havoc in their "open'' classrooms. In short, teachers will simply not absorb changes that come too fast and furious, be they the "new'' math of 30 years ago or the computer-based instruction of today. And it is to the credit of the authors that they see such resistance on the part of teachers not as mere backwardness but as an often-reasonable suspicion of educational novelties foisted upon them on account of someone else's fashionable idea of progress.
THE END OF EDUCATION: Redefining the Value of Schools, by Neil Postman. (Alfred Knopf, $22.) What are schools for? More and more often, particularly in regards to public education, people answer in terms of economic utility: Schooling can help you get a good job, particularly if it teaches you how to master the latest technology. In The End of Education, Postman exposes the essential hollowness of this purely pragmatic view, suggesting that schools are far more threatened by indeterminacy of vision than by vouchers or privatization. Students require not more information--they are already drowning in far too much--but a reason for living, which schools can help them find if not provide. Postman notes that in his own Brooklyn public school days he came to love the American Creed, which contains the words, "government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'' While he later realized that America fell far short of its egalitarian ideals, they were ideals worth having nevertheless and provided him and his Irish, Italian, and German classmates with the shared story of American democracy. In fact, a shared story affirming the more or less universal values is the very thing Postman now finds lacking in public education, and here he offers several alternative stories around which he believes schooling could be centered. They include Spaceship Earth (emphasizing the interdependence of human beings), The American Experiment (healthy argumentation is how our society works), and The Law of Diversity ("sameness is the enemy of vitality and creativity''). While readers may argue about the merits of these particular stories, Postman is indisputably right about one thing: Schools must be about more than the acquisition of marketplace survival skills if they are to capture the imaginations of those who must attend them.
SHOULD WE BURN BABAR? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, by Herbert Kohl. (The New Press, $18.95.) Although Kohl acknowledges that he as a child loved the story of Babar, he also asserts in this volume's title essay that he would not buy the book for his own grandchildren today. The story's very seductiveness makes it dangerous: Children readily identify with the famous green-suited elephant who thrives so in Paris and hence are taught that "the rich are good, money is good, simple elephants who believe these things are good.'' Such stories, Kohl suggests, are capitalistic fables; what he wants is "the creation of a radical children's literature that projects hope and provides youngsters with the sense that social forms are constructed by children.'' In other words, he wants children to learn that collective struggles against social injustices are often more effective than the efforts of a few exalted individuals. But Kohl's good intentions are sometimes too politically correct; profound ambiguities abound in classic literature, even in Babar, which can easily be mowed down by the social critic trying to spot the weed of racism and classism. Nevertheless, Kohl is right to assert that far too much children's literature downplays the combined efforts of "ordinary'' people. Likewise, he points out in another of the book's essays that school textbooks typically overlook the role of the organized African-American community in bringing the Montgomery bus boycott to a successful conclusion, focusing instead almost exclusively on Rosa Parks' refusal to surrender her seat to a white person. Downplaying such collaborative efforts unwittingly encourages an obedient passivity, teaching children to wait for others to do what they could very well take into their own hands.