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THE PUBLIC ORPHANAGE: How Public Schools Are Making Parents Irrelevant, by Eric Buehrer. (Word Publishing, $19.99.)

TEXT, LIES, & VIDEO TAPE: Stories of Life, Literacy, & Learning, by Patrick Shannon. (Heinemann, $14.95.)

LIVES OF PROMISE: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, by Karen Arnold. (Jossey-Bass, $32.95.)

In education, as in politics, it sometimes seems as if the center has been lost to ideologues who have all-too-definite--some would say absolutist--views on just what schools should strive to accomplish.

Eric Buehrer, former executive vice president of the National Association for Christian Educators, wants schools to get back to the business of teaching children to read, write, and count while inculcating them in basic moral values. As he sees it, public schools are far too intrusive, having become "centers of social welfare'' that indoctrinate students with their incessant chatter about gay rights, multiculturalism, and the like. Activist educators, such as Penn State education professor Patrick Shannon, on the other hand, want schools to do nothing less than transform a corrupt society. They can best achieve this by teaching students to be critical inquirers, unafraid to take on the status quo.

Buehrer's argument, namely that schools need to focus more narrowly on basic skills, is one that has long appealed to parents who believe that wayward schools have lost sight of the three R's. But going "back to basics'' makes no more sense now than it did 20 years ago. After all, there is nothing basic about the basics; they're invariably loaded with cultural freight. If you teach kids how to read a text, you invariably present them with the values of that text. The old Dick-and-Jane primers, for instance, did not just teach reading skills but also promoted a certain vision--and a very limited vision--of the "good'' American family.

When conservatives like Buehrer talk about basic education, then, they are in essence using it as a code for "good'' values--that is, their values. Buehrer acknowledges as much when he supports the formation of student Bible study clubs and parents who want to remove from the school curriculum "stories that deal with dark and devilish themes.''

This is not to suggest that the conservative view is all wrong; it is to suggest, rather, that conservatives like Buehrer are being less than forthright when they accuse public schools of having a political agenda as if they don't have one themselves.

In The Public Orphanage, for instance, Buehrer criticizes opponents of corporal punishment and then goes on to advocate "teaching students morals as schools once did . . . of no longer relying on open-ended discussion that may leave the student ambivalent about what is right.'' To suggest that this is not an agenda, and a rather rigid agenda at that, is patently absurd.

Finally, for someone who wants to be high-minded, Buehrer draws a grotesque caricature of public schools. In chapters such as "The Gay Nineties: Homosexuality in the Classroom,'' he tries to frighten readers into believing that impassioned left-leaning advocacy is standard practice when, in truth, the great majority of teachers are, in fact, staunch traditionalists--political moderates wary of all forms of extremism.

If Buehrer envisions classrooms in which obedient students work away at academic tasks, Patrick Shannon sees feisty students questioning the values of an intolerant, oppressive, and brutally competitive society. He wants students to "negotiate meaning,'' to "interpret texts,'' to develop "critical perspectives.'' And he wants this to happen not just with university students but with very young children, like his daughter Laura, who starts a K-1 newspaper at the local Friends School she and her brother attend.

Shannon, in fact, spends a lot of time talking about the Friends School, which, as he describes it, makes the local public school look like something out of the Dark Ages. At Friends, there is freedom and liberty for all: Students choose their own books and composition topics, rewrite folk tales as they see fit, and learn that "difference is just difference.'' The last statement, intended as an affirmation of diversity, is both intellectually and morally sloppy: Would Shannon really say the bigot is just "different'' from the peace activist?

Shannon also suggests that schools provide children with what he calls "a critical literacy education,'' which sounds less like free inquiry than a debunking project. He wants students to see through the sentimental gloss of a movie like Free Willy to its underlying racism and class-ism; he wants them to see that competition only gives schools a way to sort out winners and losers; and he wants them to see that the arrival of the megastore to their town will cause an enormous, and far from positive, social and cultural upheaval.

All of these points may very well be worthy of consideration, but they raise a few red flags when considered in the context of the elementary classroom. Children cannot reason as adults, but this "critical'' approach asks them to do just that. The result is very likely that students will learn to doubt everything, which is, in its own way, as unhealthy as a school culture of blind obedience. Institutions are fallible, but that does not mean they are corrupt--a distinction Shannon fails to make.

This leads us to Lives of Promise, in which Karen Arnold details a 14-year study of 81 Illinois high school valedictorians. Now in their early 30s, these adults are, for the most part, reasonably content, though some express profound reservations about how they felt compelled to sacrifice so much of their young lives all for the purpose of achieving A's. "A lot of energy I put into being a good student should have been put into other things,'' one man says. "All that creativity should have been going into an art class, not into this very mundane class that was very meaningless for me.''

This is Buehrer's school world of basic education, where good students do as they're told, even if it's void of meaning. It's a world where students question nothing. But Shannon's school world, where children are encouraged to question even that of which they have scant knowledge, will strike few readers as a sound alternative. It's time to seek out the middle ground.

--David Ruenzel

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