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HOW CHILDREN FAIL, by John Holt. (Addison-Wesley, $11.) HOW CHILDREN LEARN, by John Holt. (Addison-Wesley, $11.)

These two books, the late John Holt's double-barreled attack on the cruel ineffectualities of conventional schooling, helped launch a progressive reform movement when they were first published in 1964. Short-lived as many aspects of this movement were, Holt's classic works, now reissued with commentary added by the author in 1982, still resonate with any parent whose child has pleaded a pre-school stomachache, shriveled before a teacher's sarcasm, or come home in tears over his or her inability to get the "right'' answers to assigned problems. As an elementary school teacher, Holt knew, as do many parents, that school sometimes has a way of draining normally happy, intelligent children of their vivacity and self-confidence. The central problem, as Holt expounds upon it over the course of these two volumes, is that most schools train children to "please grown-ups at all costs.'' For children unable or unwilling to abide by the status quo--and these are often, Holt says, creative free spirits with the most to offer--the likely result is anxiety, disillusionment, and alienation. They end up like the young soccer player Holt describes, who, despite his obvious coordination, keeps falling down on the field as if to get the inevitable failure over with. And children who do not surrender--those who strive to secure adult approval at all costs--don't fare much better. They may succeed in giving the teacher what the teacher wants, but what Holt calls "the panicky search for certainty, the inability to tolerate unanswered questions'' destroys the individual's ability to take creative risks--the true essence of education. If children fail because adults are always limiting their horizons, they learn best, Holt argues, when allowed to follow their natural curiosity, wherever it may lead. Like John Dewey before him, Holt is always talking about trusting the child, about having faith in the child's innate capacity to teach him- or herself. "We don't have to make human beings smart,'' Holt writes. "All we have to do is stop doing what makes them stupid.'' As the years went on, Holt became more and more of an advocate of noninterference, so that in his 1982 emendations he rebukes himself and other adults described in the original text for over-teaching; when he compulsively finds himself correcting a child's faulty grammar, he ruminates, "The teaching devil in me made me do it.'' It's no wonder that in the last years of his life, Holt pretty much gave up altogether on the idea of reforming schools and instead pushed homeschooling. He saw the home as a natural, noncoercive learning environment. At a time when young people are thought to be particularly impulsive and without direction, Holt's great faith in children may seem naive, even misplaced. But his argument, old yet still relevant, is that this purposelessness lies less in the youngsters themselves than in the rule- and recipe-oriented education so many of them receive, an education that undermines the self-reliance upon which all meaningful lives are finally built.


THE CALL TO TEACH, by David T. Hansen. (Teachers College Press, $17.95.)

Fed up with societal disrespect, teachers in the late 1960s began to proclaim, with justification, that they were every bit as "professional'' as doctors, lawyers, and the like. But professionalism is often accompanied by aloofness, a certain sense of detachment from the client. This book provides an invaluable service in that Hansen reclaims for teaching the notion of vocation--a call to serve others that demands, among other virtues, "perseverance, courage, and imagination.'' Hansen wisely insists that serving others is quite different from feeling a need to save them, which, he points out, can lead to a teacher-hero complex that is often arrogantly destructive. What the Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton wrote of saints is true of good teachers: "The one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men.'' The four teachers who are Hansen's focus in this book--two middle school teachers, a high school teacher, and a special education teacher--are all of this ilk. For them, vocation entails realism and humility, an understanding that serving others requires, as Hansen puts it, "accepting responsibility for the often mundane chores that so often accompany the work.'' Yes, these teachers sometimes experience with their students dramatic breakthrough moments, but much of their teaching involves sustained routine engagement--answering offhand questions, checking laboratory experiments, drawing a shy girl into conversation, and so on. While the four teachers are dissimilar in terms of personality and teaching style, they possess a shared sense of vocation that draws out common themes. Interestingly, for instance, none of these teachers talks about liking or caring about students. (To do so would undoubtedly strike them as self-congratulatory.) It's not that they're callous but that they focus on their students--in the words of the special education teacher--"as the people they might become rather than as the troubled, confused youths many of them presently are.'' Furthermore, these teachers understand that the very idea of vocation involves suffering as well as reward; serving students demands that teachers struggle through the inevitable discouragement they experience when their efforts are repelled. The Call To Teach does a glorious job of reminding us that teaching is not just a profession, or even a craft, but a moral and even spiritual undertaking.

--David Ruenzel

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