Published Online: September 4, 1996

Books

DESCHOOLING OUR LIVES, edited by Matt Hern. (New Society Publishers, $14.95.) Because most of us talk about reforming schools as opposed to eliminating them, it is tempting to see "deschoolers"--a sobriquet derived from the title of Ivan Illich's 1970 manifesto, Deschooling Society--as members of a fringe movement. But the deschoolers' belief, rooted in the philosophy of Rousseau, that formal schooling undermines the radical potential of childhood and hence must be opposed, is far more pervasive than it appears. It thrives not only in certain independent schools and pockets of the burgeoning homeschooling movement but also in other "child centered" education movements, such as whole language and process learning. And as this collection of new essays demonstrates, the deschoolers are nothing if not child centered, insisting over and over again that children are innately curious and hence must be set free. Former middle school teacher Grace Llewellyn, whose popular Teenage Liberation Handbook is excerpted here, writes, "The ultimate goal of this book is for you to start associating the concept of freedom with you and for you to move out of the busy prison into the meadows of life." By the deschoolers' account, the only thing standing in kids' way of creative and productive endeavors are tyrannical adults, who represent, as editor Hern puts it, the "abject failure of monopoly schooling." Extrapolating on this view is former New York state teacher of the year John Gatto, who strives so hard to portray public school teachers as militaristic Prussians that we can practically picture them arriving in classrooms with iron crosses strapped around their necks. But if our schools are, as Gatto and other deschoolers like to argue, so determined to turn students into good little troopers, why haven't they been more successful? American kids tend to be more idle and aimless than slavishly obedient, indicating that public education's problems may have less to do with authority than with the sterile, institutional context in which the authority is exercised. Furthermore, there is something about the deschoolers' refrain that "children are curious" that gets curiouser and curiouser. Yes, of course, children are curious, but curiosity, as the saying goes, killed the cat. If children are, as the deschoolers rightly insist, as fully human as the rest of us, then they're also subject to unsavory temptations that can wreak havoc if left unchecked. One contributor, Aaron Falbel, argues that we should view "those who opt out of educational treatment" as "wise refuseniks, as conscientious objectors to a crippling and dehumanizing process." But many of these refuseniks are the kids lost in our streets and shopping malls, and to suggest that they need liberation as opposed to direction is to romanticize children to the point of ideological madness.

CITY KIDS, CITY TEACHERS: Reports From the Front Row, edited by William Ayers and Patricia Ford. (The New Press, $25.) A writer once suggested that it is impossible for visitors to the Grand Canyon to "see" the place as it actually is, so burdened are their minds with preconceived notions derived from postcards and magazines. Ayers and Ford convincingly argue in this anthology that the same could be said of inner-city children. Sociologists, do-gooders, and media types have so routinely and indiscriminately applied the "at risk" label to inner-city children that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adults, buying into the negative advertising, see so-called at risk kids only in terms of problems, such as drug abuse and violence, that seem almost impossible to surmount. Consequently a bright girl is told by a guidance counselor that she should study to become a dental technician, and other gifted minority students are steered away from college-preparatory work. In the section of the book titled "City Teachers," we learn from several educators that their students are so accustomed to "dumbed downed" materials--worksheets and the like--that they resist work demanding critical inquiry. The problem is that critical inquiry, as Ayers makes clear in an essay about Hollywood's portrayal of teachers, is not what the public expects of city kids. With few exceptions, city teachers on the big screen are practitioners of tough love; they drill their charges harder than they've ever been drilled, but they do not encourage them to reflect on the society that has shaped their lives. City Kids, City Teachers powerfully reminds us that the first job of schools is to encourage students to use the power of their minds, a task rendered impossible by an "at risk" perspective that depicts inner-city kids as probable casualties as opposed to agents of change.

CURRICULUM AS CONVERSATION: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning, by Arthur Applebee. (The University of Chicago Press, $12.95.) According to Applebee, discussions about the relative merits of, say, a multicultural curriculum vs. a Great Books course are almost besides the point. What's of critical importance, he argues, is not what is taught, or even how something is taught, but rather the context in which something is taught. Unfortunately, as Applebee astutely points out, much of what is taught in schools has no context at all; students are presented with lists of books and materials between which there are no apparent links. And even when there is an obvious link, as in a high school English literature course organized as a sequence of "greatest hits," students may miss the point completely; in his research, Applebee discovered that students often didn't realize the chronological nature of the very courses they had completed. What the author advocates is something he refers to as "knowledge in action," a curriculum guided and inspired by "authentic" questions such as: "Who chooses the canon?" and "What does it mean to be human in a multicultural world?" The nature of Applebee's questions may not be exactly right, but he is on target when he argues that a given curriculum will only be truly meaningful to students when they feel compelled to inquire into the very reason for its existence.

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