WE ARE ALL MULTICULTURALISTS NOW, by Nathan Glazer. (Harvard, $19.95.) "We are all socialists now," a British Cabinet member was reputed to have said in 1889 in response to a decision to progressively tax wealthy estates. He didn't mean, Glazer tells us, that socialism was necessarily a good thing but rather an inevitable thing that one might as well accept. Essentially, this is Glazer's view of multiculturalism; it has so swept into the public schools that there's little choice but to ride the current. Students from Mississippi to Oregon are just as likely to study Harriet Tubman as Winston Churchill, the American Indian tale "The Speckled Snake" as the Declaration of Independence. Multiculturalism makes any claim of cultural or moral superiority sound wickedly prejudicial; it's all a matter of multiple perspectives now. Glazer claims he is inured to multiculturalism, but it's clear he is not altogether happy with some of its ramifications. He points out, for example, that our current fixation with race, ethnicity, and gender almost completely ignores social class. In most new curricula, workers' rights and issues pertaining to unionization and corporate expansion are hardly mentioned. More worrisome for Glazer is the fact that public schools have almost given up on the idea of assimilation as a worthy goal, even though it worked for generations of immigrants who believed in the American ideals of liberty and equality. The central reason African Americans never assimilated, Glazer suggests, is that they weren't allowed to. "Where were the blacks?" Glazer asks after examining early 20th-century literature on efforts to Americanize European children. They were at the margins, where white America kept them. Hence Glazer finds it perfectly understandable that blacks have been at the vanguard of the multicultural movement. Multiculturalism, he reminds us, is "the price America is paying for its inability or unwillingness to incorporate into its society African Americans, in the same way and to the same degree it has incorporated so many groups."
LESSONS FROM PRIVILEGE: The American Prep School Tradition, by Arthur Powell. (Harvard, $35. ) If public education, with its century-old emphasis on order, efficiency, and standardization, has been guided by the school-as-factory metaphor, the prep school, or independent school, has been informed by the family metaphor. Although the headmaster may no longer be the paternalistic figure he once was--indeed, many heads are now women--most still believe, as one headmaster of a rigorous school tells Powell, that "the primary duty of a school is that every child be known and loved." This may sound grandiose, especially to public school teachers working in difficult settings, but Powell outlines the many factors that make this family ideal a reality. The most obvious is that most prep schools are small and offer small classes; teachers can address the strengths and weaknesses of students they know extremely well. The structure of independent school governance helps, too. Parent trustees appoint the headmaster, who in turn appoints the teachers; the web of interdependent relationships encourages the development of a shared school philosophy. There is also the ethos of profound commitment to students. Teachers contact parents to let them know their child has stopped contributing to class discussions; many give up their lunch or preparation periods to assist students. Of course, skeptics point out that teachers at prep schools get handpicked students from mostly well-to-do families that value education; public school teachers have no such luxury. But Powell notes, with some indignation, that "every teacher right now could stay late two days a week to hold open office hours" and that "every teacher and administrator right now could take on eight or 10 student advisees and become committed to knowing each one well." Few educators can demand that their students be dedicated and from stable families, but all, Powell is telling us, can demand more of themselves.
THE POWER OF MINDFUL LEARNING, by Ellen J. Langer. (Addison Wesley, $20.) In this slim volume, Langer, a Harvard psychologist, strives to explode a number of common learning "myths," among them that practice makes perfect, that learning demands intense concentration upon a given subject, and that there are certain absolute basics that everyone should know. As is typical of "debunking" books, the author sometimes hurts her cause by couching her arguments in absolute terms, such as when she claims that too much practice of a given skill ingrains bad habits. This may be true, but it is also true that the person who practices only minimally has little hope for mastery. Still, Langer's arguments are worth paying attention to. Her own research indicates that people learn best and can apply what they learn more creatively when encouraged to let their minds wander from thing to thing instead of focusing singly upon, say, the plot of a story or a lecture. Langer has equally provocative things to say about the harmful effects of rote memorization, the wrongheaded quest for "right" answers, and why forgetfulness can actually be a healthy trait. Langer's conclusions may not always be right, but she is certainly right to challenge the legitimacy of an educational system that still places a premium upon drill, memorization, and doing as you're told.