Books: The School That Dewey Built
DEWEY'S LABORATORY SCHOOL: Lessons for Today, by Laurel Tanner. (Teachers College Press, $21.95.) Perhaps no single figure in American education has been more vilified and worshipped than John Dewey. His detractors hold his child-centered progressivism responsible for what they see as the fuzzy, anything-goes nature of much schooling. His celebrators see him as a hero whose ideas are the perfect antidote for the dull, narrow routines of American education.
Tanner is clearly in the second camp. Here she shines a bright light on the early years of Dewey's famous University of Chicago Laboratory School, bemoaning the fact that its philosophy and practices have largely been "disregarded." Tanner rightly sees that one of Dewey's most important contributions was the Lab School itself, a place for ongoing experimentation. As she demonstrates, teachers at the school always had the flexibility to change course if something wasn't working. When one particular group of boys became frustrated with a lesson, their teachers set them loose on other science activities, and soon they were building pile drivers, stands for microscopes, and other devices.
This kind of controlled, follow-your-bliss approach stemmed from Dewey's belief that bad student behavior is largely the fault of a dull, contrived curriculum; children kept involved in well-chosen activities, he argued, will regulate themselves. So Lab School students prepared gourmet meals in French class, built model houses to learn about community life, and made cloth as part of a study on industrialization. The organizing center of the curriculum, Tanner writes, was "the idea of the schoolhouse as a home in which the activities of social or community life are carried on." In other words, the school was to be a bridge to the wider world—not a wall sealing students from it.
Tanner provides a clear picture of Dewey's school, and it seems like a wonderful place. But in holding the Dewey school up as a model, she underplays the fact that the Lab School had some hard-to-duplicate advantages. For one thing, most of the students came from affluent, exceptionally well-educated families, so no one had to worry about drilling these kids in the basics. The school also had excellent facilities, committed parents, teachers with unusually deep knowledge of specific subjects, and generous assistance from acclaimed University of Chicago scholars. Still, by holding the Lab School up to scrutiny, Tanner does an admirable job of showing us what a school can be.
REACHING UP FOR MANHOOD: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America, by Geoffrey Canada. (Beacon Press, $22.) Canada's engrossing book on how we might better teach boys to become men calls to mind the words of Macduff in Macbeth, who, when encouraged to seek "manly" revenge for the slaughter of his family, says, "But I also must feel it as a man." What Macduff must feel is deep pain, the very thing that boys—especially boys routinely exposed to the violence of urban life—are taught to deny by a society that equates manhood with toughness.
As someone raised on the mean streets of the South Bronx, Canada knows this as well as anyone. He tells us how he and his friends learned to swagger their way through fear, loneliness, and despair. But the price of such bravado is high. "I have come to see that in teaching boys to deny their own pain we inadvertently teach them to deny the pain of others," Canada writes. "I believe this is why so many become abusive to those they supposedly love."
Fits of rage, acting out in school, brutalizing women—all these, Canada tells us, are the price we pay for teaching boys that empathy is somehow unmanly. But Canada doesn't end on a pessimistic note. If cynicism and violence are learned behaviors, as Canada insists, so too are virtues like compassion and perseverance—virtues that are taught at a number of community centers that he has established in New York City.
THINKING STYLES, by Robert Sternberg. (Cambridge University Press, $19.95.) How could someone who was a mediocre student throughout most of his young life end up a notable professor at Yale University? This, in fact, is what happened to Sternberg, who assures us in this book that his case is far from unique. Many people who appear to be sluggards in school go on to renowned careers. The reason for such belated success, Sternberg claims, is that many late bloomers have what he calls "legislative" thinking styles; they are innovators who like to do and learn things their own way. Such individuals do not fare well in American schools, Sternberg argues, because most schools are inherently conservative and reward students who have "executive" thinking styles. These people, Sternberg writes, "prefer to be given guidance as to what to do or how to do what needs to be done."
Although Sternberg's discussion of thinking styles (he has identified several) is not particularly new—it brings to mind Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as well as Daniel Goleman's writings about "emotional intelligences"—his ideas are provocative nonetheless. They help explain why some of the very brightest kids flourish only after they've left their days of drab schooling far behind.