April 01, 1991 2 min read

WHAT ARE SCHOOLS FOR?: Holistic Education in American Culture, by Ron Miller. (Holistic Education Press, $18.95.) The title of Miller’s fine book poses a question that has, for all of its apparent simplicity, received a number of discouraging answers. It is to the credit of the holistic movement that it has unflaggingly asserted that schools are for children. This may seem obvious, even trivial, but Miller’s penetrating historical analysis clearly demonstrates that our schools have often placed the child at the periphery. Holistic educators believe that school should focus on the development of the whole child--the student’s physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities. This development can be accomplished, Miller says, by emphasizing learning rather than teaching; the teacher should be a guide rather than an authority, encouraging the child to discover his or her true nature. Implicit in this view is a belief in the absolute goodness of the child; that children intuitively know what’s best for themselves. It is a belief that may not stand up to harsh reality. Still, this volume is an invaluable critique of an American school system that needs to recover its sense of purpose.

THE MAKING OF A TEACHER: Teacher Knowledge and Teacher Education, by Pamela Grossman. (Teachers College Press, $17.95.) This volume compares and contrasts the approaches of three English teachers who have had formal teacher training with three who haven’t. While the three without training are intelligent, wellintentioned graduates of elite schools, they fail as new teachers, attempting to transform their classrooms into graduate seminars where students are to engage in close textual analysis of such works as Hamlet. The professionally prepared teachers, on the other hand, know how to “relate.’' They fashion lessons that address students’ experiences rather than an abstract academic ideal. There is, though, a danger in this too-pat dichotomy. For one thing, the teacher training discussed here seems all too respectful of students’ intellectual limitations, which great teachers have a way of shattering by being demanding as well as nurturing. For another, Grossman sees the successful teacher as someone who makes the subject relevant to the student. The emphasis on relevance, however, can be diversionary rather than meaningful; students enjoy the discussion in spite of, rather than because of, the text. But can students really understand a difficult literary work without closely analyzing the text?

David Ruenzel

The reviewer, former chairman of the English department at University Lake School in Hartland, Wis., is on leave to write a novel.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Books