April 01, 1992 3 min read

JOHN DEWEY AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY, by Robert Westbrook. (Cornell University Press, $29.95.) Perhaps no figure has cast so long and persistent a shadow over the history of American education as John Dewey. Progressive educators, claiming Dewey as one of their own, have long praised him for his supposed avowal of “child centered’’ education; traditionalists, on the other hand, have excoriated him for neglecting subject matter in favor of encouraging the child’s natural impulse, leading to what they see as a long erosion of discipline and academic standards. But, as Westbrook’s magisterial book makes clear, both groups have greatly misinterpreted Dewey’s intentions, leading to the formation of American schools that are purposeless on one hand and repressive on the other. Far from venerating the child’s experiences, as progressives and traditionalists have claimed, Dewey insisted that education was valuable only insofar as it led the curious child from his or her own interests to skills and knowledge embodied in subject matter. The teacher who merely provided children with the freedom to pursue their own interests was abdicating responsibility; at the other extreme, the teacher who “dispensed’’ subject matter to passive students failed to develop the child’s capacity to think through problems. The true teacher must, as Dewey said, discover “the steps that intervene between the child’s present experience and their richer maturity.’' Dewey, it must be said, put his theories into practice. Believing that children best learned through handson activities, pupils at his school sewed, cooked, planted wheat, worked with wood, etc., with the goal of connecting such activities to history, science, literature, and the like. Six-year-olds, for instance, would build a model farm, learning mathematics in the process; even more important, they would learn to cooperate with one another. While Westbrook is far from an uncritical admirer of Dewey--he holds him somewhat responsible for the burdensome notion that schools can correct a host of social ills--he does an invaluable service in clearing up the misconceptions surrounding a thinker whose ideas still have great relevance for our times.

THE MEASURE OF OUR SUCCESS: A Letter to My Children and Yours, by Marian Wright Edelman. (Beacon, $15.) This book by the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund is a compelling testament to the transformative power of faith and courage. Born in segregated South Carolina, Edelman acknowledges that, “It is utterly exhausting being black in America--physically, mentally, and emotionally’'; yet she insists, in tones both meditative and exhortatory, that the gravest sin is to give way to despair. Her own upbringing, moored in a shared spirituality, is an example of how family can immunize “against the plagues of indifference, defeatism, negativism, selfishness, and hopelessness.’' Her advice to parents and children-- distilled into 25 lessons--balances contemplation with willfulness, personal responsibility with public-mindedness. In lesser hands, such a book might be a simple-minded homily; in Edelman’s, it is a victory over cynicism.

IMAGES OF EDUCATION: The Mass Media’s Version of America’s Schools, by George Kaplan. (National School Public Relations Association, $14.) The popular media, critics have long noted, routinely distort news by highlighting its more dramatic components. This tendency, Kaplan tells us, has resulted in generally thin education reporting--with some very notable exceptions--that eschews such complex issues as school reform in favor of high-impact stories about plunging test scores and educational super-heroes. A case in point is the celebratory coverage of Wendy Kopp’s Teach For America corps, which conveniently ignored the fact that only 23 percent of its neophyte teachers--almost all from elite colleges--viewed teaching as anything more than a temporary stint. Kaplan, with much justification, also decries the media’s apocalyptic instincts, which lead them to search out school disaster stories while ignoring the many schools that have achieved very real successes. Part of the problem, Kaplan concludes, is that the education beat is typically viewed by ambitious reporters as but a stepping-stone to more glamorous assignments.
--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Books