February 01, 1994 4 min read

ON THE EDGE: A History of Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams, by Carl Husemoller Nightingale. (Basic Books, $24.) Urban elementary teachers have long noted that a drastic change often occurs in many poor black children as they leave behind the early years of primary schooling. Once bright-eyed and affectionate, they become, as they enter middle school years, hostile and violence-prone. Just why this is the case, and just why this is more endemic to poor black children than to poor children in general, is in part the subject of Nightingale’s evocative and highly original On the Edge. Essentially, Nightingale is a contrarian. While countless social critics have argued that black crime, which began its inexorable rise in the 1960s, is due to cultural and economic alienation, Nightingale suggests rather that poor black children are, if anything, over-immersed in American culture. The author, who lived for six years in inner-city Philadelphia, argues that these kids and their parents have philosophies that resonate with those of mainstream institutions of law and order. They are generally supportive of the American military, radically homophobic (boys quickly learn that it is “feminine’’ to express emotion), and likely to believe in harsh punishment as a corrective to misdeeds. The belief in “sparing the rod, spoiling the child,’' Nightingale says, is particularly destructive, as children learn that aggression is an acceptable way to resolve conflict. “Almost without exception,’' he writes, “parents have seen severe the best means to educate kids in values of social responsibility and respect for parents.’' As a result, inner-city kids somewhat ironically become the most American of Americans, their insecurities and despair rendering them savagely susceptible to the culture of consumption and the racial caricatures generated by the media. Black boys, equating manhood with the concealment of emotional pain, relish the role of what they call the “baad nigger.’' Tragically, the civil rights movement has been turned on its head: Traumatized kids seeking psychic compensation are only too willing to assume the degrading stereotypes that earlier generations had so gallantly combated. Generally pessimistic as On the Edge is, Nightingale is not without hope. “Values education,’' he concludes, will somehow need “to be supplemented by education in emotional self-awareness,’' so that inner-city children will no longer convert pain into a braggadocio that too often slips into violence.

FOR THE CHILDREN: Lessons From a Visionary Principal, by Madeline Cartwright and Michael D’Orso. (Doubleday, $19.95.) For the Children is the archetypal story of the principal-hero, who, drawing on extraordinary reserves of courage, persistence, and compassion, reverses the decline of an urban school--in this case the Blaine School, located in a North Philadelphia district where 95 percent of the parents are on welfare. Overall, it is a convincing and even poignant story of dedication and self-sacrifice. Madeline Cartwright, the principal, is a whirlwind of activity, driving out hoodlums, scrubbing out neglected bathrooms, even installing a washer and dryer in the school so students can have clean clothes. She is also unafraid to take on a union that protects incompetent teachers and central office administrators who are blind to all but improved test scores. However, For the Children raises important questions. Admire Cartwright as we do, one wonders if this educator-as-hero genre doesn’t mislead the public into thinking that reform is only a matter of recruiting a few superior individuals. Furthermore, Cartwright’s plea for more government programs within the school, turning it into a broad social services center, seems to miss the point. Cartwright’s students, it seems, are responding as much to her personal involvement as they are to clean clothes and the like. While the government can implement services, it seems unlikely that it can replicate such heartfelt commitment.

CHARACTER FIRST: The Hyde School Difference, by Joseph Gauld. (Institute for Contemporary Studies, $18.95.) When Joe Gauld resigned his position as headmaster of a prestigious independent school in 1966 to found the Hyde School in Maine, he was determined to place the development of character above that of academic achievement. Gauld writes that “by practicing these outward expressions of character’’ (namely courage, integrity, concern, curiosity, and leadership) “the individual develops his or her own inner character--the foundation of unique potential.’' Demonstrating the seriousness of his position, Gauld actually flunked a top achiever “until he demonstrated genuine curiosity and learned how to share his gift with others.’' Still, Gauld didn’t feel that his school was truly successful until he enlisted the profound involvement of parents; it was they who were to be primarily responsible for their children’s character growth. Up to this point in the book, there is much about the Hyde program that seems enticing, but it loses its allure as the narrative descends into a series of therapeutic encounters. At a “student bust,’' students must provide one another with written descriptions of their inner feelings; at a later “faculty bust,’' teachers, sometimes less than willingly, publicly examine even their marriages and family relationships. Gauld writes, “Only when [students] were willing to risk everything in a confrontation could they expose their true selves.’' All in all, this ruthless and intrusive self-examination is a kind of caricature of that required by the elites in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Books