May 01, 1995 2 min read

KWANZAA AND ME: A Teacher’s Story, by Vivian Gussin Paley. (Harvard University Press, $18.95.) In her 1980 book White Teacher, veteran author and preschool teacher Paley appeared to resolve her doubts regarding her abilities to create a nurturing environment for black children. But her self-doubt reasserts itself with a vengeance when blacks in the community voice concerns about the effects predominately white schools such as Paley’s University of Chicago Laboratory School will have on their children. One professor, reflecting the views of others, says, “I don’t want my baby spending all of her time trying to figure out what a white teacher wants her to be.’' Anyone familiar with Paley’s earlier books will think this blatantly unfair, as she is clearly a teacher of unusual intelligence and generosity. But Paley invites examination of both herself and her school, seeking out the views of parents, teachers, and former students who relate numerous examples of subtle misunderstandings. Many black kids, for example, use biblical stories as a point of reference, which white teachers sometimes equate with religious fanaticism. Such misunderstandings multiply over the years and are particularly damaging to blacks who, one colleague explains to Paley, “bought the whole feeling the world told us: ‘You’re no good.’ '' As a preschool teacher, one of Paley’s responses is to invent, with the help of parents and other teachers, stories in which the experiences of black children are positively reflected--stories that enable students “to look for ways to explain who we are.’'

GREATER EXPECTATIONS: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America’s Homes and Schools, by William Damon. (Free Press, $23.) Damon’s book is an effective if somewhat long-winded attack on what have become articles of faith regarding child-rearing. American parents have heard them a million times: Children can’t love others until they love themselves, are stressed-out by too many demands, and are harmed when denied the right to make their own choices. But the cumulative effect of these popular beliefs, Damon argues--and here he is absolutely convincing--is that the child’s experience of the world has narrowed in upon itself, like the wedge of light in the center of a TV screen before it goes black. No longer prodded to work about the house, stretch in school, or care for younger siblings, the child lapses into an unhealthy self-absorption. Consequently, he or she pursues not interests but desperate escapes from boredom. Damon is no taskmaster--he condemns authoritarian parents as well as permissive ones--but he rightly attacks those child psychologists who have wrongly confused the inculcation of good habits with adult imposition. If children do not learn to do certain unpleasant things as a matter of course, they will, in later life, fall prey to despair when faced with difficulties. It’s a simple lesson, but one worth repeating in an age when “feeling good’’ is taken seriously as the ultimate purpose in life.

--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Books