October 01, 1995 5 min read

BACK TO BASICS, by Francis Schrag. (Jossey-Bass, $16.95.) In this book, Schrag, chair of the department of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, asks questions so astute and yet suddenly obvious that we wonder why we never thought of them ourselves. How, for instance, can we expect schools to build moral character when the typical middle or high school is almost designed to foster anonymity, with teachers meeting only briefly with a horde of students each day? And why do we insist on making success in life ever more commensurate with continued schooling when this will only hurt those with inadequate financial resources and a disinclination for academic work? On this point Schrag is particularly adamant. He questions the now-common assertion that American workers of the future will need ever-higher skills. If this were in fact the case, he asks, then why are American companies continuing to move operations to third-world countries? And even if it were the case, he adds, there is no reason to believe such skills are best acquired in school. In fact, he writes that the bored and alienated student’s “capacity to learn might be enhanced if he were to spend less time in schools.’' Schrag suggests that something like an apprenticeship program may be more appropriate. Still, he is wary of all pat solutions. While he believes that a reasonably well-educated person should be capable of weighing evidence and have the disposition to continue learning subsequent to formal schooling, he insists that there “is no magic bullet’’ that will enable us to achieve this or anything else. The point Schrag seems to be making is that our quest for “the one best system’’ has saddled us with schools that want to be everything to everyone but in truth please no one for very long. He points out, for example, that we cannot ask for comprehensive schools with a plethora of course offerings and at the same time expect smaller, more humane school environments. The most basic question that Back to Basics, raises, then, is one Schrag never directly poses but everywhere implies: Why do we seek an unattainable perfection in schools that few would seek in other aspects of their lives, such as in their careers or marriage? By holding on to this unrealistic expectation, we set ourselves up for certain disillusionment.

RELIGION AND AMERICAN EDUCATION: Rethinking a National Dilemma, by Warren Nord. (The University of North Carolina Press, $19.95.) The title of Nord’s book could be “American Education and the Absence of Religion,’' for the author contends that our public schools and universities, over-mindful of the separation between church and state, have in effect banished religion to a purely private realm: It belongs in the home but never in the classroom. What’s wrong with this, Nord argues, is that students schooled only in the ways of secularism, of science and social science, cannot understand how religion has shaped history and the world in which they live. Notions such as grace and original sin, which infuse the art and literature they study, are likely in the hard secular light to seem quaint and even eccentric. Liberal learning, which should be the aim of education, requires that students be encouraged to understand a wide variety of views; instead, Nord writes, “students are indoctrinated into the modern (secular) world view and against religion.’' Of course, educators will contend that they stay away from religious subjects altogether and are hence completely neutral. But Nord’s precise point is that neglect--consigning religion to oblivion--constitutes a marked form of bias. Here Nord is on solid ground. The obliteration of virtually all religious discussion from, say, a typical high school history book is indeed extreme. Yet one of his key proposals--the implementation of an introductory religious studies course for all high school students--raises nettlesome questions. How, for example, will administrators respond to parents claiming that their religion is being unfairly treated? While Nord insists that teachers will remain steadfastly neutral, presenting but never proselytizing, the fact of the matter is that what’s neutral to one person is bias to another. Furthermore, one wonders if establishing a separate course in religious studies won’t exacerbate the very problems such a course is designed to solve: the sense students have that religion has little connection with other human endeavors. Nord may be right in insisting that there is a place for religious discussion in public schools, but determining just what that place might be will continue to be the subject of heated debate.

SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT: One Family’s Struggle With Learning Disabilities, by Nancy Lelewer. (Vander Wyck & Burnham, $14.95.) From the day of her son’s birth in April of 1962, Nancy Lelewer knew there was something seriously amiss with Brian. He shook and cried continuously, and, as he grew older, his explosive outbursts, often sparked by his inability to communicate, threatened to topple the entire family structure. Desperate as Lelewer was, she never gave up hope that Brian, one of three children, could eventually live a more or less normal life, though a succession of “experts’’ passed such summary judgments as “Brian is a severely emotionally disturbed little boy’’ and “Brian is trying to kill himself.’' While these psychological experts can perhaps be forgiven for not recognizing that Brian was in fact severely learning disabled--he was later diagnosed with hyperactive and cognitive disorders, among others--they cannot be excused for an arrogance that blinded them to the child standing before them. One doctor, having never asked Lelewer a single question about Brian, instead inquired of the mother, “Is there anything you want to ask me?’' This poignant tale of how a mother summoned the courage to finally say “no’’ to experts and discover answers for herself has important lessons for teachers of all students; for teachers who take the time to learn about the lives of children can build their teaching upon a shared understanding of an individual child’s needs and wants.

--David Ruenzel

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