Education

Books

April 01, 1998 4 min read
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OUR GUYS: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb, by Bernard Lefkowitz. (University of California Press, $29.95.) When four star high school athletes from the wealthy suburb of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, were accused in 1989 of raping a retarded girl with a broomstick and baseball bat, the community rallied to their support. Their female fans, the “Jockettes,” wore empathetic yellow ribbons; the high school principal referred to the rape as an “alleged sexual misconduct"; and many other adults tossed off comments like, “It’s a tragedy for the boys.” Some of the town gossips even had it that the brutalized girl was the seducer, an attitude reflected in a defendant’s “she wanted it” comment to a television reporter.

Lefkowitz, who spent seven years investigating the case, argues that both the assault—the boys were eventually found guilty of rape but received suspended sentences—and the vigorous defense of “our guys” are hardly surprising. From the time the boys first played in a youth football league, they were allowed, on account of their athletic exploits, rugged good looks, and swaggering affluence, to get away with almost anything. Ominous signs of a budding criminality were ignored when they first became apparent in middle school. The “jocks” trashed a science lab, treated female teachers with contempt, and spouted sexual vulgarities at girls.

So why didn’t the school take action? One teacher tells the author that it had to do with the school’s “never-fail policies.” Teachers and school officials, eager to get the boys out of their hair, simply passed them along to high school, where the enabling behavior became almost pathological: “Partying” jocks tore apart a house yet retained their athletic eligibility; a football player stole several hundred dollars at a school dance but received only a two-day suspension. Lefkowitz, whose straightforward reporting style brims with fierce indignation, also gives us a disturbing portrait of teen sexuality gone berserk. The boys hoot and holler through porn videos, spy on one another having sex with unsuspecting girls, and throw parties where the girls have to call themselves “pigs” to gain admission.

All this is sensational stuff, but in Lefkowitz’s hands it never becomes tabloid material. His aim is to discover what causes such seemingly all-American boys to turn to sexual violence. The answer, in part, lies with a community and school culture that celebrates male aggressiveness and athletic prowess at the almost complete expense of moral circumspection. The Glen Ridge attitude is that boys will be boys, forgetting that boys bereft of civilizing attitudes may turn out to be very dangerous men.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN SCHOOL WITHOUT REALLY LEARNING: The Credentials Race in American Education, by David Labaree. (Yale University Press, $35.) An elementary school principal recently complained that parents no longer seem to care about the common good of all children, only what’s best for their own. This, in a nutshell, is Labaree’s provocative thesis.

At one time, Americans at least pretended that education, rooted in its common-school legacy, was about the inculcation of democratic values. But nowadays, Labaree says, it’s pretty much a what-can-you-do-for-me proposition, with students hoping to cash in years of schooling for a prestigious job and piece of prime real estate.

Of course, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with using education to jump-start the American dream; that’s always been one of schooling’s goals. What Labaree objects to is the fact that “this ideology promises students that through schooling they can achieve anything within the limits of their own desire and personal capabilities.” Holding out such grandiose possibilities for schooling results in both disillusionment and educational inflation, he argues. Basically, people demand more and more education, thinking it’s the key to advancement, and colleges respond by offering more and more diplomas and

credentials. But eventually students discover that a diploma or credential from an average state university is no guarantee of success at all. In fact, it’s little more than a pumped-up high school diploma. Earning a high school diploma, meanwhile, becomes more and more a matter of just showing up.

Reading Labaree’s book, it’s hard not to wonder if such misplaced educational consumerism might not lead to the demise of public schooling. For if we no longer think of education as being about equality, justice, and tolerance—all things that define the public school ideal—then why not just send our children to some private academy where they can sit by themselves and zip through computerized learning programs?

TEACHING AND ITS PREDICAMENTS, edited by Nicholas C. Burbules and David T. Hansen. (Westview Press, $21.) In this collection of 10 essays, a diverse group of school reform advocates, most of them scholars, caution against putting too much faith in reform—a refreshing proposition in a field that tends toward zealotry. It’s not that the authors here aren’t hopeful about what school reform can accomplish, but rather that they want to argue against what editor and contributor Burbules terms a “hope that is utopian...the idea that our educational endeavor always does good and never harm.”

What happens, for instance, when teachers are asked to apply rigorous new standards that they don’t really understand? How are teachers who are dedicated to portfolio assessment going to deal with the fact that such assessments are notoriously unreliable? And what are teachers going to do when unmotivated students fail to respond to their new lessons and techniques?

No matter what the reforms, the essayists here tell us, teachers will always face one tough predicament after another. It’s the nature of the beast—a beast that good teachers can occasionally tame but never conquer.

—David Ruenzel


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