Education Book Review

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By Anne E. Das — April 17, 2008 4 min read
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Childhood

Defenders of recess and unstructured play, such as Linn, a psychologist and the director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, look to no less an organization than the United Nations for support of their cause: In 1989, its Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted a resolution declaring “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child.” Linn argues that in the United States, consumerism and commercialism are among creative play’s biggest foes, impeding children’s natural learning processes, imagination, and even their health. For example, she criticizes toy companies and digital-media giants for touting their products’ supposed educational benefits, unconfirmed by research, and for directing children’s play along their selling-driven storylines. Moreover, she sees significant implications for society in the cultivation of passive acceptance of marketing, drawing connections between such thinking and a decline in American democracy. In response, she advocates encouraging children to engage in self-initiated make-believe games that help them develop self-knowledge, acquire skills, and cope with difficulties, an assertion she backs up with examples from her professional practice. Discovering who we are and making meaning of our lives—to Linn, this is hardly “child’s play.”

An anthology of literature, songs, and science recommended by the Core Knowledge Foundation.

Higher Education

Who has the right to decide what gets taught in the university classroom?

Chronicles the drama of elite-college admissions through the stories of a diverse group of students.

School Lunch

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed into law a bill establishing the National School Lunch Program, aimed at improving nutrition in the postwar generation and creating a market for surplus crops. As he did so, he declared that “no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers.” But over the program’s lifetime, the interests of the agricultural and commercialfood industries have largely superseded those of students, argues Levine, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She traces the program back to the Progressive Era, when localized charities distributed school lunches as a way to counteract malnutrition and Americanize immigrants. After federalization, she finds, most subsidized lunches went to white, middle-class children, with the percentage of free meals decreasing throughout the 1950s. When poverty came to the forefront of national attention in the 1960s, she writes, the emphasis shifted from distributing surplus food to alleviating hunger, transforming school lunch into a social-welfare program. While this shift has expanded access for greater numbers of students, critics contend that quality has deteriorated, as schools have turned to private companies and fast food to compensate for insufficient funds. Levine provides an in-depth look at how such factors as early nutritionists’ disdain for Italian cooking have led to the ubiquitous greasy pizza of today’s school cafeteria.

Youth Development

A professor of education at Stanford University and the director of its Center on Adolescence, Damon sees a troubling growth in aimlessness among young people. Nearly 25 percent, he finds, are drifting through life, unsure of what inspires them or what career they wish to pursue, while a majority, roughly 55 percent, possess a vague sense of purpose but lack the knowledge or will to act upon it. What’s more, this absence of direction can be detected in youths of all types, including high achievers. More optimistically, the data, drawn from a continuing study of 1,200 teenagers and early 20-somethings, also reveal that about one-fifth of young people are deeply committed to an activity or cause that brings them fulfillment. Damon’s mission is to increase that number by showing educators and parents how to help children identify their purpose and work toward accomplishing it. A cultural emphasis on short-term gratification is young people’s biggest obstacle, he writes, which adults may inadvertently further by pushing high test scores or college acceptance over deeper reasons for learning. As an alternative approach, he recommends introducing youths to possible mentors, entrusting them with responsibility, and fostering entrepreneurship, among other strategies. He hopes that in so doing, adults may lead young people to consider what the goal of life is—the answer to which may be their most important lesson ever.

African-Americans

BRIC ARCHIVE

—From The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education, by Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of teaching and learning at New York University and the executive director of its Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, published by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley (www.josseybass.com; 352 pp., $24.95 hardback).

SEE ALSO

Race, Schools, and Hope: African-Americans and School Choice After Brown by Lisa M. Stulberg (Teachers College Press, www.tcpress.com; 224 pp., $27.95 paperback).

Reconciles school choice and faith in public schooling in the black community.

Teaching

Students speak out on the best ways to reach them, in this sequel to Fires in the Bathroom.

Follows four corps members at a Los Angeles high school through their tumultuous first year

A teacher reflects on his field and the profession in advice to aspiring practitioners.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week

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