New & Noteworthy: Healing, Reinventing, Coming Together

April 02, 1997 9 min read

As writer-educator Mike Rose lamented in a recent issue of The Nation, cynicism overshadows much of today’s discourse on education. In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School That Works provides a path out of this negativity. It does so not by echoing pleas for bigger budgets and progressive curricula, but by advocating an “unswerving adherence to the basics of education.” As the book by Yale University law student Mark Gerson testifies, inner-city schools, often surrounded by violence and economic decay, can act as the proverbially calm center of the raging storm.

In the Classroom is based on the author’s firsthand experience teaching 10th grade U.S. history in an urban parochial school. Just a 20-minute drive from the affluent suburb where Mr. Gerson grew up, St. Luke High School is situated in an impoverished section of Jersey City, N.J. The author is frank about his decision to defer entrance to Yale Law School and, at the age of 22, enter this “whole other world.” “I wanted to learn all I could about this other place,” he writes, “and perhaps help some kids as well.”

What he discovered at the inner-city Roman Catholic school were many of the components found in all successful schools, including parental involvement and close ties between students and teachers. Mr. Gerson applauds the strong sense of discipline present at St. Luke--discipline that he learned could be instilled in either of two ways: by fear or by trust.

The book chronicles the ways in which discipline secured through trust and the promise of academic achievement and social growth propelled Mr. Gerson’s 10th grade history classes. He accepted as a pedagogical challenge what hinders many other high-school history classrooms: a pervasive attitude among minority students that they are somehow outsiders, excluded from the broader saga of American society. By connecting the paths of history to the world of current events, Mr. Gerson describes his successful efforts to engage his students and spark their interests.

The one-word chapter titles of In the Classroom--"Religion,” “Politics,” and even “O.J."--are emblematic of the way single issues defined various segments of the school year, while also creating spaces for other discussions. (The book’s opening chapter, “Race,” which also explores the standard-English debate, is one example.) But it is the book’s final chapter, “The City and the Suburbs,” that demonstrates the author’s versatility as teacher, writer, and sociopolitical analyst for the “two Americas” of our suburban and urban youths. (The Free Press)

The precept “Do unto others” takes on added complexity as the communitarian premise underlying Amitai Etzioni’s The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. The book, the author’s 15th to date, sets out to answer two questions: “What makes a good society?” and “Where do our societies find themselves currently?” Known as the father of the communitarian movement, Mr. Etzioni sees American society standing at a crossroads, struggling to identify its pluralism within its unity. He urges Americans to set aside the timeless struggle between morality and free will, so often epitomized in the debates between “pro-government liberals” and “free-market conservatives.” The solution, in the author’s words, is to “integrate these two seemingly paradoxical elements,” forging a more holistic society in which the two virtues are mutually reinforcing.

Mr. Etzioni’s proposed society is one that relies upon a sense of ''balance’’ for its vitality: “The communitarian quest, as I see it, is to blend elements of tradition (order based on virtues) with elements of modernity (well-protected autonomy). This, in turn, entails finding an equilibrium between universal individual rights and the common good ... between self and community, and above all, how such equilibrium can be achieved and sustained.”

America’s schools stand near the forefront of the communitarian paradigm, he suggests. In fact, education represents the second of four tenets, or social formulations, that make up Mr. Etzioni’s “moral infrastructure"--alongside families, communities, and what he calls the community of communities. As “character-building agents,” Mr. Etzioni argues, schools should teach respect for individual dignity, abhorrence of discrimination, and nonviolent conflict resolution, particularly through noncurricular practices. Further, the book stresses the need for public schools to realize their roles as character-building agents, rather than engage in that activity “unwittingly, unsystematically, with little accountability.”

The New Golden Rule expresses views on a number of issues, including bicultural education, law enforcement, and national service. Mr. Etzioni concludes all but the final chapter by discussing the implications of his ideas for community practice and public policies. The benefit of these discussions, he says, will be twofold: to provide material illustrations of abstract ideas and to suggest directions readers can turn to begin enacting this “new golden rule’': “Respect and uphold society’s moral order as you would have society respect and uphold your autonomy.” (Basic Books)

In Boys Themselves: A Return to Single-Sex Education, Michael Ruhlman spends a year at the prestigious University School, observing the day school for boys in suburban Cleveland. The book’s subtitle, however, has a double meaning. The author of this insightful book is doing more than providing a hands-on narrative for a hotly debated topic in education; he is also returning to his alma mater, the institution from which Mr. Ruhlman graduated more than a dozen years ago.

A contributor to The New York Times, Mr. Ruhlman discusses his fascination with the paradoxical disappearance of the single-sex school at a time when its public perception is rising. He cites a growing number of studies, beginning in the 1970s, that describe clear advantages--both cognitive and social--to single-sex education. But even this body of research, according to the author, has been relatively minimal, owing perhaps to the perception of single-sex schools as “anachronisms,” less democratic than their coeducational counterparts.

Boys Themselves, on the other hand, presents single-sex education as more than an “evolutionary oversight,” and the University School as more than an institution filled with people cut from the same cloth. Through observations of the 1993-94 academic year, the school’s teachers and staff are portrayed as engaging and dedicated to their profession, starting with the headmaster, Richard A. Hawley, characterized as a “controversial renaissance-man” and a “boys’ school guru.” Mr. Ruhlman also pays special attention to a number of the upper campus’ 370 boys, who come from a variety of backgrounds and travel up to four hours a day on public transportation commuting to and from the elite school.

By journeying into his own past, Mr. Ruhlman has provided a welcome resource for future evaluations of single-sex education. Ultimately, it may be his connection to the University School that helps Boys Themselves achieve such a comprehensive assessment of the school’s culture and environment, issues intrinsic to the education of all children. (Henry Holt and Co.)

“We want to make a statement about bigotry and prejudice. We believe that most people are tired of hating. We believe that most people are saying, ‘If there’s a way to solve this problem, let’s solve it.’

“This journal is part of that process.”

This mission statement is taken from Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding, a joint project by Thomas Hauser and former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, possibly the most widely recognized figure of the modern era. The journal’s preface and introduction are purposefully simple. Like the rest of the book, they engage the reader to become a writer--an active participant in a global dialogue on prejudice and hatred.

According to Healing, prejudice, so deeply ingrained in most cultures in a number of guises--religion, nationality, and so on--is the universal problem. Thus, the co-authors, who have forged a friendship by respecting their own racial and religious differences, are sharing their thoughts as well as the thoughts of others, on the process of healing. In addition to quotations from an array of historical figures and writings, Healing provides periodic spaces for the reader to share “Your Thoughts.”

Mr. Ali’s awareness of prejudice’s pervasive effect on children seems especially acute, as he ponders the ways in which intolerance is learned at a young age, reflecting upon his own upbringing: “When I was young, I followed a teaching that disrespected other people and said that white people were ‘devils.’ I was wrong. Color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count.”

Healing is part of a multidimensional, international campaign against prejudice that has included visits by the authors to high schools and other gatherings of young people around the country. But despite the promotion, Healing recognizes that the most important steps to ending prejudice are often small ones. “If we influence one person, we will have succeeded,” the authors write. “If we influence two people, that will be twice as good. And if we reach millions of people, we will feel especially privileged.” (HarperCollins)

David Osborne describes the purpose of his 1992 book Reinventing Government as drawing “a rough map of the new world of 21st-century governance.” But that book was not designed to show the reader exactly how to proceed. His latest book, written with Peter Plastrik, “begins to put routes on that map, to make it easier for reinventors to follow the pioneers and stake their own claims,” he says.

The pioneering of reinvention, or entrepreneurialism, is the centerpiece of Banishing Bureaucracy: The Five Strategies for Reinventing Government. The book searches for ways to achieve a truly “customer centered” government, one in which accountability and a sense of urgency propel the concept of “reinvention.” Write the authors: “By ‘reinvention,’ we mean the fundamental transformation of public systems and organizations to create dramatic increases in their effectiveness, efficiency, adaptability, and capacity to innovate.”

Minnesota’s move toward public school choice, by making schools directly accountable to parents, is offered as a prime example of their theory of successful reinvention. By giving parents the power to withdraw their children from their assigned districts, taking most of their public dollars with them, the book argues, Minnesota has made schools accountable to parents as well as to school boards.

But Minnesota’s schools are just one example. Banishing Bureaucracy draws from reinvention success stories around the world, including those of Australia, Britain, and New Zealand. By offering case studies of what the authors consider proven practices, the book offers inspirational models of continual governmental improvement, rather than strictly theoretical arguments. (Addison-Wesley)