Education Opinion


By David Ruenzel — September 01, 1991 2 min read

Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning
by Jacques Barzun (University of Chicago Press, $24.95.)

It has become almost axiomatic to equate educational reform with innovation. Yet the historian Barzun, in this remarkably wise collection of essays, boldly claims that the emphasis on innovation has led us astray, sending us on a never-ending quest for novel but invariably doomed approaches: teaching “creativity” instead of skills that make its expression possible; confusing nurturing with pandering. In short, we forget that hard-earned accomplishments create a sense of well-being rather than the other way around. At the center of Barzun’s argument is his insistence that schooling, like life itself, consists not of problems to be solved but of difficulties teachers and pupils must continually struggle with. To think that schoolwork can be made easy and natural is to fool ourselves while condemning our students to unproductive lives. Among his targets are brainless multiple choice exams, the substitution of entertainment for arduous teaching, and—most of all—an ethic that forgoes developing native intelligence in favor of making “supertolerant neighbors” and “flawless drivers of cars.” Finally, Begin Here is a passionate plea for all of us connected with schooling “to let loose the effort”—the effort that develops young minds instead of seductive, but hollow, innovations.

The Classroom Crucible: What Really Works, What Doesn’t, and Why
by Edward Pauly (Basic Books, $22.95.)

Two familiar metaphors, according to Pauly, have framed the national educational debate: the metaphor of control, calling for stringent requirements and rigorously enforced rules, and the metaphor of nurturance, calling for extended counseling, teacher training, and so on. But both, Pauly asserts, miss the target. Only the daily life in classrooms—not schools, principals, or programs—determines the success or failure of schooling. Classrooms are intractably unique, and attempts to codify procedures often meet with covert resistance. The skilled teacher, therefore, is above all flexible. Pauly believes that we should approach the multiplicity of classrooms with policies that are pluralistic, not monolithic. In particular, he advocates the Newton Solution (named after a Massachusetts school), which gives students, parents, and teachers a say in deciding which students will be assigned to which teachers. While the book could have been condensed into an essay, it focuses attention on all-too-human classrooms rather than abstract formulations.

Turning The Soul: Teaching Through Conversation in the High School
by Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon (University of Chicago Press, $14.95)

The title alludes to a passage in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates asserts that true knowledge can only be acquired when pupils “turn” toward it, discovering knowledge for themselves. The metaphor, as used by the author, has rich implications for high school teaching, calling on teachers to approach students as questers rather than as recipients of “correct” interpretations. Haroutunian-Gordon does just this as she, in intensive discussions with students about Romeo and Juliet, encourages and sometimes cajoles individuals to interpret the text. This process takes patience and well-formulated rules, but it’s clearly worth the effort when we see students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds becoming disciplined thinkers.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as Books