Parent Trap

April 01, 2000 6 min read

THE CELEBRATION CHRONICLES: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town,by Andrew Ross. (Ballantine, $25.95.) Toward the end of last year, two books emerged about Celebration, Florida, the town created in the mid-1990s by the Disney Corp. In both cases, the writers had packed up their lives and moved to Celebration, looking, no doubt, to sample Disney’s promised utopia and write about the experience.

They came away with point-counterpoint takes on the place, particularly on the local public school, a facility with open classrooms and mixed-age groupings. One of the books, Celebration, USA, by husband-wife team Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins—excerpted in this magazine in October—portrayed the so-called “cutting edge” school as progressivism run amuck. Designed on the pedagogical principles of such education luminaries as Howard Gardner and William Glasser, the K-12 school was, for these authors, more a romper room for liberated kids than an institution for learning.

The Celebration Chronicles presents a startlingly different view. A noted New York City college professor and writer who lived in Celebration from September 1997 to August 1998, Ross sees the school as an initially bold and mostly successful venture that has been undermined by panicky parents. The teachers, most of them proponents of an open-ended, cross-disciplinary approach to teaching and learning, embraced the school’s innovative curriculum, giving little thought to state standardized exams. “We’ve got better things to do than prepare students for tests,” one of them told the author. But as Ross writes, that didn’t sit well with many Celebration School parents. How were their kids going to score well on the SATs and get into good colleges if the school didn’t prep them for the big tests? These parents believed that the school and its progressive teachers were engaged in education malpractice.

Although a staunch defender of the school, Ross has no problem poking fun at its Disneyesque excesses. This is a school, after all, where teachers are called “learning leaders,” and classrooms “nurturing neighborhoods.” And Ross astutely observes that the school’s performance-based evaluations—kids must present what they’ve learned—seem tailor-made for “a society where everyone has to advertise him or herself to win attention.”

Still, Ross, who regularly served as a classroom volunteer, was impressed at the way the committed and caring teachers managed to connect with even the most disenfranchised kids. The fact that the school eventually began prepping students for standardized tests and adopted such things as conventional scheduling and an honors track—all at behest of pushy parents—was a tragedy, he argues. “It was disheartening for me to watch the novel energy between teachers and students dissolve and get realigned in more orthodox ways.”

What most surprised Ross—and will most jar his readers—is the reactionary, even boorish, behavior of some of the Celebration parents. Reflecting a disturbing national trend, these mostly affluent parents often acted as if they owned the school. They treated teachers not as professionals with whom they might respectfully disagree, but as servants hired to carry out their every wish.

Teachers, of course, must tend to the needs of all children. But the attitude of many Celebration parents, Ross tells us, was “fix my child.” Attacked at school meetings and constantly at parents’ beck and call, many teachers decided to pack it in. Of the initial 53 teachers, 25 left after the first year. One math teacher, tired of all the haranguing, announced she was quitting to write a book titled, How To Eliminate the Teachers From Your Child’s School.

In the end, Chronicles is less about the pros and cons of progressive education than about the blatant consumer expectations of parents. What Celebration parents, and those in an increasing number of other American communities, seem to want is instant gratification. For that, they should have taken up residence at another Disney destination—Fantasyland.

THE MYTH OF THE FIRST THREE YEARS: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning,by John T. Bruer. (Free Press, $25.) In the early 1990s, scientists confirmed that the human brain produces an extraordinary number of connections—or synapses—during a child’s first three years, a neurological event that never repeats itself. These revelations turned the brain into something of an overnight American obsession, with newsmagazine cover stories warning that when it comes to the brain, young children need “to use it or lose it.” Soon a national crusade began, with high-profile celebrities ranging from First Lady Hillary Clinton to movie director Rob Reiner preaching to parents about the need to stimulate the young brain. The result: Anxious parents began buying Mozart recordings for their infants and signing toddlers up for expensive, accessory-laden preschools.

Parents may soon be thanking Bruer, president of the St. Louis-based McDonnell Foundation, for bringing an end to this insanity. Closely examining the scientific evidence, he concludes that the brains of infants and toddlers need no special stimulation—ordinary exchanges between loving parents and their children will do just fine. Though it’s true that infants form an extraordinarily high number of brain synapses, many of these start withering away around the age of 3, regardless of what parents do. And this process continues as time passes. The synaptic density of a 7-year-old’s brain, for example, is 36 percent greater than an adult’s. Research indicates that this natural pruning is actually necessary for intellectual growth, leading Bruer to write that “less is more” when it comes to synapses.

The research Bruer amasses also suggests that the brain is far more “plastic” than previously thought. This means that it can learn plenty of new tricks throughout a lifetime, even well into old age.

The bottom line, as far as Bruer is concerned, is that we should think twice before sinking millions of new dollars in early childhood programs to foster brain development when it is the rest of the educational system—covering the years when the greatest intellectual growth takes places—that most needs our attention.

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER,by Thomas Hine. (Bard, $24.) In this fascinating book, Hine explores the history of the American adolescent, who he argues has been under a dark cloud ever since noted psychologist G.S. Hall characterized teenagers in 1904 as troubled, volatile, and half-mad. This early view of teens as an alienated, angst-ridden lot gained currency over the next three decades, as more families gave up rural life for the city, depositing an increasing number of young people on urban streets. What, people wondered, should be done with all these aimless youngsters and their raging hormones? The answer, of course, was the comprehensive high school. Carbon-copied across the nation, these schools sought to tame adolescents with school clubs, sports, and an ever-expanding curriculum designed to meet everyone’s needs. The result, Hine tells us, is that these schools offered teens a narrow, uniform view of life. For all the diversity in today’s society, he writes, “the experiences for young people in America have become far less diverse over time.”

In short, Hine thinks that teenagers have gotten a bad rap and deserve better. He presents an alternative image of adolescence first articulated in the 1960s by Erik Erickson, who insisted that the teen years were best seen as a quest for identity. Such a view, Hine asserts, demands that young people be given a broader range of opportunities than they now have to test themselves. What adolescents need, Hine insists, is a new kind of high school, one less focused on harnessing and educating the masses than on challenging individuals to search out who they are and what they want to do.

—David Ruenzel