Reviews: The Outsiders

November 01, 2001 5 min read
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LAW AND ORDER AND SCHOOL: Daily Life in an Educational Program for Juvenile Delinquents, by Shira Birnbaum. (Temple University Press, 208 pages, $18.95.)
In this unsettling but insightful book, education consultant Birnbaum focuses on an unnamed school of last resort that she refers to only as “the Academy.” It’s a place for so-called delinquent kids who are too dangerous or disturbed for regular high school but not lawless enough for a youth detention facility. Many, she writes, bear the scars of violence and abuse; virtually all the girls, for example, suck their thumbs. Although no one would call these youngsters “good” kids, it’s impossible not to feel compassion for them. They’ve been through hell and are likely to get into serious trouble unless someone or something can help them turn their lives around.

As Birnbaum describes it, the Academy—a semiprivate, nonprofit program overseen by an urban school district in the South—is not the answer. The school employs seven teachers, most of them evangelical Christians, who are well-intentioned but underprepared and overwhelmed. Their students are belligerent and indifferent, their duties exhausting, and their wages pitiful—as low as $6 an hour during the 1995-96 school year, when Birnbaum conducted her research.

These teachers try to maintain order with an incentive system that awards points to students for behavior deemed positive, such as shaking hands with visitors, leading a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and sitting quietly in sweltering classrooms with no air conditioning. This reward system dominates—indeed, governs—the academic program, too, as utterly bored students rack up points for filling in worksheets, copying out definitions, and the like. Most students put up with this ridiculous program because they know it will improve their chances of returning to a “regular” school or moving on to some menial job. Still, the accumulated points eventually translate into high school credits, which are not what most students want or need. What they do need—and are repeatedly denied—is adequate preparation for the GED exam.

One 17-year-old student named Jamal drops out of the Academy after being told that he will not be able to pursue a GED certificate until he completes the program and returns to high school. This seemingly superfluous detour back to his old school infuriates him. “They just be messing with you,” Jamal says of his time at the Academy, “trying to make you do all that work, so you never know when you’re getting out, when you’re graduating.”

Birnbaum provides a revealing portrait of delinquent teenagers, but what gives her book power, apart from the lucid and unsparing prose, is its depiction of the numbing educational routine that Academy kids—and, undoubtedly, most low-income students—must endure. For these teenagers, school is at best a mechanical ritual, the accumulation of meaningless points or credits. Stuck in low-level classes taught by poorly prepared teachers, far too many are simply unable to acquire what Birnbaum refers to as “authentic academic and vocational skills.”

There are many troubling details in these pages, but the most disturbing of all comes toward the end of the book, when we learn that a team of state inspectors gives the Academy one of its highest ratings for the year. If this program, which does little more than keep chaos at bay, is deemed a success, one can only shudder to imagine what constitutes a failure.

SCHOOLING FOR HUMANITY: When Big Brother Isn’t Watching,by David O. Solmitz. (Peter Lang Publishing, 244 pages, $29.95.)
One day in the fall of 1969, his first year teaching social studies at Madison High School in rural Maine, Solmitz lost his cool and slapped a misbehaving student in the face. After hearing about the punishment, the principal, a fierce disciplinarian whose baldness had earned him the sobriquet “Chrome Dome,” sought out the terrified teacher and shook his hand. “Congratulations,” he told Solmitz, “I didn’t think you had it in you.”

The incident turned out to be a slap in the face for Solmitz himself, reawakening his commitment to the progressive ideals that had led him to teaching in the first place. Over the next 30 years, recounted in what is both a memoir and an attack against corporate America and the public school system he believes supports it, a radicalized Solmitz attempted to light a fire under his working-class students. He took his classes on tours of hippie communes, challenged oppressive school rules, and tried to run a democratic classroom, which never really worked. Accustomed to “authoritarian” classrooms, students constantly urged him, he writes, “to take control.”

Known to his students as “Dangerous Dave,” Solmitz sometimes comes across in these pages as an egotist, just a bit too proud of his gadfly role. Still, he makes many provocative points. He argues, for example, that much of the current educational emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking is too narrowly focused on preparing students to become economically viable. “The ‘self- directed and lifelong learner,’ ” he writes, “is simply the euphemism for saying that students must be prepared for complete retraining for nine different careers during their lifetime.”

Solmitz retired from teaching in 1999, and though his more conservative colleagues probably weren’t sorry to see him go, his departure was undoubtedly a loss for the district. After all, every school needs an iconoclast, someone who is not afraid to make waves when the waters get too still.

THE EDUCATION OF LAURA BRIDGMAN: First Deaf and Blind Person to Learn Language,by Ernest Freeberg. (Harvard University Press, 272 pages, $27.95.)
Before Samuel Howe, founding director of the Perkins School for the Blind, undertook the education of Laura Bridgman in 1837, children who couldn’t see and hear were considered uneducable. Consigned to a world of silent darkness, they were able to communicate only with basic gestures. But as historian Freeberg shows in this fascinating book, Howe saw Laura not as a cipher, but as a child with innate potential. He and the other instructors at the Massachusetts school used raised letters to teach Laura the alphabet and then helped her construct words with objects she could touch. Later, she was introduced to mathematical diagrams and maps with tactile features.

But Howe, as Freeberg makes clear, was no saint. Indeed, he used Laura to further his own celebrity and to test his Unitarian theories about religious and moral development. Believing in the inherent goodness of all children, he shielded Laura from organized religion, insisting that she would discover godly virtue on her own. But that didn’t happen. And when Laura entered a period of adolescent rage and rebellion, a disillusioned Howe began to distance himself from his renowned pupil, eventually announcing that she was the victim of a “deranged constitution.” The Education of Laura Bridgman, then, is something of a tragedy, the story of how an otherwise great teacher was undermined by his own hubris.

—David Ruenzel

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