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In The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, William Julius Wilson, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Chicago, analyzes the problems facing America's inner-city black population.

As he isolates the "social dislocations" dissolving the "vertical integration of different segments of the urban black population" that formerly characterized large urban neighborhoods, Mr. Wilson traces the emergence of "underclass" ghetto neighborhoods in which the difficulties of disadvantaged blacks have become concentrated.

Mr. Wilson contends that neither race-specific policies nor strategies based on a "War on Poverty vision" will suffice to meet the needs of the underclass. He advocates instead the development of a "comprehensive program" that would stress "macroeconomic policies to promote balanced economic growth and create a tight-labor-market situation, a nationally oriented labor-market strategy, a child-support assurance program, a child-care strategy, and a family-allowances program."

In the following excerpts, Mr. Wilson examines the "shockingly high degree of educational retardation" that results from the "out-migration of middle- and working-class families" from the inner city and the high rate of unemployment in the ghetto:

[I]n a neighborhood with a paucity of regularly employed families and with the overwhelming majority of families having spells of long-term joblessness, people experience a social isolation that excludes them from the job network system that permeates other neighborhoods and that is so important in learning about or being recommended for jobs that become available in various parts of the city. And as the prospects for employment diminish, other alternatives such as welfare and the underground economy are not only increasingly relied on, they come to be seen as a way of life. ...

[I]n such neighborhoods the chances are overwhelming that children will seldom interact on a sustained basis with people who are employed or with families that have a steady breadwinner. The net effect is that joblessness, as a way of life, takes on a different social meaning; the relationship between schooling and postschool employment takes on a different meaning. The development of cognitive, linguistic, and other educational and job-related skills necessary for the world of work in the mainstream economy is thereby adversely affected. In such neighborhoods, therefore, teachers become frustrated and do not teach and children do not learn. A vicious cycle is perpetuated through the family, through the community, and through the schools.

University of Chicago Press, 5801 South Ellis Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637; 254 pp., $19.95 cloth.

The definition and treatment of the class of academic learning problems labeled "learning disabilities" rest, says Gerald Coles, on "the alleged identification of minimal neurological dysfunctions."

In The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities," Mr. Coles, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, argues "that the very existence of this 'condition' has been virtually unproven, with only the shakiest of evidence reported, and that it has certainly been claimed in far greater proportion than it actually occurs."

Mr. Coles attributes the development of the learning-disabilities field, "virtually unknown" before the mid-1960's, to the need of middle-class families for an explanation of their children's learning problems different from the classifications used to diagnose the academic troubles of poor or minority children.

In the passages that follow, Mr. Coles outlines the theoretical and practical arguments underlying the debate over learning disabilities, and introduces an "alternative" explanation of these kinds of learning problems:

The primary theoretical argument is whether numerous social problems have fundamental biological or social causes. ... Learning disabilities, with their own explanation via neurological dysfunction, fit within this larger set of biologically based descriptions of social organization.

In a practical context the contradiction must be explained between the great opportunity ostensibly available to everyone and the short change actually received by various individuals and groups. Men and women, whites and blacks, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, are among the obvious social distinctions proving that the same achievements and rewards are not equally open to all. ... [L]earning disabilities became prominent in the 1960's as a biological explanation of academic inequalities within the middle class.

This led to the establishment of methods and programs for ameliorating "the problem" without demanding any structural changes in society--while at the same time suggesting that these children were bound to attain less. ...

[My] alternative theory of learning disabilities ... attempts to understand "ld" within the context of the child's social life. ... [This] perspective suggests that learning difficulties, and any neurological dysfunctions associated with them, develop not from within the individual but from the individual's interaction within social relationships. Brain functioning is both a product of and a contributor to the individual's interactions; it is not a predetermined condition.

Pantheon Books, 201 East 50th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 330 pp., $22.95 cloth.

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