Books: Examining Race, Literacy, School 'Ecology'

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In And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, Derrick Bell uses semifictional means to suggest that legislation and judicial decisions seeming to advance civil-rights causes, including school desegregation, have primarily benefited white society. Mr. Bell, a professor at Harvard Law School and civil-rights activist, unfolds his argument through a series of debates between the author and his fictional heroine, Geneva Crenshaw. In the following exchange, they discuss education and economic status.

"I thought our real problem [the problem facing blacks] was education, Geneva."

"Nonsense. If that were so, you and I would not encounter the discrimination we and even the best educated of us continue to experience. And statistics would not continue to report that, on average, white high-school dropouts earn more than blacks who have finished high school, white high-school grads earn more than blacks who have finished college, and so on, and on."

"Are you suggesting that the attainment of 'equal educational opportunity' must await a time when we are at least moving in the direction of 'equal economic opportunity'?"

"In a country where individual rights were created to protect wealth, we simply must find a means to prime the economic pump for black people, particularly those of us living at the poverty level."

"That statement," I warned, "will win you several awards from conservative groups who oppose further 'benefits' for blacks and urge that they roll up their sleeves and make it the way immigrants from Europe did several generations ago--and the way some Hispanic and Asian groups seem to be doing today."

"I don't care who agrees with me," Geneva said militantly. "Those conservatives are right about the need for blacks to get into jobs and off welfare. ..."

Basic Books, 10 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 304 pp., $19.95 cloth.

The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and his coauthor Donaldo Macedo would redefine literacy to include an understanding of the reality denoted by language as well as of language itself. Consciousness of this connection, they contend in Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, is essential to the transformation of education systems and, ultimately, of social structure. As Mr. Freire puts it:

Nor could I reduce learning to read and write merely to learning words, syllables, or letters, a process of teaching in which the teacher fills the supposedly empty heads of learners with his or her words. On the contrary, the student is the subject of the process of learning to read and write as an act of knowing and of creating. The fact that he or she needs the teacher's help, as in any pedagogical situation, does not mean that the teacher's help nullifies the student's creativity and responsibility for constructing his or her own written language and for reading this language. ...

When, for instance, a teacher and a learner pick up an object in their hands, as I do now, they both feel the object, perceive the felt object, and are capable of expressing verbally what the felt and perceived object is. ... Learning to read and write means creating and assembling a written expression for what can be said orally. ... Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.

Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc., 670 Amherst Rd., South Hadley, Mass. 01075; 184 pp., $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

In place of the common factory-production metaphor for the educational system, John I. Goodlad offers an ecological model in The Ecology of School Renewal, part 1 of the 86th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. The 12 essays in this collection, edited by Mr. Goodlad, study changes that must take place at each level of the "ecosystem" in order for renewal to occur. Mr. Goodlad writes:

In most chapters we have chosen to review the system of schooling as an ecological community functioning as a unit. The metaphors for change and improvement have to do, then, with health and sound functioning rather than with doing more things better or more efficiently. ... This ecological model for understanding, explaining, and improving our system of schooling differs sharply from the more familiar factory-production model of schooling.

For the latter, what goes on in 'the black box' of schooling is of instrumental interest only, that is, whether results in the form of achievement-test scores are produced. Get out coal as cheaply as possible; never mind the black-lung disease of the miners (which must await medical cures).

For the former, what goes on in the box is opened up to display its functioning. There are multiple outcomes that are both consequences of what goes on in the now open box and consequential to what goes on in the box. Good news to the production-oriented evaluator may be bad news--indeed, a sign of pathology--to the ecologically oriented evaluator.

University of Chicago Press, 5801 South Ellis Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60637; 235 pp., $23.00 cloth.

Vol. 07, Issue 02

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