In the Press

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

"I can muster little enthusiasm for basal readers, those homogenized and bowdlerized grade-school texts, edited according to readability formulas and syllable schemes, that constitute the bulk of the average child's officially sanctioned reading material in American schools," comments Ms. Ohanian, a senior editor of Learning87 and a former teacher.

"Basal readers can be criticized on a lot of grounds," she continues. "Their worst fault, I think, is that for no good reason they squeeze the juice out of some very fine tales."

While acknowledging that textbook publishers face pressures from educators, parents, and a wide range of interest groups, she notes that many changes seem to make little sense. By comparing original stories with the versions that appeared in basal readers, she found that publishers changed "Cook spaghetti!" to "Cook pancakes!"; "The sea is our enemy" became "The sea is not our friend"; and "Rubbish!" was translated as "Why?"

"Taken together," she writes, these changes "suggest a preternatural disposition to tinker, which in turn perhaps reinforces a parallel disposition to cut and trim and simplify, to tame and domesticate what is powerful, florid, and wild in the way good writers use language."

Ms. Ohanian notes that she never used basal texts, so that her students were exposed to, and copied, the "ruffles and flourishes" in good writing. "It is these, in the end, that keep us reading books," she concludes.

Research into how children learn new words suggests that a computer program providing information about words in their context may be an effective way to teach vocabulary, George A. Miller and Patricia M. Gildea report in the September issue of Scientific American.

Mr. Miller, the James S. McDonnell Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, and Ms. Gildea, assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, note that the average child learns about 5,000 words per year, or about 13 per day, until he graduates from high school at age 17. Since teachers seldom teach students 13 new words a day, children must learn them on their own, the authors write.

"Children learn words at school in the same way as they do at home: by observing how the words are used in intelligible contexts ...," write the researchers. "Both public opinion and scientific evidence are converging on the view that the best way to facilitate vocabulary growth in schoolchildren is to have them read as much as possible."

But reading is insufficient to teach vocabulary, contend the authors, since children encounter too many unfamiliar words in books. While dictionaries can help students understand these words, students find use

of this resource time-consuming and, at times, confusing. Another possible solution, the use of human tutors to help resolve lexical misunderstandings, is impractical.

"Given the shortage of attentive tutors to sit at every young reader's elbow, it is natural to wonder how much of the tutoring task might be carried out by a suitably programmed computer," the authors conclude. Such a computer could answer questions about all the words in a passage and explain the words' meanings in the proper context, they note.

Recent objections to the public-school curriculum by conservative Christian parents should be taken seriously by education officials, argues Charles L. Glenn in the summer issue of The Public Interest.

Mr. Glenn, director of civil rights and urban programs for the Massachusetts education department,

summarizes the implications of the lawsuits brought by parents in Mobile, Ala., and Hawkins County, Tenn., objecting to school textbooks they said offended their religious beliefs and promoted a religion of "secular humanism."

"Unfortunately, we have set ourselves an impossible task in seeking to provide a single model of education that is to be at once capable of nurturing character and civic virtue and yet inoffensive to the convictions of any parent," Mr. Glenn writes.

"We might congratulate ourselves--as did attorneys for the Hawkins County School Board--on the fact that parents who object can always have recourse to private schools," he continues, "but this is tantamount to making the exercise of conscience and parental rights contingent upon the ability to afford a private education. Surely that is unfair!"

The only solution, he says, is an expansion of choice in public education, which would enable parents to place their children in "schools that correspond to their own convictions."

At the same time, public schools should implement a more comprehensive curriculum that is fair to religiously conservative parents "in a way that adds, rather than subtracts, that makes the curriculum more flavorful rather than more bland," Mr. Glenn writes.

As long as education officials are convinced that curricular changes can and should be made, Mr. Glenn says, textbook publishers will follow.

While the national media have emphasized the "bad news" when examining the institution of the black family, at the same time "there is good news, and black families need to hear it," says writer Robert B. Hill in a special issue of American Visions magazine devoted to the black family.

Among the news items that are too "goody-goody" to have received major

attention, he writes, are:

"The proportion of black youths going to college has doubled since the 1960's."

"Four out of five black teenagers are not having children out of wedlock."

"Three out of four black families do not get income from welfare, and of those who do, seven out of 10 are on welfare only for short periods."

Although external trends sweeping the country could affect black family life in negative ways, Mr. Hill comments, they also must be assessed for their possible positive impacts.

For instance, he writes, demographic trends showing that blacks will constitute an increasingly large share of the national population "should mean more opportunities for educational and job advancement." While blacks are often hardest hit in times of economic recession, he continues, "if we can look forward to sustained economic growth, then we can expect the negative data to drop and the positive signs of family well-being to trend upward."

"If blacks mount a serious campaign to educate their young people for the job market of the future--and there are signs

that this is happening--then they will be equipped to compete effectively for the better, though scarcer, jobs of the new technological era," he writes.

"Traditional strategies--turning to the extended family, to education, to church, to work, and to supportive neighborhood groups--will continue to work" for blacks, Mr. Hill concludes. "But signs on the horizon tell us that these efforts, singular and collective, will be reinforced by those of a new generation of responsible black community leaders blessed with vision and success."

The "unprecedented, increasingly improper, and deceptive campaign" on behalf of Judge Robert H. Bork for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court "is beginning to provide some measure of the degree to which Americans ought to be frightened by that nomination," argues Renata Adler in an essay in the Sept. 14 & 21 issue of The New Republic.

According to Ms. Adler, a writer for The New Yorker, the federal appellate judge's supporters are "marketing" him to the public in Madison Avenue fashion.

"Every few days," she writes, "the Bork lobby manages to plant ... some story to the effect that, contrary to his record of more than 20 years, Bork is now, or has ever been, a 'centrist,' or a 'moderate,' or 'open-minded,' or anywhere near the mainstream of constitutional adjudication ... that Bork himself has repeatedly and stridently denounced as 'lawless,' 'unprincipled,' 'improper,' and 'deficient' in 'candor,' 'logic,' and 'legitimacy."'

"The resulting stories now unhesitatingly characterize as 'liberal' anyone who happens to oppose Bork's nomination," Ms. Adler continues. "[T]hey also promote an image of the nominee, contradicted surprisingly but absolutely by his published work, as a respecter of 'original intent' and an advocate or a practitioner of 'judicial restraint."'

In a separate section of the essay, Ms. Adler notes two "remarkable'' omissions by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in his recent book, The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is.

First, she points out, in his discussion of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Chief Justice fails to note that, as a clerk to Justice Robert Jackson in 1952, he wrote a controversial memorandum on the case supporting the doctrine of "separate but equal" treatment for racial minorities.

Second, Ms. Adler says it is "astounding" that Chief Justice Rehnquist has left out of the book "virtually all the major lines of cases'' beginning in the 1930's "in which the Court has upheld an individual or minority right against the state."

"The result is that the book, far from a bland civics lesson, turns out to be a work of disinformation," she concludes.

In the same issue of The New Republic, the syndicated columnist Max Lerner offers an assessment of Judge Bork that differs considerably from Ms. Adler's. Mr. Lerner traces Mr. Bork's intellectual development and supports his confirmation.

Comparing Judge Bork to Justice

Hugo Black, Mr. Lerner writes that "their legal acumen and constitutional grasp put them in the same class as strongly innovative thinkers, who started young."

He notes the crucial influence of Alexander Bickel, who taught with Mr. Bork at Yale, on the thinking of the controversial Supreme Court nominee.

Warning against what he calls the "Chicken Little polemics" he believes will "doubtless saturate the hearings," Mr. Lerner contends that the "dynamism of change in our time precludes the chain of imaginary Orwellian horrors that Senator Edward Kennedy conjures up when discussing the Bork nomination."

In Mr. Lerner's view, not social concerns but the "current revolutions" in "information, communication, biotechnics, money markets, and corporate takeovers," along with "new questions of property and regulation," will "engage" Mr. Bork as a Supreme Court justice.

"If the Democratic Senate is prudent," Mr. Lerner writes, "it will not politicize and polarize the process of confirming judges."

Beyond endangering the judicial choices of future Democratic presidents, he says, such a politicization would "rub away some of the great symbolic power of the Constitution."

"Many of the young today," Mr. Lerner concludes, have "the same intellectual hungers that Bork had, waiting for the chance to make constitutional law a

grand enterprise without making it an imperialist one."

In a Sept. 13 special issue devoted to the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, The New York Times Magazine carried an eight-page photo essay on Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court stemming from the censorship of a student newspaper in suburban St. Louis.

The suit has its roots in a decision by Robert E. Reynolds, the principal of Hazelwood East High School, to bar the publication of a two-page report on divorce and teen-age pregnancy in the May 1983 issue of the school's newspaper. A federal district judge upheld the constitutionality of that decision, but a federal appeals court reversed his judgment in July 1986. The essay includes photos of the student journalists who filed the suit, the Hazelwood school board, and the judges and lawyers involved in the suit. The Supreme Court will hear the case Oct. 13.

At age 9, Celeste Carrion is not unlike other children her age. She has a taste for cheeseburgers, she goes to school, and she likes Masters of the Universe and Bon Jovi. The difference is that Celeste, the subject of a recent cover story in Newsweek, is one of more than 563 American children with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The Sept. 7 article tells the story of Celeste and her 5-year-old brother, Eddie, who is also infected with the aids virus. Like many young aids victims, Celeste and Eddie contracted the virus

from a drug-abusing mother. Their mother died in 1983. Their father--also an addict--is terminally ill with the disease.

"I know a woman who has 15 children, and they are all addicts, all addicts," says Toy Santiago, the maternal grandmother who cares for Celeste, Eddie, and four other children in her Bronx apartment. "I would like people to open their eyes and see what their children are doing." Through Ms. Santiago's eyes, the article describes the weekly gamma-globulin treatments the children must undergo and the pain and ostracism the family has endured because of the disease.

Accompanying articles describe the therapies used in treating pediatric aids and the reception that other children with the disease meet when, like Celeste, they live long enough to attend school.

Aids is also the focus of a provocative article published this month in The Atlantic. "Aids and Insects" by Katie Leishman is a comprehensive exploration of fiercely disputed theories that some insects could play a role in transmitting the aids virus to humans.

While emphasizing that speculation about such transmission is unsupported by research to date, Ms. Leishman , a writer and editor who has written extensively on the disease for the magazine, suggests that mainstream medical science may have been hasty in ruling out such a possibility.

"Who's to say," she concludes, "that a question that often goes disregarded isn't one that holds an answer everyone is looking for?"

Vol. 07, Issue 04

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories