Books: Readings

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In National Service: Pro & Con, the Hoover Institution Press has assembled essays from 17 scholars and public officials that assess policy options and reflect the divergent viewpoints on this very topical issue. The following is from an essay by Benjamin R. Barber, Walt Whitman professor of political science at Rugters University, who identifies civic duty as "an entailment of civil right":

For all the welcome interest in the idea of service today in the United States, little can be expected from it unless it inspires a renewed interest in civic education and citizenship.

Simply to enlist volunteers to serve others less fortunate or those at risk (we are all at risk) or to conscript young people to do some form of national service in the name of improving their moral character or forcing them to repay the debt they owe their country (the language of market contracts applied to politics and the public good) will do little to reconstruct citizenship or shore up democracy.

Rather, it sells short the growing desire to do service, for that desire carries within it a longing for community, a need to honor what the sociologist Robert Bellah (following Tocqueville) identifies as the "habits of the heart," nurtured by membership in communal associations.

This need must be met by healthy democratic forms of community in a democracy or it will breed unhealthy and antidemocratic forms: gangs, secret societies, conspiratorial political groups, hierarchical clubs, and exclusive communities. Participatory democratic communities permit an identification with others that is compatible with individual liberty.

Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 94305-6010; 269 pp., $14.95 paper.

Marvin Cetron, a widely known analyst of social and economic trends, has collaborated with a former teacher and school administrator, Margaret Gayle, to produce Educational Renaissance: Our Schools at the Turn of the 21st Century. The book includes an introduction by Bill Honig and appendices giving data on 75 educational trends and educational and demographic profiles of the 50 states.

The authors' optimistic assessment of the current climate is tempered in the following excerpt by an appreciation for how lowered standards sometimes come to be:

The belief in the inevitability of failure is one factor that has diluted educational standards in almost every school district in the country, and most of all those of our inner cities. Where students once were expected to master algebra before high-school graduation, in too many regions it is now enough for them to add and subtract with indifferent accuracy. Where they once would have mastered English grammar, it is now enough that they be able to make themselves approximately understood in conversation.

If students cannot master the material, the reasoning goes, ask less of them; that way you avoid traumatizing them with failure--and escape blame for your own failure to teach. That this reasoning has been thoroughly discredited has done little to make it less popular.

There is no excuse for this loss of rigor. We have ample proof that American students from all socioeconomic strata can learn just as consistently as Japanese students. We find it in the work of Mortimer Adler, whose Paideia curriculum, based on the classics, has proved entirely "learnable" by the vast majority of students from virtually all ethnic and so8cioecomomic backgrounds.

We see it too in the record of East Harlem's Central Park East school complex, were children from one of the poorest, most disadvantaged sections of New York City are receiving an education equal to those available in most private schools, and achieving comparable rates of success. If their students can learn, there is no excuse to doubt that others can do so as well.

The one reality that teachers everywhere must accept if we are to make any great progress in educational reform is that few students who fail do so because they lack the ability to learn; they fail because teachers fail to teach them.

That leads to an obvious corollary: Teachers must stop viewing students as statistics, and education as a game of musical chairs in which the slow inevitably lose out.

St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10010; 352 pp., $21.95 cloth.

The author Frank Smith has a doctorate in psycholinguistics and 15 years' experience as a professor of education at two Canadian universities. In To Think he examines with wit and linguistic precision the complex enterprise at the heart of all learning. Some of his insights may that run counter to fashionable theory on teaching "critical-thinking skills," as he notes in this vignette:

When I was invited to speak to a meeting of school administrators about some of the topics in this book, a very upset superintendent challenged me. He said that "another expert" had been in the district a couple of weeks earlier, and had taken quite a different position on thinking.

"He said one thing and you say another," said the superintendent. ''How do you account for that?"

I suggested that at least one of us must be wrong.

He seemed taken aback by that possibility. "Then how do I find out who's right?" he asked.

His dilemma is obvious. He cannot ask experts to decide among themselves and he cannot go to someone else for a judgment, because there is no guarantee that any expert is right.

It is ironic that an experienced and academically highly qualified leader of a school system, sincerely dedicated to helping his students ''think better," should feel unable to think about the topic of thinking himself.

I suggested that he take his question back into his schools and discuss it with the teachers and students, not to find an "answer" but to accomplish what he wanted to achieve. He nodded his head. He may have been dissatisfied--but he was thinking.

Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027; 181 pp., $16.95 paper.

Are entrepreneurs born or can they be created? That is the central question running through Entrepreneurship Education: Current Developments, Future Directions. And the book's 15 contributors answer that the entrepreneurial spirit can be stimulated--or thwarted--by experiences in school. Marilyn Kourilsky, dean of teacher education at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggests in the following excerpt that precollegiate education may be structured to stifle:

By its very nature and structure, the traditional K-12 experience does not foster entrepreneurially creative traits. Whereas it is not the goal of schooling to develop an abundance of business entrepreneurs, one may still be curious why 25 percent of kindergartners demonstrate important entrepreneurial characteristics (need for achievement, willingness to take risks, and so forth), [while] only 3 percent of high-school youngsters manifest such talent (Kourilsky, 1977).

Why are those traits cultivated in so few children? We suggest that, first, the classroom as a society is analogous to a planned economy--it is almost a simulation of a command economy; and, second, convergence and not divergence is disproportionally rewarded in the school experience. ...

The unfortunate results of this imposed convergence are typified by the following incident, observed through a two-way mirror while a boy was being tested for a gifted program. As the 5-year-old entered the room and interacted initially with the tester, all his observations and responses literally reeked of his intelligence. Subsequently, one of the questions given to the child was, "There is a stamped envelope on the ground right by the mailbox that is addressed and has a return address on it. What would you do with it?"

The expected response is, "Pick it up and put it in the mailbox." However, the child said, "I'm going to give it back to the sender because since the sender dropped it, I think there is a chance he might not want to send it now."

The tester would not accept this very rational but unexpected response, and kept on prompting him. The child kept on saying he was going to give it back to the sender. Eventually, he got a zero on the question. Suddenly, I was painfully aware that this child's iq score had just gone down. If that child wants to be "successful," he must give up that kind of divergent response. Sooner or later he is going to be "smart" enough to give the kind of response the teacher or tester wants.

Quorum Books, P.O. Box 5007, Westport, Conn. 06881; 296 pp., $45 cloth.

Vol. 10, Issue 18

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