Books: Readings

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In What Johnny Shouldn't Read, Joan DelFattore, a writer and University of Delaware English professor, uses case studies to drive home the point that mounting pressure from special-interest groups is altering the content of school textbooks. The excerpt below gives an indication of how that pressure works to produce self-censorship by publishers:

The power of the California [textbook]adoption process is obvious from the textbook changes that come out of it, but its effect is even greater than it appears because of decisions publishers themselves make in an effort to avoid unfavorable reviews. The treatment of Patricia Zettner's short story "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream'' is a good example.

The story originally appeared in Seventeen magazine, and two textbook publishers arranged to reprint it in junior high school literature anthologies. Because of California's junk-food rule [a 1970's measure discouraging the portrayal of foods with low nutritive value], the publishers deleted references to chili burgers, pizza, and ice cream, and changed the title to "A Perfect Day.'' They also removed the expression "kamikaze ball,'' an argument between siblings, and a reference to Gloria Steinem.

When Ms. Zettner asked for an explanation of the changes, she was told that they had been made in anticipation of California complaints about junk food and ethnic stereotyping and Texas protests about family conflict and feminism. "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream'' had never been anthologized before, so no one in either state had raised any objections to it. The publishers were self-censoring their own material to avoid tangling with review committees and textbook protesters in powerful states.

The public rarely learns about pre-submission changes made by the publishers themselves, and that ignorance makes it very difficult to assess the real impact of the state adoption process on textbook content.

From What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America; by Joan DelFattore. Copyright 1992 by Yale University. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.

William Kilpatrick teaches courses on human development and moral education at Boston College and has become a frequent lecturer on those topics to parent groups. In Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, he makes a strong case for placing "character education'' at the heart of school reform. The passage below shows what schools might learn from the modern military in this endeavor:

What the military has that so many schools do not is an ethos of pride, loyalty, and discipline. It is called esprit de corps. The dictionary defines it as "a spirit of devotion and enthusiasm among members of a group for one another, their group, and its purposes.'' That spirit has not always been high, but after the Vietnam War, a concerted effort was made to reshape the military ethos--apparently with great success. So much so that the armed forces actually outshine the schools in doing things the schools are supposed to do best, such as teaching math, science, technological skills, history, languages, geography, and map reading.

Even in the matter of racial equality--something about which educators talk incessantly--the military has shown far more success. In fact, the armed services are the most thoroughly integrated institutions in our society: Promotions are on the basis of merit, black officers can dress down white soldiers, there is a spirit of camaraderie and mutual respect among the races that extends well beyond tolerance. Schools, by contrast, are rife with racial tension, hostility, and self-segregation. ...

How does the military manage to create such a strong ethos?

First, by conveying a vision of high purpose: not only the defense of one's own or other nations against unjust aggression, but also the provision of humanitarian relief and reconstruction in the wake of war or natural disaster (the classic case being the role played by the American military in rebuilding war-torn Europe and Japan). Second, by creating a sense of pride and specialness (the Marines want only "a few good men'')--pride reinforced by a knowledge of unit tradition, by high expectations, and by rituals, dress codes, and behavior codes. Third, by providing the kind of rigorous training--physical, mental, and technical--that results in real achievement and thus in real self-esteem. Fourth, by being a hierarchial, authoritarian, and undemocratic institution which believes in its mission and is unapologetic about its training programs.

Schools can learn a lot from the Army. That doesn't mean they need to become military schools--although, of course, there are many successful military schools. But there are enough important similarities between the two institutions to suggest that there are lessons to be learned. Both, after all, work with the same "raw material''--young men and women--and both seek to give their recruits knowledge, skills, and habits they previously lacked.

From Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong: Moral Illiteracy and the Case for Character Education, by William Kilpatrick. Copyright 1992 by William Kilpatrick. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.

Vol. 12, Issue 07

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