Books: Readings

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Michael Shapiro has tracked the teaching careers of seven recent college graduates who enlisted in Teach For America, the maverick teaching program that places young graduates,often from exclusive private schools, in inner-city and rural public schools. In Who Will Teach for America?--the hard-text companion to a PBS documentary on the topic--he tells their story.

An author and Columbia University professor of journalism, Mr. Shapiro sees the strengths and shortcomings of the T.F.A. program reflected in the experiences of the individual teachers he chronicles. Excerpted below is part of his assessment:

[I]s Teach For America the answer? Yes, and no. The success of Teach For America is rooted, in good measure, upon its speed. It has quickly succeeded in making teaching so attractive a choice--if only for two years--that five college graduates who might not have considered teaching are applying for every place in the program. So, too, has Teach For America succeeded in getting those people into the classroom, filling a chronic shortage in the nation's most beleaguered schools. It has quickly learned from its early mistakes--and is now providing the kinds of support, through mentors and outside counselors, that the first group of corps members lacked. That people who have many career choices are, if only temporarily, choosing teaching, cannot help but enhance the standing of the profession.

But there are dangers in Teach For America's success. There is a danger, first, not in the program but in the way it is perceived--in the idea that there exists, at least in part, an easy and inexpensive answer to the problems that beset American education. What the corps members learned, of course, is how inapplicable the word "easy'' is to any aspect of schooling. They learned how hard it is to control a group of students, to engage them and make them want to learn, while at the same time satisfying arbitrary bureaucratic demands. On a larger scale, they learned how difficult it is to reform a system that no longer serves to produce the best students, but which contents itself with a range of achievement from failure to mediocrity.

There is a danger, too, in thinking that the Teach For America formula for preparing teachers is widely applicable. It works because it insures a quick path to the classroom for people who are not necessarily inclined toward a year's internship, but who want students of their own now.

The corps members would, in all likelihood, have been better served by spending their first year in school assisting, and learning from, an experienced teacher, while taking courses on such subjects as how children learn and how best to teach them. But that is not going to happen with the people whom Teach For America is recruiting. Still, if the program's rapid, and subsequent on-the-job training did these new teachers, and their students few favors, neither did most schools of education.

Criticisms of its approach aside, Teach For America's successes, like the success of the Teacher Corps before it, speak of the possibilities of a streamlined, professional teacher-preparation program. You do not necessarily need four years to make a teacher. What has become ever more apparent is that what works is an approach similar to other professional-training programs, be it law, medicine, or journalism. The most innovative teacher education programs combine classroom internships with coursework--coursework that not only teaches theory but which explains and examines the real-life lessons of those classrooms.

To her credit, Wendy Kopp [Teach For America's founder] is looking beyond the immediate aims of her program to new ways of recruiting and training teachers. In an article in the Yale Law and Policy Review titled "Reforming Schools of Education Will Not Be Enough,'' she argued that school districts should be responsible for finding and preparing their own teachers. The cost of preparing these teachers would be the district's, which could either do the training itself or contract out the work. And like Teach For America, the districts should seek out the best people and not just assume that a person who has many career options would not be interested in teaching.

Who Will Teach for America? by Michael Shapiro. Copyright 1993 by Drew/Fairchild Inc. Reprinted with permission of Drew Fairchild Inc.

Known as "the philosopher of cyberspace'' to the policymakers who have attended his lectures and conferences, Michael Heim has much to say on the evolving relationship between humans and computers. He makes a stab at saying it in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. The book offers vivid illustration of how computer tools--word processors to data-base-search programs--have altered our thinking patterns and our perceptions of reality. In the following excerpt, however, Mr. Heim makes a plea for preserving, in this rapidly changing environment, the printed text.

If computers aid our searching minds, we must not abandon the books during our leisure time. The serendipitous search through books is necessary for knowledge and learning. Browsing often evokes daydreams and unsuspected connections; analogies and pertinent finds happen among the stacks of physically accessible pages. Although not as efficient as the Boolean search [via computer], library browsing enriches us in unpredicatble ways. Looking for something in a book library frequently leads to discoveries that overturn the questions we originally came to ask.

Book libraries hold unsystematic, unfiltered collections of human voices and thoughts. Libraries are repositories not so much of information as of the intuitions of countless authors. The books in libraries remain physical reminders of the individual voices of the authors, who often speak to us in ways that shock and disturb, in ways that break through our assumptions and preconceptions, in ways that calm and deepen. The word museum derives from the Greek word for the Muses, goddesses of dream, spontaneous creativity, and genial leisure. Libraries may be, in this strict sense, the last museums of the stored language, the last outposts of predigital intuition.

Today libraries are becoming information centers rather than places for musing. The Los Angeles County Public Library, the world's largest circulating library, receives more requests for information than requests for books. In 1989, one university in California opened the first library without books, a building for searching electronic texts. Books still remain a primary source, but they are rapidly becoming mere sources of information. A large volume of book sales doesn't necessarily prove that the book, with its special psychic framework, endures as such. Many books today gain attention as nonbooks linked to cinema, television, or audio recordings.

Searching through books was always more romance than busyness, more rumination than information. Information is by nature timebound. Supported by technological systems, information depends on revision and updating. When books become mere sources of information, they lose the atmosphere of contemplative leisure and timeless enjoyment. Old books then seem irrelevant, as they no longer pertain to current needs. One of the new breed of information publishers epitomizes this attitude in a pithy warning: "Any book more than two years old is of questionable value. Books more than four or five years old are a menace. OUT OF DATE = DANGEROUS.''

As book libraries turn into museums of alphabetic life, we should reclaim their original meaning. Museums are places for play, for playing with the muses that attract us, for dreams, intuitions, and enthusiasms. Information plugs us into the world of computerized productivity, but the open space of books balances our computer logic with the graces of intuition.

The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, by Michael Heim. Copyright 1993 by Michael Heim. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.

Vol. 13, Issue 09

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