Books: Culture Wars, Common Dreams, Passionate Teachers

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It would be a mistake to conclude that these mentors are a bunch of wild-eyed social activists. Rather, what came through clearly in the interviews was a quieter sense of confidence and commitment. The mentors knew the problems their students faced; they understood how to help the students overcome them; they believed they had the skills to assist the students; and they were committed to doing so.

And this brings us to the most unexpected finding of our interviews with the mentors. They each assisted their "mentees" in different ways. There was no one approach to their work and no general formula about the sequence of actions they took. The mentors' approaches could be classified as autobiographical--that is, the mentors sought to copy what had worked in their own lives and to avoid passing on what had not. ...

On the other hand, the mentors were exactly alike in another respect: Although they took different approaches and engaged in varied activities, they had similar ideas and shared common perspectives. For example, they thought biculturally. They felt that they could make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged people, and they were committed to doing so. They believed that education was the key to social mobility and that the American Dream was alive and well.

From Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College, by Arthur Levine and Jana Nidiffer (Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers).

In contrast to monocultural prescriptions for educational reform, we are proposing, as a fundamental catalyst for widespread educational renewal, the adoption on the broadest possible scale of long-distance teaching partnerships across cultures, intercultural networks of partnerships that--to the greatest extent feasible--seek to take advantage of accessible and culturally appropriate educational and communications technology. ...

Teachers and students participating in the learning networks we have observed are clearly not engaged in trivial pen-pal activities; rather, they are conducting significant intercultural learning projects, such as joint surveys on drug abuse, homelessness, and teenage pregnancy in two communities, sharing and analyzing their results, and eventually publishing their findings in their local school or hometown newspapers. By opening their classrooms and their minds to experiences from other cultures, they are not unwittingly turning their backs on their own. In fact, these students have become more aware of their own culture as a result of the contrast they have experienced with another.

From Brave New Schools, by Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers (St. Martin's Press).

The educationists' approach to self-esteem is ... based on an oddly narrow and naive view not only of motivation, but of what it means to be human. ... The child is absolved of guilt or shame, or at least any guilt that might affect his self-concept or his self-valuation. But he is also deprived of any reason for growth or change. Such courses do not encourage children to think in terms of goals they might wish to reach or things about themselves and others they might wish to improve.

Indeed, if you are absolutely and unconditionally satisfied with yourself regardless of what you do, why do anything? Why write books? Paint masterpieces? Build cathedrals? Launch enterprises? Perhaps men and women did push the limits of knowledge and human freedom and creative endeavor because they felt so good about themselves. But perhaps some of them did so precisely because they felt incomplete without the struggle. Perhaps some of them did not regard themselves as unconditionally wonderful without accomplishing something worthy of their ambitions. Who knows, for example, how many of the great novels or poems or masterpieces were written by people who had high self-esteem "no matter what they do"? ... Try to imagine The Trial written by a Franz Kafka who believed that he had "the right to feel good about himself exactly as he was." ...

From Dumbing Down Our Kids, by Charles Sykes (St. Martin's Press).

If there is little agreement on just how important schooling was in fostering social mobility, everyone agrees that public schools were perceived and used as a means of acculturating Irish and German immigrants. Before the development of large-scale parochial school systems after the Civil War, most Catholic children attended public schools, which tried to inculcate them with middle-class Protestant values. In some areas, such as St. Louis, public schools found it necessary politically to offer German-language instruction, but most immigrant students attended English-speaking classes. ...

Although the scholarly literature on the effects of schools on immigrants is mixed and inconclusive, my suspicion is that schools contributed to the limited occupational mobility of their students and helped to expose them to prevailing cultural norms. Nevertheless, this process of adjustment and partial assimilation was moderated by the local control of public schools, which allowed certain large immigrant groups--such as the Irish and Germans--to exercise some control over the education of their children, and was cut short by the Civil War. While free blacks migrating to the North gained some access to public schooling, the strong racial prejudice and discrimination against them probably meant that their newly acquired education had less of an economic value than that received by the children of either native-born whites or immigrants.

From Education, Society, and Economic Opportunity, by Maris A. Vinovskis et al. (Yale University Press).

How, then, is a teacher "passionate"?

You can be passionate about your field of knowledge: in love with the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the prose of Marcus Garvey; dazzled by the spiral of DNA or the swirl of van Gogh's cypresses. ...

You can be passionate about children: about the rate of violence experienced by young black males; about including children with disabilities in all regular school activities; about raising the low rate of high school completion by Latino children, about the insidious effects of sexism, racism, and social-class prejudice on the spirits of all children; about the neglect of "average" kids in schools where those at the "top" and "bottom" seem to get all the attention; about the decline of literacy in an age of instant electronic gratification; about the wealth of hidden talent that goes unnoticed in so many children.

To be avowedly passionate about at least some of these things sets one apart from those who approach each day in a fog of fatigue, ritual, routine, or resignation, or who come to work wrapped in a self-protective cocoon. The passion that accompanies our attention to subjects, issues, and children is not just something we offer our students. It is also a gift we grant ourselves: a way of honoring our life's work, our profession. It says: "I know why I am devoting this life I've got to these children."

From The Passionate Teacher: A Practical Guide, by Robert Fried (Beacon Press).

Every morning Rachel Ortiz's mother walked her to school. They walked past old brick row houses, some of them boarded up, condemned, or burned out. They avoided the corner where lost men stood around the porch of a dilapidated crack house. They walked with purpose and in the presence of Jehovah, talking about home, about church, about school. ... The Old West Side was once the locus of vibrant small businesses, professional offices, an art scene, and jazz clubs, but deindustrialization, fractious and discriminatory city politics, and middle-class flight--the forces devastating so many of our cities--have left the area poor and dangerous. ...

But once Rachel and the other children walked through the pitted metal doors of P.S. 117 and into the lobby, a different world opened up--and you were struck by it right away, felt it almost before your eyes could register the particulars: a feeling of warmth and invitation. The wall to one side of the lobby was an abstract mosaic of Duke Ellington's band, a geometric splash of African color: radiant diamonds, zigzagging swirls of triangles, bright saxophones, and drums. The wall to the other side had a row of photographs of Ellington and company, black-and-white, neatly spaced, precise. Straight ahead were some small ferns and bromeliads, an American flag, a glass case displaying the children's art, and a long sign in bold computer script announcing "Duke Ellington Is a School That Reads."

From Possible Lives, by Mike Rose (Houghton Mifflin Co.).

What I mean by the term socially toxic environment is that the social world of children, the social context in which they grow up, has become poisonous to their development. I offer this term as a parallel to the environmental movement's analysis regarding physical toxicity as a threat to human well-being and survival. ...

In the last 10 years, some places have improved the quality of their physical environment, as public and professional awareness has led to changes. In the matter of recognizing, understanding, and reversing social toxicity, however, we lag far behind. We don't have a direct social equivalent to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's landmark analysis of physical toxicity. ... [W]e still need to deal with the social equivalents of lead and smoke in the air, PCBs in the water, and pesticides in the food chain. They're easy enough to identify: violence, poverty and other economic pressures on parents and their children, disruption of relationships, nastiness, despair, depression, paranoia, alienation--all the things that demoralize families and communities. These are the forces in the land that pollute the environment of children and youth. These are the elements of social toxicity.

From Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment, by James Garbarino (Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers).

It is the identity obsessions, all of them, each fueling the others, that give the question of multiculturalism its charge and its venom. If multiculturalism were nothing more than an acknowledgment of certain facts about the different ways in which people live, whom they like, what languages they speak, there would still be practical controversies, but they need not have bunched up and ignited a culture war or an identity panic. Why shouldn't a population have bilingual schools, to ease their way through the difficult transition to English? It does no harm to the larger community to hire bilingual police or ambulance drivers to save the lives of Vietnamese or Dominican immigrants. It cannot but encourage the learning of American history as something more than a pageant if that history is more than a chronicle of selected great men. It cannot hurt parochial Americans' capacity to live more fully in the world to know that Western civilization, for all its achievements, is hardly alone.

From The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars, by Todd Gitlin (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co.).

We are far from having restored what George Orwell called "the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along." The history standards illustrate the problem. Although they have been widely condemned, there are 20,000 copies of them in circulation, put there at government expense; and in the early months of 1995, their influence could be seen in curricular proposals in a number of states. It is also important to pay attention to the claim of the standards developers that hundreds of academics and educators across the country helped in this project. The developers say this to demonstrate that their project is mainstream; but, in fact, it helps show how far many people in academia and education have drifted from the mainstream. There would not be great cause for concern if only a few people had been involved in developing a document in which the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, an important feminist text, is cited nine times and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address only once ... but when hundreds of people who have influence on the schools are involved, it makes clear how large the problem of politicized history is.

...[W]e are not the first society in which this has happened; and damaging as the consequences are for us, they have been far more destructive in other places, in the Soviet Union and in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, for example. Bad as it is when powerful groups within a democracy insist on fealty to their views, it is far worse when a totalitarian government forces its orthodoxy upon a population.

From Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense and What We Can Do About It, by Lynne V. Cheney (Simon & Schuster).

Vol. 15, Issue 10

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