November 21, 1990 9 min read

David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot, both of Stanford University, have compiled an exhaustive (and handsomely illustrated) history of coeducation in America--the first comprehensive look at how gender policies and practices have helped shape the public schools.

The underlying message of Learning Together, a book that offers provocative questions along with its wealth of detail, is that “Americans have made public education the repository of their hopes and anxieties about relationships between the sexes":

For over a century, many educators have regarded the coeducational classroom as not only organizationally and pedagogically efficient but also essential in realizing gender equality in a democratic society. John Dewey, for example, considered coeducation to be a laboratory of social democracy in which boys and girls could learn to participate in a common life by learning together in school.

“Steady, frank, effective, cooperation in the many interests men and women have in common,” he wrote, “upon whose successful realization all social advances depend, cannot be achieved without a sympathetic and practically instinctive understanding by each of the point of view and method of the other.”

Dewey dreamed that the coeducational school could become a microcosm and model of a future democratic and egalitarian gender order. What has happened to this hope?

Comparing gender practices in public schools with those in other institutions, Patricia Cayo Sexton states that “despite some conspicuous problems, females are probably treated in a more egalitarian way in schools than in other institutions, including religious, familial, economic, and political institutions.”

If it is true that the public school has been more gender-neutral than most other institutions--and we suspect that it is--it may not be wise to place too much of the burden for rectifying gender injustices in the larger society on the schools alone. Despite the American belief in the redemptive power of the public school, it is quite possible that adult institutions would continue to be highly gendered-stratified even if schools were to become sex-fair or gender-sensitive environments.

Improving education is one essential means of achieving gender equality, but sex equity in education must be combined with other stategies designed to correct the sex discrimination deeply imbedded in American political, economic, and social structures.

Yale University Press (co-published with the Russell Sage Foundation), 92A Yale Station, New Haven, Conn. 06520; 329 pp., $29.95 cloth.

The authors of Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience, suggest that it may be time for schools to teach critical viewing skills as as of gaining greater control over how the medium is used and abused.

Based on a review of 13 years of federally funded research, Robert Kubey of Rutgers University and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago have concluded that television has what they call a “passive spillover effect"--after watching it, people feel more passive, less alert, and have more difficulty concentrating.

They warn, in the following excerpt, of the bottom-line consequences of using TV mainly for escapism:

At one time or another, most of us have come home after a day of dealing with complex problems and dropped in front of the television, appreciatively receiving its attractive, easy-to-receive entertainment. Certainly it can be argued that using television in this manner habitually is no worse, and may indeed be better, than habitually using alcohol or other mood-altering substances.

Although this argument has merit, it is also true that television has become too important a part of daily life for us to ignore what happens during the time it is viewed. Just as a drug that masks pain but does not heal may be of limited value in the long run or may cause addiction, so can viewing encourage a false sense of well-being in some people who might be better off taking active steps to change the conditions of their “real” lives.

If one of the goals of life is to realize one’s latent potentialities--the ideal held, among others, by Aristotle, the Christian Thomists, as well as by Marx and most modern psychologists--then the prolonged and indiscriminate viewing of television is likely to present an obstacle in achieving that purpose.

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., Publishers, Suite 102, 365 Broadway, Hilldale, N.J. 07642; 287 pp., $39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

For Alvin Kernan, emeritus professor of the humanities at Princeton University, the shift from a print-based to an electronics-based society, with all that implies for the processing and perception of information, has been one factor leading to The Death of Literature.

His book covers some of the terrain explored by E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, but adds specific insights into why the printed word’s 500-year hold on perceptions of “truth” is coming to an end. Included is a critique of new-age literary criticism.

In the following excerpt, he traces the essential differences between visual and written communication:

Looking backward, it can be seen that literature and print both embodied in their related ways the assumptions of an earlier humanism about such matters as truth, imagination, language, and history. Television, however, is not just a new way of doing old things but a radically different way of seeing and interpreting the world. Visual images not words, simple open meanings not complex and hidden, transience not permanence, episodes not structures, theater not truth.

Literature’s ability to coexist with television, which many take for granted, seems less likely when we consider that as readers turn into viewers, as the skill of reading diminishes, and as the world as seen through a television screen feels and looks more pictorial and immediate, belief in a word-based literature will inevitably diminish.

Yale University Press, 92A Yale Station, New Haven, Conn. 06520; 230 pp., $22.50 cloth.

In a book funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and based on several national surveys, Nicholas Zill, a social psychologist, and Marianne Winglee, a statistical analyst, give some generally depressing news about the reading habits of Americans.

Who Reads Literature?: The Future of the United States as a Nation of Readers shows that, while literacy itself may be a problem in this country, the fact that those who can read, don’t may be an equally serious dilemma requiring, the authors suggest, aggressive methods of promoting reading as an attractive pastime:

Looking at the empty rather than the full portion of the glass, it is striking how many adults there are in the American public who can read, are reasonably well educated, and have been exposed to at least some literature in the course of their schooling, but who read nothing or virtually nothing in the way of fiction, poetry, or drama on even an occasional basis.

The 1985 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that at least 44 percent of the adult population had not read a single literary work in the course of a year. The majority of these people--62 percent--were high-school graduates, and one in five had some college education.

Similarly, the Book Industry Study Group study found that 42 percent of the adult population were non-book readers, in the sense that they had read newspapers or magazines, but not a single fiction or non-fiction book during the previous six months. Unfortunately, the non-book-reading segment of the population appears to be growing.

Seven Locks Press, P.O. Box 27, Cabin John, Md. 20818; 106 pp., $9.95 paper.

As schools and other institutions gear up for celebrations of the quincentenary in 1992 of the discovery of America, the character as well as the exploits of Christopher Columbus are coming under closer scrutiny.

cw-2 In The Conquest of Paradise, Kirkpatrick Sale reexamines the man and his deeds in an honest, sometimes unflattering, light. He lays out Columbus’s ruthlessness and vanity as well as his almost mythical status as a hero, noting, for example, that though the U.S. landscape is strewn with Columbus’s name, few Americans know anything about him (including, in the case of high-school students polled in a national survey, the date for his discovery of the New World).

The author explains, in the following excerpt, the persisting need through history for such larger-than-life figures to fire the imagination:

Every age, of course, casts the heroes it needs. Out of the turmoil, poverty, repression, misery, and bewilderment that continued to bedevil Europe in the 16th century much as it had in the 15th--in some cases with even greater ferocity and anguish--the nascent modern culture created for itself a man who symbolized for the dark soul the bright new world, that bourne of escape and hope, of treasure, space, freedom, and rebirth.

And as he effectively acquired symbolic life--interestingly, it would be as a symbol much more than as a real person that he persisted in history at least until the 19th century--he came in the mind of Europe to stand for the Explorer, the Discoverer, and the Hero, three parts of the same bet not necessarily the same thing at all.

Alfred A. Knopf, 201 East 50th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 453 pp., $24.95 cloth.

In what is billed as “the first study comparing the long-term effectiveness of voluntary-desegregation plans with magnet programs to mandatory-reassignment plans,” the Boston University political scientist Christine H. Rossell comes down clearly on the side of voluntary plans with incentives.

She backs her conclusions in The Carrot or the Stick for School Desegregation Policy: Magnet Schools or Forced Busing with information gleaned from an extensive survey of parents and school personnel in 119 school districts.

The magnet plans studied, Ms. Rossell makes clear, are qualitaly different from the old freedom-of-choice plans implemented in the South and the majority-to-minority plans implemented in the North in the 1950’s and 60’s. Still, her findings contradict three decades of research in the field. In the following excerpt, she attempts to explain why:

The voluntary plans with magnet schools produce more desegregation than the mandatory plans in part because the latter are viewed as an illegitimate use of government power to force social equality. For this and other reasons, half of the whites who are reassigned to black schools under such plans will not comply.

On the other hand, almost all white Americans support the principle of integration and thus a substantial proportion is willing to enroll its children in integrated schools when those schools have “earned” it. The superior resources in magnet schools and the innovative curricula “earn” the participation of whites.

As a result of these attitudes, the public choice model is now more effective than the command and control model. It is more efficient to try to change the behavior of citizens by restructuring the range of alternatives to choose from and encouraging socially desirable behavior through positive and negative incentives than it is to order the desegregation assignment of specific students to specific schools.

Temple University Press, Broad and Oxford Streets, Philadelphia, Pa. 19122; 258 pp., $39.95 cloth.

A version of this article appeared in the November 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Books:Readings


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