Books: Readings

January 29, 1992 7 min read

The ability to create an effective interplay between oneself and a classroom of students is often the crucial factor in a teacher’s success, according to David Kobrin, a 20-year teaching veteran currently professor of education at Brown University.

In the excerpt below, he truces the roots of the strong rapport his fictional Hilary Coles, a neophyte English instructor, is building with her students. It is, he says, a brand of management that blends the intimate and the objective:

The classroom management intimacy analogy can be helpful because it emphasizes the personal and complicated nature of being the leader of a small community, whether it is Hilary or other teachers in their classrooms. It calls attention to a variety of crucial, usually sub rosa factors: that teachers and students in the same situation may interpret the issue differently; that classroom dynamics and a student’s role in those dynamics can be the underlying issue; and that feelings, unavoidable feelings, play a role in decision making.

But there is a definite limit to the usefulness of the analogy. Clearly, Hilary and her students are not and should not be in anything like the kind of intimate relationship typical of couples. Teachers like and enjoy their students. They may even have strong feelings about them. Hilary certainly does. But a teacher’s students, even those she likes a lot, are not just like friends. Hilary knows that she stands in a different relationship to her students than to other people. She can inform an insensitive friend she doesn’t want to see him anymore and move on to greener pastures; but in the classroom even rude and insensitive students are part of her clientele.

How would Hilary feel if, while talking to her, a friend suddenly pulled out a book and started reading, as Maria did, and excused herself by saying it’s a good book? Or if, like Arthur and Lee, two acquaintances began a side conversation of their own, passing notes to “talk”? Teachers control and discipline their responses. The question for Hilary is not what she’s feeling, but what does it mean to be in charge? That’s what she’s working on while she’s teaching. Her thoughts are continually on her students’ learning needs, not on herself.

From In There With The Kids, by David Kobrin. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 Park St., Boston, Mass. 02108; 256 pp., $19.95 cloth. Copyright (C) 1992 by David Kobrin.

The sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb writes that “we have rapidly replaced cynicism as a critical sense, a form of ironic satire, with a mocking cynicism that does little to upset the status quo.” His new book, The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture, underscores this message with examples of the growth of cynicism regarding various institutions of American life, including the schools.

In the following passage, he be moans the ascendancy in education of a “buck to basics” mentality that stresses testable skills, often to the exclusion, he says, of the requirements for true learning:

To a frightening degree, what is taught in schools under the influence of the present reform movement is not basic education but techniques in test-taking, and only the able benefit. Two very primitive means are used to increase test scores. The most crude (and cynical) is simply to expel or not promote the so called unteachable. They then do not weigh down the aggregate school scores, and miraculously the scores improve. This is the favorite approach of the inner city schools. We might call it the Joe Clark technique of educational cynicism.

The less crude approach, more prevalent but also cynical, is to develop teaching programs which have as their end improved test scores rather than education. Children are taught reading skills with multiple choice reading-comprehension examinations in mind. They are taught mathematics with multiple-choice tests as the end, and likewise for science, literature, history, and the arts. A clear indication that it is test success and not learned abilities and knowledge that is the goal is the prevalent practice-testing that usually precedes the administration of the “real tests.”

Schools spend a lot of time in coaching their students before they take big exams. Teachers know their jobs are on the line. If their students do well on the “real tests” (that “count”), the teachers will be deemed successful. If their students do poorly, they could be out of work. A part of the back-to-basics movement is to make teachers so accountable. The same goes for school administrators, from the school principals to the members of the boards of education. The pressure is on, but it is not clear it has much to do with real education. Students know it does not. It is about grades, as in good grades, good college, good job.

In this configuration, there is little room for the love of learning, knowledge, and creativity. The irony is, as well, that the configuration is not true. Educators in universities and employers in the so called real world know that illiteracy is rampant, even among those with good grades.

As one generation of students passes uneducated or at least undereducated because of societal neglect (in the 1970’s, those now concerned about education were engaged in the tax revolt), another generation is passing through our schools undereducated because of a societal self-deceit.

People think they are addressing the educational crisis, when they are in fact deepening it. Cynicism and the structure of mass society are getting in the way of democratic education.

From The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life, by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb. The University of Chicago Press, 5801 Ellis Ave., Chicago, 111. 60637; 200 pp., $22.50 cloth. Copyright (C) 1991 by The University of Chicago.

American society’s late-20thcentury identity crisis is the subject addressed in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Not since the Civil War, argues James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia professor of sociology and religious studies, has there been such fundamental disagreement over basic assumptions about truth, freedom, and our national identity. He studies the clash of opposing ideological camps in such areas as the family, art, education, law, and politics.

Often, he finds ironical shifts in alliances over time, as shown in the excerpt below, which compares today’s private-school-voucher dispute to the “school question” of a century ago: whether a Protestant-dominated public school system would let public funds subsidize religious schools for Roman Catholic immigrants:

If education is a symbolic territory over which opposing sides compete for advantage, the terrain is vast and perhaps it is impossible to gain a sense of direction for the whole battle. An observation about the battles at the lower levels, however, may offer a useful insight.

The observation begins with a short trail of historical ironies. Once the defenders of the public school establishment against the pope’s authority in Rome, Evangelical Protestants (the most prominent faction among the orthodox alliance) have not only adopted the policy positions of their 19th-century Catholic adversaries, they also work in collaboration with their traditional Catholic adversaries in the effort to de-monopolize, and thereby weaken the power of, the public-school establishment.

For their part, progressivist voices on the contemporary scene defend their own cultural advantage in education in virtually the same manner as the Evangelical Protestants did in the 19th century: by appealing to public order and community good.

The latter point is nicely illustrated in ... a speech delivered in 1888 [by] one of the pioneers of public education on the western frontier, Reverend George Atkinson. [In it, he] linked the instruction of students in the “principles of rectitude” outlined in the Decalogue, Proverbs, and the aphorisms and parables of Jesus to the requirements of citizenship and national interest. This was the defense of the Protestant establishment.

“if it be objected,” he argued, “that this will infringe the rights of conscience, the answer can be made, that no right of personal conscience is so sacred as the right of self-preservation of a body politic.”

Nearly a century later, the National Education Association likewise linked its opposition to government support for alternative education to the “transcendent purpose of public schooling-promoting the common good.” A similar appeal to the common good--or to the preservation of the body politic--could just as well be (and often is) made by the defenders of the modern secular university. Such are the arguments of a contested and sometimes nervous hegemony.

From Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. Basic Books, 10 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 416 pp., $25 cloth. Copyright (C) 1991 by Basic Books, Inc.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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