SUMMERHILL SCHOOL: A New View of Childhood, by A.S. Neill; edited by Albert Lamb. (St. Martin’s Press, $21.95.) Neill’s famous Summerhill, now expanded and republished some 33 years since it first appeared and 20 years after the author’s death, still gives the reader a jolt. For if what he says is true—if one simply needed to stand by and observe “what children were and did when left to themselves”—then both teachers and teaching are almost superfluous. Indeed, Neill says as much when he writes, “We have no new methods of teaching because we do not consider that teaching in itself matters very much.” What does matter is the happiness of the child, which can be achieved only by providing him or her with freedom: freedom to vote on critical school issues, freedom to play indefinitely, and freedom to skip lessons—sometimes for years at a time. Underlying this philosophy is Neill’s insistence on the essential goodness of children; over time, they’ll come to use their freedom constructively, turning to create work once they have had their fill of play. Of his own Summerhill students, Neill claims that only one became an adult who could not hold a steady job. Skeptics, though, may wonder why so many “free” schools modeled after Neill’s have failed even as Summerhill has continued to endure. The answer, perhaps, can be found in the distinction Neill made between freedom and license; one can provide the former without granting the latter. In fact, in a truly democratic school—as Neill felt all schools should be—students must be held accountable for their actions, and wrongdoing punished by a voting body of both children and adults. Still, Summerhill SchoolM is unlikely to persuade many contemporary readers. Perhaps at a time when we are concerned with academic backsliding and keeping up with the Japanese, it is no longer possible to agree with an author who believes “a child’s emotions are infinitely more important than his intellectual progress.” But this new edition, at the very least, reminds us that we must respect students as children before we can teach them as pupils.
MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES: The Theory in Practice, by Howard Gardner. (Basic Books, $30.) Few scientists are likely to have more impact on how educators conceive of intelligence than Harvard University’s Howard Gardner. Trained as a developmental psychologist, Gardner in the late ‘70s attacked IQ tests, not so much because they were culturally biased but because they measured only two components of intelligence: the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), on the other hand, suggests that there are seven intelligences, each as vital as the other. These are, in addition to the two above, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences— the last two relating to the ability to understand others and oneself. The key point to make about these intelligences is that each one may work independently of the others; an engineer, for example, may have significant spatial intelligence but little linguistic intelligence. The educational implications of MI are great, as outlined in this collection of articles by Gardner and his colleagues. It calls into question, for one thing, the current emphasis on critical thinking, since the ability to think critically in, say, mathematics may have no correlation with the ability to think critically in English or history. Furthermore, MI demands that teachers radically alter ways of teaching and assessing. Because children’s abilities vary across the spectrum of intelligences, they must be taught in highly individualistic ways, often in an apprenticeship with someone outside of the school. And because Gardner defines intelligence as the ability “to solve problems and fashion products,” students’ work must be project-based rather than test-based; students may, for example, design storyboards to demonstrate their understanding of a narrative. While putting Gardner’s theory into practice isn’t easy—he cites the Key School in Indianapolis as an example of how it can be done—it seems worth the effort, as MI theory can help teachers identify children’s strengths that may never show up on standardized tests.
INSIDE AMERICAN EDUCATION: The Decline, the Deception, the Dogmas, by Thomas Sowell. (Free Press, $24.95.) In this book, Sowell gleefully bashes public schools for everything from moral relativism to nonexistent academic standards. He undermines his own case, though, by taking the most outrageous examples of foolishness and incompetence and making them seem like everyday affairs. It is hard to take seriously a writer fond of overstatements such as this: “Public schools do not have the degree of control maintained by totalitarian governments, but the targets of their brainwashing are younger and more vulnerable to milder versions of the same brainwashing techniques used under Stalin or Mao.” One can only wonder how often the author has gotten out of the Hoover Institution to visit actual schools.
Vol. 04, Issue 07, Page 37