RESPONSIVE SCHOOLS, RENEWED COMMUNITIES, by Clifford Cobb. (Institute for Contemporary Studies, $14.95.) The main problem with our schools, argues Clifford Cobb, executive director of the Institute for Educational Choice and a former public-school teacher, is that they have imperiously isolated themselves from community life. Instead of responding to the needs of parents and children, they answer primarily to the power of administrators and union officials. The ensuing scholastic weakness of our students is just one result; even worse is the schools’ institutional blandness. “The school,” Cobb writes, “is now a neutral value-free zone in which students function as individuals with little collective identity.” How should we remedy this? The answer, as the reader may have guessed, is with a voucher system in which parents may select any school of their choice—be it public, private, or religious. Of course, there is no guarantee that the school the parents choose will select their child, raising a host of questions. Just what will be the criteria for acceptance? Will rejected children be “warehoused” in the very worst schools? And how will parents, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, acquire essential information about the schools? It is to Cobb’s credit that he attempts to address each potential objection to a voucher system in painstaking detail. Yet all too often his argument seems to hinge on shaky assumptions, as when he suggests that vouchers will eliminate tracking because teachers in independent neighborhood schools will have high expectations for all students. One wonders if such expectations would endure if these schools took on students most unwanted by others.
FREEDOM’S PLOW: Teaching in the Multicultural Classroom, edited by Theresa Perry and James Fraser. (Routledge, $16.95.) If teachers once told their students that America is a great melting pot, today’s teachers, multiculturalists insist, should teach their students that America is a country of great ethnic and cultural differences. For to blur such differences, to pretend that they can be transcended, the multiculturalists argue, is to deny ethnicity and to ignore the contributions and viewpoints of long oppressed peoples. It is not hard to sympathize with this point of view, as it is undoubtedly true that certain groups have sometimes been omitted from history books and silenced in classrooms. “We have received only a partial education because our school was monocultural,” one essayist writes. But just how much responsibility the school, as opposed to the community, has for transmitting cultural values is open to question. And the authors of these collected essays frequently argue with such stridency, such dogmatism, that the yet uncommitted reader is likely to reject their case out of hand. It is one thing, for example, to argue that our beliefs are influenced by our heritage, but quite another to insist that “negotiated meanings are always critically informed by the racial, class, and gender identities of the faculty and student participants.” And it is one thing to suggest that we all occasionally fall prey to bias, but quite another to state that “no act is neutral, that everything we do in the classroom is either anti-racist or supports and perpetuates racism.” Such extreme attitudes, reflecting an either-or mentality, can have the effect of rendering teachers as but pawns in a zero-sum political game. Indeed, this seems to be the case at the “anti-racist” Cambridge Friends School, where teachers undergo “racism-awareness training” and conduct class discussions of racial issues that sometimes result in tearful conflicts. Dishearteningly, the writers in Freedom’s Plow too often approach students and teachers alike as enlisted representatives of their given culture, resulting in the very kind of narrowness that multiculturalism strives to escape. One can only empathize with the student who says to her crusading teacher: “We take your class. We learn to look at the world from a critical standpoint, one that considers race, sex, and class. And we can’t enjoy life anymore.”
RADICAL REFLECTIONS: Passionate Opinions of Teaching, Learning, and Living, by Mem Fox. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $12.95.) Children’s author Mem Fox relates how she once received a letter from a teacher explaining how much her students had enjoyed reading Fox’s books. Fox was thrilled until she came across a disheartening series of work sheets the teacher had assigned in conjunction with the books. The work sheets represent to Fox everything wrong with drill-oriented language arts: the dividing up of sentences into meaningless fragments, the artificiality of tasks such as filling in blanks, and the lack of trust in books to do their own work. It is almost, Fox convincingly asserts, as if teachers feel they must legitimize the reading of a book in class by attaching it to some lesson. As a passionate proponent of whole language, Fox believes that children best appreciate literature’s two “powerful tools”—rhythm and vocabulary—when read powerful stories and poems aloud. We must, Fox summarizes, be concerned with “the affective as well as the cognitive”—that is, children can learn from books only if they first come to care about them.
Vol. 04, Issue 08, Page 47