DISMANTLING DESEGREGATION: The Quiet Reversal of Brown vs. Board of Education, by Gary Orfield, Susan Eaton, and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. (The New Press, $30.) Of all the education books published recently, few should provoke as much consternation as Dismantling Desegregation. I say "should'' as opposed to "will'' because skimming readers are likely to find perfectly reasonable the book's central contention, put forth in almost 400 pages of densely footnoted text, that our nation is making a serious mistake in retreating from its commitment to integrated schools. What nettles, then, is not so much this thesis as its unavoidable corollary: that it is virtually impossible to improve poor and segregated black schools. Dismantling Desegregation more than suggests that the best hope for those who attend them is a bus ride out to the suburbs. This is a disturbing message--and for many black leaders surely an offensive one--for it calls into question the very possibility of urban school reform. But Orfield and Eaton aren't trying to attack school reformers or African-American self-determination. They want to say, rather, as did the famous 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate is by its very nature unequal and that we are kidding ourselves if we think that reforms can make much of a difference in the absence of genuine desegregation. The authors' point is not to claim "that black gains are supposed to come from sitting next to whites in school'' but to argue that blacks benefit from "access to the resources and connections of institutions that have always received preferential treatment.'' To bolster this claim, Orfield and Eaton bring forth evidence demonstrating that desegregation has indeed worked: Blacks attending integrated schools are much more likely, for instance, to attend college. What, then, accounts for the widespread perception of desegregation as a failed experiment? Some of it has to do with the conservative ideology of the 1980s, which portrayed busing as ineffective and coercive. Another factor is the understandable insistence of some activists that attention first be paid to decaying neighborhood schools. But perhaps the biggest factor of all in the trend toward resegregation was the 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Milliken vs. Bradley. In an apparent nod to local school control, the court determined that suburban schools could not be forced to take in minority students from outside the district. This made desegregation almost impossible within cities that were becoming virtually all-black. While Orfield and Eaton are right in lamenting the increasing acceptance of school segregation, solutions are hard to come by. The authors, citing polls indicating that whites are willing to live in multi-racial communities, hope for greater integration of neighborhoods, which would lead to the natural integration of schools. It's hard, though, not to be skeptical about such surveys: What people tell pollsters is by no means commensurate with how they really feel and act. And with suburbs extending ever farther from the central cities, desegregation plans face ever more complicated logistics. Dismantling Desegregation is an impressive work of scholarship, which, for all of its idealistic striving, cannot surmount the dilemmas it so ably presents.
MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD: Children, Television, and Fred Rogers, edited by Mark Collins and Margaret Mary Kimmel. (Pittsburgh, $27.95.) In America, it sometimes seems as if the only neighborhood left is Fred Rogers'. Perhaps this is one of the reasons his program mesmerizes 4-year-olds but seems so peculiar to adults who, closing their doors behind them, would scarcely be so intrusive as to ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar. But as the essayists in this celebratory collection point out, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood provides children with a televised sanctuary in which they can visit the cook or carpenter down the block without getting yelled at for trespassing on a neighbor's chemically treated lawn. And when Rogers takes the children "out'' of the neighborhood and into the Land of Make-Believe, he treats play and fantasy with a gentle dignity scorned by the hyperkinetic popular culture. Rogers offers, as one writer puts it, an admixture "of puppetry, simplicity, camaraderie, and musicality'' that inspires wonder, instead of gadgets that feed consumerist desires. Indeed, contributor Mark Shelton is correct when he calls the program "subversive,'' as Rogers turns upside down the culture of commercialism that would have us value things over people. "I like you just as you are,'' Mr. Rogers tells his young viewers. Ideally, children would hear this from their actual neighbors as opposed to a television host. But until then, let us thank Mr. Rogers for saying what too many adults pass over in silence.
THE SIBLING SOCIETY, by Robert Bly. (Addison-Wesley, $26.) In 1988, poet Robert Bly virtually created the men's movement overnight with Iron John, which traced a kind of national male identity crisis to the absence of strong father figures. Here, in his new book, Bly takes a similar tact, only now his argument encompasses mentorless men and women alike, whom he describes as "fish swimming in a tank of half-adults.'' Having neither the exuberance of youth nor the circumspection of age, they (he is referring loosely to adults under 50) are perpetual adolescents, members of the "sibling society.'' Bly so names them because they will listen only to people their own age, incapable as they are of looking "downward to depth or upward to the divine.'' The products of marginal parenting, left to mature in the glow of television, these "siblings'' are characterized by literal-mindedness, hedonism, and a disdain of all authority. Since at least 1980, Bly asserts, high schools have been run by the students who attend them; teachers trying to hold students to high standards are likely to be criticized by parents who are as indulgent as they are filled with guilt. Now approaching 70, Bly sounds like a crabbed elder who thinks callow everyone not as old and sage as himself. But he is right to remind us that "without gratitude to energies much greater than our own, there will be no new meaning.'' Those who are dismissive of everything outside their immediate experience can grow old but never grow up.