How Not to Discuss The Schools

THE SCHOOLS by Martin Mayer. 1961, 446, pp. $4.95.

"It is really impossible to write about the schools," Martin Mayer says after proving it for 425 PAGES According to the dust jacking and advance publicity. The schools tries to present "in terms of real people--teachers and students--the facts behind the controversies: a report on what actually happens in American classrooms from kindergarten through high school." In bitter reality, Mayer's to me is a melange of scattered theories, terrible writing, and clumsy vignettes that contribute damn little to an understanding of American education.

Late in the book, Mayer outlines the purpose that took him to "about a thousand classrooms in 150 schools." "One speaks of the 'community" and 'the school.' Well, here they are, the pair of them, stripped of the verbiage, the sociological generalization, the psychological sleight-of-hand." But verbiage, enchanted with its own cleverness, chokes Mayer's book, and sociological and psychological observations--some of them rather disputable, to say the least--make up 90 percent by weight of his attempt to get down to bedrock.

Loud huzzahs have rung out for Mayer's presentation of real-life episodes straight from the classroom. But there are barely enough of them to keep the casual reader awake as he plows through acres of badly-presented theory and travelogue. (Mayer went to England, France, Denmark, Finland, and Norway, as well as places in the U.S.--which just broadened an already unmanageable scope.)

These little vignettes are usually interesting and informative, but, like the rest of the book, they suffer from bad writing. It is quite hard to believe that every teacher Mayer ran into was either "tall," "pretty," or "birdlike," or some combination of the three. And his choice of words is appalling, often obscuring his point. When Mayer begins a description of what he considers a good teacher by calling her "a big, bouncy, bony, blond girl, under thirty, who talks at a lightning pace," he should realize that he is prejudicing the reader.

Furthermore, in a book which is largely concerned with what in wrong with American education, far too many of the vignettes are about good teachers and bland situations. I'm sure Mayer must have found better illustrations of education malpractice: I never had any trouble doing so when I was in the Ohio public school system. Once my eighth grade teacher tried to convince the class that Negoes were to be avoided. When I objected, he said. "Look at it this way. How would you like to swim in the same pool with one of them?" This was in Ohio, remember. Another time, my high school American history class spent an entire month on the subject of alcohol--everything from how to make it to how to break the habit--and then took a test to determine who should represent the school on the state-wide alcohol examination.

The Schools purports to be concerned with the community, but there is precious little analysis of the public's feeling toward education. What, for instance, motivates people to buy new band uniforms and a grandstand for the high school football field, months after they have voted down a bond levy to build new classrooms?

The book contains a lot of questionable theory. Mayer has a good point when he says that IQ tests and classroom techniques are biased in favor of middle-class children, but he goes 'way too far. Among Mayer's "middle-class values" are order, cleanliness, neatness, and democracy--a somewhat narrow view.

Mayer has a fetish about progressive education, and at times seems to equate "progressive" with "good." He is 100 per cent for the "project" approach to teaching, and is foursquare against the use of drill. To him, the "direct" method of language instruction is the only way, and he decries any attempt to explain rules or reasons. He sees little use for clerical mathematics or fully worked-out answers: "Most arithmetical problems that come up in life (or in science, for that matter) require only approximate answers."

It is not to be denied that Mayer has raised some good points. His observation that classes are even more culturally loaded than intelligence tests, his charge that the junior high school years are a needless waste, and his descriptions of the tyranny of text-book publishers and the inadequacy of current teacher training all make good sense.

But Mayer seems afraid or unwilling to come to any meaningful conclusions. In his envoi, all he can screw up his courage to say about America's messed-up school system is, "In a sense it is unfair for the communities to send teachers questing for excellence, with a yoicks and a tally ho and a drink at the end. . . In the effort to do their work better than they think they can, people acquire competence; and excellence is nothing more than the most precious by-product in the large-scale production of competence."

Mayer is right, but only stating the obvious, when he says that ultimately the problem of education comes down to the teachers in the schools. But it shouldn't take 400-odd pages to demonstrate this concept and really very little else