Fantasy and Feeling in Education.261 pp., $6.95
The Lives of Children.308 pp., $6.95.
GIVEN: No matter what one conceives as the proper lunation of the schools-unless it be as concentration camps-they are functioning more poorly than ever before. The American system of public education is crumbling. But it is stifling the spirit of every child it can along the way. Question: What should be done? By whom? And who should make the decisions?
Richard Jones and George Dennison offer us drastically different answers to these question, and it is crucial that their answers be considered in juxtaposition. Their books represent no less than the culminations in educational thought by two mutually exclusive and often antagonistic groups of writers, groups with distinct (if not antithetical) styles, politics, and influences. The fist is the large body of professional academics, mainly psychologists like Jones and Harvard's Jerome Bruner, who act as consulting experts and planners for the public school system. The other group includes a wide range of radical or "romantic" critics-maverick academics (Goodman), teachers (John Hoh, Herbert Kohl), technological utopians (George Leonard), and others. Among these must be included Dennison, formerly a psychotherapist, then a teacher, now a writer. After his and Jones's books, anything to emerge from the perspective of either group of writers cannot amount to much more than a footnote. That is how important these books are, and that is why they must be dealt with in the broadest conceivable terms.
Actually, Jones's book is itself a rather long footnote to the educational psychology of Bruner. America's pre-eminent educationist. Fantasy and Feeling in Education purports to be nothing more than a theoretical and practical complement to Bruner's pioneering Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966). Over and over Jones says that it is not his fiend and former colleague's "specific suggestions toward a theory of instruction, nor the specific prescriptions for educational reform that have been derived from these suggestions, with which I have taken exception. Only their exclusivism."
In a painstaking critque of Bruner's specific theorems and prescriptions, Jones complains, rightly enough, that they comprise an exclusively cognitive and behavioristic conception of education. He responds with theoretical formulations on the engagement of the child's affect and imagination in intellectual learning-that is, the cultivation of fantasy and feeling for the purpose of imbuing curricular issues with personal significance." but explicitly not for any therapeutic or clinical purpose. In this way he integrates a comprehensive knowledge of clinical psychology with Bruner's propositions. The result is a "more complete" theory of instruction which, in class room application, should "deal with the hearts of children as well as their minds." It emphasizes imaginative creation as well as cognitive discovery, and concept formation as well as concept attainment. About a third of the book provides accounts of classroom application-specifically, instruction in "Man: A Course of Study," a high-powered fifth-grade curriculum developed by Bruner, Jones, and others at the Educational Development Center on Brattle Street.
The theoretical synthesis Jones undertakes is no simple task, and he carries it off impressively. Considering the rigid rationalist bias of the schools and of many educational psychologists (not uninfluenced by Bruner). Jones's contribution is unquestionably timely-not a moment too soon. And considering the adulatory blurbs on the book jacket from big names in psychology (Klein, Hall, Maslow, especially Bruner), the book promises to rival Bruner's in its impact on the educational and scientific communities. But, alas, there are other things to consider.
THEORETICAL syntheses are fine in themselves-we need a lot more synthesis, and a lot less reduction-but if they have no relation to real situations, they can be worse than useless. Jones himself complains of the disparity between the training and experience of the teacher and that of the psychologist: "As things stand, psychologists will continue to work in the hothouse of experimental education while teachers work the vineyards." Hothouse and vineyards-most teachers who will read and try to apply Jones are not Educational Development Center teachers, most children are not "Newton children," most classes are not observed and evaluated by a squad of experts, most schools can't cope with provocative curricula like "Man: A Course of Study." Bruner earlier provided well-meaning but incompetent classroom teachers with theoretical tools for the objectification of their children's minds. Now Jones provides what may become tools for the dissection of the children's souls.
Another problem is that Jones, unlike Bruner, never explicitly states his own opinions of the place and nature of education in America today. Bruner's position is unabashedly technocratic and perfectly consistent throughout. All Jones can do, it seems, is react to him, and the results are often ambiguous. For instance, while he accepts Bruner's charge that education equip the young to cope with an ever more-intricate technological world, Jones is "more impressed with modern man's need to comprehend and master what is now his tool of tools-himself." His overriding concern, remember, is to have the child "imbue curricular issues with personal significance." The teacher's job is to facilitate that process in various ways. Jones, then, expects young human beings to gain comprehensive and mastery of themselves by relating directly not to one another or their mentors, but to curricular technologies like "Man: A Course of Study." What a confused and empty ideal.
We must take a very hard look at what Jones has to offer us, despite his intentions, He assumes in the school the same four walls, the same systems of top-down authority, the same interpersonal relationships between students and teacher. He says that all is up to the teachers, not the experts, but he implies in the very nature of his book that it is up to the experts to provide theories, materials, and methods for the schools and the teachers. His own expert prescription for the problems of the schools is yet another theoretical elixir of little practical use as medicine and perhaps likely to have harmful side effects. Jones's fundamental weakness lies in his diagnosing and treating one symptom-the rationalistic bias-as if it were the entire disease, the entire problem, of American education.
There is no longer time to play with potions. We know that the problems of public education are far more profound than Jones would have us think. To get out of his theoretical haze, and to get a clear and more realistic outlook, we can look to George Dennison.
AS NOTED earlier, Dennison's is a drastically different kind of book, His main concern in The Lives of Children is precisely that: to convey the wholeness and meaningfulness of the present lives of children, specifically of the children he worked with at the First Street School a few years ago.
Fist Street was a very small, private, libertarian elementary school on New York's Lower East Side. It was run on a private grant at far less cost per child than of the public schools. The children were black, white, and Puerto-Rican, all from lower-income families in the area. A few were on the verge of expulsion from the public school system before they came to First Street; others were already out, and faced youth prisons if they couldn't make it there. At least one didn't make it at First Street-but most of the children grew markedly in both intellectual and spiritual ways.
Dennison is a gifted storyteller; he somehow allows the reader, in Martin Buber's words, to "imagine the real," the overwhelming total reality of the children's actual lives. As he tells the story of First Street, you live nine-year-old Maxine's ebullience, you share her wondrous obsession with what sex is really about. You live Jose's paralyzing fear and hatred of all things having to do with school; you feel at one moment his absolute uncertainty, at the next his indomitable but anxious pride, at the next the growing sense of security in his relationship with George, his tutor and friend. Dennison lures you into the being of those very real children. For that achievement alone his book is an important one in contemporary educational writings.
But "The story of the First Street School" is only one of the subtitles of the book; the other is "A practical description of freedom in its relation to growth and learning." Dennison draws many of his abstract conceptions from the actual "jumble of persons and events" at First Street, and others from the writings of Dewey, Tolstoy, and A. S. Neill. What emerges is no narrowly conceived theory of instruction, or non-instruction, but a farseeing and eloquently stated philosophy of education for our times.
Dennison tells us that the proper concern of the school is not instruction, but the lives of children. He shows how, in his own words, when the conventional routines of a school are abolished (the military discipline, the schedules and rewards, the standardization), what arises is neither a vacuum nor a chaos, but rather a new order, based first on relationships between adults and children, and children and their peers, but based ultimately on such truths of the human condition as these: that the mind does not function separately from the emotions, but thought partakes of feeling and feeling of thought; that there is no such thing as knowledge PER SE, knowledge in a vacuum, but rather all knowledge is possessed and must be expressed by individuals; that the human voices preserved in books belong to the real features of the world, and that children are so powerfully attracted to this world that the very motion of their curiosity comes through to us as a form of love; that an active moral life cannot be evolved except where people are free to express their feelings and act upon the insights of conscience.
That says it all succinctly and elegantly-although Dennison is equally eloquent in his demonstrations and elaborations. If the summary doesn't convince you, all the better-read the book.
Dennison is acutely aware of the differences between philosophical though and "mere intellection," and he includes as evidence a bristling but rather insubstantial critique of Bruner. Some of his points, however, are well worth noting: that educational experts like Bruner (and now Jones) are concerned not so much with the education of the young as with the improvement of the schools, not so much with instructing children as with manipulating them. Much more intriguing in this vein are Dennison's accounts of how "freed" children develop organic and highly structured codes of order and morality; how they come to respect and depend upon caring adults as natural authorities, as elders; and how they exercise "positively curative" effects on one another, and "teach" one another with amazing efficiency. Such accounts destroy a whole host of scientifically documented myths, especially the idea that progress in learning bears a direct relation to methods of instruction and internal relationships of curriculum.
THE First Street School eventually closed down, because Dennison and his colleagues could not sustain their interest in it. He takes his lesson from that too. The Appendix of the book includes extensive advice on how to establish and run a school like First Street. Dennison prefaces this advice with the following statement in the last chapter:
. . . any solution which perpetuates the existing authoritarian bureaucracy is doomed to failure . . . We must transfer authority to where concern already exists . . . Authority must reside in the community . . . And it must be tied, once and for all, to the persons who not only DO care, but will go on caring.
By now the alternatives facing us should be clear. Jones and other experts assume the right to make decisions about everybody's children, and then concoct theories and materials which can't fix even the superficial problems of the public schools. Meanwhile those schools, already the most totalitarian institutions in our society, are systematically destroying the souls of children. Dennison tells us that education must focus not on systems and materials but on the lives of individual children, and that it must be located in the communities that care for these children.
The proper choice is obvious. Breaking the iron grip of the public schools will not be easy, and establishing viable community schools will be very difficult. Adults will have to assume new and burden some responsibilities; communities will have to be founded where there were only neighborhoods before. But the possible gains are enormous. Perhaps, by giving children a chance to live their lives, we can take control of our own.