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Teaching the Teachers

Does Anybody Give a Damn? by Nat Hentoff Knopf, $8.95, 239 pp.

By Michael Barber

NAT HENTOFF'S NEW BOOK on education is a gripping narrative, raising many fundamental question. But it fails to fully analyze the problems it puts forward, and offers only a few questionable solutions. After the Supreme Court found corporal punishment constitutional in one case, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid glibly commented that "kid-whacking" is "civilizing" in the proper adult hands. Hentoff springs off that comment to launch his book with a section entitled, "Does Eric Sevareid's Kid Get Hit in School?" Hentoff advocates making corporal punishment flatly illegal in the remaining 48 states where "culturally-sanctioned acts of violence against children" are still allowed in schools. Hentoff uses one gory example after another, ad nauseum, to raise the reader's consciousness about the brutality of corporal punishment. Hentoff's technique closely resembles that of a muckraking journalist whose sensationalism leaves little room for serious social analysis.

He traveled around the country to collect and verify reports of corporal punishment. One of Hentoff's "most affecting" cases involves a high school senior in Dallas, Texas, which he calls the "corporal punishment capital of the nation," where from November 1971 to May 1972 "there had been reported applications of physical punishment to 24,305 children." The Dallas senior "had a good academic record, an A in conduct all the way through high school, and the kind of self-discipline that enabled him to hold down a job while going to school so that he could pay for his own car," but he parked his car in the wrong place at school and was to receive a punishment of three blows. Despite a letter of protest from the mother, which Hentoff prints in its two-page entirety, the school would not reconsider and the boy received his diploma only after agreeing to take the three blows. Other horror stories--such as an assistant principal wearing brass knuckles and an athletic coach clubbing his players into form with an athletic shoe--are interspersed with accounts of teachers' justifications of corporal punishment and with discussions of court decisions affirming the legality of corporal punishment.

The balance of Does Anybody Give a Damn? is concerned with evidence that schools are "failing." As Hentoff points out, 23 per cent of all students in American public schools fail to graduate from high school, while 43 per cent of all elementary school children are in critical need of reading help. In central Harlem, 87 per cent of elementary and junior high school students fail the standardized reading tests. But this book is neither apocalyptic nor despairing. Hentoff says, "My main interest all along in writing about education has been finding ways in which certain schools can and do work for all kids, or for a larger percentage of them than is or has been the norm."

One school that Hentoff mentions is P.S. 91, an elementary school in a "disadvantaged" neighborhood of Brooklyn where principal Martin Schor refused to accept the notion that poor children are handicapped in learning to read. Schor's efforts resulted in a dramatic improvement in reading scores--51 per cent of the students were reading above the national norm while in other elementary schools in the same district the percentage was between 20 and 40. Schor's approach, although traditional, placed rigorous demands on his teachers to make sure all students, especially in the critical early grades, were able to read well and were not "crippled" for life. In a system of "accountability," teachers were held responsible for any students' failure to read. Hentoff points to the success of P.S. 91 and says it explodes the myth that irremediable learning problems result from the cultural environment of poverty. He places the blame for functional illiteracy on the schools rather than on the schoolchildren. "They were not born dumb," Hentoff says. "Their burden is that they have not been successfully taught."

Hentoff relentlessly drives home his point through a series of fast-paced interviews with a more personable black principal who also turned reading scores around in an intermediate school in New York City, and with a social worker with no formal education whose contagious personal integrity and concern has saved many whom the system usually loses to the street. It is Hentoff's stated intention to "look for schools, principals and teachers" who can enable "even the most 'uneducable' kids to learn." But the weakness underlying the whole book is the question of whether these models can provide universal, "replicable" solutions. Hentoff attempts to avoid useless theoretical and ideological irrelevancies and to provide practical, policy-useful alternatives. Hentoff sees the problem in terms of replacing individuals who are not teaching efficiently (producing high reading scores in their students), thus relying on a few charismatic figures in the New York City public schools to prove his point, rather than defining the problem as one that reaches beyond schools to the roots of society. "Why has this school [the Nairobe School] not failed its children? Because its teachers must successfully teach in order to keep their jobs...in many public schools, teacher attitudes keep on blocking the door." In a chapter called "Visiting Professor From the Real World," Dr. Eliot Shapiro, the elected community superintendent of a district in Harlem, hints at a different kind of "accountability" in education:

If you're really saying that education has to deal with 'the whole child,' then teachers and administrators in a poverty area, for example, ought to be knowledgeable about the disasters that often take place in the lives of poor people. If a school isn't involved in the family's housing problems and in the quality of health services the family gets, then the school should get a negative accountability rating.

There can be no argument with Hentoff's basic beliefs, which a colleague of Martin Schor's capsulizes: "The greatest act of humanity that a principal and his teachers can perform is to enable the children to feel competent when they go out in the world." What is puzzling, however, is Hentoff's attitude towards the radical critique. He writes, "To awaken a Lucy to her intelligence may not help quicken the Socialist Coming, unless she turns out to be a latter-day Emma Goldman. But to save Lucy from believing herself dumb is a most valuable achievement all in itself." This prejudice is especially evident in his tone and attitude toward socialist "academics":

What becomes of them--the dropouts, those who graduate with a "general" diploma but cannot read at more than an eighth grade level, if that? Well, they don't become "innovative" academics who "prove" the relative unimportance of schooling (e.g. Christopher Jencks, 'Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling In America,' 1972). Nor do they become "radical" professors of economics who maintain that until we change our economic system to egalitarian socialism, there's not much that can be fundamentally done to change the schools (e.g. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, 'Schooling in Capitalist America,' 1976).

Perhaps in Hentoff we see a weathered journalist resenting ivory tower academics, or an honest liberal holding firm, or maybe just a simple personality differing with the cold scholarly writing of Bowles and Gintis. Whatever the problem, there remains a fundamental compatibility between the socialist critique of education--that inequality in education is the direct result of an economic system in which inequality is inherent--and everything Hentoff desires--abolishing socially-sanctioned violence against children in the schools and the crippling of human capabilities by forcing students "to believe they are dumb."

And no matter how questionable Hentoff's reformist alternatives are, every socialist asks the same enraged questions and holds similar intentions. As Hentoff writes, "The intent of this book is to leave you with the question of how long, in both cases, must this continue to be."

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