Voices in the Classroom

by Peter Schrag
Beacon, 292 pp., $5.95

The Schoolchildren

by Mary Frances Greene and Oleta Ryan
Pantheon, 227 pp., $4.95

Up the Down Staircase

by Bel Kaufman
Prentice Hall, 340 pp., $4.95

All three of these books are about the process of schooling in America; and each of them is in its own way a source of both pleasure and instruction. It would be difficult to lay any one of them aside unfinished. Yet, by the canons of their different genres, their quality varies widely. Voices in the Classroom is a highly competent descriptive analysis of the current state of American education as this is revealed in case studies of school systems in seven areas of the nation. Each of these is carefully selected to show specifically how the characteristics of a particular region set the context of education locally, creating problems, limiting educational possibilities, but also, of course, providing such opportunities as exist. Schrag is a very precise observer with a keen eye for relevance and deep understanding of the place of the school in the local social order. His writing is concrete, perceptive, and unsentimental.

The Schoolchildren and Up the Down Staircase, which are very different from Voices in the Classroom, tell much the same story. Although the first is a collection of slices of raw life in a Harlem school and the second is fiction set in a decaying school not quite so far gone, both describe exactly the same impairments brought on by the cowardice and incompetence of most of the staff and the demoralization of the students. There are even one-to-one correspondences between the real characters in The Schoolchildren and the fictional ones in Up the Down Staircase: the two Principals, Mr. Spane and “Dr.” Clarke, who never risk their imbecile cheerfulness by any contact with the reality outside their offices; Miss Lionni, the Guidance Teacher, and Ella Friedenberg, the Guidance Counselor, whose callous contempt for the real difficulties of the pupils is expressed in continual meddling, an invasion of privacy presumably justified by a vulgar and destructive use of psychological language.

IN SPITE OF certain natural differences of detail—the Assistant Principal, who really runs such schools, is a fatuous coward in The Schoolchildren and an equally fatuous martinet in Up the Down Staircase—the two books, taken simply as collections of observations, fully corroborate each other. What they establish is the existence in the schools they describe of an atmosphere of cynical dishonesty, in which teachers who have never experienced the culture or partaken of the scholarship they pretend to transmit continually cheat and betray their captive clientele. The most serious damage suffered by the children is that they become utterly trivialized and irresponsible, usually incapable of responding to good teaching or genuine concern when they encounter it except in a manner too sporadic to avail them anything. They lose altogether the power to take their existential plight seriously, revolting against it with evasive action and, occasionally, fruitless, unfocussed hatred and violence. Throughout this continuous, wasteful process, the administration and teachers defend their positions by a smoke-screen of sentimentality and clichés. This does not deceive the students, but it does make it impossible for the children…

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