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Voices in the Classroom

by Peter Schrag
Beacon, 292 pp., $5.95

The Schoolchildren

by Mary Frances Greene, by 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 to make any sense either of what is happening to them or of their place in the social order, so that they might attempt to change that place or that social order from their point of view; the school system is so maliciously inscrutable that it might be run by poltergeists. Such schools do not simply fail to educate; they create such cynicism about and justified antipathy to the whole process of education as to leave most of their pupils convinced that the real thing doesn’t exist.

Both The Schoolchildren and Up the Down Staircase capture the very spirit generated by the defensively pretentious schoolman in action: the opening description in The Schoolchildren of 8:15 Monday morning in school; Miss Kaufman’s ghastly but authentic examples of school memos, and her equally ghastly and authentic portraits of the school personnel. Miss Kaufman’s portrayals of the artifacts of life at Calvin Coolidge High School are particularly impressive; there is a complete edition of the school newspaper with just the right kind and degree of triteness; student compositions, imitation Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics for the faculty Thanksgiving show—the book is an anthology of pedagogical Kitsch.

Yet, though Up the Down Staircase appears to be composed largely of highly authentic materials, it is not itself an authentic work. Its publishers call it a novel; in fact, it is a skillfully constructed educational comic book with an urban school setting. The characters are caricatures—good likenesses, not grotesque ones—and they never develop. The good guys—like the heroine, Sheila Barrett, and her correspondent Beatrice Schachter—seldom falter and never fail. The wintry Dr. Bester, Chairman of the Department, and the bullying pedant, Vice-Principal McCabe, turn out to have integrity, if not hearts of gold. By telling her story in the form of exchanges of letters and memoranda and by presenting students’ notes and notebooks intact, Miss Kaufman succeeds very well in her purpose of building a toy schoolhouse; but she evades the problems of literary construction. Her plot is creaky; and one puts the book down at the end with a certain feeling of self-disgust, as if one had gorged oneself on peanuts. But though peanuts do not help one to develop a discriminating palate, they are highly nutritive, and a good source of protein.

The Schoolchildren, in contrast, is utterly, tragically authentic; and its structure is as simple as that of a grave. In it, the children, the school personnel, and the situation they share speak for themselves, and there is nothing picturesque or amusing about what they say. They make Up the Down Staircase seem even more sentimental than it is; these schoolchildren, largely illiterate and often completely confused, would have been quite incapable of writing the cutely expressive homework that makes up the bulk of Miss Kaufman’s novel. To be fair, one should recall that the setting of Up the Down Staircase is not a slum—it is a depressed, but not a completely despondent area. The writing Miss Kaufman presents as characteristic of the students of “Calvin Coolidge” does not strike me as phony even if it is too cute. What is misleading is the temptation to take the school as representative of urban education at its worst, because it is hard to imagine that it could be any worse. The Schoolchildren, however, is not a work of the imagination.

MR. SCHRAG’S WORK is a far more complex undertaking than either The Schoolchildren or Up the Down Staircase; and it is wholly to the author’s credit that it is just as concrete, if much less detailed, in presenting the realities of school life. The tone of his book seems to me more cheerful than its content justifies. But this is largely a consequence of Schrag’s acute grasp of the way each school system he studies is affected by the social processes of the community it serves. Schrag’s perspicacity is irrationally reassuring to the reader: Surely, if the doctor understands so well what is wrong, the patient can’t be in real danger.

But there is a more subtle way in which Mr. Schrag’s cheerfulness is really rather sinister. He is most content, naturally, in describing the school systems that are best; but it is just these systems whose defects are most disturbing. When Schrag describes the schools of Chicago, or Hazard, Kentucky, or of miserable Deep Southern communities along US 80, what he shows us is distressing but not on specifically educational grounds. The defects of these school systems are largely the immediate consequences of the poverty of the communities they serve and the low status of their clientele. These difficulties are being attacked with all deliberate speed, I do not at all wish to discount the waste and misery such schools cause in those currently enrolled in them, but in another decade most of these places will probably have “good” schools like everywhere else in the United States, if that is a source of comfort.

But Schrag’s analysis of the good systems raises serious questions, for these schools aren’t very comforting as examples. He begins his book with the schools of Topeka, Kansas—an ironic starting point, for it is the Topeka School Board which lost the celebrated Supreme Court Decision that doomed segregation. Yet the glassy public constraints of Topeka West High School promise to be remarkably effective in eliminating any possible hiding places in which individual human growth might occur. Newton, Massachusetts schools really are better; but Schrag makes it very clear that this is possible largely because the community is comparatively homogeneous as to social class, and its schools are run by a benign, self-perpetuating, tolerant, and sophisticated School Committee. I like to see things run this way myself; but I should be less than candid if I told myself that it constitutes the wave of the future. This is just the pattern that educators who are most actively trying to improve poor schools are attempting to avoid by making the board more diverse and representative of the entire community, and perhaps in every sense less discriminating in its approach to education. Even in Newton, Schrag reports, the rapidly expanding Jewish community is trying hard to hold down its own representation on the School Committee. “Dr. Way Dong Woo, the Chinese-American from Ward 8 who was elected with the public endorsement of several committee members, represents the most solidly Jewish ward in the city,” Mr. Schrag notes, apparently assuming that Dr. Way is not Jewish, though, surely, many of Newton’s most successful physicians are. It is time we stopped thinking in stereotypes about the Chinese.

WHAT OF THE “GOOD” school systems that are making out under conditions more appropriate to tomorrow’s America? Schrag describes and analyses a number of these: several in California, and one, which he likes best of all, in Jefferson County, Colorado. Such schools make those of East Harlem seem incredible—an illusion one must guard against, for they retain, within a generally happier atmosphere, some of the lethal bureaucracy of “Calvin Coolidge.”

Nevertheless, these good schools have already made some rather fundamental decisions which, though they help them to flourish, seem to me seriously to compromise the opportunity they might have had to nurture the mind’s private vision and to discipline, respectfully, the idiosyncratic expression of that vision. These schools shine particularly in the sciences and mathematics, both of which deal with material not regarded as controversial in this society. But in the humanities, there is still widespread timidity; and in the social sciences, the possibility of controversy is being avoided as an indirect consequence of the development of new educational services of a highly centralized kind. These centers offer not merely textbooks or syllabi, but complete programs of instruction, undoubtedly of a higher intellectual quality than most schools, or state departments of instruction, could possibly devise.

This is surely preferable to what goes on in “Calvin Coolidge.” But as centralized educational services gain statewide adoptions, the effect will be comparable to what would happen if all the restaurants in the state, except for a few very expensive ones in large cities, were replaced by Howard Johnsons. In most communities the fare would be improved, but local variation would be greatly limited.

Schrag thus describes a classroom in Evergreen, Colorado:

The walls of Chris Samples’ fivesided classroom are cluttered with photographs, maps and cutouts. On the floor stands a plaster and wood replica of an Iraqi village (the visitor might not know this, but the children tell him); the tables are covered with models of Iraqi huts which the children have made with clay, water and straw, and with materials for making more. Next to them is a cage containing a guinea pig. It is early afternoon; the subject is social studies, an experimental unit developed by Educational Services, Inc., which has assembled the photographs on the wall, the clay and straw, and the other material that the children use; all of it was shipped to Evergreen from Boston.

Perhaps not quite all of it. Evergreen is almost certainly supplying the guinea pig in the cage.

This approach to social science education is foolproof. There is little possibility of either confusion or controversy, for even those materials that might violate local sentiment will be too “official” to be easily challenged and, in any case, they will not violate it on heated local issues. And it is no small achievement to improve the intellectual quality of the public schools’ materials of instruction without making them too hot for teachers to handle.

But the price, especially in social studies, is to confirm officially that education consists in the application of the tools of cognition to units of material the content of which is as impersonally prescribed as a TV dinner. This is what is happening in our “best” and most modern schools; the worst are just prisons. What is nowhere apparent, in any of these three books, is any record of schooling intended to foster feeling and thought in interaction, mutually disciplinary, to the end of helping sentient young people to develop and become fully cognizant of themselves in their tense relationship to their culture. One might almost begin to wonder if this is the kind of thing the American people want of their schools.

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