The Lives of Children
by George Dennison
Random House, 308 pp., $6.95
For some months, when speaking to teachers or to anyone else concerned with education, I have said that while there were many recently published books on education (my own among them) that I thought they should read, if they felt they had time for only one it should be The Lives of Children. It is by far the most perceptive, moving, and important book on education that I have ever read, or indeed ever expect to. For while I hope that in years to come we may learn much about human growth and development that we do not now know, I doubt that any one book will advance our understanding as much as this one.
It describes the lives of twenty-three children in the small private school in New York in which Dennison taught, and which has since been disbanded. They were black, white, and Puerto Rican in equal proportions. All were poor, half were on welfare, and about half “had come to us from the public schools with severe learning and behavior problems.” They were, in short, children of the kind that our giant educational system conspicuously, totally, and hopelessly fails to reach or to help. This school, spending no more money per pupil than the city’s public schools, did not fail. The children got well, grew, learned.
This book must be seen also as a destroyer of alibis and excuses. We cannot say any longer that we do not know why we are failing, or that we do not know what has to be done instead, or that we cannot afford to do it. If we go on failing much longer, stunting and wrecking as we have the lives and spirits of millions of children, it can only be because for peculiar and dreadful reasons of our own that is what we really want to do.
What the book is about may be summed up in Dennison’s statement, that might well be on every wall of every school or school of education in America, that “the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child.” He continues:
The really crucial things at First Street (School) were these: that we eliminated—to the best of our ability—the obstacles which impede the natural growth of mind; that we based everything on reality of encounter between teacher and child; and that we did what we could (not enough, by far) to restore something of the continuum of experience within which every child must achieve his growth. It is not remarkable that under these circumstances the children came to life. They had been terribly bored, after all, by the experience of failure. For books are interesting, numbers are, and painting, and facts about the world.
The key ideas here are reality of encounter and the continuum of experience. There is no reality of encounter between adults and children in most schoolrooms (or homes, for that matter), because most teacher do …