School’s Out

Half the House

by Herbert Kohl
Dutton, 269 pp., $7.95

Being with Children

by Phillip Lopate
Doubleday, 392 pp., $7.95

The Myth of the Hyperactive Child and other Means of Child Control

by Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky
Pantheon, 285 pp., $10.00

Every year it gets a little harder to write about the schools as if they might be improved. So far as I know, very few people do so any more unless they have some gimmick to sell for the purpose—often enough, as the Schrags make horrifyingly clear in their book, a device or procedure that turns out to be nothing but a new technology for making unruly juveniles behave more submissively. Those of us who, like Herb Kohl, began years ago to criticize the schools have gone on to more inclusive issues, not through despair but because we have usually come to see the processes and apparatus of public education as epiphenomena of deeper forms of social oppression which it is the schools’ function to support.

This is especially true when one is concerned with the way the children of poor people are treated in school. The work of revisionist critics like Colin Greer, or Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles, among others, establishes quite clearly that, despite their claims to have fostered social mobility, the schools have always functioned to favor existing systems of social stratification and hence to add to the cumulative disadvantage of the poor, even as they set the terms on which a few poor children might successfully compete for preferment. More conventional scholars like Christopher Jencks, without adopting the revisionist’s social critique, have corroborated on statistical grounds their findings that the schools have generally done little to advance the cause of the poor. Trying to get them to do so is like urging the CIA to devote a portion of its resources to assist the cause of socialist insurgency in American client states. The CIA’s leaders are liberals, too; but that really isn’t what they’re set up, and “funded,” to do.

The bias of the educational system against the poor is structural and pervasive, rather than the consequence of a defect in its operation that remains uncorrected after more than a century. This is basic to an understanding of all three excellent books under review. Herbert Kohl has devoted more than a decade to teaching reading and creative writing to poor, usually black or Chicano, children, at first in the New York City public schools from 1962 to 1965, later as director of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, which Phillip Lopate joined in 1968. He also founded, with a group of not-always-like-minded friends, an “alternative” school called Other Ways in Berkeley, loosely affiliated with, and then swallowed by, the Berkeley school system. His crucial experiences in the New York system were presented in detail in his book 36 Children (1967), with examples of the work done by the children in his classes. Another anthology of poetry by the children at Other Ways was collected, edited, and published by him and Victor Hernandez Cruz in 1970.1 Kohl is also the author of a straight-forward book about teaching reading to children who have difficulty with it, called, simply, Reading, How To.2

Kohl, then, is an expert in the education of the poor, and the ranking expert in English-teaching. That there could even be such a specialty is evidence enough that poor children are victimized by the processes of schooling, since they are not, after all, a sufficiently different species to require, on their own merits, special expertise. But the job of school-teaching becomes infinitely more exhausting and risky if you are on their side, undergoing the experience of constant tension and trying to deal with it, of being constantly swept by confused alarms of struggle and flight—literally: Other Ways was subject to continual harassment by police and building inspectors, trashed in a raid ostensibly directed at another agency in the same building, and on another occasion ordered out of its premises on an hour’s notice. This experience is what Half the House is about.

It is not, however, an autobiography of Kohl midway along the path of his life; but, more valuably, both a contemporary testament and a guide to the peculiar and disheartening complexities with which we must deal. So Virgil might have written for the benefit of Dante’s successors who were planning a more prolonged and extensive visit. Kohl’s language seems better suited than Dante’s to a simple and useful account of how to survive in our native land. It is spare, practical, and performs the invaluable service of reassuring us that our tormentors have not, after all, succeeded in driving us mad (although Kohl says they came close)—notwithstanding what actually happens to people who have continually to deal with funding agencies or the authorities who concern themselves with people who are trying to work out a different style of life among themselves.

Although Half the House is a grim book both in its account of events and in its assessment of the level of courage and resourcefulness they are likely to demand, there is not a trace of self-pity or despair to be found in it. They have no place; this is an explorer’s handbook and traveler’s companion: a guide for pilgrims who still believe, but not in progress. One of the two men to whom the book is dedicated, Kohl tells us, killed himself with an overdose of heroin when the principal of his high school refused to allow him to graduate because he had been truant two years earlier, thus barring him from admission to the college that had accepted him, and causing him to be called up by his draft board. Such incidents are commonplace: Half the House tells us how that can possibly be so, and tries to help us deal with them.

Kohl opens, like Dante, with a retrospective glance:

Twelve years ago I set out to be a good public school classroom teacher. My focus was on what could be done in one classroom with a small number of young people. Quite unexpectedly work in the classroom led me to political and social conflict as well as to struggle within myself.

Well, the idiom is certainly different, but a public school can be a very dark wood indeed. Half the House makes it clear that Kohl came to feel that he had lost his way. But it is not the story of twelve years of his life. From this account one could not reconstruct a single day of it, but one could learn, concretely, how to recognize and perhaps avoid certain common predicaments, such as that which Dante says befell Satan himself, who wound up frozen solid in shit, still convinced he was running the operation. How little, after all, the world has changed. Kohl’s precaution is explicit and appropriate:

At this moment I am committed enough to changing the schools and culture to risk making many enemies and to cut myself off from the possibility of working within any public school system whatever. However, I have to have two years in the bank to feel secure enough to take those risks. I do not look upon money in the bank in terms of objects or properties so much as time. With two years saved, I can risk being wiped out with any group I become part of and still be able to lick my wounds and regroup.

Earlier in the book, Kohl quotes Jules Henry: “The secret of sanity is to exaggerate the good of the world.” For some of us it may be; but not, as this utterly sane book demonstrates, for Herbert Kohl.

But for Phillip Lopate, I think it just may be. He writes of P.S. 90 in Manhattan, where he taught creative writing and had most of the experiences recounted in Being with Children, with affection and respect. Still, he is a keen and perceptive observer, and brings to his observations an honest mind which does much to compensate for the excesses of a sympathetic heart. His portrait of life in P.S. 90 is all the more damning for having been drawn by a sympathizer.

Lopate’s book…explains why some of us, despite the frustrations and futility of much of our work, persist in staying with the public schools and trying to make them into places where young people can flower.

So writes Herbert Kohl, on the book’s jacket. What Being with Children doesn’t explain, at least to my satisfaction, is why Lopate believes this persistence might be fruitful. On its own terms, his book is a triumph. It should prove indispensable to anyone who shares Lopate’s professional interest in teaching children how to communicate their feelings and their experience of the world. It is especially valuable because Lopate is so honest about just how limited both these usually turn out to be. American kids learn early to trivialize themselves and their feelings, being accorded so little respect in their lives they could hardly do otherwise—Lopate’s pupils give their works titles like Sir Launcelot Dubernickle and The Spicy Meatball, this last being a periodical his class writes and publishes, from which Lopate presents a brief anthology in Being with Children. They waive with one hand any claim to be taken seriously that they might have filed with the other. Nevertheless they give him great joy, which he shares with the reader.

Being with Children is a lively anthology of methods for freeing children to express themselves which supplements the more explicit instructions for teaching reading in Reading, How To. Many of these methods are ingenious; some seem to me dubious. I was distressed by “a technique called mistranslation, by which someone perfectly ignorant in a foreign language can ‘translate’ it by sound associations, visual similarities and wild guesses”; this seems to me to introduce into the study of literature excesses previously confined to the practice of diplomacy. But I thoroughly admire Lopate’s skill in using videotape, movie-making, and drama as alternatives to the printed word for children who find it easier or pleasanter to communicate in these ways, which are equally valid if generally more cumbersome. The value of their work is another question. As Lopate himself notes:

Why not admit the truth? Some children write consistently well; most can achieve bursts of beauty; a few never do. The average poetic gift of children is probably no better or no worse than the average adult’s gift for poetry.

To believe that every child is a natural poet is a form of democratic wishfulness gone awry. I am not trying to make poetry into an elitist activity; but the fact is that poetry or writing of any quality is hard work. Few children, and few adults, care to work that hard at it.

This is an important, as well as an honorable, caveat; but it raises a question, surely, about why these, or any other, children should be compelled to attend school at all, and what they are doing there. This last question Lopate answers very clearly. He shows exactly what they are doing there; I have seldom if ever read a better or more powerful piece of ethnography on the public school. He doesn’t prettify P.S. 90, but celebrates it, and the effect is sometimes weird:

Today we made a videotape documentary about the school lunchroom…. Plenty of action guaranteed. I warned the kids a few weeks earlier that we would be taping the lunchroom, and we discussed the best way to get across the nature of the problem (chaos, overcrowding, awful food) and the possible solutions. This morning we brought our camera down at ten-thirty, before the onslaught, to tape the cafeteria ladies preparing the meals. We got amazing footage. The interviews with the ladies were hilarious, because the interviewees were so bad-tempered and sour:

KID: Do you like working in the cafeteria?

LADY: What a stupid question! (Wanders out of camera range)

KID: Why is it a stupid question?

LADY: (Returns) I said it’s a stupid question because you think I’d be working here if I didn’t like it?

KID: (Timidly) How long have you been working here?

LADY: I don’t see how that’s any of your business!

2ND KID: Do you think the kids in this school are nice or bad?

LADY: You’re one of them yourself, you should know! I seen you coming up here asking for seconds.

One lady actually held a tray in front of her face like a gangster being photographed. Denise Loftin [a teacher on the regular faculty] tried to explain that this was not going to be shown anywhere; it was just a class research project. No dice. The lady refused to lower the tray.

Assistant Principal Glass didn’t want us filming inside the lunchroom once the kids had arrived because it was “an illegal situation.” Overcapacity. We waited till the principal came by, interviewed him about the lunchroom, then moved the camera in, using Jimenez’s proximity as a shield. It was total anarchy, hand-held camera at its purest…. The eaters were singing, rolling on the ground, play-fighting, yelling, playing cards, some of it typical lunchroom behavior, some staged for the camera.

What is wrong with such fun and games? Kohl answers this question on page seven of Half the House:

I had emerged from my classroom and began to look more closely at the school. Things I had avoided thinking about—the lack of books, the repulsive lunches served, the hatred and failure most of the students experienced every day, the sheer overwhelming misery of daily life at the school—began to obsess me.

Obsession is no solution, but it did lead Kohl toward his present understanding that such apparently trivial frustrations and petty hostilities are the very stuff of school experience, by which the school convinces the young of their own worthlessness—and the better-humored they are in accepting this assessment of themselves, the more they cooperate in their own betrayal.

On the evidence of Peter Schrag and his wife, Diane Divoky, as presented in The Myth of the Hyperactive Child and Other Means of Child Control, I may be overscrupulous, or at the very least inexcusably old-fashioned, in raising such an issue. In view of the arsenal of techniques now available and in widespread—and increasing—use in the schools, such cooperation will hardly be necessary in the future; while compared to what the Schrags describe, P.S. 90 appears a very citadel of innocent good will toward children. It is true that the Schrags’ report tends to suggest that the disadvantage of poor children vis-à-vis the school as an agent of harsh social control may be lessening, relatively speaking, but hardly in a way that will give anyone cause for satisfaction. The methods they describe are ubiquitous, applied to pupils of all social classes, though middle-class parents will know better how to try to defend their young against them, and have more resources to devote to the purpose.

The children, all four-year olds, are meeting school for the first time. The place is a gymnasium in Muncie, Indiana, but it could as easily be suburban Cleveland, rural Illinois, Boise, Colorado Springs or New Orleans. The mothers turn the children over to a squad of clinicians and paraprofessional aides who will lead them through a labyrinth of screening stations, a bazaar of scales, instruments and exercises which will occupy more than three hours of each child’s time. Forms are filled, notes taken, folders stuffed, tests administered: VMI, Frostig, ITPA, WISC, WRAT, Bender, Hooper, tests to uncover dyslexia, dyscalculia, aphasia, distractibility, mixed dominance, dyspractic movement, developmental lag, CNS damage, MBD. The mothers, in the meantime, are going through another set of questions, relating family social and medical histories to counselors, nurses, teachers and learning clinicians…. In Muncie every child is defined as learning disabled, each individual, presumably, has some problem.

The schools’ new arsenal includes the invention and widespread application of pseudo-maladies like “hyperactivity” and “minimal brain dysfunction,” whose symptoms are not clinically definable or even observable outside the school situation, but which include instead, in the case of MBD, such unusual categories as “perseverative masturbation,” “gullible,” “new generation psychology,” “need for structure,” “bed-wetting,” “bossy,” and “demanding.” All these alarming symptoms may be controlled—or, at least, the child who displays them may be—by drugs like Ritalin and Cylert. According to the Shrags, between 500,000 and one million American children, mostly boys, “live on a regimen” of such psychoactive drugs. “It is nearly impossible,” they observe,

to overestimate the role of the pharmaceutical houses in shaping medical and lay opinion about learning-disabled children. We are not talking here about their campaigns to convince practitioners and parents that medication—usually stimulant drugs—is the answer to problems in learning and behavior, but primarily about their part in creating the idea that any number of common childhood behavior quirks are medical problems in the first place.

But both schools and parents are eager to believe it. The parents like the idea because it relieves them of guilt and responsibility, the fault lies with their child’s alleged brain-damage, not with them. It even permits them in some cases to turn the tables on their children: hyperactive children break up marriages, they are told, instead of broken homes putting stress on children.

The schools are eager to have their problems of discipline redefined as medical for reasons more sinister than mere convenience, although drugs are the most reliable and convenient means of controlling behavior if you don’t care what happens to the organism whose behavior is being controlled. But there is much more to it than that: The most important message in this important book is that the apparatus of child-control the Schrags discuss has been developed precisely as a reaction against recent—and still minimal—advances in civil liberty for children.

The process involved is blindingly simple. The basic protections of the law rest on the assumption that those summoned before it are involved in an adversary procedure—they have an enemy, whether the state or another litigant, against whom they must be afforded the protections of due process. But if they have no adversary, no such protections are needed. The gross deficiencies of the juvenile code in this respect stem precisely from the assumption that the juvenile respondent is not a defendant but a ward in chancery whom the court is trying to help. Recent American court decisions have weakened this assumption. They have recognized juveniles to some degree at least as individuals who find themselves in jeopardy at the hands of courts and administrative agencies, rather than lovable imps whom everybody is trying to help, and have begun guaranteeing them some of the protections other citizens enjoy under the Constitution.

The response of the schools and other juvenile authorities has been to deny or conceal, as far as possible, the disciplinary or punitive aspect of their actions, and instead to make them legitimate on some basis against which no protection can be claimed. The widespread attribution of mythical syndromes like hyperkinesis or minimal brain dysfunction to schoolchildren constitutes the ideal ploy; for medical intervention is defined in our culture as helpful by definition. Ironically, some of the court decisions intended to guarantee the rights of persons trapped in punitive or custodial institutions have, in practice, weakened them further. It is now no longer lawful to confine a harmless patient in a mental hospital in the United States unless he receives treatment—he cannot be treated as a prisoner merely—while two viciously brutal maximum-security institutions for boys operated by the Texas Youth Council were ordered closed by a federal judge last year, on the grounds that they “were places where the delivery of effective rehabilitative treatment is impossible.”

What is emerging from the courts, in short, is a guarantee of a right to treatment as a condition for confinement or compulsory attendance. But what is still desperately needed is some minimal guarantee of a right to refuse treatment. In school, the only right of students that the courts have begun to enforce with really toothy decisions is the right to attend; suspension and expulsion must now be for demonstrable cause, established before a tribunal governed by the rules of natural justice if not strict legal procedure. But persons of school age also require the equivalent of habeas corpus, or at least habeas gluteus, procedures, to extricate them from a school that is wasting them.

The prospects are poor. It is not only, and indeed not primarily, the schools that are claiming the right and the expertise to intervene early in the affairs of persons against whom no “holding charge” can be made. Much of The Myth of the Hyperactive Child is devoted to a terrifying exploration of the new means of controlling children being established outside the school, though usually with its cooperation. More and more towns and cities are establishing Youth Bureaus whose putative function is to “divert” “predelinquents” from their prospective primrose path. But who is to be judged predelinquent, and on what grounds, only the Bureau decides. So far, the evidence indicates that their modsquads cruise potential offenders, apprehending many youngsters against whom even juvenile proceedings could not be sustained, and inducing them to participate in the bureau’s programs under threat of prosecution—the classic means of recruitment of informers and narcs. Of the members of one such Youth Services Bureau, the Schrags write:

They are not quite certain, any of them, who they are working for or exactly what they are supposed to achieve, and some are genuinely worried that they constitute a pacification squad designed to maintain order by messing around with children’s heads. They concede that when it comes to the crunch they support and represent social institutions and not their juvenile clients.

Taking the message of these three books together, the reader is likely to end up with a grudging feeling of gratitude to the schools of the past for at least recognizing and accepting some limits on their functions, however oppressively they may often have discharged them. This is precisely the point Ivan Illich made in a recent revision of his position on deschooling:

For all its vices, school cannot be simply and rashly eliminated; in the present situation it performs certain important negative functions. The hidden curriculum, unconsciously accepted by the liberal pedagogue, frustrates his conscious liberal aims, because it is inherently inconsistent with them. But on the other hand, it also prevents the take-over of education by the programmed instruction of behavioral technologists. While the hidden curriculum makes social role depend on the process of requiring knowledge, thus legitimizing stratification, it also ties the learning process to full-time attendance, thus illegitimizing the educational entrepreneur. If the school continues to lose its educational and political legitimacy, while knowledge is still conceived as a commodity, we will certainly face the emergence of a therapeutic Big Brother.3

Unfortunately, youth control, too, is treated as a commodity, and one in greater demand by far than knowledge. The schools willingly participate in the consortium that markets it, contributing their dossiers and, above all, their legal mandate to a social system that finds its own young, by and large, frightening and repugnant. The result, paradoxically, is to make the young indispensable as raw material for one of the greatest growth industries of our time and as such, perhaps, acceptable once again. If kids are too unsanitary and dangerous to make good pets, they nevertheless, shipped in case-lots, make admirable clients.

  1. 1

    Stuff (World Publishing Company).

  2. 2

    Dutton, 1973.

  3. 3

    Ivan Illich, et al., After Deschooling, What? (Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 9-10.