Half the House
Being with Children
The Myth of the Hyperactive Child and other Means of Child Control
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: