Education and Ecstasy
Who Can Be Educated?
These books, taken together, are as depressing in their implications for American education as any set of documents could be. This is not because their authors are pessimistic. They are sturdily optimistic; Leonard is even joyful. What is unpleasant about them is not primarily their tone but their relationship to the reality they discuss. All are by influential people. Mario Fantini (Ed.D. Harvard University) is Program Officer of Public Education for the Ford Foundation, in which capacity he serves, in his own words, as a “Change Agent” and a “power source.” George Leonard is Senior Editor and West Coast Editorial Manager for Look, which heralded Education and Ecstasy in a cover story. Milton Schwebel is Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. While it cannot be said that what these men urge will come to pass—for Leonard’s vision of the future differs markedly from that of his fellow authors—it will certainly command attention.
The three books contrast sharply with the recent and by now familiar works of Herndon, Holt, Kohl, and Kozol in that their books were all based on the authors’ own experiences as classroom teachers. While Schwebel and Weinstein have taught in public schools and Leonard, according to the dust jacket, “has received more national awards for education writing than anyone in the history of magazine journalism,” none of these books is a concrete record of what public school teaching has meant—or done—to a particular individual. They are therefore less vivid than their precursors, though Leonard’s has a sheen of its own.
They are no less critical of current school practice than Kozol and the others were; but the fact that their works all make specific recommendations for improvement of the schools commits them to a fundamental acceptance of the American educational system. To compare Kozol and Fantini on schools is like comparing the views of Jonah and the managing director of Marineland on whales. Kozol knows he was lucky to get out again alive; Fantini makes his career by exhibiting an improved specimen each year. Leonard is much more original in his constructions for the future. He is willing even to forego the school as a building and a set of routines altogether and to take the students and their teachers into the streets. This is a very promising suggestion, as are most of Leonard’s concrete proposals. But where Schwebel and Fantini and Weinstein accept the basic social structure and its conventional liberal goals implicitly, so that their programs for the disadvantaged stress more effective techniques for incorporating them within it on slightly more favorable terms than it now gives them, Leonard ignores the structure and distribution of power in American society and the ways in which its present schools support that structure, and gushes out in great springs of sentimentality. This glimpse of life in the Kennedy School of Santa Fe, New Mexico on “Visiting Day, 2001 A.D.” illustrates his tone:
“We couldn’t go on,” Johnny says softly, handing me a history-drama…
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