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…

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