Back-to-school issues

(Magazines reviewed: The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Monthly)

by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Aug. 26, 1999) - As the majority of children head back to school in the next week or two, it is perhaps a good time to take a closer look at just what goes on behind the classroom doors.

The Atlantic Monthly

"Schooling the Imagination" by Todd Oppenheimer in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly examines the educational methodology of Waldorf schools to see what possible lessons they might suggest for reforming conventional public education.

Judging from the picture Oppenheimer draws of the typical Waldorf classroom, public schools would have to be prepared for a wholesale overhaul if they were to adopt the Waldorf approach. Waldorf's "multisensory approach to learning" eschews textbooks, grades, tests, and high-tech gimmickry in favor of oral storytelling, daily painting and art projects, immersion in group music-making - in sum, exploration of the individual student's imagination as "the heart of learning."

Playfulness is encouraged - the school jazz ensemble actually allows improvisation, unlike most so-called public-school "stage bands." This isn't all new-age, touchy-feely stuff, however. Waldorf students have rigorous responsibilities, which include compiling regular reports on their educational progress - reports that mix prose with poetry and artwork. Students are active participants in the learning process - not passive recipients regurgitating a state-mandated curriculum - at schools that are co-managed by teachers and parents.

Waldorf schools were the brainchild of the Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner, and they began cropping up in Austria and Germany in the 1920s. When the Nazis came to power they shut them down - for what greater endorsement could one ask? Since 1928, Waldorf schools have been spreading throughout the U.S., and in the past decade a dozen public schools have adopted Waldorf-based methods.

Waldorf is not without its detractors. Although Waldorf students score above average on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, some feel that Waldorf does not prepare high-schoolers for the "dog-eat-dog" nature of the "real world." Others point to the seemingly covert, spiritual agenda of Waldorf, based on Steiner's doctrine of "anthroposophy," which include some eccentric ideas about human nature and spirituality, and which dissenters view as a "cult pseudo-science."

Although Oppenheimer does not dwell on it, one thing is clear about such schools: they require incredibly dedicated and talented teachers, who are asked to assume the vast burden of a child's worldly and moral education.

Harper's Magazine

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read" by Francine Prose, in the September issue of Harper's Magazine, makes good companion reading to the Atlantic monthly piece on Waldorf schools. Writing from the perspective of an author and the parent of teenage sons, Prose decries the state of high-school English classes, which she says for better or worse (typically worse) leave students with "indelible impressions" of literature.

Prose's essay features such delicious prose that it seems criminal to paraphrase sentences like, "Given the dreariness with which literature is taught in many American classrooms, it seems miraculous that any sentient teenager would view reading as a source of pleasure."

She goes on to write, "[E]very opportunity to instill adolescents with a lifelong affinity for narrative, for the ways in which the vision of an artist can percolate through an idiosyncratic use of language, and for the supple gymnastics of a mind that exercises the mind of the reader is being squandered on regimens of trash and semi-trash, taught for reasons that have nothing to do with how well a book is written."

Prose's description of her sons' high-school reading lists remind me of my own from 20-something years ago, where great books by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Fyodor Dostoevsky were taught on one side of the hall while such contemporary "classics" as "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" by John Godey, "The White Dawn" by James A. Houston and "The Victim" by Sol Stern were being taught in a class called "Paperback Lit" on the other side. (I'm not making this up, nor can I believe I remember this stuff. No wonder I can't remember the name of the book I read last week.)

Along the way, Prose skewers Maya Angelou's writing, which is at the top of most high-school reading lists. About Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she writes, "To hold up this book as a paradigm of memoir, of thought - of literature - is akin to inviting doctors convicted of malpractice to instruct our medical students."

But more than just trashing the mediocrities on today's high school reading lists, Prose suggests that the reason schools teach bad writing and simplistic thinking rather than great writing and complex thinking is a reflection of our culture's skewed priorities.

"[I]s it really in the best interests of our consumer economy to create a well-educated, smart, highly literate society of fervent readers?," she asks. "Doesn't our epidemic dumbing-down have undeniable advantages for those institutions (the media, the advertising industry, the government) whose interests are better served by a population not trained to read too closely or ask too many questions?"

In a world where viewing TV and playing with computers are considered innovative educational techniques, writes Prose, "[I]t's worth noting that books are among the few remaining forms of entertainment not sustained by, and meant to further, the interests of advertising. Television, newspapers, and magazines are busily instilling us with new desires and previously unsuspected needs, while books sell only themselves."

You have my permission to stop right here and go read a book. Make it a good one.

The Washington Monthly

With the nation's political pundits all but crowning George W. "I haven't snorted cocaine in the last 25 years" Bush president-to-be, you would think that Vice-President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, was a pushover, just so much chopped liver waiting to be spread on Bush's electoral college sandwich.

In the September issue of the Washington Monthly, editor Alexandra Starr makes a strong case for Gore as eminently qualified to succeed Bill Clinton in the White House, both on the issues and in terms of experience.

Against big government? Among Gore's achievements as vice president have been cutting the federal work force by 351,000, to its smallest number since John F. Kennedy was president.

In favor of a strong military? Since he was a senator, Gore has been one of the most hawkish Democrats, voting against his party in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein. As vice president, he has been the major force behind the Clinton administration's engagement policies in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Worried about global warming in this hottest of summers? Gore held the first congressional hearings on the issue as a congressman in his 20s, and as vice president he rescued the Kyoto negotiations on cutting carbon emissions from certain disaster (only to have approval of the treaty be held up by the Republican majority in Congress).

At a time when the American people are supposedly sick and tired of the "charisma" of political personalities like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, one would think that Gore's supposed stiffness on the stump - to say nothing of his impressive record and credentials - would make him an excellent contender for the presidency, especially against a relatively inexperienced contender whose resume is one long litany of failure.

But alas, Gore's substantive policy record and experience does not make for exciting reading or jazzy headlines, so the media pretty much have discounted him from the outset. Fortunately, the voting public will be the ultimate judge, and one senses they aren't quite sold on W just yet.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Aug. 28, 1999. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1999. All rights reserved.]

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