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Last chance for our children: how you can help save our schools.

Last Chance For Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools.

Bill Honig. Addison-Wesley, $8.95. It's hard to argue with the academic movement that Bill Honig has championed since he was elected superintendent of California's public schools five years ago: more content, less coddling. This book was promoting higher standards for our kids two years ago when it was first released. Now as it's being reissued in paperback, books on "cultural literacy' top the bestseller lists. Those who smirk at "L.A. Law' and "Valley Girl' will feel vindicated to discover that California teens could once graduate from high school with credits in Bachelor Survival, Food for Singles, and Heroines of the Silent Screen. Honig quickly replaced this absurd array with required humanities and sciences, warning that our civilization--to say nothing of our democracy-- would disintegrate unless our schools transmitted the fundamental ideas that underlie it.

But if we're really serious about tough standards, we'll have to require much more than Honig demands. For example, he asks that students take a year of world history "beginning with the rise of democracy in Greek city-states and the Roman Empire and continuing through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution.' Whom are we kidding? Last year I taught a similar course in a public school system that required it. I had to cram so much into those vacation-laden nine months that "world history' began to sound like those cheesy mail-order albums you see advertised on late-night TV, with song titles flashing so rapidly down the screen ("Rock with the Romans'; "Boogie at Byzantium') that you can't remember any of them. The historical awareness Honig wishes to promote would require at least a two-year world history sequence. Ditto for U.S. history, which likewise receives a paltry single year in his reform package.

"Morality,' meanwhile, figures largely in Honig's syllabus, too. As AIDS and teenage pregnancy continue to skyrocket, luminaries ranging from William Bennett ("Bill' in Honig's parlance) to Mario Cuomo have called on schools to expand their moral instruction. How? According to Honig, we must first disembowel the "values clarification' movement of the seventies, in which teachers ("values processors') helped students shape their own morals--and refrained from imposing a rigid ethical framework upon innocent, impressionable minds. Honig proposes an alternate approach based on the classic literary and historical works. A thorough examination of these works by an ethically exemplary teacher will give students the best morality training they can get.

Yes, but whose morality? The Great Books are great precisely because they address the same timeless moral questions--and arrive at radically different answers. "Our literature is hardly monolithic,' Honig acknowledges; indeed, it "has a way of deflating ideologues and true believers of every stripe.' Militarists should read Stephen Crane and pacifists should read Anne Frank, Honig writes, so both may be disarmed of their pretentions to moral superiority. Danger, Will Honig! You're straying alarmingly close to the values of clarification you so deride. Teetering on the precipice of ethical relativism, Honig gets vertigo and retreats to safer ground. Despite the range of viewpoints in these classics, he writes, teachers should not retreat from singlemaxim instruction within "areas of broad public consensus' like--you guessed it--sexual relations. Eighty-four percent of Americans tell pollsters that they believe extramarital sex is wrong. Honig notes--"a pretty strong argument for treating sexual responsibility as a consensual value.'

Actually, it's a pretty weak one. I don't know where Honig gets his numbers because his book isn't footnoted. But I do know that most of my students spend a lot less time in my classroom than they do in front of their televisions, where the vast majority of implied rolls in the hay lack the sanction of holy matrimony. And I also know of several literary classics, not all of them by D.H. Lawrence, that eloquently question the wisdom of strict monogomy. Shall we purge these works from our syllabi? Deride them? Ignore them? "In a democracy,' Honig says, "the whole point is to nurture individuals so that . . . they begin to make up their own minds on matters of controversy.' Let's do it, then, without pretending we have a moral consensus that we, in fact, lack.

And let's admit that the primary responsibility for moral instruction still rests with the family, despite its much-heralded dissolution. Honig is at his best when he discusses parenting and how school systems must work to improve it. I can't count the number of times I've heard parents complain that they "don't know what to do' with a lazy or inconsiderate child. Honig knows--and he's getting the word out, too. Using corporate donations, his system staged a statewide "Parents are Teachers Too' campaign, including parent education programs, TV spots showing parents instructing and praising their kids, and rallies where parents signed pledges promising to review their children's schoolwork, enforce bedtimes, and meet regularly with teachers.

Honig has also pressed for greater responsibility, opportunity, and respect for teachers. When he became superintendent in 1982, a starting toll collector at the Golden Gate Bridge was earning about $5,000 more per year than a starting teacher in the California public schools. Salaries have risen sharply throughout the nation since then, but status has hardly kept pace. Too many gifted people still believe the adviser at Brown who--in one of Honig's best anecdotes--tells a student, "You're too smart to go into teaching.' The comment struck me as particularly poignant, because my mother has been telling me the same thing for about ten years. I'm glad Bill Honig is around to prove she's wrong.
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Author:Zimmerman, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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