Kernels of hope for better schools

Seeds: Some Good Ways to Improve Our Schools, by Cynthia Parsons. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Woodbridge Press. 224 pp. $15.95. Good grief. She would have school principals learn foreign languages while they labored at their jobs. (Hey, I might fail! What about my dignity?)

She would arrange to have each student in school have an assigned chore there. (What will the custodians say?) She would start school with dancing. (What will the parking lot look like now?) All prospective teachers would have to pass a college physics course as a requirement for state certification. (But I could never do science!) She wants every student to be rewarded for whatever good work he or she performs -- and the school should make ``good work'' happen. (Aren't there any bad boys and bad girls anymore?)

She wants teachers who don't read much to be required to read books which they then would discuss publicly. (Now that's the basis for a juicy grievance!) She goes further, asserting that those adults who work in the school and don't write much or well be asked to do so, with the results monitored, and rewriting following.

It all sounds very tough, very much the boot camp, indeed very in tune with these Crack Down times.

``Seeds'' is a book about a demanding process, and it makes stiff demands on young folks and the older folks who act as their teachers and/or their parents.

And yet one looks for the sign for the Marine boot camp at Parris Island and does not find it. Indeed the new book by Cynthia Parsons -- ``Seeds: Some Good Ways to Improve Our Schools'' -- is friendly, drenched with sunlight, and filled with flowers. Here is a charming (and, paradoxically, both naive and practical) set of suggestions for keeping school, a set which starts from the assumptions that people are good, that hard work can be joyful, and that honesty is liberating.

Cynthia Parsons, long the education editor of The Christian Science Monitor until her retirement in 1982, is an unabashed Progressive, one with a clear debt to John Dewey and an understanding of the Deweyan in Mortimer Alder (whom many so inaccurately dismiss as an ``essentialist.'') Her book is divided into seven chapters, each about how to improve one aspect of schooling. She starts with ``Ethos,'' with the setting of school, the climate and tone and energies which one must find in any sensible and effective learning community. (Again, how like Dewey.) Next comes the chapter on improving teachers, and then on to principals. Discipline, the curriculum, the budget, and parents complete the list.

Miss Parsons' style reflects her newspaper tradition. There are strings of short essays, almost op-ed pieces, which zig and zag over a topic, often pell-mell, but equally often in an obvious sequence. Each one of these short pieces makes a single point, bluntly presenting some truism about schooling, very often using a specific example. As a result, ``Seeds'' can be as fruitfully read at random as it can from front to back. A suggestion here and a suggestion there can be plucked with as much ease as a coherent argument can be elicited from a sequence of ``seeds,'' these suggestions for improving practice.

Parsons wants her teachers to be inquirers themselves, to be unabashed students as well as purveyors of information. She wants them to be sensitive to the differences among students, whatever the causes of those differences may be. (Her sarcasm about the idiocy of age-grading is classic.) She ever accentuates the positive, implying, for example, that the causes of student ill-discipline are far more often than not caused by adults in schools rather than by the apparent miscreant himself or herself.

Parsons implies that we must fit the school to the child and draw out that child's goodness. While her expectations are high for both students' and teachers' learning and teaching (this is the ``tough'' part), the means to those standards are loving rather than humiliating or threatening.

Naive? Yes, and no. Her desired schools are far from the reality today, and the notion that one could appeal to the sensitivity and idealism of many hard-bitten, demoralized teachers and to angry, turned off, and surly students, particularly adolescents, is unrealistic.

Furthermore, the country has long liked a sort of repressed and quasi-military order in schools, the adults somehow believing that if they insist upon it for the children, they, the adults, do not have to follow it themselves. We older folks feel better in condoning a selfishness and hedonism in ourselves if we insist that other values mark the schools. Then, too, there is the notion that one gives young people an education, rather than making conditions right for them to get an education on their own. Parsons argues the truth -- that all of us can only teach ourselves.

Her flexibility in trying to accommodate each child may strike many critics as woolly-headed and even anarchic. And they will be partly right: Some of what Cynthia Parsons says simply will never work in many communities. Many of her examples and, certainly, her overall point of view are inevitably influenced by the rural elementary schools in Vermont where she has spent so many years. Her examples too rarely arise from the noisy hallways of big-city high schools, and too often from more simply organized elementary schools where there is some modicum of homogeneity. This is not to say that Parsons does not from time to time in her book address other kinds of schools and age levels; it merely is that her experience and bias so swings toward the younger and simpler that it dominates her argument.

``Seeds'' lacks the apocalyptically negative language of the Commission on Excellence's ``rising tide of mediocrity'' report and the shrill anger of other recent statements. It mixes its rigorous demands on teachers and students with a sunny serenity and assurance that is disarming. This serenity, alas, will not find its way into the long-range plans of many school systems because it is at heart an attitude, a point of view about children, about knowledge, and about learning. The attitude reflects Dewey's (and Adler's) passionate belief that what is best for the best is best for all, that the cultivation of the mind and sensitivities is the essence of humanity and therefore the focal point for schooling.

There is no overall direction, no Total Program Plan from Cynthia Parsons that can be dropped into place. The kernels that thoughtful teachers, principals, and parents will pluck from ``Seeds'' are the qualities of expectation, generosity, and reverence. Much is expected of all who work in schools because of her unwavering belief in the power of every individual. She doesn't labor this deeply religious conviction with gooey sentimentalism; she just lets it sit there, almost waiting for us to dare to contradict it. We can do it, she seems to say.

This book conveys the religion of hope and charity, of forbearance and love, of loving children so much that one demands much more of them and of oneself.

If religious life is once again more clearly to pervade the public schools of this country, what better form than that which Cynthia Parsons urges upon us?

Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, is author of ``Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.''

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