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Books for parents: wise, and unworthy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The world is awash with books that are more controversy than content, more quick (and elusive) fix than depth. Wisdom wallows in complexity and so it grows increasingly unpopular. And yet there is nothing more sacred - is there? - than books that seek but don't exploit the truth.

This is particularly so when it comes to notions about parents and children, community and school: There are just no excuses here for Kmart theory. Children are vulnerable and so are their parents - eager (many of them, most of the time) to do the right thing. When parents encounter a challenge, they talk to loved ones, they seek advice. When they need further help disentangling the crisscross of preconception, myth and truth, they often turn to books.

Some writers, mercifully, live up to the noble demands of their trade. Take Herbert Kohl and "The Discipline of Hope: Learning from a Lifetime of Teaching" (Simon & Schuster, 350 pages, $24). Since 1962, Kohl has been teaching - the underprivileged in Harlem, the privileged in Berkeley, kindergartners, highschoolers, adults. He has witnessed grace and dismay, individual triumph and setback, and he has been recruited, repeatedly, to speak his mind about educational standards, measures, and reform.

Kohl, in other words, has earned the right to boast, to claw, to declare that he knows best, to riddle his readers with a firestone of theory. But "Discipline" does not bow to the seduction of slogans. It reminds us, again and again, that education is about the slow, no-short-cuts art of listening. About holding shallow preconceptions at bay so as to honor, inspire and instruct the child. About being engaged and being vulnerable, about not looking for, or buying into, a one-size-fits-all school plan.

"I've never encountered a system that meets the needs of all children or that measures its success on the basis of how every child does," Kohl, with far more disappointment than anger, writes. "Just about every attempt at school reform seems to try to fit the child to the system rather than help teachers, students, and communities build education that works for them."

Hope, however, is something Kohl can believe in, something the force of his writing and experience can make us believe in, too "Schools of hope are places where children are honored and well served," he writes. They are places where students can work hard without being harassed, but also places where the joy of teaming is expressed in the work of the children and in their sense of being part of a convivial learning community. They are places where the teachers and staff are delighted to work and are free to innovate while at the same time they are willing to take responsibility for their students' achievement."

Good books, like Kohl's, goad us backward, into our memories, and forward, toward notions of our own active responsibility for change. They open our hearts, so that we newly understand "opportunity" or "brilliant" or "challenged." They startle us into shunting hidden biases from our souls, into recognizing that a better sword won't come from theory or blame or policies, but from us.

Sometimes all it takes is a photograph to bring a murky understanding into focus. In "School," a photo-essay by Robert Coles and Nicholas Nixon (Bulfinch Press/ Little, Brown and Company, 176 pages, $35), the stunning black-and-white portraits of students from three Boston-area schools awaken us to the real faces behind increasingly abstract debates about educational rights and wrongs.

In Daphne Hurford's outstanding work, "To Read or Not to Read" (Scribner, 239 pages, $23), we are led toward an understanding of dyslexia and both sufferers and teachers who learn to stare this challenge down.

In Claire McCarthy's earnest book, "Everyone's Children: A Pediatrician's Story of an Inner-City Practice" (Scribner, 217 pages, $23), we meet a community in the midst of ceaseless struggle and we're encouraged to embrace its raw beauty. These are books that are elementally humane. They were written, it seems to me, for the right reasons.

How ludicrous, how damaging, how disturbing it therefore is that the childrearing/education book that captured the headlines earlier this year was "The Nurture Assumption" by Judith Rich Harris (The Free Press, 462 pages, $26). Here is a book intent upon little more than slinging arrows. Here is a book whose author is juiced up for a fight, who will say almost anything just for the sake of landing a punch. Here is an author who claims to know why children turn out the way they do (genes plus the influence of peers are almost exclusively to blame or thank, she asserts), relies on local library "research" to prove her point, and doles out the sort of advice one might expect to encounter in a satirical review.

"[Parents] do have some control over the way their children look. and their goal should be to make them look as normal and as

attractive as possible because looks do count," Harris writes, her disdain for difference everywhere apparent both her materialism and her lack of compassion on full display. " 'Normal' means dressing the child in the same kind of clothing the other kids are wearing. 'Attractive' means things like dermatologists for the kid with bad skin and orthodontist for the one whose teeth came in crooked. And, if you can afford it or your health insurance will cover it, plastic surgery for any serious sort of facial anomaly."

Life just doesn't look the way that Harris paints it. It's far more strange, more enigmatic, more enriching, more meaningful than nTC she seems able to acknowledge or admit. There are ambiguities. There are no perfect solutions. There aren't any theories that could even begin to hold us - or our children or their peers or their schooling - in.

Life is messy and wisdom is knotty and it rarely makes the headline squeeze. That's why real books are books and not mere articles of commerce. Real books matter. They feed our very souls. They must be written and published and read.

Beth Kephart is the author of the recently published nonfiction book "A Slant of the Sun: One Child's Courage." She won the 1998 Leeway Foundation Grant in nonfiction, and was also named a finalist in the Pew Fellowship in Arts program. Kephart was also a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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