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Schooling for Humanity

When Big Brother Isn't Watching
By David O. Solmitz
Foreword by Kathleen Kesson,
Goddard College
Peter Lang, New York
$29.95
 
Reviewed by Mary M. Leue

This is what I would call a lovely book, written by a lovely man, who has become a lovely teacher! David Solmitz is the kind of person one might expect to find teaching at a posh but enlightened private school like Shady Hill in Cambridge, Massachusetts or the Brearley School in New York City, but not in a blue collar community in the interior of Maine, the prosperity of which had died early in the century with the closing of the local paper mill.

But that is where David found himself a teaching job in 1969 - and that's where he taught for the next thirty years! It wasn't easy! This was a community that had had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan after World War One, their focus being on French Canadians and other European immigrants, rather than black people. David also had very liberal ideas about how classes should be conducted - as one might surmise from the title of his book, - so he very quickly found himself in trouble with his bosses, whose definition of his role was solely one of enforcing strict discipline in the classroom.

He and the rest of the staff at the school &endash; especially the supervisory personnel! - made an odd mix, and David was in trouble a lot of the time during the early years of his teaching; he is very candid about that. David, with his reformist, ultra-democratic ideals was up against rock-bottom, good old-fashioned educational bigotry and stultification &endash; not the awakening of enlightenment! This, of course, is the dirty little secret about a lot of American "education" that everyone knows about, takes for granted, and doesn't really acknowledge. Schools like these are not there for the purpose of teaching everyone but for sorting out the children of the poor in such a way that the ones at the bottom of the socio-economic heap end up delinquent, pregnant, on drugs, in jail or living in sub-standard housing, working at minimum wage jobs, drinking heavily and either beating up or being beaten up by their spouses. Instead of telling the truth about this role, everyone blames the families and the children themselves! People like David &endash; and like John Gatto and Jonathan Kozol - who do tell the truth about this situation are not popular with an awful lot of members of the teaching profession!

David had other ideas. He realized that he would be judged a total failure if he couldn't maintain discipline in his classes &endash; but he also realized that his turned-off, angry, sometimes dull and usually alienated students might, and probably would, jump at the chance of getting their own back by taking advantage of his mild manner and patience with chaos &endash; with his genuinely democratic orientation - to show him up, so that someone else would be in trouble, for a change!

A recipe for utter failure on every count!

How David learned to maintain discipline, how he solved his problems over the years, is such a good story, I hesitate to go into detail over how he managed to do it; managed to beat the rap! I will confine myself to the outcome, quoting again from the back cover of the book.

For thirty years he taught social studies at Madison Area Memorial High School in Madison, Maine, incorporating social activism as well as the fine and performing arts into his democratically oriented classroom. He has published numerous commentaries on education in Maine newspapers.

You really have to read this inspiring, informative book. David is an eloquent writer, and I couldn't put it down until I had finished it. He speaks to both the particulars of good classroom management and also to the broad implications of our American educational establishment &endash; to what we have done in the past, what he believes we are doing now, and what we need to do, in order to develop a genuine system of education that will meet the needs of children and families. But he is not naïve &endash; he is fully aware of the destructive power of the impersonal forces that are stacked up against him. Unlike many writers on educational issues, he doesn't pull his punches or cover up the truth in high-sounding lterms and euphemisms.

If only to challenge the stereotypes used to characterize the children of the poor as ineducable, stupid, morally delinquent, and generally worthless, this book is precious, an eloquent testimony to the falsity of the class-prejudice-based labels! &endash; but it is much more. It is a testimonial to the possibilities inherent in simple belief in the meliorability of mankind, given a willingness to jump in and tackle the job of finding out how to awaken the powers for belief in self latent within almost every school kid - as David did, struggling with all the forces against his succeeding, not for one, or five, or even ten, but for thirty years!

In his concluding paragraphs, David writes,

For thirty years as a teacher at Madison High School in the heart of rural, central Maine. I felt I was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness against the corporatism of our schools. As I draw this book to an end, I realize that there are numerous thoughtful and thought-provoking and socially activist voices throughout America resisting the powerful and cleverly manipulated strategies of corporate America to control the direction of American education toward their own needs. These include public and private school teachers and college and university professors, freelance authors and concerned parents. I have also become conscious of the manner in which big business deeply penetrates not only the heart of education, but also the very fiber of American society to produce human capital as both skilled employees and rampant American consumers for its purposes. A united grassroots effort is needed to stem the ravaging tide of corporate America by educating our children for humanity.