Herbert Kohl: Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher; Harper &Row; New York.

The author of The Open Class­ Room offers some progressive advice on the craft of teaching. Much of his argument is cast in the form of a personal memoir. To parents of school-age chil­dren, the history of Kohl’s teach­ing career will read more like a catalog of errors or a gangster’s rap sheet. His own classrooms sound like group therapy ses­sions. His free-wheeling ap­proach is justified by this bit of sentimental philosophizing:

Every class of children is unique and therefore cur­riculum must be shaped and formed to meet the needs and styles of each new class.

In an innocuous sense, this declaration is a familiar platitude, but if he is serious, it is all too easy to see how sensitive and caring teachers like Kohl helped to demolish our system of public schools. What is the point to education, if each of us learns only the bits and fragments of information which suit our “style”? No wonder we deplore the loss of small talk in the U.S.­ we have no common ground for conversation. There is another side to this business of child­-centered schooling. What hap­pens to the whole idea of stan­dards–that dreaded and coer­cive word–when every teacher in every classroom can feel free to rewrite the course to suit his students? Especially when, like Kohl, they “don’t have the heart to punish children”?

Kohl is smart enough to realize that there is more to learning than style and approach, that content plays some part in the learning process. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Kohl ever took the trouble to acquire a store of learning or that he has the slightest idea of what might constitute an educated person. lf you are not interested in the content of education, why become a teacher in the first place? After all, he points out, teachers are ill-paid and underappreciated. His response to this defeatism: “The prime reason to teach is wanting to be with young people and help them grow.” No wonder we’re in trouble. Kohl and his disciples are drawing good salaries (underpaid, indeed. Eight months of destroying young minds–what is it worth?) because they enjoy hanging around with children. Growing Minds goes along way to persuade us that education is too important to be left to the teachers. (TJF)                       D