In the Classroom: Dispatches from an Inner-City School that Works
By Mark Gerson
Free Press, 258 pages, $23
When I learned from the book’s press release that In the Classroom is “an uplifting look into how a poor urban school turns scant resources into success through discipline, faith, and the often untapped power of parents and teachers,” I knew I had to read it. Like Mark Gerson I went to Williams College, and like him I taught American history in an inner-city school for a year after I finished.
Unlike Gerson, however, who spent his year at a Catholic high school in New Jersey, I spent my year in a public school in Boston. Before I began teaching, I had done some graduate study in the sociology of education, and was particularly intrigued by a study undertaken by the late James Coleman which seemed to demonstrate that urban Catholic schools educate their students better than do urban public schools with much bigger budgets. This controversial finding clearly has enormous implications for those education reformers who insist that schools need more money to be effective. What the aggressively secularized public schools really need, according to Coleman, is something money can’t buy: a community of parents and teachers who, because they are committed to the same basic beliefs and values, can create a uniquely disciplined and coherent learning environment.
I was sympathetic to Coleman’s theory, and much of my own teaching experience—which was in a school so dominated by Catholic Latino kids, parents, and teachers that it was the next best thing to a Catholic school—seemed to bear him out. But the social utility of religion is a very tricky subject, and I took up Gerson’s In the Classroom in the hope that he would provide some analysis and evidence from the Catholic school system to confirm my own experience in a public school.
What I found was an entertaining set of anecdotes—some, after my own experience, entirely believable, and some less so—about life in an inner-city school. In the Classroom is an engaging diary of day-to-day interactions between a novice teacher from the suburbs and his quick-witted, streetwise students. The book’s strength, however, is also its weakness, for the anecdotes never quite manage to coalesce into a coherent discussion about education. There are stories here that any reader will enjoy, but no real evidence, even circumstantial or anecdotal, of what I hoped to find in the book: proof that Coleman’s theory about Catholic education is correct.
Gerson does have a strong set of carefully reasoned views, developed from his interaction with such luminaries as James Q. Wilson. (It was Wilson himself who encouraged the young man to become a teacher, and then exchanged letters and e-mail messages with him, assuring him from the beginning that his classroom memoirs would make a good book.) Gerson is one of the fastest rising young neoconservatives—a twenty-three year-old who has already written The Neoconservative Vision (1995) and edited The Essential Neoconservative Reader (1996). But his neoconservative views seem to occupy one plane of In the Classroom, while his teaching experiences occupy another—as though he never found a way to let the two influence, inform, and enrich each other.
Mostly, the book tells the story of how Gerson won his student’s respect, first on the basketball court and then in the classroom, and went on to teach them the fundamentals of American history. The prose is a little awkward—surely the verbal repartee he reports in great detail was less stiff and formal as it actually bounced back and forth from teacher to students—but the reader will soon be drawn in.
The success of such movies and books as To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, and Up the Down Staircase is proof both of how much we admire successful teachers and of how deeply we believe in the ability of a good teacher to make a difference. These books and movies seem to have influenced the publishers—and, truth be told, sometimes Gerson himself—to cast the young man as a savior come to reform everything in his students’ lives. But any success at teaching American history to inner-city students is worth celebrating. And if the publisher’s blurb that Gerson’s students learned “more about U.S. history than most college students will ever know” is exaggerated, nonetheless, for a first-year, untrained teacher, Gerson did very well indeed.
Throughout the book, we witness the sort of discussion that happens in many high school classrooms. Sometimes it goes nowhere: the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, for instance, quickly degenerates into name-calling and jokes, and the lesson ends inconclusively. And sometimes it goes off in unexpected directions: a lesson about the duel of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr ends up in a contrast between a rules-oriented gun culture and the gun culture Gerson’s students know all too well (and skips over the question of whether nostalgia for any kind of gun culture is appropriate for these classrooms). But sometimes it goes right to the heart, and the students end up with a lesson that will remain with them forever.
Gerson is a man of settled views, and the teacher in his book learns from the students a little less often then I would have liked. When he discovers that urban youth don’t kiss up to their teachers in the way that he and his suburban peers did, he admits that their honesty and self-assurance are refreshing, but worries that they will not make it in a service economy unless they change their ways. He notes with approval, however, that his students who work at fast-food restaurants are “trained to respect their boss and their customers, [and] this attitude figured into the way they treated their teachers and other authority figures as well.” In an attempt to instill discipline into his other students, he invents a form of detention called a “Frank,” in which unruly students are forced to listen to records of Gerson’s hero Frank Sinatra, while writing “Ol’ Blue Eyes is better than Ice T” over and over on the blackboard. He does have a moment of self-doubt about his “Franks,” wondering, “Was I using Sinatra as punishment? Yes, I was, and I didn’t like it one bit. But there was no other way to get the students to listen to Sinatra.”
Gerson’s own views appear in more than enforced Sinatra, and though I found myself often in agreement with them, they seemed to derive more from neoconservative theory than actual practice in the classroom. He scoffs (perhaps deservedly, but with an insufficient foundation in his own teaching experience) at bilingualism, diversity training, prejudice-reduction efforts, and the idea that standardized exams may be culturally biased. He refuses to use a history textbook that claims nineteenth-century women often used abortion as birth control, exclaiming, “Abortion as birth control? I surely did not look at abortion that way.” The historical accuracy of the claim aside, the suggestion that the textbook’s publishers somehow approve of abortion as birth control is not convincing. He very reasonably complains that the textbook features a variety of obscure women in place of such influential figures as the eighteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards. But without showing us how we should teach the significance of religion in American history, his complaints about trivializing history in the name of political correctness remain purely theoretical.
Gerson does make a sociological argument—relying heavily on the work of James Q. Wilson—about the role that a community of shared values and beliefs plays in creating a learning environment, but again it remains dissociated from his account of an actual classroom. In the Classroom has many enjoyable anecdotes that match the experience of inner-city teachers. And it has many concisely argued analyses of neoconservative theories about education. But for those of us who would like to believe that a poor urban school can turn “scant resources into success through discipline, faith, and the often untapped power of parents and teachers,” the anecdotes and analysis never quite come together in the way that we need.Joshua Glenn is Editorial Director of Tripod (www.tripod.com), a website based in Williamstown, Mass. devoted to helping young people make the transition from college life to the work world.