Book Review

Jefferson's Children


Reviewed by Dan Woll
Superintendent, St. Croix Central
School District, Hammond, Wis.

 

 

Jefferson's Children is an optimistic but tough-minded book about what the relationship between Americans and their schools should be.

Author Leon Botstein's credentials are formidable. He is the president of Bard College, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and recipient of so many other honors that the The New York Times once called him an "intellectual Bo Jackson."

He certainly is not the first educator to argue that our traditional K-12 structure is out of sync with the maturation of today's children, but his arguments are as poetic as they are polemic.

Botstein convincingly points out contradictions within public education that need to be examined. For example, he derides the hypocrisy inherent in an educational system that is not embarrassed to shovel millions of dollars into interscholastic sports, ignoring the fact that most students are not gifted athletes and are excluded from the attention that only varsity athletes receive. However, this same system blocks proposals for similar allocations of money targeted at exceptional academic talents because it would be exclusionary.

The persuasive allure of his opinions suffers when he strays from the descriptive to the prescriptive. His 24 maxims on how to raise children seem bland and self-evident and his attempt to outline the college curriculum of the future is hopelessly limited by its presentation as a sub-topic within a chapter.

The book's most provocative and original sections deal with our culture and its effect on how children learn. His contention that the national mood is increasingly pessimistic and self-serving is devastating in its accuracy. His blunt indictment of an adult world that refuses to practice what it preaches when it comes to civil discourse can not be taken lightly.

(Jefferson's Children, by Leon Botstein, Doubleday, New York, N.Y., 1997, 232 pp., $21.95 hardcover)