Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Renewal of Society through Education

    A Series of Personal Essays

    Nicholas C. Brown

    New York: Vantage Press, 2005. 65 pp. $8.95 (paper)

    In this series of personal essays, Nicholas Brown contemplates the relationship between education and society. He notes that it is a relationship that “has long been noted — but occasionally forgotten.” Both elements depend on human talent, which Brown refers to as the greatest natural resource. Pointing to many of society’s ills, including their costs, Brown calls for us to intervene by funding and improving inner-city schools. While he notes that many “worthy organizations” address these problems, they can do so only piecemeal. It will take those who understand the problems facing education today — those in schools, colleges, and universities — to work out solutions. In his examination of the U.S. education system, Brown draws on his extensive background as a student, a teacher at many levels, and a staff member at the American Council on Education. This collection examines each level of education from early education through higher education, offering reflections and suggestions for improvements. While his thoughtful essays are appropriate for all educators discussing and reflecting on current education reforms, this book may be best suited for those in higher education due to its emphasis on higher education.

    Brown’s first essay discusses what he sees as integral to every child’s learning — early education. Here he writes about the importance of those who interact with young children (both at home and at the early elementary level) and how these interactions and educational experiences will influence the rest of these children’s lives. He calls for teachers who are intelligent, broadly educated, and schooled in child psychology. Brown also believes smaller ­classes would allow teachers to focus on a smaller number of children.

    Aligned with the emphasis on young students, Brown calls for support to help parents cultivate their children’s reading skills, noting, “If we are really serious about renewing our society, we must also find a way to educate parents who rarely read or sing or play with their infants, thereby severely stunting their growth before they even enter kindergarten.” Brown wonders what might have been accomplished if, instead of spending money on computer technology, that sum of money had been invested in reducing class size and hiring more teachers to give every child the personal attention they need to succeed.

    When discussing secondary education, Brown draws on his own educational experience at a private, nonsectarian school in Washington, D.C. He notes that some of the traditions, such as morning assembly, helped to create a sense of community that was crucial to the success of its students. He calls on public high schools to try to cultivate this same sense of community “with smaller units and other innovations.” High expectations, an emphasis on reading and mathematics, and character education should be the focus of today’s high schools.

    In thinking about higher education, Brown is interested in the balance colleges and universities must strike in order to be relevant and intellectual. He calls for establishing a balance between “training” and “educating” higher education students. While his argument could benefit from further explanation, he cautions against overemphasizing training, as it could limit the enlightened citizenry who will be the ones to problem-solve in order to renew our society.

    Higher education in the U.S. is strikingly diverse — public and private, large and small, independent and religious. Brown sees this as a powerful opportunity America offers. Almost anyone can attend college and find the school that is right for them, reflecting “the characteristically American belief that everyone is entitled not only to equality of educational opportunity . . . but also to the possibility of social mobility as one earns it.” However, with the vast increase of students attending institutions of higher learning and the growing number of schools, Brown laments the difficult task of finding qualified teachers.

    Brown also discusses the disparity of standards in today’s colleges, pointing out that graduates from some colleges would not meet the entrance requirements at other schools: “To be brutally blunt, all persons holding associate, bachelor, master, and doctor degrees should be reasonably literate and well-informed outside their narrow areas of specialization and expertise. Sadly, more than a few of them, even some PhDs, are not.” Brown advocates for maintaining standards at least at the undergraduate level, including phasing out remedial programs once they have served their “emergency” purposes and providing high levels of teaching and learning across higher educational institutions.

    In an interesting, but too short discussion, Brown addresses the cost of college. He writes that despite the press about rising tuition costs, more students than ever are attending college. He asserts (without citing data) that this is because the average cost of attending college is considerably less than the press cites and that financial aid has been greatly increased to support students who want to attend. He continues to support his case by pointing to the fancy cars in student parking lots, extravagant spring-break trips, and the electronics found in almost every dorm room. Brown believes that these trends in higher education are having a negative impact on society.

    Brown continues to critique higher education for the remainder of the book. He briefly discusses a number of other problems he sees in higher education, including (1) too much narrowing of the curriculum at the expense of general education, (2) departments acting as individual silos versus collaborations, (3) grade inflation, (4) faculty unions resisting merit salary rises and pushing for tenure, and (5) the growing commercialization of sports on university campuses. Brown urges his readers to “preserve academic freedom at all costs, . . . remedy grade inflation and reform the unethical and excessive practices of collegiate athletics, . . . and restore the integrity of advanced research to the pursuit of new truth free of commercial interests.” These reforms will support educational institutions, and education itself, in renewing society.

    In the ten essays that comprise this book, Brown addresses key concerns in education today. However, while Brown’s reflections throughout the book may serve to entice and even provoke the reader, they fail to provide enough discussion to satisfy those involved with education reform. The book would benefit from data to support his claims and constructive remedies.

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    Book Notes

    Taught by America
    Sarah Sentilles

    All American Yemeni Girls
    Loukia K. Sarroub

    The Renewal of Society through Education
    Nicholas C. Brown

    Keepin’ It Real
    Prudence Carter

    The Science of Reading
    edited by Margaret J. Snowling and Charles Hulme