- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

One of the continuing problems our children face is the effect that video games and television have on them. What effect does a steady diet of gory games, violent movies, and gun-laden television shows have on the teenage mind? Answers to this important question are partially found in Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children, edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti (Johns Hopkins, $28.95, 257 pages )

Mrs. Ravitch and Mr. Viteritti, who are both affiliated with New York University, have assembled an interesting group of scholars to discuss the effects that violent media have on children. Some of the authors use their space to vent their opinions. Syracuse University historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, for example, complains that America is suffering from a “culture of obscenity.” Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin adds that American children lack skills of “media literacy,” he wants children to question the media, a practice that he hopes would lead to questioning capitalism and voting the straight Democratic ticket.

If “Kid Stuff” just consisted of opinion pieces, if would not be worth reading. But the editors have solicited arguments from America’s foremost scholars in communications research. These scholars spent most of their essays discussing violent shows, because while there is no correlation between sexy television and teenage sex, there appears to be some connection between children watching violent television and then committing “aggressive behavior,” which could range from everything from bullying on the playground to becoming a violent sociopath.

But the scholars are careful to point our that most children are not harmed by violent shows. Moreover, as University of Toledo psychologist Jeanne B. Funk points out, while research can point out a connection between violent youth and violent media, researchers “cannot determine causality”; it may well be that violence-prone teenagers have made up their minds to pick on others before they ever played a video game or saw a gunfight on TV. In the book, the authors remind us that caring parents are the best early warning system against teenage crime. And another lesson they teach is that while it’s clear that there’s some sort of relationship between violent media and juvenile delinquency, it cannot be reflexively assumed that teens who watch violence will then become violent.

• • •

One of the undercurrents in American education is the control that high school teachers have over what goes on in the classroom. Are high school teachers like college professors, in that they are relatively free to decide how they teach? Or are they lower-ranking subordinates who do what they’re told? Richard K. Ingersoll addresses these interesting questions in Who Controls Teachers’ Work?: Power and Accountability in America’s Schools (Harvard University Press, $39.95, 275 pages).

Mr. Ingersoll, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has consumed a great deal of scholarship, including pertinent studies from the National Center for Education Statistics, and supplemented his research with a close examination of four high schools in the Philadelphia area. He finds that high schools are what organizational theorists call “loosely coupled” institutions — i.e., that schools have a great many rules, but that teachers are still relatively free to determine what they teach and how they teach. He finds that in private schools, teachers are about 10 percentage points more likely to say they control their classrooms than are their counterparts in public schools.

But Mr. Ingersoll finds that teachers are more like middle managers than free agents, as they are intermediaries between administrators and students. Teachers have to have authority in their classrooms if they are to be successful. Administrators who aren’t willing to defend teachers’ effort to control classrooms ensure that their schools become less effective.

In “Who Controls Teachers’ Work?” Mr. Ingersoll addresses issues of power and authority that most education scholars ignore. Anyone involved in setting or administering rules in schools will find Mr. Ingersoll’s pioneering work very informative.

• • •

The University of Virginia became a great educational institution in part because of the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. But what sort of educational ideas did Jefferson have? Garry Wills explores this subject in Mr. Jefferson’s University (National Geographic, $20, 146 pages).

Mr. Wills’ book, written in response to a request from National Geographic to write about “a favorite place I visit often,” is partially an architectural guide to the Charlottesville campus that Jefferson created, partially a history of the University of Virginia’s creation, and partially an essay on Jefferson’s character. Mr. Wills is good when he discusses the political battles which had to be fought before the University of Virginia was created. For example, the College of William and Mary at one point nearly moved to Richmond — and if the move took place, the college would have become the state university, ensuring that the University of Virginia would never have been created.

But Mr. Wills would have achieved a better book if he had written less about architecture and more about Jefferson’s goals in creating a university. Mr. Wills says that Jefferson created the University of Virginia through “a series of heroic acts,” but fails to provide his readers with any details about how the University of Virginia differed from other comparable campuses.

Still , in “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” Mr. Wills reminds us that Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s foremost classical architects — and remains the only president who also created a great university. Mr. Wills’ extended essay deepens our understanding of Jefferson’s achievements.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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