- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, books about school choice tended to be theoretical volumes that stressed the wonders that would result if the market worked its magic through school vouchers.

But after a small number of children in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and in Florida actually were able to use vouchers, school choice books tended to be analytical volumes showing that voucher-wielding students either did marginally better or marginally worse on standardized tests than students who attended their neighborhood schools.

Now that the Supreme Court has declared vouchers constitutional, it’s likely that school choice, at least for low-income students, will become more common.

Hoover Institution senior fellow Herbert J. Walberg and Heartland Institute president Joseph L. Bast believe that school choice would help every public-school student. In their book Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (Hoover Institution, $15, 416 pages) they present an interesting reworking of familiar pro-choice themes.

Foes of school choice, Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast argue, have an irrational fear that introducing competition into education would result in more harm than good.

Their fear is that with vouchers, schools would be controlled by amoral bean-counters who are more concerned with profits than with teaching right and wrong.

So the authors spend the middle third of their book teaching elementary lessons about economics. They show that capitalism does teach the importance of some virtues (hard work, thrift, fairness) and that it does not conflict with the teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

These chapters — Economics 101 — are overlong, and the authors’ arguments would be stronger if they were tightened and more focused on the opinions of school choice foes. But Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast deserve credit for devising a new way to explore school choice issues.

“Education and Capitalism” will probably not change the minds of die-hard foes of school choice, such as school administrators and high-ranking members of the teachers’ unions.

But it will deepen the knowledge and strengthen the arguments of school choice supporters, and may persuade teachers and parents who haven’t made up their minds, particularly if they are conservatives who fear that tighter government regulations will burden private schools that accept government vouchers.

Mr. Walberg and Mr. Bast should be commended for rethinking arguments for school choice that had become very stale.

• • •

Computers are becoming more common in the classroom. But do they help students learn, or are they an expensive boondoggle?

In The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved (Random House, $26.95, 512 pages), Todd Oppenheimer argues that computers probably divert most students away from what they need to learn in school.

Mr. Oppenheimer, who expanded this book from an article in the Atlantic Monthly, has produced a volume that is overlong and overwrought; he is the sort of writer who has many emotions, and shares them all with his readers. A prudent editor would have cut this book by a third and removed the many passages where the author divulges his agonies.

But “The Flickering Mind” does have a fair amount of good reporting about the effects computers have had in classrooms. Mr. Oppenheimer shows that well-stocked computer labs strengthen the knowledge of the gifted and talented.

One chapter discusses Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, where at least two bright students have received patents for their computer-related inventions — and used their royalties to pay for college.

But Mr. Oppenheimer’s reporting shows that schools more often than not pay a great deal for fancy computer systems which break down, become obsolete, or are supervised by teachers who don’t know how to make repairs when the computers inevitably crash.

And even when everything works, much of the time students use their computers to send email and instant messages and to play games rather than do their lessons.

Mr. Oppenheimer is persuasive when he argues that, while there should be some computers in schools, money spent on computing could be used for lower-tech equipment that could help students learn more.

What’s better, he asks — to teach students how to use the Internet, or to make sure that graduates know how to read, write, and count?

• • •

One of the perennial arguments in universities revolves around what the humanities are good for. Why should your major be history, philosophy, or English if you can’t get a job?

Daniel Cottom provides a weak defense of humanism in Why Education Is Useless (University of Pennsylvania Press, $26.50, 245 pages). Mr. Cottom, chair of letters at the University of Oklahoma, has produced a book that is about two-thirds literary criticism and one-third philosophical analysis.

From the title, it seems the author aspires to produce an eclectic work in the tradition of such great Renaissance books as Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly.” But the title is the most provocative part of Mr. Cottom’s book.

He alternates between critiquing other literary scholars and throwing predictable leftist barbs at conservatives he neither admires nor understands (with William Bennett, Roger Kimball, and Charles Murray coming in for particularly harsh criticism).

For the record, Mr. Cottom does not believe that education is useless; he believes that not everything in life should be judged solely on how useful it might be. Mr. Cottom paraphrases Oscar Wilde to argue that education “cannot be reduced to a formula such as Does x result in greater or lesser collective happiness than y?”

Nevertheless his book is occasionally facile and completely predictable. If he is the best defender of the humanities we have, then the liberal arts have no future.

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

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