THEODORE BLACK, although a businessman, toiled for
11 years as a member and then chancellor of New York State's Board of Regents. His reflections on a decade of responsibiity for education from preschool to graduate school promised much but is disappointing. The "lone Regent" (as he was referred to) shoots from the hip at all the supposed bad guys, fills the void with his own prescriptions, and thereby attempts to rescue public education.
Straight Talk offers no apparent organizing principle to which the reader can attach Black's unending opinions about discipline, busing, sex education, finances, testing, parent responsibility, the gifted and talented, mainstreaming--to mention but a few of the topics he covers. It's as if the chancellor, upon retirement, took every folder from his file, spoke to a tape recorder about the contents, and then published the transcripts. Lots of fragments but no whole.
The books is also heavily prescriptive--filled with "should":
"They should be acknowledging the problems that beset the public schools . . . They should be mounting a strong effort to scrap or revise those policies, rules, and regulations. They 2 10 should be devoting all their resources to recapturing the excellence which once made Americans proud of their public schools."
I respect almost anyone who attempts to improve public schools, because their efforts bring care, commitment and energy which the schools badly need. But as a teacher, a principal, and a parent, I have never found "shoulds" of much use to anyone.
The adversarial quality of Black's writing and thinking is troubling. His "good guys vs. bad guys" formulation begets straw men, and invents "them" and "they." We are presented with a catalogue of evil spirits: the "office of Civil Rights zealots," "PTA people (who) too often tend to be bleeding-hearts who frown upon any discipline more severe than a slap on the wrist," and "liberal-modernists (or modernist-liberals--take your choice)." He is blatantly intolerant of those who hold different views. Even when he makes friends, with teachers for instance, ("If there is any single occupational group which deserves the title of America's MIPs (most important people) it is those who are charged with the education of our younger generation") he soon violates that friendship: ("I believe that teachers should not be treated as professional unless they renounce strikes and defiance of court orders"). Black's irreverence is matched by his irrelevance. Straight Talk is often small talk.
The book is heavily self-congratulatory. An author who has been an actor in his own story must treat himself carefully. Black uses Straight Talk not only to cast blame upon others but to bring attention and importance to himself:
"I was unanimously chosen as the thirtieth Chancellor of the 191-year-old Board (and the first Chancellor from Long Island) on February 19, 1975, my son Walter's seventeenth birthday. . . "
Black reveals himself over and over again to be a friend of the haves rather than the have-nots. As one entrusted with the welfare of the public, he is surprisingly--and at times outrageously--elitist. With respect to ability: "If a disruptive or a handicapped child requires even a momentary breaking off of the teaching learning process, the other students lose." With respect to race: "It is human nature to prefer associating with people for whom we have an affinity. . . . Personally, I opt for unfettered freedom of association." With respect to income: "Educational pluralism . . . is the healthy and competitive coexistence, side by side of public and independent educational systems" through vouchers and tuition tax credits.
Black's world view is unabashedly conservative. Fair enough. Public schools have much to learn by looking at the successes and failures of the past. But in contrast to the very responsible Council for Basic Education, which shares his goal of excellence, Black's conservatism is irresponsible. His statements of opinion are usually followed by no substantiation, by insufficient supporting quotes from secondary sources, or by selective citing of one research study. None of the attempts at substantiation are footnoted. This suggests that his purpose is more to convert the reader to his position by buttressing it with respectability than to understand these complex issues. Although he contends, "I have an open mind as to the merits of the contending theories," he offers little evidence.
And then there's the final chapter, "A New York Vignette: The Firing of Joe Nyquist." By the time I reached it, I wondered why this story came at the end rather than elsewhere, why it wasn't woven into the body of the volume. I'm glad it was there. While this piece doesn't rescue the book, it's the best part and a suitable reward for plowing through what precedes it. It contains few of the earlier flaws, and fulfills many of the expectations that had been dashed some 281 pages before.
Why does it work? First of all, the subject matter is grounded in the author's own experience. If Black is dull and haphazard taking on the Big Picture of public education, he is effective and clear speaking as a regent about an incident in which he had intimate and sustained knowledge. It was the regents under his chancellorship who voted 8 to 7 to oust this highly regarded but controversial state commissioner of education.
The Nyquist chapter is good because in it Black reveals the extraordinary complexity of the field of education and a great deal of his own behavior as well as his opinion. It's good because he shifts from a soapbox of "shoulds" to an engaging style of prose which is neither pompous, nor disordered: "I have never presided over a more acrimonious proceeding. Regents were so emotionally involved that they stood and shouted and pointed fingers and waved fists; had not the windows been closed against the November winds, we could have been heard for blocks up and down Madison Avenue." Here he abandons the "good guys vs. bad guys" formula and displays a capacity for respecting others who don't share his views. Although Nyquist favored busing as a means of desegregation and wrote a book about open education, although "Joe Nyquist and I had differed on many issues and proposals . . . our differences were honest, and we honored each other rights to his own opinion."
In short, this chapter is good because it is not an ideological monologue but a description and analysis of his own efforts to achieve good education with real people. Theodore Black becomes a sincere, industrious, principled, human being who indeed has insight. I wish he had written all of Straight Talk about this one important small picture and left the "Big Picture" to others.