"First, compared with their peers in Asian and European countries, American students stand out for how little they work. Second, compared with Asians and Europeans, American students stand out for how poorly they do."
Coincidence? Michael Barrett, a Massachusetts state senator making his first appearance in the Atlantic (November), thinks not. Student performance around the world tracks closely with days spent with noses in books. The school year in the United States is about 180 days long; in Japan it's 243 days, in West Germany nearly that. Soviet students are in school 211 days of the year, not that their country's anything to write home about. Young South Koreans, Israelis, Thais and Nigerians study more days than Americans.
Barrett notes with amazement that in the United States, where every locality sets its own school policy, few stray from a national school-year norm of 180 days, even though, as every American knows, most teachers fail to cover all the prescribed course material in the allotted time. He thinks excellence-minded jurisdictions should adopt longer school years, and watch as competitive neighboring school districts jump on the bandwagon.
The writer understands the obstacles. Perhaps the most stubborn of them is cultural, psychological. "The notion of extending the year seems punitive, an assault on the idea of summer itself. It raises the specter of joyless cramming. It implies that American parents have somehow failed their children." Well, now that he mentions it, yes.
Barrett counsels a stiff upper lip. "A school year that stretched into the last week of July would still leave more than a month for family vacation, a stint at camp, or both. If Americans could tolerate going to school Saturday mornings, the break could start earlier."
As a politician, he also has some notion of the institutional resistance to his common-sense idealism, from educational theorists (who "view the problem of American education as so knotty ... that it can never be solved, only written about"), from benevolent and protective teacher associations, and conceivably from teachers themselves. He believes, somehow, that "the federal government's tax base is broad enough to help finance the expansion of the school year."
Evidently Barrett has the courage of his convictions, or of his folly. He has introduced legislation to extend the school year in Massachusetts to roughly 220 days.
Oxy Morons It's an arresting, even lyrical, cover line: "The Love Hormone: Why You Keep the Creep You Sleep With." Its big hot pink type dominates the fetching front of Mademoiselle's November issue, suggesting actual content behind the bait. But inside is a nothing of an article -- one puny page, in the magazine's low-rent district at that -- about a very special bodily substance called oxytocin, which in some other life must have been an acne soap. This is spitting in the eye of the reader, and the newsstand buyer especially; the pity is she seems not to notice.
Dear Abbie "The Stunt Man: Abbie Hoffman (1936-1989)" is Stephen J. Whitfield's literate paean to that madcap American insurrectionary. "He carefully avoided the ear-popping altitudes of high theory, which at least deflated the historic danger of a cognitive elite imagining itself to be a revolutionary vanguard. Instead Hoffman invoked the sovereignty of desire," Whitfield writes, in an essay studded with quotes and mots. "I played all authority as if it were a deranged lumbering bull and I the daring matador," Hoffman once said. For Whitfield, "He was so gifted a clown that he ended up worthy of being taken seriously." The piece is in the fall issue of Virginia Quarterly Review. Yes, Virginia Quarterly Review. One year, $15, One West Range, Charlottesville, Va. 22903.
Worm's Eye View William McPherson, the novelist and former Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of The Washington Post, found himself present at the revolution in Romania late last year. Thank goodness he took notes. His dispatch from the mean streets of Timisoara and Bucharest, which leads the new Granta (33), is a clear-eyed, deliberately tight-lipped piece of reportage, yet still fundamentally an act of personal witness. At one point he meets a Romanian companion at a big demonstration in Timisoara.
" 'What's happening, George?'
" 'The worms are leaving the apple.' George took my pen and notebook. 'I show you.'
"He drew two worms abandoning an apple eaten to the core, and labeled it 'PCR' -- Romanian Communist Party. The worms were headed for another apple, round and fat, labeled 'FSN' -- the Front for National Salvation. George shrugged. 'The first apple is finished. They're going for the second.' It was as succinct an explanation of what ... had been happening in all of Romania since a few hours after Ceaucescu fled ... as any I heard."
Trial and Tribulation In Outside (November), the keen David Quammen walks us up to the major conspiracy trial of four environmental activists charged with sabotaging nuclear facilities in Arizona, Colorado and California. Quammen thinks it's a case of entrapment, but he also says the defendants are needed. "Possibly what we need from them most, unfortunately, is that they do some prison time, bravely and eloquently" ... John B. Judis, writing in the fall number of The American Prospect, offers a comprehensive post-mortem on the right. Demoralized, decapitated, defanged and divided, "conservatism appears to be returning to what it was before 1956 -- not just to its forbidden bigotries, but to a welter of contradictory and inconsistent beliefs," Judis writes. (The American Prospect, one year, $25, Box 7645, Princeton, N.J. 08543-5090.)