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Nonfiction : THE LAST LITTLE CITADEL: AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOLS SINCE 1940 by Robert Hampel (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95).

June 08, 1986|Lyndon Stambler

"The Last Little Citadel" depicts a period of tremendous change in America's high schools--from austere but orderly "fortresses" in the 1940s to the more flexible but undefined institutions of today. Far from being the grand plan of a group of educators, suggests Robert Hampel, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, this transition simply mirrored changes in society. When control and discipline became a focal point of attention in the 1930s and '40s, for instance, teachers were pressured to lead a monastic life, and students came under paternalistic control: "From the castle-style architecture of the school to the hall pass required of a student to walk through the fortress of virtue," Hampel writes, "the institution powerfully reminded teachers and students alike that submissiveness and propriety were expected."

Idealistic educators who proposed better alternatives, Hampel's history suggests, were criticized for being "undemocratic": Schools, people argued, had no more prerogative to ignore public sentiment than, say, political parties. Yet while Hampel vividly illustrates the pressure on educators to respond to public demand, he only tacitly forwards his own conviction that society often prevents schools from inspiring excellence. His frustration over this state of affairs is relegated, instead, to the epilogue: "In some Midwestern states," Hampel concludes, "girls' full-court basketball has had a more powerful constituency than the proponents of Socratic dialogue. What the other kind of cheerleaders face is the task of mobilizing public support for changes whose payoff is not as immediate, as visible, or as much fun as the big games on Friday night and Saturday afternoon."

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