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August 17, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Shopping Mall High School, Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar and David K. Cohen (Houghton Mifflin: $8.95). This is the second and most inspired in a series of three books comprising "A Study of High Schools," a research project prompted by the realization in the early 1980s that low morale and lack of direction was adversely affecting achievement in U.S. schools. The third study, Robert Hampel's "The Last Little Citadel," pointed out that schools reflect public demand, not ideals of character. Here, the authors highlight the dangers of a system in which teachers "regard themselves as salespeople," striving "to attract customers and persuade them to buy." They visit 15 schools throughout the United States, lauding rigorous courses, criticizing "Applied Communication" (a class in which the teacher analyzes comic books) and making fun of a high school principal they interview who rejects the need for discipline ("During Dr. Nelson's celebration of freedom," the authors write, "he was informed that his son's locker had just blown up"). The authors sometimes venture too far to the right of Nelson, suggesting that T-shirts with any message involving sex be banned from schools, for instance, but their book is in fact a radical critique of the basic tenets underlying pluralism. Nelson's school may be popularly hailed for catering to fans of classics as well as to fans of comic books, but, in reality, by failing to celebrate "more focused notions of education or of character," the shopping mall high school only widens "the already wide gap" between poor and "preppie" students.

Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner, Vivian Gussin Paley (University of Chicago: $5.95). The classification on the jacket cover reads "education," but this revealing, often humorous little book from 1984 says less about teaching than it does about the emergence of creativity, sex roles and self-confidence. Under scrutiny here are Vivian Paley's kindergartners at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where she is a "master teacher." Paley's decision to present her students' growth over a year in journal form sometimes makes this book disjointed, full of interesting but incompletely developed arguments. Her informal style, however, prevents her from assuming the scholarly role of omniscient, aloof observer. Paley stands with--not above--her students, enlisting their help when her theories fail to capture the dynamics of the classroom: "Why do you suppose boys never tell stories about princes and princesses?" she asks. Mary Ann stops painting a row of red tulips to respond, "Boys don't like to be fancy," while Charlotte adds, "They don't want to be fancy because girls do. " Sex roles are all but non-existent at the beginning of the year --"Policemen sweep the floor and dress the baby," Paley writes, "and mothers put men's vests over negligees while making vague appointments on the telephone"--but by age 4, students are busy engaging in symbolic rituals to affirm their masculinity or femininity: "I'm the mother," Charlotte observes, "because I'm wearing the silver shoes."

on Streets, edited by Stanford Anderson (MIT Press: $19.95). "All the world's a stage"--Pollio Vitruvius, Augustus' favorite architect, said it centuries before Shakespeare, though his analogy between drama and real life admittedly was more indirect, describing three types of social environments, or "scenes": "Tragic scenes are delineated with columns, pediments, statues and other objects suited to kings," he wrote. "Comic scenes exhibit private dwellings," while "satyric scenes are decorated with trees, mountains and other rustic objects." The essays collected in this idealistic, sometimes uncompromisingly academic study build on Vitruvius' premise, arguing that physical design has a marked effect on human thought and action. While sprinkled with jargon ("the concept of nonconforming use implies the existence of recognized conforming use"), the book amounts to more than an academic exercise. The authors focus on the street--the main avenue of urban interchange--in order to show the importance of a holistic view of architecture. While many believe architects already view everything on a grand scale, John Rykwert, a professor of art at the University of Essex in England, says just the opposite is the case: "Architects often bury themselves in individual building projects, ignoring any responsibility to the public space of the city." Examples of careful, considerate planning can be found in these pages, but most of the essays spotlight the effects of neglect, from the time Rousseau looked upon Parisian squalor ("How could the Enlightenment claim to be triumphant over the material order," he asked, "if it proved unable to constitute for itself a setting worthy of its brilliance?"), to the present day, when the word street has come to stand for "what is aberrant and fearful in light of social norms."

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