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September 28, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Shaping an American Institution: Robert E. Wood and Sears, Roebuck, James C. Worthy (New American Library: $8.95). "The General," as Robert Wood was known when he headed the nationwide chain from 1924-54, emerges as a superhero in these pages, albeit with a little help from the author, a former vice president of Sears and now a management professor at Northwestern. Wood undoubtedly was an achiever and an adventurer from the time he graduated from West Point and began assisting Col. George W. Goethals on "the biggest job on Earth," the Panama Canal. "The day we run out of cement," Goethals cautioned Wood, "you're fired." They never did, and a decade later, when Sears was in danger of failure because of its success (the company couldn't handle a skyrocketing volume of customer orders), Wood was called in to help. Worthy's history of Sears is a celebration of the specialization of labor, the process through which talented people build on earlier successes. Richard Sears started it all by selling watches through his skills as an advertising copywriter. Alvah Roebuck's talent as a watchmaker, in turn, permitted the fledgling company to buy commodities at bargain rates. Julius Rosenwald, who became a major investor in the company, contributed his business sense. Human interaction, of course, isn't always this harmonious, and so it's no surprise that Worthy skips over feuding in the company and, more important, over Wood's anti-Semitism: Wood had expressed doubts about joining Sears, calling it "a Jewish family firm," and before the United States entered World War II, he helped lead the "America First Committee," which argued against intervention. Admittedly, Wood's views about the war need not be included in a profile of an institution, but they do illustrate the dangers in a seemingly laudable principle: Help those who can help you.

Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience, Eliot Wigginton (Anchor Press/Doubleday: $10.95). In 1967, when the author began teaching at a private high school in Georgia, there was no dearth of idealistic young educators in America. Unlike other teachers, however, Eliot Wigginton carried his enthusiasm beyond school fences with the first issue of Foxfire, a literary magazine written by his students and devoted to chronicling the vanishing crafts of Appalachia, from snake-handling and gospel singing to blacksmithing and log cabin building. Today, this beacon of hope from the 1960s still shines brightly, having evolved into a cable-TV station, a small record company and a series of books (more than 7 million are now in print). Wigginton's way of teaching is particularly noteworthy because it helps resolve a longstanding conflict in education. Good teachers do more than impart knowledge; they instill self-confidence. And while that confidence is traditionally developed through grades and awards, students begin to see alternative systems of reward--jobs, for instance--by the time they reach high school. Wigginton's experience with Foxfire helps resolve this conflict by coaching students in traditional skills, such as writing, while educating them about the larger world. The book is overly detailed--Wigginton even quotes at length from his reports to the administration ("This year I was responsible for five pages in the annual . . ."), but those small indulgences become understandable in the epilogue. There, the book's upbeat tone turns somber as Wigginton explains the feeling of under-appreciation experienced by most idealistic teachers: "Because their passions are so ignited and their expectations are so high, their failures are legion; their few successes, though sometimes dramatic and inspiring, are not enough to offset the self-condemnation and depression that accompany the growing awareness of the numerous lost causes that litter their landscapes."

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