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February 28, 2007
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Frank McCourt; Scribner; 2005 and Jean-Paul Brighelli; Jean-Claude Gawsewitch ??diteur; 2005 (Available only in French, through Amazon)
Frank McCourt (the author of Angela's Ashes and a veteran teacher in the New York public schools) is a remarkable storyteller and talented writer. So it's no surprise that his new best-seller, Teacher Man, has its moments. One with his literary gifts and 30 years teaching experience to draw upon can hardly miss. Unfortunately, McCourt finds a way. He grumps about everything: The students who, at times, he appears to care little for; administrators who make his days miserable; and the friends who don't understand how hard his life is. To be sure, discontent with education's establishment isn't a bad thing. Some have channeled such frustration into great achievements (e.g. KIPP Academies, Aspire Schools, Open Court Reading System). But McCourt has no such interest. He isn't out to improve education, but to celebrate teachers - the great ones, the truly bad ones, and everyone in between. To really appreciate how banal most of his latest ramblings are, pick up Jean-Paul Brighelli's new work (available only in French), The Manufacture of Cretins: The Programmed Death of School. Like McCourt, Brighelli is a best-selling author (albeit in France) and a discontented teacher. But there the similarities end. While McCourt whines, Brighelli casts his lot among the growing contingent of teachers fighting back against an elite-dominated French education system that ignores the immigrant and poor students who most need it. He bashes schools that value a student's "family name, relations, personal network, more than [his] talent," and he implicates the regnant progressivist pedagogy for preventing underprivileged youngsters from learning the basic skills (grammar, science, mathematics) they'll need to move themselves out of poverty. One can only hope that McCourt's cynical ideas aren't widely embraced in teachers' lounges across America. If they are, the time may be right to encourage tomorrow's teachers to learn French.