This book consists of a series of
essays published at various times during the past ten years. Its theme is well stated by the author in
her introduction: "These are
strange times to be growing up in America.
A mere twenty years ago, who could have imagined a world where
nine-month-olds use computers, ten-year-olds dress like Las Vegas showgirls,
and high schoolers pass through halls with armed guards?… The essays in this
book try to make sense of all this strangeness, as experts rarely seem to do,
and in particular to understand how the postmodern American culture that
produced the strangeness addresses the child's search for meaning." This is an enormous enterprise, of course,
and a collection of largely unrelated essays published over the course of a
decade may not be the best approach to take.
The introduction is a serious
effort to tie the pieces together and is written thoughtfully. The essays themselves, however, vary in
scope and quality, in my view.
The first essay is about day care
and provides some thought-provoking descriptions and comments, the wisest and
most pithy being, "how we rear our children reflects the kind of society
we are." This essay also
introduces a theme which runs throughout the book and which is puzzling to me:
experts are silly. After describing a
well-designed and important study on the impact of day care on child
development, the author gratuitously comments a few pages later, "Our
young mothers- and fathers-to-be face difficult choices, which they need to
make with as much wisdom and understanding as possible. If the experts and the pundits would only
The next essay concerns the
travails of getting children accepted into elite kindergartens in Manhattan,
and the toll on the lives of parents and children. This is a well-written article about a trend that does seem
silly, and I liked it. The third piece
is an attack on Sesame Street based in part on its initial design, decades ago,
as a program for commercial rather than educational television. The author argues that the program is not
all that educational. She may well be
right, though I disagree, but so what?
Kids love this program, and in a book about how society mismanages
children, it seems wonderful that there are some features available that
children truly enjoy!
The next essay is about aggression
in childhood. It is poorly researched and
states, "much as you might read about antisocial behavior in the
newspaper, it seldom makes an appearance in the literature of child
psychology. The experts are in
denial." This is an outlandish
statement: there is a truly huge and
rapidly growing literature on this topic in child psychology and child and
adolescent psychiatry. The author also
uses this chapter for the usual attack on Dr. Spock, saying that she suspects
that he "never, ever spent a day with a child" (her italics). She also attacks Robert Coles, a serious
student of childhood. He described a
situation in which he learned something from his young son and says, "My
son had become my moral instructor."
She seems to find this ludicrous.
I suspect one could turn the Dr. Spock argument against her: most people who have spent a lot of time
with children have had this experience!
Finally, she concludes the chapter with an attack on Carol Gilligan's
view that it is healthy for girls to be assertive and display their anger. The writer concludes, "Girls who resist
doing their homework, who argue with their teachers, who rebel against their
mothers, who fight with their friends: this is moral health as envisioned by
one of America's premier psychologists."
Well, yes, it is!
The next essay concerns school
discipline and is a terrible chapter.
Poor school discipline, according to Hymowitz, is not caused by
incapable teachers and administrators, but - surprise! - by children who need
special education services! "Over
the past several decades, the number of children classified under the vaguely
defined disability categories of 'learning disability' and 'emotional
disturbance' has exploded. Many of
these kids are those once just called 'unmanageable'…" I suppose it is true that these kids were
once called unmanageable, and it is a credit to our beleauguered, postmodern
society that they are now being identified (with very rigorously defined
criteria) and sometimes helped.
Hymowitz goes on to state that "psychobabblers and
psychologists" have a bad influence in schools because of
"research-based programs" such as violence prevention and
anti-bullying workshops, which, she says are "of dubious
efficacy". (If they are
research-based, we have a good idea of the efficacy!) This is an appalling chapter.
In contrast, the material in the
next essay, "Tweens: Ten Going on Sixteen", is well crafted and well
presented and points to a disturbing trend of young children growing up much
too quickly, and it is an excellent essay, but the next one on "what's
wrong with the kids" is amorphous and poorly argued. The subsequent essay on sex is disturbing
but one-sided. The next chapter, on
colleges and their curricula, is simply anti-intellectual. This is followed by a truly wonderful and
perceptive essay, "Ecstatic Capitalism's Brave New Work Ethic", which
describes the increasing trend for companies to manage their employees' lives -
and the willingness of many employees to allow this to happen! It is an outstanding and thought-provoking
essay, as is the final essay in the book, "The End of Herstory",
which describes the waning or at least transformation of the feminist
movement. It is a lively, very well
written, and thoroughly interesting argument.
What a book! The author is an amusing and cogent writer,
and many of the essays are fun to read.
In some, she achieves brilliance.
In most, she indulges in unwarranted attacks on "experts" and
disregards important data. In many,
she indulges in a lot of right-wing rhetoric without substantiation. It is unfortunate that such a gifted writer
has produced such bad essays.
The book which Hymowitz describes
in the introduction has yet to be written.
Let's hope it is, for it will be very important.
© 2004 Lloyd A. Wells
Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN