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A Professor's Journal
By John A. Minahan
Delphinium Books, 1993, 183 pages

This engaging "professor's journal" examines the fundamental link between education and democracy from a vantage point inside the classroom. Minahan describes a course he taught at Brown University called "Democracy and Education" in which students discussed classic texts by Jefferson, Emerson, and Du Bois, as well as modern writings by E.D. Hirsch, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Allan Bloom and others. Using an informal first-person narrative style, Minahan reconstructs Socratic classroom discussions about critical issues of democracy and society.

While the question "what should we teach in our schools?" has been voiced with increasing urgency in recent years, Minahan feels that those most affected by the debate — the students — have been left out of the discussion. College students "deserve to be asked," he writes, they "should somehow be involved in the design of their own schooling." This sentiment is reflected not only in his impatience with traditional educational theories and theorists, but also in the many conversations he has with his students on issues ranging from political correctness and multiculturalism to authority in the classroom and in society.

Rather than lecture to the class, Minahan asks his students to critically explore the issues together. He finds that what emerges in many cases is a shared sense that the traditional terms of debate on many issues are too narrowly framed. For instance, when asked about multiculturalism, one student admitted he was not prepared dispense with Afro-American studies, yet he wanted "to see them made part of the general family." Unless cultural diversity can coexist with the traditional canon, he said, "all the work of liberalism will be in vain." This feeling was echoed by another student who said that the arguments advanced by E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom "offer little comfort," yet "neither does the classic liberal program, which ... has definite shortcomings."

I don't always agree with Minahan's political viewpoints, which he insists on weaving into both the narrative and his discussions with his students. Still, he has managed to add substance and complexity to the issue of what our colleges ought to be teaching, challenging the simplicty of conventional attitudes and the false polarities of our public debate.