Monday, March 23, 2009

Weeks 8 and 9

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney’s New Town, by Andrew Ross

Celebration, USA: Living in Disney’s Brave New Town, by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins

Grade: B for both

I’ve been interested in planned communities and utopian endeavors for a very long time, but the town of Celebration is particularly fascinating. Celebration, for those of you who don’t know, was planned and built by Disney; it reminds me of what might happen if Thomas Kinkade got enamored with New Urbanism.

Both of these books were written in the late nineties, right after Celebration was established (I’m digging around now to find a more recent book on the same topic, since I’m curious to see how the town has fared ten years later). Both of them were good if not outstanding. (Those are old-style Bs: above average.) Frantz and Collins are journalists, and it shows; their prose is readable, but too consciously entertaining, and their account is low on critical reflection. (Also they talk about “pixie dust” way, way too much.)

Andrew Ross is an academic, so his cultural criticism is a little more pointed, but whenever I read Ross I have the same reaction: he’s so elitist, even when he’s trying to appreciate the Common Man, that I just want to hit him over the head with a copy of People.

I’m still mulling over exactly what I think about the whole Celebration enterprise. Both books talk a lot about how people moved to Celebration because they wanted to move backwards, not forwards; to recapture some sort of lost nostalgic past when things were better; to recapture the 1950s, only with better technology and (presumably) civil rights. I’m sure there’s some truth to this, but any planned community is a utopian endeavour; I think I’d like to read up a little more on Levittown or Seaside or Columbia in order to see just how Disney’s involvement ramped up this expectation.

One of the most contentious elements in Celebration was the school, which turned out to be the place where utopian dreams and nasty reality smacked into each other with the most force. The school was designed to be innovative and cutting edge–so innovative and cutting edge that it veered into chaos, didn’t provide grades or transcripts, and generally made parents so nervous about their children’s progress that they fled in droves. Fascinating to read about this from two different points of view–the journalists (married to each other, with two school-aged children) were among the parents agitating for reform, while Andrew Ross (single, an academic by training) concludes that the school would have been just fine if the uninformed, rabble-rousing parents had minded their own business and let the educational experts run the show.

“Nick and Becky brought home little homework, and there were few tests,” the parents write. “We were asked to trust the teachers to an unusual degree, and not everything we saw inspired trust….One of Nick’s nine-week goals was to learn to read more slowly because he kept getting ahead of his reading group in class.” (Insert sound of me hyperventilating at this point.)

Ross, on the other hand, writes, “Teacher-parent meetings were dominated by exasperated complaints, usually from male parents, based on badly digested information or opinion. Seemingly oblivous to the reasoning behind the teaching methods, parents posed the same questions again and again: ‘Why aren’t you teaching my son the basics?’ ‘How is he going to know your basic history, your basic geography?’ ‘Who’s teaching my child to diagram a sentence?’” These all seem like completely worthless queries to Ross; he concludes that the parent dissatisfaction with the school (remember, this is a school with open classrooms which at one point had two teachers supervising a group of over eighty middle-school students with no texts and no written curricula–the students were expected to come up with their own learning objectives and carry them out) stems from American anti-intellectualism, that the parents had “little enthusiasm for knowledge that offers no immediate practical use.” When the school finally buckled to parent demands and agreed to provide textbooks and standard grades (in large part so that high school students would be able to apply to college), Ross chalks the changes up to “the Disney training philosophy that ‘the customer is always right.’”

This, folks, is why home schooling is on the rise.

There are many great schools out there, with dedicated and skillful teachers. But if you’re unlucky enough to run into a Ross-style educator, convinced that parents are unqualified to have any opinions on what and how their children learn, you may find yourself doing what a number of the Celebration families did. Yanking your kids out and teaching them at home

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