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Losing Heart: The Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America’s Children

reviewed by Robert Kunzman - March 05, 2007

coverTitle: Losing Heart: The Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America’s Children
Author(s): H. Svi Shapiro
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805857222 , Pages: 240, Year: 2005
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H. Svi Shapiro’s Losing Heart: The Moral and Spiritual Miseducation of America’s Children brings a powerful and urgent message of critique and possibility to American schools and society. His tone is frequently prophetic, imbued with outrage and condemnation of the existing social order, and his prose seeks to stir readers to recognition and action. For university instructors who want to provoke discussion (and hopefully debate) about what ails our schools and society, Losing Heart is a strong choice. But this book can speak to an audience beyond the academy: anyone who finds themselves uncritically accepting the underlying assumptions of our current structures and priorities of schooling would likely think again after reading Losing Heart.

As a critique of “what is,” the first six chapters move fairly seamlessly between the narrower world of schools and our broader society which shapes them. Shapiro asserts that we face dual crises: disastrous education reform efforts (reaching their nadir in No Child Left Behind) wherein measurable outputs of student learning are the only barometer of value; and the dominance of the consumer marketplace to the point it has become “the primary source of meaning and value in our world” (p. 24). The two are inextricably linked, and thus require attention and reform on the level of both schools and society.

Shapiro’s argument is perhaps the most compelling when he focuses squarely on the culture and practices of public schools, where he decries the emphasis on economic competitiveness and use of test scores as sole proxies for achievement. Schools should be much more about helping students grapple with the moral, cultural, and spiritual challenges of their world. To this end, Shapiro offers a challenging but powerful vision of education as helping young people appreciate and navigate a world of increasingly varied and interrelated identities and commitments. Students need to develop:

…a much more complex vision of community and belonging. We must educate them so that they see themselves as members of multiple communities that are linked and overlapping with one another. Young people will need to understand their lives as one where they become comfortable with the crossing of cultural borders and inhabiting diverse social contexts. Their own identity consists of a number of different allegiances, multiple spans of concern and responsibility, and overlapping fields of cultural identification and consciousness. We need to convey this sense as a source, not of anxiety and fear, but of celebration and possibility. (p. 90)

Occasionally Shapiro’s vision might be accused of lapsing into platitude, such as when he urges that children need to learn that “we all are part of an undivided unity, or oneness, where there are no limits or borders to our responsibility to care for, and ensure the dignity of, others in our world” (p. 140). Such limitless responsibility, while arguably true in the abstract, requires some sense of priority if students—or any of us—are to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of need around us. Regardless, Shapiro does an admirable job of demonstrating both the acuity of that need and the importance of rethinking our educational vision to help meet it.

Not surprisingly, the growing shift toward educational privatization receives ample criticism in Losing Heart. But the relevant distinctions here would seem to be less about their outward status as “public” or “private” entities, and more about the ways in which those educational experiences reflect and engage the diversity of society. Residential segregation makes many public schools as unlike “common schools” as private ones. While Shapiro is correct that the “private school advantage” is often a matter of selective admission, it can also exist in terms of organizational flexibility and responsiveness—conditions vital for the transformation that Losing Heart so fervently advocates.

If social change is to be achieved, Shapiro contends, we need not only an ongoing critique of our current condition, but also the capacity to envision a new way of being in the world and relating to one another. Students need to believe that they can “make history” (p. 177) as well as learn it, to continually “pierce the veil of images that inundate their world” (p. 104). While there are certainly public school teachers and administrators who strive mightily to help students think critically about their society and democracy, Shapiro is justified in questioning whether we have abandoned (or perhaps ever had) such commitments on the whole. Shapiro’s point that social context inevitably mediates our interpretations and understandings is, of course, an essential recognition for critical education; nevertheless, there is a certain irony in his significantly bolder assertion that “true objective knowledge does not exist anywhere” (p. 106).

Shapiro sharply criticizes our society for its creation of systems of exclusion and oppression, and our schools for perpetuating such injustices. The critique of schools as “sorters” of children, demanding conformity or exclusion according to a singular metric of value, is not a new one; nevertheless, Shapiro’s narrative here is both compelling in and of itself and in the ways he draws connections to broader societal values. At the same time, Shapiro recognizes that the transformation he seeks will not emerge simply as a result of reforming schools: “There is no greater obfuscation in our ideology than to believe that changing the culture of school will somehow bring some immediate change to our larger social world” (p. 132).

Shapiro also criticizes universities for scholarship and teaching that largely reinforce current trends and priorities in education rather than seeking to transform them. But he also acknowledges that “deep wellsprings of faith and commitment” do exist among educators, if only they are willing to articulate and live them out in their work. Here, it would seem, is a central challenge for teacher educators working with preservice teachers who share Shapiro’s vision: how to help them navigate the current realities without losing heart themselves. While the final two chapters of Losing Heart offer specific curricular recommendations focused on “peace education” and a Jewish pedagogy of Tikkun Olam (the imperative to heal and repair the world) the challenges of how to implement these in our current schooling contexts will require further attention. This would likely mean a more tactical (and perhaps modest) approach than Shapiro’s book advocates, but still one rooted in the faith that change is possible.

Losing Heart is a passionate, prophetic call for change to schools and society. Prophetic voices do not tend to strike a measured tone; if the powers that be take offense, so be it. But the downside of such an approach is that the vital messages of this book might be too easily dismissed by those who feel excluded by some of his rhetoric. This seems particularly unfortunate and unnecessary in the context of political affiliation. Shapiro’s text is sprinkled with critical references to “right-wing politicians” and even a dig at the shopping habits and honesty of Gov. Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba. While Shapiro is certainly entitled to his political perspective as well as moral indignation, it may suggest to some readers—despite his occasional qualifications to the contrary—that they cannot share his concerns about schools’ achievement ideology or society’s misplaced priorities if they don’t share his politics.

These criticisms offered here should not be taken as a rejection of Shapiro’s overall message, however. Rather, they are made in light of an appreciation for all this book has to offer, and the hope that it would speak to as wide an audience as possible. While it’s true that a prophetic voice is often not a popular one, a critical mass of “converts” is surely necessary if the message is to be more than a prediction of inevitable doom. Such pessimism is surely not Shapiro’s message; even amidst the misplaced priorities and injustices he decries, he still sees the democratic promise of our schools. In his words, “Education needs to be understood as more than simply a mirror that reflects the existing culture; it may also represent a light that directs our way to a more hopeful future” (p. 178).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13743, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:23:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Kunzman
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT KUNZMAN is assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Education, and his scholarship focuses on the intersection of religion, citizenship, and education. He is the author of Grappling with the Good: Talking about Religion and Morality in Public Schools (SUNY, 2006), and is currently researching homeschooling philosophies and practices across the United States.
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