Nagging for success

In Nagging for Success in City Journal, I review David Whitman’s book on paternalistic, transformative schools, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.

“Nagging is love,” I used to tell my daughter. “I am a much-loved child,” she’d reply. And so it is: if you care about a kid, you tell her what she’s doing right and what she’s doing wrong. You stick with her when she makes mistakes. You honor her successes. You nag. . . . To give disadvantaged students a shot at college and mainstream success, (Whitman) argues, schools must teach “not just how to think but how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional middle-class values.”

My book, Our School, which makes a lovely and thoughtful holiday gift, is about a charter high school that sweats small, medium and large stuff to prepare students to succeed in college.

About Joanne


  1. And if you haven’t read Our School, you should. Joanne’s “breezy” writing style here on the blog is carried over to her work. You feel like you know these kids and their teachers.

    And no, I don’t get a “commish” for saying this 🙂

  2. Joanne, thanks for a terrific review! I love City Journal as much as I love your work, and I was overjoyed to see the two together. I’ll definitely check out the books…Whitmer’s and yours!

  3. Irfan Khawaja says:

    Isn’t there an unintended downside to pedagogical paternalism? Suppose that a student schooled in paternalist fashion makes it to college. The college is not going to operate in “in loco parentis” fashion. Though there are exceptions, for the most part, few “paternalists” at college are going to tell you to wake up on time, get to class, tuck in your shirt, sit up straight, study for your exams, be abstinent/use a condom (choose your preferred policy here), do your assignments, and choose your courses with care. In some cases, if you fail to do these things, nothing will happen: no one in college cares about whether your shirt is tucked in. In other cases, if you fail to make the right decision or perform the right action, you will fail out of school, and that is that. For better or worse, the decision, the action, and the consequences devolve on the student.

    How well does pedagogical paternalism prepare these students for the independence and autonomy required of them in college? I’m skeptical.
    I admit that students who attend an orderly school are bound to be better than students who attend a disorderly one. But if they come to college with the expectation that someone will be there to babysit them, look after them, hold their hands, scold them, nag them, and generally tell them what to do, they will be sadly mistaken.

    I’ve taught at the college level now for 14 years. I’m always amazed at the conventionally “good” students who are incapable of functioning except at command. If you tell them, “Read X for next time,” they will do it. Then they will come to class and ask you what thoughts they are “supposed to have” about X. If you ask them what they themselves think about X, they search for an authority figure who has the answer. When you tell them that there is no such authority figure, they get frustrated: nothing in their educations seems to have prepared them for the need to be intellectual self-starters. They can hear, they can obey, they’re nice and respectable in the middle class sense, but they have zero capacity to think for themselves. Maybe this is an advance over blank illiteracy, but do we really want our colleges full of students like this?

  4. That’s a good point, Irfan. At Downtown College Prep, the school in my book, seniors get a lot more freedom to prepare them for the freedom they’ll have in college. They’re also coached on how to meet academic, financial and personal challenges. Most students have proven to be resilient.

    DCP and other college-prep schools for first-to-college students also provide counseling support — usually by e-mail — to their graduates to keep them on track to a college degree.

  5. Irfan Khawaya:

    I think there’s a difference between “pedogogical paternalism” and “helicopter parents”. My parents – and I suspect these schools – didn’t tell me what do without expecting that they’d only have to tell me once, or maybe twice if I was very slow. Punctual? Independent worker? You shouldn’t need hand-holding past the initial beginning. Those kids you’re dealing with are the ones who went to a school that let them cruise, and had parents that let them cruise too.

  6. Irfan Khawaja says:

    A quick response to both Joanne and Elena:

    I guess what both of you have said is fair enough–assuming that the people running these “paternalistic” schools agree with you. Obviously, it’s unrealistic to have a completely laissez-faire attitude at the K-12 level, and you could make a case that even at the college level there needs to be more active coaching of some kind. I do think that there is a trade-off between paternalism and long-run autonomy: the more paternalistic the school is, the more students’ sense of initiative atrophies. But there’s a balance to be struck between pedagogical authority and student freedom–you need both–and I agree with the authors of the book that it’s important for the people in charge to “sweat the small stuff.”

    On a different point, I’m glad to have found this blog (through City Journal). I’ve recently accepted assignments to review Charles Murray’s “Real Education” and Anthony Kronman’s “Education’s End” for the online journal Democratiya, so I’m trying to get up to speed on what people are thinking and saying about the K-12 education scene, a topic I haven’t really thought about…since 12th grade! This is helping me catch up.