For Mortal Stakes: Solutions for Schools and Society

Paul F. Cummins and Anna K. Cummins

New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 212 pp. [$24.95]



Reviewed by Arthur R. Poskocil

Here is a book that every American concerned with the state of public schooling should read. In it, the authors make a powerful argument as to why education must be directed toward the whole child and undertaken within the context of our entire social and moral being as a nation.

Paul Cummins, the founder and president of Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California, has enjoyed a distinguished career in education as teacher, school administrator, and writer. He is also a published poet. Anna Cummins, Pau#146;s daughter and also an educator, contributed in the book’s preparation and wrote the chapter on gender. Their collaboration has produced a work that is remarkably discerning about who children are and might become, and how the educational process may help or hinder their growth.

In this book, Paul Cummins talks the talk. At Crossroads School, he has demonstrated admirably his ability to also walk the walk. Crossroads is very much a Deweyan school , though Cummins neither mentions Dewey nor, in general, seeks name-dropping corroboration of this book’s clearly and simply expressed philosophical orientation. The school is Deweyan in the sense that it seeks to establish a community rooted in an ongoing conversation about who we are and what we are about as a society.

The most distinctive and defining characteristic of Crossroads School is its council process, which was launched as an experience for seniors but has gradually been extended throughout the K-12 curriculum. At council, the class sits in a circle and a few clear and fully respected rules are followed:

Each person in the circle is allowed a chance to speak, uninterrupted, and each person much listen to others without speaking. The rules of the council are simple: (1) speak from the heart; (2) listen from the heart; (3) be clear and concise.

Although Paul Cummins anticipated a three-pronged attack on the council from parents, students, and faculty, only the teachers grumbled, and only at first. Parents instantly loved the program’s results, reporting that “their children were coming home and initiating discussions about friendship, respect, listening, the complexities of modern living”—the kinds of issues that parents themselves never seem able to successfully broach with their children, as the comic strip Zits reminds us almost daily.

This book pointedly rejects any notion that the mission of the public schools is, or possibly can be, exclusively concerned with the child’s cognitive development. It is not a question of weighing such development against children’s emotional and social needs, but rather, that ignoring or denying these other needs must inevitably result in failure to achieve even the circumscribed goals of the “back to basics” proponents.

Childhood, Paul Cummins deeply believes, needs to be respected by educators and all adults as “an end in itself, a time of innocent celebration of life” (4). If it is viewed instead as simply a preparatory stage for adulthood, it will fail to produce well-educated adults. It will fail because it offers children too little incentive for genuine learning—learning that engages children by respecting who they are now, rather than the dispassionate and disconnected learning-for-later that is almost universally demanded of them.

Not only must educators eschew “inert routine, boredom and pressure to perform on tests,” but they need to acknowledge that the real goals of education are “passion, joy, and engagement” (7). Children will learn if we trust their desire to know, if we stimulate rather than suppress their natural passion to understand, and if we set them a good example. What example should a teacher set in a course on, say, American history? In Paul Cummins’s view,

I would want in any American history class—at any grade leve#151;an examination of recent events where we now know that the government did not tell the truth to the American people: the Tonkin Gulf incident, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the bombing of Cambodia, the Panama-Noriega debacle, the savings and loan crisis, the CIA/Allende/ Chile actions, and the covert actions against Nicaragua. Students are not demoralized by reading about and discussing such events. On the contrary, they are empowered when they are presented with attempts to discover the truth (81).

What are the highest and best, and at the same time, the most practical purposes our educational system can address? The authors propose four goals: to develop in each child a responsibility to posterity, a reverence for life, a commitment to social justice, and a commitment to community. Surely these goals make immense good sense, and just as surely, they are almost utterly ignored as educational mandates. And, while we might find general agreement about their desirability, most Americans seem to believe that they will be achieved outside of schoo#151;in church, at home, by osmosis. That is patently wrong, however, because these things are not being learned—not in a culture that at best pays them lip service, but more often effectively subverts them because, face it, they are generally bad for business.

We live in a world that routinely puts corporate interests ahead of human needs and environmental concerns. We live in a world where presidents lie; where elections are bought and politicians owned; where wars are often fought in the service of someone’s economic and political advantage; and where we as a people are eager to increase public spending for prisons at $25,000 per prisoner per year, yet chary of every cent of the $5,000 per year we spend on a child’s education.

As this book observes, “we must take on the challenge of examining the values we have embraced which have led to the calamitous mess we are in” (67). Yet most teachers and parents act, in relation to their children, as though there were no world of injustice and threat out there. This approach to education—in failing to address or even acknowledge critical public issues—is, in the authors’ eyes, “at best foolish, at worst immensely dangerous”(8). It is foolish for a number of reasons, most notably that children will learn on their own enough of the truth to judge our silence as hypocrisy. It is dangerous because the greatest hope for the next generation is that they may be better prepared to address these critical issues than we have been; but for this to be possible, they must be shown this world for what it is, rather than falsely and ineffectively shielded from it. As Paul Cummins succinctly states:

The challenge for schools is to help the young find meaning in the world they live in; a world dominated by codes of greed and progress no matter what the human and environmental cost, of racial and ethnic divisiveness, of widening separation between rich and poor, and of religious factionalism (173).

It may begin to sound, from my own dark emphasis, that Cummins wants educators to turn their classrooms into full-time arenas for a relentless sociological game of “Ain’t-it-Awfu#148;; but, despite this book’s insistence on calling things by their real name, that is only a precondition for learning that he envisages to be, ultimately, life-affirming and celebratory. His hope is that

[s]chools of the future will not be just places to learn how to climb up the economic ladder, but instead they will be places where students—of all ages—learn the arts of living; these arts would include play (everything from chess to a musical instrument); the arts themselves—music, dance, theatre, visual arts, creative writing, storytelling; written history and oral histories; gardening and crafts; filmmaking and photography—the list is virtually endless.(182)

I began by suggesting that For Mortal Stakes is a book every American should read. In fact, it is a book we shouldn’t need to read, since everything it says is so obviously true. But it is worth engaging with these authors, who perceive so clearly the failures of our educational system, yet retain an infectious optimism that we may yet become a nation where joyful, passionate, and effective teaching and learning prevail. While their plea for more humane education of our children may seem poignantly quixotic, it need not be, if enough of us take their message to heart.


Arthur R. Poskocil is associate professor of sociology at Hollins University, Roanoke, Virginia.