David Kirp

David L. Kirp, James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, from which this article is adapted.

Recent Articles

End of the World, Amen

Tales of the cataclysm have long been a cinematic staple, and since the movie industry is perpetually on the lookout for ways to turn a profit from the zeitgeist, this seems an especially apt moment for such films. Two have been brought out this season: End of Days , the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and the Canadian indie movie Last Night . Though in many respects they come from different cinematic planets, both films reveal how, in these unfocused times, we make sense of ourselves and our society. This kind of sense-making is an essential aspect of end-of-the-world movies. What changes, tellingly, is the nature of the threat as well as how we respond. Each era, it seems, gets the cataclysm it deserves. However well artistry serves as camouflage, all the most memorable cataclysm films of the 1950s and 1960s-- On the Beach , The War of the Worlds , Invasion of the Body Snatchers , and Dr. Strangelove --are morality plays. They embody an ethical certainty, a sense of right and...

Women on the Verge

E rin Brockovich is the quintessential star vehicle--for nearly two hours, Julia Roberts is almost never out of camera range--but it's also the kind of message movie we haven't seen for a while. It's the latest and biggest of the "feisty woman" movies, eponymously titled and mostly true tales of working women who, against impossibly long odds, defeat the enemies of the people. Critics and audiences are having such a fine time with the film because it ladles a hefty helping of sex appeal into its Capra-esque message. T he plot, sans sexiness, has a familiar ring. The central figure in Norma Rae (1979)--Sally Fields, in an Oscar-winning performance--is stuck in a dead-end job in a southern textile mill. She discovers her true vocation when a labor organizer comes to town. At the film's memorable climax, she implores her fellow workers to defy the company; she is Joan of Arc amid the industrial din, valiantly holding up a sign that reads, simply, "Union." While Norma Rae is fiction, the...

Race to the Goal Line

T he scene looks like the boot camp episode that figures in countless war movies. In the dead quiet of night, young men are rudely roused from their sleep. Ordered to run their hearts out, they slip-slide across treacherous terrain, willing themselves not to collapse since they know that anyone who doesn't make it will be washed out. But this is a movie about the making of high school football players, not soldiers--more precisely, it's a film based on a true story of the making of an integrated football team amid the racial fire storm of Alexandria, Virginia, summer 1971, on the eve of the court-mandated desegregation of T.C. Williams High School. During preseason training camp at Gettysburg College, black and white players have manned the racial barricades, coming together only to taunt or fight. That's the division their new coach, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington)--a black man hired in the wake of racial riots--means at all costs to break down. The night run ends abruptly at the...

Poison Ivy

N ovelists delight in retailing life and times in the academy. Write about what you know, the adage goes, and many authors stay solvent by teaching their craft to the next generation of literary hopefuls. Besides, what transpires in the intellectual padded cells of institutions of higher learning provides ample fodder for stories told out of school. From one era to the next, certain themes recur: scabrous college politics, the narcissism of small differences, the chasm between rhetoric and reality. But at their best, these stories also reveal--more effectively than the soporific memoirs of ex-college presidents, or polemics about identity politics on campus, or mind-numbing social science data-dumps--the ever-changing culture of the academy. In this respect, the latest additions to the genre, Philip Roth's brilliantly realized The Human Stain and Francine Prose's equally, if quite differently, wonderful Blue Angel , are worth paying close attention to. As in many recent novels of...

Native Sons

Honky , by Dalton Conley. University of California Press, 231 pages, $22.50. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie , by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Ballantine (paper), 266 pages, $14.00. I n the 1970s, when Dalton Conley was growing up, Avenue D on New York City's Lower East Side was a dicey place. Masaryk Towers, the housing project where the Conleys lived, was intended as a place where poor and working-class families would live together. But almost as soon as Masaryk opened, it degenerated into a vertical slum where cops were shot in the elevators and girls were raped in the stairwells. The Conleys didn't fit the social profile of the projects--the mother was a writer, the father an artist (and horse-racing addict)--but their indifference to money made them eligible for public housing and their indifference to their surroundings led them to take what was offered. What it meant to be white in this world of color and what it meant, later, to be poor in a rich white world are the...

Pages