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Book Ends

Leave it to our urban high school principals — those stout-hearted, heroic figures, daily battling the forces of ignorance and cynicism — to come up with a novel approach to solve our nation’s public education woes. Yes, I said solve. As in, there’s an app for that. Who would have thought it would be as easy as converting school libraries into coffee shops?

At first blush, this seems like a smart business decision — clearing out all that stale inventory. Libraries, you must agree, are notorious money pits. Hardcover books? Might as well be saddled with a stockroom full of buggy whips.

But why stop with the library? With a little more outside-the-box thinking we can radically improve the bottom line. The gymnasium, for instance, would make an ideal auto parts warehouse. Plow that football field and put in alfalfa. So what if Principal James McSwain’s idea sounds disturbingly like a Marx Brothers’ film:

PROF. WAGSTAFF: Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.

HORRIFIED PROFESSORS: But, Professor, where will the students sleep?

PROF. WAGSTAFF: Where they always sleep. In the classroom.

A high school classmate of mine had a similar idea when he tried to turn Mr. Beine’s chemistry classroom into a meth lab. I lost track of him after his expulsion and subsequent incarceration, but he was obviously way ahead of his time.

Eventually, the cold light of reality sinks in, and you realize this is a high school library we’re talking about, and, like museums and the American auto industry, it wasn’t designed to turn a profit. Nor are the students supposed to learn anything practical, like how to plant and harvest cash crops.

Another thing. Maybe it’s not such a hot idea to keep high school students hopped up on high doses of caffeine, unless you really hate teachers, which a lot of people do because teachers get summers off, while the rest of us are chained to our desks year round. Besides, what was the point of the past twenty years of sedating millions of students with Ritalin if you’re only going to allow them to counteract their meds with a stimulant?

TO BE FAIR, the principal did replace the library books with 35 new laptop computers. That’s 35 laptops for some 3,000 students, which must make for lots of opportunities for teachable moments. Today’s lesson: sharing. Well, not really sharing, since as a practical matter, most of you will never come close to using one of these laptops. Today’s lesson updated: doing without…Oh, forget it. Just try not to kill each other.

What, then, are the other 2,965 laptop-less students supposed to do? Sure, some can update their Facebook status on their Blackberrys. But we’re talking about an inner-city school, and the administration won’t get around to purchasing 35 Blackberrys till they’ve finished throwing out all the test tubes and Bunson burners.

It’s not entirely clear, but the idea here seems to be that you can trick students into going to the library if you call the library something else — like a coffee shop — and then fool students even more by tossing out all the books and laying off the librarians and actually turning the library into a coffee shop. Boy, did we fool them kids! Suckers!

Or could the idea be that students simply will no longer read anything unless it appears on a screen and can be whooshed around with the swoosh of a finger? This, no doubt, explains the sudden popularity among teenagers of thick Russian novel eBooks, and is probably why my 17-year-old son and his formerly no-account friends spend hours at a time glued to their iPhones. Most adults assume they are texting their girlfriends, but in reality they are perusing The Brothers Karamozov and Anna Karenina, and all that thumb tapping is their way of scribbling insightful notes in the margin.

Or, perhaps, the idea is that students regard books as uncool, but haven’t yet made that association with computers, since on laptops you can play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or watch videos of cats playing ping-pong. (Let’s see a book do that!) So anything on a laptop must be cool, even math homework. Yeah, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Until I read this story, I had little hope for our nation’s urban schools. Now I see we’ll be saved by innovative, market-driven administrators utilizing the latest and most expensive technology.

So go ahead and tear down the colleges. At this rate, we won’t be needing them.

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