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It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

First, Families

By Katherine Paterson
It Takes A Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. By Hillary Rodham Clinton. 318 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $20.

Early in "It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us," Hillary Rodham Clinton recalls an anecdote about a professional football coach who began training camp every year by holding up a football and announcing: "Gentlemen, this is a football." I kept that story in mind, if out of context, as I sat down to write this review. Even those of us who live far from the centers of power know that this first effort by a highly visible public figure has been launched upon a sea of controversy. But the reviewer's task is to focus on the book, to ask what it sets out to do and to say how well that goal is accomplished.

This, to return the football story to its proper context, is a book about the basics, for nothing could be more basic than the way a nation cares for its children. The title is taken from the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." The village of the present, however, is not the suburb or small town of memory or nostalgia but the global village, the "network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives." Using stories from her own family and her experience as a child advocate, Mrs. Clinton gathers together reports familiar to many of us who work with children, but possibly new to many citizens, which show where the children of today find themselves.

Mrs. Clinton summarizes studies about how children develop physically, mentally and spiritually, and presents various models of the village, or "civil society," taking seriously the needs of children and a society's own responsibility to meet those needs. The models are drawn from as far away as rural Indonesia and as close as the local Kiwanis Club. There are folksy reminders of the role each of us needs to play -- "You can't roll up your sleeves and get to work if you're still wringing your hands" -- and the point is made often and vigorously that as a nation, we do not lack information but rather the will to do what is best.

In rebuttal to the controversial book on race and intelligence "The Bell Curve," she cites the Abecedarian Project, led by the University of North Carolina psychologist and educator Craig Ramey and begun in the 1970's. More than a hundred low-income black infants, whose parents' average I.Q. was 85, were provided with good nutrition and intellectual stimulation in a preschool where specially trained teachers talked and interacted with the children. A "home-school resource teacher" met with the parents regularly to help them understand the value of talking and reading to their babies and suggesting appropriate ways to play with their growing children. By the age of 3, the experimental group of children tested 17 points higher on I.Q. tests than the children in the control group. These gains were sustained during years of follow-up study even though the children had gone on to a variety of schools.

"Bear this research in mind," Mrs. Clinton says, "when you listen to those who argue that our nation cannot afford to implement comprehensive early education programs for disadvantaged children and their families. If we as a village decide not to help families develop their children's brains, then at least let us admit that we are acting not on the evidence but according to a different agenda." Mrs. Clinton approvingly quotes Mr. Ramey, who says, "If we had a comparable level of knowledge with respect to a particular form of cancer or hypertension or some other illness that affected adults, you can be sure we would be acting with great vigor."

So yes, Mrs. Clinton has certainly offered us a book with a political agenda. But it is an agenda that Americans should find compelling. For what it costs to keep a young man in prison for a year, we could have paid his fees at an exclusive private university. But there's been no great public demand that we send the most disadvantaged of our children to Harvard and throw away the key.

The most engaging parts of the book are the glimpses into the personal life of the First Lady and her family. It would be hard for even Senator Alfonse D'Amato not to smile at the picture of the Clintons assembled after dark on the parking lot of the Arkansas Governor's mansion, throwing a coconut against the pavement until it cracked, so that Chelsea, who admired the storybook character Curious George, could see what a coconut was like.

For those in the village who devote their lives to children, it is surely heartening to see the particular encouraging examples Mrs. Clinton cites. Problems that seem unsolvable in one place have been elsewhere addressed successfully. Reading Recovery, a program that began in New Zealand, takes first graders who are reading poorly and brings nine out of ten of them to grade level within a few months, after which no further remedial intervention is necessary. Robert Moses, the former civil rights leader, developed a method of teaching algebra that has been widely disseminated. The Algebra Project has made a lie of the conventional wisdom that disadvantaged students do not have the innate intelligence to master advanced mathematical concepts. "It Takes a Village" is filled with such creative programs, which not only meet the needs of children and their parents but, in the long run, save our communities and our nation lives and money.

THE examples Mrs. Clinton uses are taken from many sources. She quotes words of wisdom from William Bennett and the psychiatrist Robert Coles and lauds programs begun under Republican Presidents as well as citing good work done under her husband's administrations in Arkansas and Washington. It is, in short, a gathering together of problems and real solutions, framed by stories that are fun to hear and laced with the occasional folksy observation. As readable as it is, though, one wishes that someone had thought the book scholarly enough to merit an index.

"Children who go unheeded," Robert Coles has reminded us, "are children who are going to turn on the world that neglected them." Somehow our village must have the gumption to elect to power and support those people who share Mrs. Clinton's belief that "nothing is more important to our shared future than the well-being of our children."

New York Today

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

May not be reproduced or transmitted without permission.

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