Cover to Cover

Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City
Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris

The American South has always been a place apart, and the South’s great historic port cities—Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Galveston—have themselves always been somewhat exotic implants in that eccentric region. In this book, the great naturalist E. O. Wilson, who grew up in Mobile, and the photographer Alex Harris evoke and explore that exceptional city and its surroundings. Fittingly, they emphasize the striking semitropical flora and fauna of the Mobile area—“The city sits in the middle of the biologically richest part of North America,” Wilson asserts, home to “the greatest diversity of aquatic organisms in America” and, yikes, some 40 species of snakes—and its astounding setting on the great, wide, nearly landlocked Mobile Bay.

But both authors concentrate on the city’s equally idiosyncratic culture and history. Founded by the French as the original capital of French Louisiana, in 1702 (Mardi Gras has been celebrated nearly continuously there since), Mobile was subsequently governed by Britain and Spain, before becoming part of the United States in 1813—most records of the city’s first 111 years are archived in Paris, London, Madrid, and Seville. Mobile’s Catholic population was historically the largest in the South, outside of New Orleans (the city has the South’s oldest Catholic college), and Jews played a prominent role in the city’s political and cultural life (Mobile’s congressman in the early 1850s was Jewish, as were two of its mayors).

For much of its history, the city, located on one of the continent’s great natural harbors, was essentially surrounded on three sides by nearly impenetrable wetlands and forests, which even today, Wilson says, make up “one of the largest surviving wildernesses in the eastern United States.” Mobile’s geography, as Wilson notes, exerted an “isolating effect” on the city’s relation­ship to the rest of the country, even while making Mobile unusually open to the rest of the world. The upshot, revealed in this uncommonly effective marriage of photographs and text, is a place at once deeply southern and more than a bit foreign.

In this important book, recently released in paperback, the skeptical, contrarian, and cheerfully pessimistic Stanford education professor Labaree trenchantly exposes the true purposes behind the establishment and the reforms of American public schools and explains why the institution can never fulfill the dreams of those who use it or those who attempt to improve it. The common system of public schools was established, in the years before the Civil War, to minimize the country’s growing class divisions and create a morally and civically minded populace to support the young republic; and even as the population grew increasingly diverse, public schools continued to be regarded as the panacea for maintaining equality. Reformers ever since have hoped to use the complex machinery of the schools to solve a vast array of social ills, although the goal has steadily shifted away from producing good citizens and toward training efficient workers.

As Labaree points out, however, the goals of the reformers and policy makers who sought to use the public schools to redress inequality by providing every­one with the same opportunity are directly at odds with the goals of the individual families—the consumers of public schools—who want to use education to either get ahead or to stay ahead. This is why, for instance, when those in the working class began to attend high school as a way to climb into the middle class, those in the middle class had to start going to college to keep in front of those who might displace them; and now that everyone goes to college, the elite must go on to graduate and professional schools.

Along with the problems inherent in this zero-sum game, Labaree delineates conflicts at many other levels in the enormous mechanism of American public schools, including the historical rift between what he calls administrative progressivism (responsible for the comprehensive high school, with tracking, wood shop, health classes, and physical education) and child-­centered progressivism (Dewey’s notion of self-directed learning, which has enormously influenced the rhetoric surrounding education, if not its practice); and the current divide between the baldly market-­driven “standards” movement and the “choice” movement, which rejects the entire framework of the system. His section on the incompatibility between the teachers (who must be ultra-­flexible and specialized in responding to their individual classes) and the policy makers (who must try to make one size fit all) is especially insightful and lively­—perhaps because it is the most partisan; he obviously sympathizes with the teachers.

Laba­ree tends to repeat points—telegraphing his argument, then making his argument, then explaining the argument he’s made—but his tone is so conversational, his prose so lucid and refreshingly free of academese, that such a fault is easy to overlook, especially since it’s in the service of clarifying a multipronged examination of a complicated subject. Conceding that it’s de rigueur to offer prescriptions, he does so at the end, but with the fatalistic sense that they will not—in fact, cannot—ever be followed. Americans want an egalitarian democracy, but they prize individualism; they demand utility, but they are forever socially optimistic. Our school system manifests these contradictory values in abundance, so no matter how often it’s reformed, it must perpetually thwart itself.

To appreciate the achievement of this quietly magnificent book, which offers a concise history of human origins and a survey of recent advances in paleo­anthropology, the reader should imagine the ways it could have gone wrong. On the one hand, it is far from inevitable that Tattersall—a curator emeritus in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the academy’s foremost experts on human evolution—would possess the expository abilities to write for the lay reader. On the other, owing to the scant nature of the evolutionary, fossil, and archaeological record, popular books on the development of Homo sapiens tend to be speculative, with arguments often untethered to evidence.

In this work, Tattersall always writes cleanly and engagingly, often gracefully, and even, occasionally, playfully. He ranges widely—from DNA sequences to stone artifacts, from skeletal morphology to ancient artifacts to carbon‑13 measurements in bones. He assesses evidence methodically, while synthesizing recondite and disparate material with economy. He arrives at his conclusions judiciously, drawing his inferences with strict evidentiary support, and he addresses counter­arguments conscientiously. The result is the finest and most up-to-date guide to a story that scientific advances are refining and illuminating at a rapid and accelerating pace: the often startling and disturbing story of the punctuated evolution of our species and our competition with and triumph over our hominid cousins.