The Week in Books, No. 44

I picked up Why Spy?: Espionage in an Age of Uncertainty by Fred Hitz because Hitz was my thesis advisor at Princeton and I took several of his classes. I would absolutely recommend this book if you have wondered about the intelligence community, spying, or counterterrorism at all. Hitz developed his perspective working for the CIA in various capacities and as its independent Inspector General during a crucial period of time, so he does approach his topic from a broad viewpoint and with, I think, an evenhanded and insightful tone. Based on my experience in my former line of work, I found Hitz’s observations to be accurate and helpful.

Unlike some public sources on this topic, Hitz has a clear understanding of the need for and problems inherent in cooperation between international and domestic intelligence (CIA vs. FBI), and an appreciation for how strategic and tactical intelligence analysis is crucial to, not secondary to, operations. I thought his discussion of the problems facing both agencies after 9/11 was fair and although I had a slightly different take on a few of the points he raised, overall I agreed with his analysis and conclusions.

Again, I’d recommend this book to you as an engaging and informative look at a part of the government that many people misunderstand.

Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It
by Jane Healy is a fascinating look at how changes in our culture are affecting the way our children learn and even how their brains are wired. Healy admits up front that her research is likely to touch a nerve, because a lot of well-meaning parents may be taking a flawed approach with how they interact (or not) with their kids, and I think we all know that parents tend to bristle when someone suggests that they are harming their children. Healy has an interesting perspective, because she is an educational psychologist, and has spent much of her career in the public school system and at public universities. Her research is based on neuroscience, but a significant portion of the book is devoted to the problems she sees in public education. Many of her recommendations track closely (although I am not sure she was aware of it) to the Charlotte Mason educational approach, such as the importance of discussing ideas with children, doing narration and reading aloud, teaching children to think, and developing good habits of the mind.

The basic conclusion Healy draws from numerous studies is that children’s minds continue to develop after birth, and that although heredity plays a key role in the way brains function and how intelligent a child will become, environmental factors play a key role as well – particularly “screen time” while children are in developmentally crucial years up to age 6 or so. In those early years, it appears that children’s brains form connections and habits that last, and that they best ways to foster good growth are reading aloud, having good two way conversations one-on-one with the child, and allowing him to experience things for himself rather than overscheduling, having him spend the majority of his time in group situations, or expecting that he will learn from TV or computers. I know that is a controversial line to take, and I don’t think Healy intends to make parents feel bad as it appears she was a working mother herself. I think her goal is to make sure parents understand what they are doing and make the most of their time, and to help teachers understand how to cope with kids who don’t get enough personal interaction and stimulation.

I was heartily dismayed by the statistics and studies cited in this book. Healy cites some truly staggering statistics about the amount of time the average western child (she notes that this is not merely an American phenomenon and uses statistics and studies from France, England, and other western nations as well as American sources) spends watching TV, playing on computers and with video games, and so forth, while also noting that for the first time researchers and teachers are starting to see middle class and upper class kids who are even less well prepared academically than disadvantaged kids, because they aren’t read to or spoken with the way advantaged kids in previous generations generally were. One woman Healy interviewed heads up an exclusive preschool on Manhattan’s upper east side, and also works with homeless kids. The woman noted that amazingly the wealthy children were only marginally better off than the homeless kids because neither group is getting the emotional or intellectual nourishment they need.

I also found it interesting that Healy devoted an entire chapter to why Sesame Street is NOT educational, but rather has a deleterious effect on children’s ability to learn. At first I was skeptical, but as I read her reasoning and looked at the evidence, I understood what she meant.

I would recommend this book to parents or people who are thinking of becoming parents, as long as you can take a deep breath and not freak out and read the book as I think it was intended, which is suggestions for how best to help your kids and things to think about and consider as you attempt to do your best by them, not as a condemnation or attempt at fear-mongering.

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