Before heading to a BBQ at a friend's house the other day, I consulted with my child-development expert (a.k.a. my sister Julie) about appropriate gifts for the couple's two young children. When she suggested that one can't go wrong with books, I vociferously objected. Let the kids learn how to read on their parents' dime, I argued. Me, I'll just load them up with a bunch of sporting gear, in the chance that they become millionaire jocks and reward my early patronage with an Escalade or three.

Predictably, the kiddie lacrosse sticks went over quite well, even if a sitting-room lamp became a casualty of the afternoon's festivities. When I got home that night, however, I was spooked to find an education-first magazine, Edutopia, peeking out of my mailbox. Its very presence sent a chill up my spine, as if somebody was trying to remind me that educators are one of the most important influences in a young child's life, that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Or is it baste? Whichever.

In any event, I dove into Edutopia--the flagship publication of The George Lucas Educational Foundation--hoping to atone for the day's sins against intellectual advancement. Plus maybe I'd learn a little something about the direction in which pre-college education has careened since I bailed on the seventh grade to pursue my first passion, jazz dance.

The problem with this plan? Edutopia doesn't offer a whole lot beyond rosy we-done-good stories communicated in pancake-flat fashion. While the mag's stated mission is to contribute to its parent organization's efforts to "reinvent schools for the 21st Century," it does little besides highlight a handful of do-gooders. Worse, little of the highlighted do-good-ishness strikes me as particularly revolutionary. For all of Edutopia's rapturous exhalations about "Outlaw Educators" and "think[ing] outside the test," the mag fails to convey the novelty and/or genius of these individuals and their tactics.

I applaud the editors for resisting what must have been a powerful temptation to spell "Cool Schools" with a final, decisive 'z.' Alas, the stories under that banner (one about an artsy private California institution, the other about an inner-city music academy) don't clear the so-what? bar, plus the former loses its credibility courtesy of a subhed discussing how "art and research magically interweave." Magic? More than any institution this side of hospitals, schools deal with crippling realities on a day-to-day basis; attributing genuine successes to the "magical" interplay of art and research is an insult to the minds behind them.

There are a few items in the July/August issue worth salvaging. I didn't realize that Jane Goodall was one, still breathing, and two, interacting with primates of a higher order than chimps and/or my college buddies... so her piece on service-learning surprises for all the right reasons. The article on school design calls attention to an oft-ignored aspect of education, while the story on the need for teaching apprenticeships makes all kinds of valid points--even if it doesn't adequately address the issue of economic feasibility.

And happily, after a few weeks of relative coherence, we can add another candidate to our list of contenders for the 2006 Worst Opening Paragraph award. "The landscape--or shall we call it the dreamscape?--of American fitness is littered with exercise machines gathering dust in garages and closets and on apartment balconies. There are lots of reasons for this vast national neglect (human inertia, insufficient results, and mechanical failure among them), but two common problems --the narrow range of muscles strengthened by a given machine and the unsatisfying function of the device itself--are brilliantly solved by the Concept2 Indoor Rower, now in the fourth stage of a truly successful evolution."

I can't believe I just wasted my time--and now yours--reproducing that crapbag paragraph. I won't even bother to tackle the question of why an education mag would devote a random page to plugging obscure fitness gear. Sounds like a little "vast" neglect on everybody's part, eh?

Anyway, I sincerely admire what the folks at Edutopia are trying to accomplish. The world, after all, needs more magazines about education and fewer about educating gals to make sure the cuffs match the collar, ifyaknowhutimean. Unfortunately, once you get past its good intentions, Edutopia offers little that sparks the imagination or intellect. Its writers and editors may know a whole bunch about teaching kids, but they could sure use a primer in lucid magazine construction.

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