Book Review: Whatever It Takes

Paul Tough on Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America.

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


It’s a familiar story: A guy from the hood does good, then returns to lift up the folks back home. A reporter shadows him, showing us the bullet holes, the exhausted yet heroic crusader, the teary graduation ceremony. Whatever It Takes fits into the inner-city redemption genre, but thankfully, Paul Tough avoids its traps. His subject, Geoffrey Canada, is the head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a conveyor belt of conception-to-graduation services and schools that he hopes will “contaminate” Harlem with education and upward mobility. Canada’s strategy, as Tough puts it, is to “borrow some of the new ideas from the manic superparents downtown and combine them with the hanging-out-on-the-stoop beliefs that he grew up with” to create a new black middle class. His Baby College gets pregnant teenagers to talk to their fetuses, preschoolers study French, and eighth-graders at his Promise Academy Charter School stay in class through July.

Canada is admirable, but not always appealing. He is so obsessed with his students acing state tests that he forces second-graders to cram for third-grade exams. When he fires a principal who questions the value of 7 a.m. prep sessions, many teachers follow her out the door. “If we want this thing to work,” Canada says, “we’ve got to act more like Wal-Mart…It doesn’t matter that they’re selling flat-screen TVs and we’re educating children.”

Whatever It Takes breaks from the Stand and Deliver arc that requires every setback to be followed by a triumph. Even as Tough zooms in to profile people Canada has helped, he is aware of the decades of similar yet unsuccessful anti-poverty programs. In the final chapters, he strains to cast a rosy glow on his flawed hero—perhaps because Barack Obama has vowed to “combat urban poverty” by replicating Canada’s model. Yet Tough, smartly and rightly, leaves us wondering if this is the approach to implement, and whether Canada has finally cracked the question, “Why are poor people poor?”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate