The Public Schools
March 23, 2005
Susan H. Fuhrman and Marvin Lazerson, editors, Oxford University Press
This volume, in Annenberg's "Institutions of Democracy" series, compiles 14 chapters from different writers on the role of schools in a democratic society. Once you know that the bulk of the authors come from ed schools, you get a good idea of what will be said, and the authors generally do not disappoint. Thus we learn that "what the Greeks defined as classical liberal training for broad civic engagement has been largely displaced by regimented instruction in many nations, simply to fit graduates into neoclassical tenets that advance markets and material consumption," that the curriculum frameworks of E.D. Hirsch are "unwieldy and random," and of course that "voucher programs challenge the very publicness of education." Even worse, there is only brief discussion of the quality of civic and historical education today; instead, of course, the dominant barriers to developing good citizens are that schools might not do enough to teach students how to "deliberate," and that the "subordinate status" of teachers means they "cannot be good models for their students and teach in ways that encourage independent thought and action" (for students learn about democracy in part "through the conduct of their classes and school") - as if it were obvious that all organizations are best run as mini-democracies. One author dares support choice (among public schools, anyway), but mostly to combat the persistent "customs of racial steering in home-buying and apartment rentals" that keep minorities out of good school districts. Ultimately, the book offers a window into the views of ed school professors, which would be more interesting if each chapter weren't a little longer than necessary and a little too dry. Not that the book has nothing to offer. A chapter chronicling the history of state and federal roles in offering public schooling is of use and the short case-studies of schooling's role in Turkish and South African societies are interesting. It's soon to be available via www.oup.com.