David Whitman's new book, which George Will wrote about today in his Washington Post column (see above), contains the word paternalism. Whitman uses it to describe a particular type of urban school that succeeds in teaching its poor and minority students largely because it focuses on discipline and hard work (and takes pride in both). Such a school is paternalistic because it substitutes a culture of hard work, respect, motivation, etc. for the culture that its pupils are likely to encounter in their neighborhoods--one of irresponsibility, crime, and vice. Sounds like the right word to us--and to Will. But the Post's Jay Mathews writes that he "hates" the word paternalism because it "carries one of the heaviest loads of negativity I can imagine." Mathews thinks the term connotes the "harmful doings of stiff-necked dads" and ignores the "warmth and respect" that these high-flying schools show their students. Some education bloggers strongly disagree with Mathews. Others are agnostic about the word (writing, for example, that the book's content is more important than its paternalism subtitle); Whitman himself tends to (somewhat) agree with this camp. Regardless of what you call 'em, though, these schools are doing awesome things--with that we can all agree.
"Great little schools without a name," by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, August 18, 2008