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Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society

reviewed by Thomas V. O'Brien - 2004

coverTitle: Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society
Author(s): David Tyack
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674011988 , Pages: 185, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society David Tyack explores how Americans have attempted to use their public schools to create civil cohesion. Tyack is arguably the top American educational historian alive, and this book is evidence that Tyack has not lost a step as a scholar since retiring from

Stanford University . In many ways, then, this book has a certain déjà vu about it: In 1991, and at a similar point his notable career, Lawrence Cremin, then the reigning scholar of American educational history, published a small, powerful synthesis of the subject entitled Popular Education and It Discontents (1991). Tyack’s Seeking Common Ground is similarly a brief, but sparkling expression of the essence of his years of research.

America , Tyack begins, has been and continues to be landed with diverse groups who operate as part of a contentious democracy. He ends with a call for greater support for the public school. The book is divided into three main parts—unity, diversity, and democracy—each roughly 30 pages, and ends with a short reflection where Tyack both honors and critiques the vast public education enterprise. The public school, he contends, provides critical civic space for the exercise of democracy. Tyack urges citizens, whether they have children in the system or not, to support the public school, not so much to defend its primary mission of eradicating ignorance, but in order to be fully engaged in the rich tradition of participatory democracy. “The United States ,” writes Tyack, “would be much impoverished if the public school system went to ruin (p. 182).

In Part I, “Unity,” Tyack explores why Americans, in spite of their distrust of government, have entrusted the civic education of their children to the public schools. He explores how the founding fathers and the leaders who followed them, believed that freedom could only be sustained if Americans supported common political and civil principles. This, in part, was accomplished, argues Tyack, by writers of history textbooks, who used a grand narrative to instill patriot literacy. Following the lead of fellow historian of American Education Jonathan Zimmerman in Whose

America ? Culture Wars in the Public Schools(2002), Tyack points out how this strategy proved controversial as citizens clashed about who should be included in the narrative and whose values should triumph.

Part II, “Diversity,” deals with how school officials and teachers handled social diversity. Tyack examines how school policy and curricula were developed and presented to students based on social constructions of race, ethnicity, and gender. His historical treatment of racial segregation, assimilation, and separate curricular tracks for students based on these constructions, culminates with a look at the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Educators’ diagnoses of students’ abilities and capacities, he asserts, have had a profound impact on the structure of the school and its response to diversity. At the core of this Tyack raises a central question: Were students mostly the same or mostly different? How educators and policy makers answered (and continue to answer) this question has defined, in large part, how the public schools responded to diversity.

Tyack’s sketch on diversity, however, goes beyond the larger structural patterns and social forces, as he also attends to the “daily lives of individuals, obscure and famous” (p. 4). In this regard, the case of Leonard Covello, a

New York City teacher of Italian descent, is used to illustrate how some teachers went against the grain and rejected the fashionable practices of assimilation and parental interference in favor of multiculturalism and school-community involvement.

Part III, “Democracy,” is the build-up to Tyack’s main thesis that the public school has historically provided vital space for citizens to practice democracy on a local level. More than any other institution, the public school gave ordinary citizens a chance to engage in democratic processes, and to argue for competing visions of the good society. School experts, of course, as Tyack explains here and elsewhere (Tyack, 1974), have worked against these experiments in democracy by pushing steadily to weaken lay control. In doing so, education elites have sought to replace the conventional notion of democracy. For them democracy was not government by the people, but rather government by experts. Consequently, school elites, such as Ellwood P. Cubberley “produced elaborate bureaucracies based on model of business efficiency rather than democratic theory” (p. 5). Tyack ends with warning that it would be dangerous to follow a path that leads to narrower control of the enterprise. Allowing for the transformation of public schools into private enterprises, he cautions, would erode the very foundation of the school’s civic purpose.

Seeking Common Groundis a well-crafted and readable overview of American educational history. While not all of Tyack’s arguments are new, its breath, wisdom, and grace make it essential reading for undergraduates, graduates, and seasoned scholars alike who are looking for a short, up-to-date synthesis of the subject from the best scholar in the field.


Cremin L. A. (1991). Popular education and its discontents.

New York : Harper & Row.

Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education.

Cambridge MA : Harvard University Press.

Zimmerman, J. (2002). Whose

America ? Culture wars in the public schools. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 12, 2004, p. 2359-2361
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11327, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 7:53:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas O'Brien
    The Ohio State University at Mansfield
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS V. O'BRIEN is an Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of Educational Studies at The Ohio State University at Mansfield. His research interests include American educational history and school reform. He has published a number of historical studies, essays, and book reviews, including a book entitled The Politics of Schooling and Race: Public Education in Georgia, 1900-1961. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999.
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