Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society
reviewed by Thomas V. O'Brien - 2004
Title: Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society
Author(s): David Tyack
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674011988 , Pages: 185, Year: 2003
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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
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
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
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.
Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education.
Zimmerman, J. (2002). Whose