Education and Justice: A View from the Back of the Bus
reviewed by Kenneth A. Strike - 2001
Title: Education and Justice: A View from the Back of the Bus
Author(s): Edmund W. Gordon
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807738441, Pages: 224, Year: 1999
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This fine book by one of America’s most eminent educational psychologists as well as one of its foremost African American educators consists in a collection of essays spanning twenty-five years of Edmund Gordon’s work. The essays have been reworked, occasionally it appears by a second author, so as to hang together as a single work.
The essays are grouped into three major sections. Part I entitled A View from the Back of the Bus, is used to "pose the problems of diversity, equity, and excellence within their sociopolitical contexts." This section frames the material in the rest of the book. Its essays include a useful and critical discussion of the view of intelligence in Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) The Bell Curve and an especially valuable discussion of cultural dissonance as a risk factor in the development of students. The essays seek to bring together discussions of equity for at risk students, multiculturalism, and school reform.
Part II entitled Toward Equity in Educational Achievement is used to develop a conception of education and to discuss the conditions for its realization. There is a discussion of the resources needed for equal achievement, the development of a contextual and ecological conception of learning, a discussion of the role of counseling, and a chapter on assessment.
Part III entitled Cultural Diversity and Education discusses the role of culture in the behavioral and social sciences and connects this discussion to themes of diversity and cultural hegemony in schooling as well as to what Gordon calls communicative bias in knowledge production in the social sciences.
These essays might best be read as an intellectual autobiography. They give us insight into the life’s work of one of our foremost educators. Nevertheless, all of the essays are of current interest. While current debates about school reform are only an occasional theme discussed in the book, the book’s significance might best be judged by contrasting the depth of Gordon’s vision of education with what seems by comparison the narrowness of many current visions of school reform. Two themes about education and learning stand out. The first is that Gordon sees education broadly as human development that includes, but is certainly not limited to, academic achievement. The second is that Gordon has an ecological view of learning. This view recognizes the significance both of context and of culture in learning. Gordon’s approach to education carefully avoids the preoccupation with a narrow, test defined, conception of educational achievement; it substitutes a recognition of the importance for education of both cultural and individual differences for the "one size fits all" conception of the standards movement; and it provides a rich and contextualized vision of good learning environments as an alternative to the preoccupation with incentives that seems to characterize both systemic reform and choice. To one such as myself who has of late spent a good deal of time reading school reform proposals, the breadth and richness of concern are a breath of fresh air.
One should not forget that this is a book about justice, especially for African Americans. Many of the details of the exposition focus on the education of African Americans and there is much to be learned in that regard. For example, Gordon has an illuminating discussion of the claim that many low SES African American students are less able than their middle class peers to defer gratification. He points out that this alleged deficiency is relative to the values being pursued and argues that African American children are generally quite able to defer gratification when pursuing something valued within their culture. While the focus is on the education of African Americans, this is, however, a book for everyone. I have had the good fortune to get to know Edmund Gordon just a little in the last several years. I have found him to be a kind, decent, and humane man. His passion for the welfare of African Americans is imbued with these qualities. They make it easy for white males such as myself to enter into his concerns. These qualities are much in evidence in this book. Moreover, the considerations that help form his vision of education for African Americans include themes and ideas that can serve us all. This is a deeply humane book from a fine man. There is much he can teach us all.
Are their flaws? There are, of course, many things to argue about. By the end of the book, however, I had only one concern. Although the essays are ordered and edited so as to make a plausible story line, the fact that they are essays on related topics generates some inevitable redundancy in the discussion. This could have been a better book had it been thoroughly rewritten. The redundancy might have been less and some topics covered in more depth. Nevertheless, this is a fine book that eloquently speaks to the issues of the day. It may be a view from the back of the bus, but Edmond Gordon belongs at the head of the class.
Hernstein, R.J. & C. Murray. (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.