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Common Schools, Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference

reviewed by Lawrence Blum - 2001

coverTitle: Common Schools, Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference
Author(s): Walter Feinberg
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300074220, Pages: 272, Year: 1998
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Walter Feinberg's Common Schools, Uncommon Identities is without question the best general examination of the character and value, and the moral, political, and educational underpinnings, of multicultural education. Discussions of multicultural education—both pro and con—are typically politically driven; yet the political assumptions underlying differing positions are seldom brought to the surface, much less subjected to careful scrutiny. Feinberg, a distinguished philosopher of education, brings a magisterial standpoint to the vexing and emotionally-charged issue of multicultural education. Needless to say, he has a political viewpoint of his own. However, this viewpoint is explicitly articulated and vigorously defended.

As far as I know Feinberg is unique in bringing into a fruitful and essential relationship three distinct literatures and discourses—culture, education, and liberal democracy. Excellent and influential books relate two of these three. For example, Amy Gutmann's Democratic Education and Eamonn Callan's Creating Citizens relate education and liberal democracy. Will Kymlicka's Multicultural Citizenship relates liberal democracy to culture. Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children and James Banks's many writings relate culture to education. Through placing his discussion of multicultural education in the context of two related but distinct philosophic contexts—a political theory of liberal democracy, and a general theory of education appropriate for such a society—Feinberg brings culture, education, and liberal democracy together.

Feinberg frames his overarching argument as an investigation of the alleged tensions between recognizing the distinct cultural identities and groups comprising a nation, and the needs for forging national loyalty and cohesion from which the particularistic recognitions are often thought to detract. A second thread throughout Feinberg's book is the tension between the claims of liberal individualism and those of various groups, generally referred to (somewhat misleadingly, as I will argue below) as "cultural", that provide important identities for individuals. Feinberg is exquisitely sensitive to the moral, political, and educational claims of both sides of this divide; it is the best discussion I believe I have ever read of the never fully resolvable tension between group and individual. Feinberg encourages liberals to have a measure of tolerance toward non-liberal cultural communities in their midst, in light both of culture's central role in providing meaning to individuals, and the temptations to wield state power oppressively in the name of any values, including liberal ones. For example, Feinberg agrees with the non-liberal Supreme Court ruling in the Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) case, that the Amish could remove their children from public schools after the eighth grade, because they regarded further schooling as disruptive to their way of life and their children's attachment to it—even though (as the dissenting justice noted) this decision denied the children the opportunities for growth and access to mainstream opportunities afforded other children of public schooling through the twelfth grade.

Yet, on balance, Feinberg privileges liberal individualism, with its emphasis on individual choice and growth, freedom of association, self-formation in the construction of individual identity, and the ability to subject any culture, identity or community values to individual critical scrutiny, over communitarian, "culturalist," relativist, or other group-centered philosophies of society or education. For example, he recognizes that parents' desire to preserve their culture is often bound up with their understandable desire that they be able to recognize themselves in their children; yet he sets himself strongly against the idea that children should be seen as destined to live out a familially- or culturally-prescribed mode of life, or that a child's range of choices should be sacrificed to preserve a group.

Common Schools/Uncommon Identities's major weakness, I will argue, is its failure to give the arguably liberal ideals of equality and social justice a theoretical—and thus political, moral, and educational—status equivalent to that of individualism, cultural recognition, and national cohesion. Concerns of equality and social justice do permeate Feinberg's argument, often providing the driving rationale of his argument. Yet seldom are they framed as such, but are rather couched in other terms—especially as claims for cultural recognition. Hence the force of equality and social justice as political and educational norms is frequently masked.

Related to this weakness is Feinberg's failure to grant race and racism sufficiently distinct educational and political attention. By generally subsuming "race" under "culture," Feinberg tends to mask the operations of historical and institutional racism as distinct forms of social, economic, and educational injustice, requiring distinctly anti-racist political and educational responses. In this regard, Feinberg, despite his exceptional theoretical sophistication, makes an error common among proponents (and some detractors) of multicultural education. This error has prompted a move toward distinguishing anti-racist, or sometimes the more general "social justice education," from multicultural education more narrowly conceived; or, in a similar but somewhat less clarifying move, by construing "multicultural education" to include anti-racist, or social justice, education (Blum 1997).

The difference between Feinberg and at least some other multicultural proponents, however, is that he is not concerned only to recognize and celebrate distinct cultures and their achievements, but is fully aware of and deeply concerned about historical and current racially-based injustices perpetrated against Native Americans, African Americans, and other groups. My criticism is that Feinberg's defense of multicultural education fails to provide a framework adequate to express these injustices and to point the way to how society needs to address them politically and educationally. In my discussion of Common Schools/Uncommon Identities, I will focus especially on the portions of the book relevant to these criticisms. In doing so, I will necessarily omit, or give only cursory attention to, many rich discussions and lines of thought in this exceptionally complex, subtle, and nuanced book.

In chapter 1, "Education: Cultural Difference and National Identity," Feinberg sets out a general rationale—"principled reasons," grounded in historical understandings of the purposes of public schooling—for common, or public, schools. Besides socializing students into a given society and teaching a basic level of commitment to the safety and well-being of fellow members of society, that principled rationale rests on three basic liberal and democratic values—equal opportunity (understood as developing socially and economically useful skills), freedom of association (for example, to form cultural or political groupings), and individual growth (stated, in the language of current liberal theory, as the forming and pursuing of one's own conception of "the good").

Feinberg agrees with some critics of liberal education that such principles run contrary to the spirit of—though they are not overtly opposed to—some of the value systems of parents and communities whose children attend public schools. His response is that advocates of such liberal public schooling must be prepared to defend these principles as appropriate for a pluralistic and democratic society to those parents. In this spirit, Feinberg approves of a federal district court's ruling in the important Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education case (1987) that schools should not honor parents' desire that their children not be exposed to literature depicting ways of life different from their own, when the parents (with some justification) regard such exposure as posing a challenge to their children's attachment to their way of life. For Feinberg, the opportunity for growth, learning about different ways of living, and the possibilities for critical thinking outweigh the parents' concerns.

Before proceeding to work out the appropriate relationship between the common school and the distinctive cultures and cultural groups that co-exist within a liberal society, Feinberg takes up two challenges that would render that project impossible, pointless, or unworthy. In chapter 2, "Nature of National Identity and Citizenship Education," he considers, and rejects, the objection that nations, national borders, and national languages are totally arbitrary, and that the common school can only reinforce the ideology of the dominant group. Nations do have an inevitable element of arbitrariness, Feinberg argues, but arbitrariness is not always unfair (e.g. it is not unfair to compel U.S. school children to learn English, French school children to learn French, and so on), and nations have historically served important human interests by organizing life in advanced technological societies. Common schools do impose a particular identity, but one that can be liberating, enabling children to make use of the tools of such economically advanced societies, and providing an essential venue for struggles against racism and sexism and other forms of inequality.

In chapter 3, "Cultural Difference," Feinberg assesses "strong culturalism," the view that distinct cultures are essentially opaque to one another. On such a view, it is impossible to learn about a culture other than one's own. When schools in a liberal society purport to provide neutral venues in which to teach about distinct groups and cultures, they are, wittingly or not, imposing a distinct cultural identity on students from minority, marginalized, or powerless groups. Hence they are in a sense doing violence to those groups.

Feinberg's description of how culture as a system of meaning is deeply implicated in the formation of the individual self and the processes of education is unparalleled. Moreover, he is well aware of the historical undermining of some minority cultures (especially Native Americans) in the name of a larger national good achieved through education. Yet he rejects strong culturalism. Some "impositions" of cultural competence—for example, providing children with the conceptual tools to make use of science and technology—may benefit young people in the culture. A failure of the dominant culture to instill certain competencies absent in a minority culture may even be a form of "cultural neglect" (p. 85).

Feinberg also argues that distinct cultures are not totally impenetrable to one another; understanding another culture might be a matter of degree, but people can learn to make some sense of other cultures. Some outsiders to a given culture (for example, parents) might be better positioned even than some cultural insiders to understand experiences (for example, of parenting) within that culture. Finally, Feinberg rejects the idea that the sentiments and commitments involved in national identity are necessarily more artificial and imposed than those involved in cultures. "A nation exists in part because a group of people have invested much in shaping and reshaping a certain identity." (p. 91)


A central thread in Feinberg's argument, providing a framework for chapters 5 through 7 (but introduced in chapter 1), is a contestation between "pluralism" and "multiculturalism" as philosophies of education. Pluralists, for Feinberg, reject the assimilationist idea that schools should discourage identification with particular ethnic cultures and foster acculturation to the dominant national culture. However, pluralists differ from multiculturalists in advocating as much neutrality as possible toward particular ethnocultures, allowing but neither encouraging nor discouraging their expression. In chapter 5, "The Aims of Multicultural Education," Feinberg presents multiculturalism as rejecting this neutralist ideal in favor of encouraging pride in the student's own cultural heritage, while also informing students about, and encouraging respect for, the practices of other cultural groups.

As thus described, multicultural education seems problematic to Feinberg on several grounds. The alleged fostering of a primary identification with a cultural group is detrimental to national cohesion, which it accords only a secondary loyalty, and to individuality, in promoting a conferred group identity at the expense of individual reflection, choice, and growth. (It seems to me not entirely fair to equate promoting pride in a group identification that a student already possesses with an affirmative fostering of attachment to that group as a primary identification, and only the second runs any substantial risk of constraining individual choice and growth.)

Feinberg is also worried that the pride-enhancing dimension of multicultural education will encourage inaccurate portrayals of cultural groups, omitting information that might cast the group in a negative light. He also makes the more general point that knowing more about a culture does not necessarily increase respect for it. (Both points are illustrated by the example of Ghanaian girls given to priests as unpaid servants.) This is surely a valid criticism of much that parades under the rubric of "multicultural education." However, as Feinberg recognizes elsewhere, some cultures have been portrayed systematically in a negative, degrading, or deficient light, often because of a bias against non-American or more generally non-European or non-Western modes of life. In these cases making sure that this bias is explicitly countered, that Eurocentrism is named and exposed not only accords with the moral impetus behind multicultural education, but constitutes a more accurate portrayal of these cultures as well. In such a context presenting what might be regarded as negative features of the cultures in question will be much less likely to be taken by Western and especially white students as casting the entire culture in question in a negative light.

Feinberg's valuable distinction between political and educational multiculturalism is vital to understanding his view of multicultural education in relation to pluralism. He appears to regard the social recognition of cultural groups as, in general, a good thing (p. 129), but in educational settings sees it as frequently in tension with more basic educational goals, such as advancing reflective understanding and growth. Feinberg thereby implies that he might accept, for example, Charles Taylor's argument that, in the name of preserving French Canadian culture, it would be permissible to require commercial establishments to conduct business in French (Taylor 1994), though he might resist comparable culture-reinforcing measures in schools. Indeed, Feinberg clearly states that no general injunction to affirm cultures can be supported in educational contexts. This seems to me correct. Do schools need positively to affirm (as opposed to merely refraining from derogating) Norwegian-American culture or Polish-American culture?

In chapter 5, Feinberg acknowledges only one distinct type of case in which, contrary to the strictures of pluralism, the encouragement of group pride is appropriate. That is when doing so is a prerequisite for the self-esteem of the child who is a member of the group in question; and where such self-esteem is itself a prerequisite for academic achievement. Feinberg suggests (he does not really discuss this issue in any detail) that the evidence linking ethnic pride to individual self-esteem, as well as that linking self-esteem to academic achievement, is spotty and contested (p. 128). Nevertheless, he is surely correct in thinking that if, for example, some black children are given the message that they are academically inferior and that little is expected of them, this may well be harmful to the self-esteem and academic performance of at least some of them. In general, a child, in order to achieve, must believe, or at least tacitly presume, that people with whom he identifies are able to achieve. But this generalization can not be 100% true, since some children may, with regard to academic achievement, see themselves as exceptions in groups with whom they identify culturally, socially, and emotionally.

Yet Feinberg's framing this discussion as a choice between a neutralist pluralism and a difference-reinforcing multiculturalism conflates two quite distinct matters—educational equity, and appreciation of cultural distinctness. In effect Feinberg's chapter 5 argument is that enhancement of cultural identity is appropriate when (by means of increased academic motivation) it serves the goal of equal education. One might have thought that Feinberg would subsume this argument for cultural enhancement under his basic educational principle of equality of opportunity; if a student has a motivational deficit caused by a social or school-based devaluing of his cultural group, it is appropriate for his teachers to make up for this deficit, as, according to Feinberg's original statement of the equality of opportunity principle, schools should do regarding economic and other resource deficits.

However, Feinberg does not place his self-esteem argument under his equality of opportunity principle, or any other equality-based principle. I suggest that he is diverted from doing so by two factors. First, by viewing the correcting of social group devaluation under the rubric of "multicultural education," Feinberg places it within a discourse privileging difference and distinctness over sameness and equality.

Secondarily, Feinberg seems somewhat ambivalent even about the affirmation of group identity required for the specialized case of enhancing academic performance. He still worries about individuality-suppressing, information-skewing, and cohesion-countering tendencies of group affirmation. Hence he may not wish to place this affirmation on the bedrock foundation of one of his three basic educational principles.

Another example of Feinberg's slippage between concerns of cultural distinctness and difference, and those of equality is his very interesting discussion of the plight of children whose home culture differs from that of the dominant school culture, leaving them at a cultural deficit in school. Feinberg eloquently recounts the many ways, often invisible even to teachers, that competence in the majority culture provides a range of advantages relevant to success in school and in society more generally. He argues plausibly that the school has a responsibility to teach the child cultural competence in the majority and school culture, in order to remedy this deficit.

However, Feinberg places this apparently equality-based argument (as compensating for a deficit) under the "cultural pride" rubric (p. 138). But whether a student takes pride in her group is quite a different matter from whether her upbringing renders her competent in certain cultures but incompetent in the majority culture. Feinberg himself notes that many immigrants do not imbibe a message that their culture is inferior, hence that they need to learn to take pride in it. They simply see that they need to master the "codes" of the majority culture with which they are unfamiliar. This is quite different from the situation of two groups to whom Feinberg rightly sees having special claim to educational attention, Native Americans and African-Americans. Both these groups have been given the distinct message throughout American history that their identities are unworthy, or at least that they are nothing like equals with European-Americans. (Semi-immigrant, semi-colonized groups such as Mexican-Americans probably occupy a middle ground between culturally distinct but non-inferiorized, and fully inferiorized, groups in this regard.) These groups may or may not need instruction in the codes of the majority culture. Many African-Americans, for example, grow up in contexts in which they are quite familiar with majority "white" culture. For these students, the corrective task of the school is countering the message that they themselves, as blacks, are inferior and incapable—not providing instruction in the codes of the majority culture.

Of course some students need and deserve both forms of corrective—an instilling of a sense of their own worth, and instruction in the codes of the dominant society. In Other People's Children, Lisa Delpit argues that this is true for many African-American children. With regard to Black Vernacular English (or Ebonics), for example, she advocates both validating that speech (and the cultural identity surrounding it) as a language of equal worth to mainstream English, and at the same time, teaching these children mainstream English and other cultural modes of middle-class white society so they will not be at the sort of cultural disadvantage Feinberg describes so well (1).

Still, correction of a sociocultural attack on the worth of an identity group is quite a different matter from the more material issue of being provided with the "tools" (Feinberg's term) that allow for a more level playing field in the negotiation of school cultures. These distinct issues are, in a sense, both matters of equity—one an equity of worth, the other an equity of (cultural) resources. But by eliding cultural competence with "cultural pride," Feinberg does his own argument a disservice by implying that both are to be understood within the multiculturalist discourse of difference and distinctness.

Feinberg also masks what it is plausible to interpret as his own equality concerns by his overexpansive use of the term "culture," a use typical of much multicultural writing, especially among authors concerned about social justice issues. To oversimplify a bit, Feinberg includes two different types of groups under the "culture" rubric. One is ethnic cultures, groups concerned to preserve their own distinctive ways of life with their distinctive systems of meaning, set within a larger differently-cultured society (p. 4-5). The other is oppressed, devalued, or discriminated against groups, such as women, gays/lesbians, the disabled, and "racial" groups (blacks, Native Americans—that is, groups seen as racially inferior (2)). I will call the latter "inferiorized" groups (3).

Inferiorized groups may possess some features similar to ethnocultures [see discussion of "deaf culture" below]. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between the claim of the former groups to equal treatment, recognition of equal worth, and equal opportunity; and the claims of the latter to recognition and acknowledgment of their distinctive cultures, the right to express those cultures, the right to cultural integrity (not to be put under undue pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture), and the like. Calling women, gays/lesbians, blacks, and the disabled "cultures" (or cultural groups) makes it difficult to recognize their equality-based needs and claims and the ways that our society has and continues to treat such groups unequally.

As mentioned earlier, Feinberg differs from a range of multicultural writers and practitioners whose primary concern is really for ethnocultural recognition and for whom issues of social justice take a back seat. It is precisely because Feinberg is concerned both about cultural recognition and social justice and equity that his failure to distinguish these concerns clearly, and his tilt toward the language of "culture," masks his own concerns.

Feinberg continues his discussion of the recognition of group differences in chapter 6, "Uncommon Identities: Hard Cases." He distinguishes two forms of "recognition," minimal and robust, implying (though without explicitly saying so), that chapter 5 was concerned with the robust form, since minimal recognition is owed to all while the legitimate reach of robust recognition is limited similarly to recognition in chapter 5. Minimal recognition is simply a form of the respect for individual persons due every student (and every individual), but in light of the collective identities that are important to that individual student. Feinberg argues that children should be allowed to express their cultures in school, as long as doing so does not impinge on the right of others to do the same. He also takes a slight step further to argue that teachers should sometimes adjust their pedagogical or interpersonal style, in order to show regard for the child's culture; and he approaches, but does not quite say, that the value of minimal recognition granted to other students should be part of every child's moral, or civic, education (p. 169). (Feinberg recognizes that forms of recognition related to enhancing academic performance rest on a foundation distinct from those related to freedom of expression.)

Feinberg's rejection of the claims of cultures to robust recognition on the grounds of preservation of their distinct existence is superbly defended in his nuanced discussion of Nathan Lane's advocacy of cultural status for deafness, of separate schools, of instruction in American Sign Language, and of a general rejection of "mainstreaming" education for deaf children. Feinberg rejects Lane's view (shared by many deaf advocates) as too constraining of individual choice. Lane, Feinberg alleges, wants to foist a distinct culture-like identity on a child, rather than giving the deaf child the choice of whether to affiliate primarily with the deaf culture or to attempt, through compensatory education (learning Signed English, lip reading, attending classes with hearing children, and the like), to make her way in the mainstream culture the best she can. Feinberg would give the child (he does not make clear what age child he has in mind here) a choice in the degree and type of affiliation she wishes to take up toward the deaf community, through mainstreaming in "the least restrictive [educational] environment." Feinberg recognizes, however, that without special measures to protect what Lane sees as non-defective deaf culture, that culture is likely to be seriously weakened by "social processes of modern society." He is willing to countenance this cultural loss in the name of individual choice. Moreover, Feinberg also grants a right to a Lane-like cultural community when there are no other communities of meaning available to a particular deaf child. Essentially, what Feinberg argues is that deaf group identity should be seen on a "disadvantaged" model rather than a "subordinated" model.

Feinberg's equally excellent discussion of "robust recognition" reveals an important ambiguity in that idea. He argues that educational programs based on economic class, such as Head Start, can be justified by appeal to pure individual equality of opportunity alone, independent of any identity-recognition concerns. The rationale is simply that a child should not be deprived of educational resources because of the economic standing of her parents. In the case of women, however, their opportunities are constrained by a cultural devaluing and constricting that affects them in light of their identity as members of the group "women." Hence robust recognition that allows women "to see themselves in a different light" (p. 185)—i.e. in a non-devalued way—is justified in the service of equality of opportunity. Though robust recognition is required because of the shared identity feature (being female), it does not have the further characteristic that Feinberg finds problematic, of reinforcing the individual's attachment to the group in question. Giving women the message that they are equals to men does not require encouraging them to feel any more solidarity with other women than they already do, although it may make their identity as a member of that group more salient to them.

Feinberg's acknowledging a form of robust recognition that does not run afoul of his concern for individual choice—because it simply corrects for a devaluing of a group-based identity—is at odds with his earlier definition of robust recognition as reinforcing both the child's attachment to the group and her identity as a member of that group (p. 169). Feinberg's tendency to conflate concerns for equality with distinctness again causes him unnecessary problems. The corrective, equality-seeking, form of recognition appropriate to the case of women that Feinberg describes is quite distinct from recognition of an ineluctable distinctness of women as a group; thus it need not (as Feinberg argues so convincingly) reinforce group attachments in ways that threaten individual choice. By contrast, the deafness-as-culture advocate rejects equality as a goal and seeks a form of recognition of distinctiveness that necessarily promotes group identity and attachment, thereby constricting individual choice in the name of group preservation.

Feinberg goes on to argue that Native Americans and African-Americans deserve a form of robust recognition that involves the troubling reinforcement-of-identity feature. Feinberg argues that beyond the forms of injustice suffered by women and poor people, these two other groups have suffered an undermining of the cultural foundations of their construction of meaning. Hence they have special claims that their historical struggles, suffering, and achievements be recognized, for example, in the curriculum and in national holidays.

The conclusion of this argument seems correct to me, but Feinberg's route to it conflates race and culture. African Americans and Native Americans have been inferiorized, denied opportunities, and oppressed as racial groups (Smedley 1999). It is true that the distinctive African cultures of the newly enslaved Africans were systematically attacked (not entirely successfully) in the early years of American slavery. But the injustices with which Feinberg is concerned were perpetrated on a new, culturally-distinct people, namely African-Americans, whose history continued for several centuries beyond, and who developed a distinctive and extremely rich culture, amidst and in response to the suffering and injustice they endured as a racial group. In fact, curricular recognition of those injustices, and of the triumphs and achievements in spite of them, is a fairly minimal response to those injustices; it follows merely from the imperative to tell the national story accurately, and in that sense applies to any group suffering significant historical injustices. The collapsing of culture into race here blinds Feinberg to the array of compensatory measures for historically-imposed disadvantages, special protections against further discrimination, affirmative action programs, and possibly reparations for historical sufferings appropriate to a racial group burdened by the racist treatment African-Americans have undergone—measures for which Feinberg argued so persuasively in his 1998 book On Higher Ground (4).

Chapter 7, "On Robust Recognition and Storytelling," addresses the issue of whose voices should tell the (hi)story of a given group. Again, this discussion is the best of which I am aware of this topic. Feinberg argues that insider voices, especially of marginalized groups, must always be included. "The world from the point of view of the homeless, the unemployed, the gay, the dwarf, the sick, and the dying are worlds that check the assumptions of the everyday world of most of us (p. 201)." Feinberg also emphasizes the plurality of insider voices, differentiated by gender, sexual orientation, age, social position, class, and the like, throwing into question the meaningfulness of the singular categories of "the insider" and "the outsider".

Feinberg also sharply criticizes the view that outsider status forecloses understanding of the group. (The general point of view here is the same as that argued for in chapter 3.) The outsider brings frames of reference that can enrich understanding. The outsider can work hard to understand the insiders' perspective and is then well positioned to convey that understanding to other outsiders. Similarly, the insiders' stories are not threatened by the presence of outsider perspectives. All work together to bring a broader understanding.

Chapter 8, "Citizenship Education and the Multicultural Ideal," continues the argument of chapter 4, "Moral Education in a Liberal Society." In the latter, Feinberg agrees with communitarians that moral education must take place within particular traditions and communities, and he agrees that some of our important communities (e.g. our families of origin, our nation, our ethnic group) are not generally chosen; we are (for the most part) born into them. But he disagrees that moral agents are confined by those communities, hence rejects the relativism implied by full-scale communitarianism. The path is thus open to providing a somewhat culture-independent defense of liberalism.

In chapter 8, Feinberg argues that although it is central to liberalism to allow individuals their own vision of the good, a liberal society can only be created and sustained over time if its members share a set of morally substantive values, and are educated in a complex set of skills and competences. Liberal societies thus provide the moral wherewithal to reproduce themselves as communities and traditions, contrary to the claim of full communitarianism (exemplified by a major strand of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, insightfully discussed by Feinberg). For example, liberalism requires tolerance and a respect for visions of the good embedded in different ethnocultures. Such tolerance and respect are complex values. They involve an appreciation of how culture shapes identity, in one's own case as well as others; support for the conditions that allow others to pursue their own conceptions of the good; an appreciation of the way that a society is strengthened by providing the opportunity for each individual to pursue her own path while tolerating others' pursuing paths she may have difficulty valuing.

In the final chapter, "Common Schools and the Public Formation," Feinberg emphasizes the public functions of the common school in teaching the values and competencies necessary to active and informed citizenship in a liberal, democratic nation. In a sense, then, Feinberg goes beyond the framework of basic educational values set out in the first chapter (equality of opportunity, freedom of association, and individual growth) to give equal pride of place to the teaching of "civic virtue". Feinberg sees liberal democracy as the best meaning for American national identity, and the common school as a central institution in its perpetuation. Liberal democracy, then, can provide the required framework for national unity and cohesion in a society composed of many different ethnocultural groups.

Feinberg's conclusion is optimistic; there are many quite antidemocratic aspects to "American" traditions (Smith 1997), and bringing school systems around to Feinberg's particular construal of "Americanism" would be a formidable task. It would be a worthy one, however, and Walter Feinberg has given us as ringing, yet subtle, a defense of liberal democratic schooling in the context of a culturally pluralistic society as we are likely to see for a long time to come.


End Notes

1. Elsewhere (chapter 6) Feinberg himself discusses ebonics briefly, and argues that a case can be made for using it in instructing some African American students, but also that "it is a critical component for encouraging group identification" (p. 170) and that groups other than African Americans should be taught about it, presumably with a view to increasing their respect for it. Feinberg's argument is akin to Delpit's, but less grounded in an equality of opportunity principle, and connecting more with a multicultural injunction for others to recognize the culture in question.

2. Strictly speaking, there are no groups of persons who constitute an actual "race," for there are no races in the sense in which this word is commonly used in vernacular English. The term is employed in certain specialized scientific discourses, but its meanings there are quite different from that of common parlance. (On this, see Smedley, 1999 and Marks, 1995.) What we call "races" are perhaps more accurately referred to as "racialized groups," that is, groups that have been oppressed or discriminated against (or that have engaged in this discrimination) because they have been regarded as races. "Races" in this sense are distinct from the ethnic groups that fit Feinberg's proffered definition of "cultures," although racial groups contain various ethnocultural groups (e.g. "blacks" encompass African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Nigerians; "Asian" [understood as a racial designation] encompasses Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and so forth). So, in a sense, the same group can be viewed in regard to their race or their ethnoculture.

3. Chapter 5 contains an interesting discussion of different "scripts", or general historical/social frameworks and narratives, within which different groups' experiences can be placed. "Advantage/disadvantage" (applying most fully to white immigrant ethnic groups) and "dominant/subordinate" (applying most fully to Native and African Americans) are the major competing scripts Feinberg discusses, and sees as supplying alternative and not wholly incompatible historical conceptions for students to examine and explore in relation to different groups. My terminology of "inferiorized" comes very close to Feinberg's "subordinated" groups.

4. It is not a defense of Feinberg's discussion of what is due Native Americans and African Americans to say that in this book, in contrast to On Higher Ground, he is concerned only with what is due educationally. The book under review continually relates educational to larger social and political policies, goals, and values, and this is true as well of the current discussion, in which Feinberg discusses the way national holidays (such as Martin Luther King day) are an appropriate form of the robust recognition he calls for. And the other book is very much concerned with the educational side of affirmative action.The truth of the matter is that "recognition" is simply an inadequate framework for coming to terms with severe historical injustices, and its absence as a dominant theme in Feinberg's affirmative action book has the effect of freeing him up to make a race- and equality-centered argument there.


Blum, Lawrence. (1997). Multicultural Education as Values Education. Harvard Children's Initiative Working Paper (1-34). (copyright held by author)

Callan, Eamonn. (1997). Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Delpit, Lisa. (1995). Other People's Children: Cultural conflict in the Classroom. New York: The New Press.

Feinberg, Walter. (1998). On Higher Ground: Education and the Case for Affirmative Action. New York: Teachers College Press

Gutmann, Amy. (1999). Democratic Education (with new Preface and Epilogue). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kymlicka, Will. (1995). Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. (1984). After Virtue, 2nd edition. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press.

Marks, Jonathan. (1995). Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Smedley, Audrey. (1999). Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Smith, Rogers. (1997). Civic Ideals; Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Charles. (1994). The Politics of Recognition. In Amy Gutmann (ed.), Multiculturalism (pp. 25-74). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 1, 2001, p. 99-112
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10566, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:35:32 PM

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  • Lawrence Blum
    University of Massachusetts, Boston
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    LAWRENCE BLUM is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education, and Professor of Philosophy, at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the author of “I’m Not a Racist, But…”: The Moral Quandary of Race (Cornell, 2002) and “Racial Integration in a Multicultural Age,” in S. Macedo and Y. Tamir (eds.) Moral and Political Education: NOMOS XLIII (NYU, 2002).
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