Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education
reviewed by Roger Mourad - 2002
Title: Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education
Author(s): Rosemary C. Salomone
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300081197, Pages: 352, Year: 2000
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In Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education, Rosemary Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, explores the question of values in public school curricula and "school choice." The narrow context is an account of the legal history of the location of the border between church and state in public schools on the question of curricular content as it has been played out in courts of law. On a broader policy level, Salomone focuses on the intense efforts by many parents and conservative organizations to bring religion-based values and practices into public school curriculum and relates the major judicial decisions that have been rendered to resolve particular instances of conflict that have ensued.
Professor Salomone’s statements in the Preface help to provide a context for this book. The author, who attended Catholic schools through grade twelve, relates how she became aware of "the stark reality of poor families and the limitations placed on them by an unresponsive system," and observes that they "lack the resources to choose an alternative" (pp. xi-xii). She describes her work with Catholic school leaders in New York City, where she learned that Catholic schools were serving poor families of all faiths, "providing not only a stable education but a sense of community and caring that the impersonal and often indifferent public school system was failing to provide. And they were doing it at half the cost" (p. xii). She explains that such experiences converted her into a supporter of what she calls "family choice." Apparently what led to her inquiry into curriculum as a repository of values is her belief that a good school is one "that instilled civility and civil virtue, a sense of caring and respect for others, and a commitment to social justice" and "a school that would reaffirm and reinforce" in my son his family’s values" (p. xiii).
From its outset this book embodies a superficial understanding of public schools. In Chapter 2, a historical and philosophical foundation for her subsequent analysis, there is an interesting description of the influence of Protestant religion on schools in the nineteenth century, and of how school leaders and politicians responded when Catholics and other religious groups sought changes and equal treatment. However, Salomone’s coverage of the progressive period is overly simplistic. She describes how well-meaning but misguided innovators, led by John Dewey, eroded much of the substance, worth, and utility of education. However, most historians view the term "progressive" as referring to a wide array of reformers and innovators during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who advocated competing and conflicting positions (c.f. Cremin 1988, Kliebard 1986, Perkinson 1991). There is little evidence that the brand of "progressive education" that Dewey and those whom he influenced has ever had more than a minor influence on public education in practice, contra Diane Ravitch and her followers (Rury, 2001). Other "progressives" of that era had vastly more effect on public education, especially the so-called social efficiency educators such as John Bobbitt who based their ideas of schooling on Taylor factory work organization (Bobbitt 1912, Kliebard 1986).
Similarly, Salomone makes the unsupported and even outlandish claim that Locke, Rousseau, and Mill "would profoundly influence American perspectives on childhood, parenting and the role of the state" relative to the parent-child relationship (p. 46). There is simply no historical evidence to support this claim. The most that can be said is that Rousseau’s Emile is a part of the basic intellectual lexicon of Western educational philosophy, and that elements of the educational theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Mill have probably had a formative effect on the intellectual development of some twentieth-century theorists.
In Chapter 3, there is a cogent summary of some U.S. Supreme Court decisions that affected the legal status of children, the Court's impact on school practices, and the change in the position on parental discretion that the Court has manifested as its composition changed in the last two decades. State constitutional amendments and statutes on this issue are described, and there is an informative discussion of the United Nations Council on the Rights of the Child. Salomone concludes from her analysis that "a reconceptualization" of child-parent interests based on mutual concerns and individual interests is necessary, including "a renewed trust in parental instincts" and "serious reconsideration of the state’s role in preparing children for democratic participation" (pp 73-4). However, it is unclear how her determination that a legal rights approach is not sufficient provides a basis for this conclusion.
Chapter 4 discusses Supreme Court decisions that have wrestled with the conflict between cultural or religious values of parents and state interests in preparing students for democratic citizenship. Chapter 5 is an account of various conservative religious interest groups and the legal challenges they have made. Chapter 6 is a lengthy and very detailed account of one particular recent challenge, in Westchester County, New York, by some parents and religious conservatives who objected to a fourth grade card game club on the basis that the game was satanic. While the account of the various participants in this particularly heated and emotional controversy might make interesting reading, Salomone does not provide a persuasive reason for the chapter. Instead, she makes the bald assertion that " . . . the real devil in such struggles may be the common school itself, an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to compulsory education . . ." (p. 196). A statement like this (and there are many like it throughout the book) without a coherent argument to support it left this reviewer with the perception that the author’s opinion of public schools is not based on knowledge but is rather a prejudicial view of an ill-informed outsider. There is no question that public schools are places of uniformity—but if one follows Salomone’s logic, one could simply stereotype all religious-affiliated schools in the same way. Is there any less regimentation in these schools generally? If not, then how is provision of diverse curricular options satisfied by "school choice"?
The legal analysis in this book is adequate (although it takes a great deal of liberty with the idea of ascribing "implicit" meaning, goals, and values to judicial opinion without providing any independent evidence to support her interpretations). Whenever Salomone moves into realms of reason that are not bounded by judicial text, any semblance of a coherent theme sustained by well-grounded evidence falls apart. This shows up most vividly in Chapter 7, "Education for Democratic Citizenship." Assertions are slapped on the pages willy-nilly rather than through arguments consisting of premises that support rational conclusions. For example, she states that, "When we talk about education for democratic citizenship, we mean an education that instills in students those political beliefs and values that are the bedrock of a liberal democratic state." (p. 197) Who is "we"? What is "democratic citizenship?" What is a "democratic state"? Even though there are "textbook" answers to these questions, this does not mean that these questions are settled among scholars and activists and that the proper role of public education is to instill (read, program) them into the minds of children (c.f. Spring 1991). The author writes as if the meaning of these terms is established instead of being the subject of debate among educational, cultural, and political theorists and activists of vastly differing orientations. Similarly: " . . . to saturate young children with a variety of competing visions of the good life that reaffirm those presented in the wider secular culture but negate the vision fostered by their family can undermine their autonomy by effectively forcing the choice of a life contrary to that of their parents and community." (p. 202) And parochial school curricula don’t represent particular visions? In what sense does this manifest "democratic citizenship," simply on the basis that it provides parents with a "choice"?
There are presumptuous characterizations about values issues in the realm of scholarship and university debate: " . . . various shades of liberals within the academy have engaged in heated and at times vituperous philosophical debate, struggling to reconcile the liberal notion of education for democratic citizenship with the needs and demands of religious minorities . . . Much of this debate revolves around religious and particularly fundamentalist objections to the public school curriculum . . ." (p. 198) It does? If so, Salomone provides no evidence for this claim. In fact, throughout the book, the author persistently tells the reader that the question of religion and the curriculum comprises the paramount issue about values in public schools. That is hardly the case, even though it may appear to be for those whose interest in public education is mainly concerned with that question. Contemporary parental concerns about public education are not an outgrowth of the impact of "progressivism" but in fact predate it (Cutler 2000). What is different in 2001 in comparison to 1891 is the omnipresence of print and electronic media, and public access to it—but that doesn’t mean that we have reached a watershed moment in the history of public education, which has always been a volatile, highly politicized arena.
She also overstates the significance of legal decisions for debate: "The underlying facts and legal claims presented in Yoder and Mozert, together with Amy Gutmann’s book, Democratic Education, have come to serve as a baseline in the debate over educational values and purposes." (p. 198) They have? Who reads legal opinions besides lawyers and law professors? And while Democratic Education has been widely read by scholars, who among them would make such a claim, regardless of the book’s merit? Similarly, it is asserted that, "One cannot assume that parents and children who reject secular teaching are incapable of rational thought . . . The suggestion that their religious orientation will impair their ability as adults to participate effectively in the democratic process . . . is purely speculative." (p. 207) Who is making these assumptions/suggestions? Salomone does not tell us.
There are many such instances of imaginative hyperbole in Chapter 7 and elsewhere in the book, and lots of preconceptions about "public." Then there is the rather odd emphasis on the anachronistic phrase, "the common school." Clearly, the author views "common school" to mean more to the reader than being a mere rhetorical device. She seems to assume that the term has great resonance and significance in public education circles, but when has it had any currency therein since the nineteenth century? Since the answer to this question is "it hasn’t," in light of the centrality of the term in the book, it only serves to diminish the author’s credibility to conduct a scholarly analysis of public school values and the common good.
It is not until the last few pages of the book that we get something that approaches a policy proposal. In Chapter 8, "Re-Envisioning Common Education," Salomone introduces a framework that, she claims, is evolving incrementally through the political and legal influence of the "family choice movement." (p. 256) This model consists of three options: public schools, "some or all of which may introduce family choice strategies"; charter schools; and "private choice schools," including the religiously affiliated, which would be funded in part through vouchers to parents who demonstrate economic need. Salomone claims that this system would "promote the ends of a pluralist democracy," presumably because it allows families to make a choice, and because it would "impose standards and offer incentives in order to promote a critical core of common education in civic knowledge and attitudes to all students regardless of which type of institution." (p. 257) This critical core would consist of the inculcation of "an understanding of and commitment to fundamental political principles." (p. 261) Surprisingly, the political and legal issues entailed by the removal of the public/religion divide do not seem to be of much concern. She suggests that the main issue would be that a standardized civic education could be construed as a requirement that parents and children essentially waive their right to freedom of expression or free exercise of religion. However, she dismisses this concern on the basis that curricular standards could serve as only loose guidelines. On the other hand, she doesn’t seem at all concerned about the legal issues with the model on the basis that it entails government sponsorship of religion.
The task of making a coherent connection between the idea of public schools, especially the curriculum, as being an embodiment of civic values and an account of the religious wars in courts of law is not met in this book. In some respects, Salomone provides an incisive account of the religious wars that are currently being waged over the public school curriculum. However, the book reflects at best a superficial understanding of American public education, its modern history, and the nature of the values issues and values conflicts that educational scholars have analyzed and practitioners in public education encounter daily. On a more basic level, it lacks a well-framed definition of a problem and a coherent argument is not developed and sustained over its course. Some of the individual chapters are interesting and informative -- but it is apparent that the author’s goal was to develop a strong case for school choice because she believes that public schools generally don’t do a good job while parochial schools do, and the book’s many shortcomings frustrate a persuasive scholarly defense of that position.
Bobbitt, John F. (1912)."The elimination of waste in education." The Elementary School Teacher 12, 259-71.
Cremin, Lawrence A. (1988). American education part II: The metropolitan experience 1876-1980. New York, Harper & Row, chapters 4 and 5.
Cutler, William W. (2000). Parents and schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gutmann, Amy. (1987). Democratic Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kliebard, Herbert M. (1986). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893-1958. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, chapter 4.
Perkinson, Henry J. (1991). The imperfect panacea: American faith in education 1865-1990. New York: McGraw-Hill, 3rd ed.
Rury, John L. (2001). The irony of revising revisionism: Diane Ravitch on twentieth-century school reform. Education Review: http://coe.asu.edu/edrev/reviews/rev123.htm.
Spring, Joel. (1991). American education: An introduction to social and political aspects. New York: Longman, 5th ed.