Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society
reviewed by Walter C. Parker - 2002
Title: Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society
Author(s): Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti (Editors)
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300088787 , Pages: 368, Year: 2001
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Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society is a 14-chapter volume edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph Viteritti who together chair the Program on Education and Civil Society at New York University. They have coedited two prior volumes: New Schools for a New Century: The Redesign of Urban Education (1997) and City Schools: Lessons from New York (2000).
The book has an array of authors, topics, and approaches all located in mainstream, neoliberal political space. The fifteen authors, including Ravitch who writes the first chapter and Viteritti who writes the last, are scholars teaching in departments of public policy, history, political science, law, and education. In addition to Ravitch, two chapter authors are likely to be known to readers of TCR: William Damon (The Moral Child, 1990) and Nathan Glazer (We Are All Multiculturalists Now, 1997). Readers who follow the democratic citizenship education literature will also recognize Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, 2000) and Norman Nie (Education and Democratic Citizenship in America, 1996).
Despite the spread of authors and topics, most chapters contribute to a common theme: questioning the common school project and promoting a sympathetic look at school choice. The discourse of “choice” is a particular mode of rationalizing school vouchers and charter schools while telling a story of massive school (and teacher and teacher educator) failure. Curiously, no reference to “choice” is found in the book’s title. “Civil society,” however, is there, and it is through this conceptual gate that the subject of school choice is entered in this book. This is an important and perhaps strategic move. It puts vouchers and charter schools, which liberals and multiculturalists tend to oppose, in bed with pluralism, which they tend to embrace.
Civil society, briefly, is the plural civic infrastructure of a society, the diverse array of voluntary associations that exists between the individual and family, on one side, and government on the other. It is the social system clarified by Tocqueville in his mid-19th century study, Democracy in America (1848/1969). Civil society is part of what the Bill of Rights is trying to secure with its guarantees of religious liberty and the freedom to associate. It includes formal and informal clubs and organizations of all sorts: churches and temples, neighborhood centers, bowling leagues, bands and choirs, schools, social service societies, political parties and precinct meetings, and so on. Without these groups democracy cannot take root. They provide the fertile medium—networks of cooperation and contestation. Laws, constitutions, separation of powers, and so forth are needed also, but they have no leg to stand on without civil society. In fact, as more than one chapter author maintains, they exist to serve it.
Both of the volume’s editors believe that public schooling has become unresponsive to civil society and, therefore, fundamentally undemocratic. Their two chapters couldn’t be more distinct, however. Ravitch’s opening chapter, “Education and Democracy,” is several things, but mainly a polemic against public schooling in the United States. The ideological anchor is so heavy that the reader must devote more than the usual effort to avoid being pulled under by it unwittingly. Ravitch’s prose has the surface appearance of smooth neutrality, a fair middle course between extremes. This is her unique narrative skill. Moreover, she is a shrewd rhetorician. In this chapter her narrative contains, as is commonplace in her writing, the rhetorical devices known as “false dilemma” and “straw man.” This time the dilemma put before readers is not “history versus social studies” as in several past works. Rather, it is the false choice between an “academic” curriculum that educates citizens properly versus a “progressive” curriculum that perpetuates a “cult of mediocrity.” Not only is the choice between “academic” and “progressive” unnecessary, but (and here comes the straw man) the latter is represented in such a damning way that no one would want it.
The villain in this story is government-run schools controlled by “educational experts” and “progressive reformers” who are bent on “social engineering.” Ravitch’s heroes this time are Thomas Jefferson and past University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins. It was Jefferson who, according to Ravitch, “wanted to educate youth so that the people could protect their freedoms against the potential intrusions of the state.” And it was Hutchins who fought for an academic curriculum for all students against the tracked, dumbed-down curriculum foisted on the public by the “progressives” and “educational experts.” Noah Webster, Horace Mann, and Ellwood Cubberley, representing the latter, “envisaged the school system as an engine of social control, an agency that could plan social progress, and assign children to their future roles.” Ravitch believes this model has won the day; social engineering has won over freedom, including the freedom to choose schools.
In contrast to this political tract, Viteritti’s chapter is a balanced piece of scholarship offering a distinct vantage point on the school choice controversy. Many readers may disagree with Viteritti, but an actual analysis is here to chew on, not merely rhetorical techniques to wade through. In “Risking Choice, Redressing Inequality,” Viteritti asks why a majority of African American and poor parents voice support for school choice measures, such as charter schools and vouchers, while most Whites do not. On his analysis, White suburban parents, with their advantages of race and class, have greater residential mobility and can choose to locate their families in communities where public schools perform acceptably. Still more affluent families have the additional financial means to pay tuition to gain access to private schools. Many minority parents have neither the residential mobility nor the financial means to “choose” either of these. The wealthier and mobile parents, Viteritti writes, “have actually exercised a form of choice that is not available to their less fortunate counterparts who live in the city.” The paramount policy question to resolve, therefore, “is not whether to have choice but whether choice should be extended to a broader class of people”—to those who cannot afford to pay for it. In this way, Viteritti (here building on his Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society ) shifts the terms of the school choice debate to racial equality, urban poverty, and access. He acknowledges the risks involved in admitting vouchers and charter schools, namely a balkanizing blow to the dream of a democratic commonwealth. But these are risks, he argues, that preoccupy not the poor parents who may face horrid ghetto schools but the professors and social scientists who are probably “choosing” for their children a suburban or private school.
Two chapters early in the volume will be of special interest to readers who follow the democratic citizenship education literature. Neither joins the school choice debate or attempts to rationalize that movement, and both delve into an issue these readers are keen to understand: How do schools affect students’ knowledge and attitudes about democracy and their ability and willingness to participate in public affairs? Chapter 2, by Norman Nie and D. Sunshine Hillygus, extends the robust finding that school attendance is the strongest predictor of civic knowledge (e.g., knowing what civil liberties are) and engagement (e.g., voting). Here the authors look for curriculum effects (versus mere enrollment) and find them. An earlier study by Richard Niemi and Jane Junn (1998), showed that participation in civics courses in the secondary school curriculum positively influenced both civic knowledge and engagement; here Nie and Hilligus find something similar, but for higher education: Participation in college social science courses seems to encourage political knowledge and engagement. Participation in education courses has no effect, which is disturbing on several levels, as these are the students who will be given the responsibility of providing civic education to the next generation. Participation in science and business courses at college, meanwhile, is negatively related to political knowledge and engagement.
In a lengthy chapter 3, Robert Putnam looks at this education/civil society dynamic from the opposite side. He explores the hypothesis that higher levels of community-based social capital have a positive impact on student achievement in schools. Putnam’s hypothesis, in other words, is “it takes a village.” This is not a new arena of study (cf. Coleman & Hoffer, 1987; Jencks & Mayer, 1990), but Putnam extends it in an intriguing direction using whole states as the unit of analysis. States not only differ in educational achievement as measured by scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and high school dropout rates; states also differ in their levels of civil society as measured by the extent of organizational involvement, volunteering, and level of social trust. Putnam’s analysis finds that community-based social capital is the single strongest influence on these three measures of educational performance, stronger than race, SES, or class size.
An overall sense of disappointment remains after putting the book down. Not only is the “choice” narrative nowhere interrupted here, but too many authors who should know better lament diversity and believe it to be a recent phenomenon. Continuing the “disuniting” discourse popularized in The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger (1992), Nathan Glazer here speaks of a “fragmented” society. The editors seem to think that multicultural education is rampant in the schools (this is part of the Massive School Failure story that is told to bolster the “school choice” campaign). Ravitch and Viteritti write in the Introduction, “In the 1980s and 1990s many public schools embraced diversity as their mission at the cost of civic assimilation. In doing so they taught children to identify their own ancestral heritage rather than a common stock of American ideals.” Here is another straw man argument located inside a false dilemma. As I have argued (Parker, 1996), civic education and multicultural education are not at odds with each other. They are two dimensions of one aspiration -- democratic living in a diverse society.
Let me conclude. Does the volume cohere? It does not. The net was cast over too wide an array of topics, and only a few chapters deal with the book’s main title, “Making Good Citizens.” Still, in a graduate course that examines the common school project and its critics (past, present, and future), this book would help students explore a limited set of analyses of the links between education, pluralism, and democracy. Are there chapters that I will recommend to colleagues? Yes, the four chapters I featured here by Nie and Hillygus, Putnam, Viteritti, and, not for its substance but its demonstration of rhetoric deployed on behalf of the new political campaign for “school choice,” the chapter by Ravitch.
Other views -- classics such as Jane Addams’s (1902), John Dewey’s (1916/1985), and Paulo Freire’s (1970), as well as the contemporary work of Amy Gutmann (1999) and Jean Anyon (1997)—need to be brought to the table if students are to have a sense of the contestation surrounding “school choice.” Also, two recent studies are helpful. One (Mitchell, 2001) looks at the value conflict over charter schools involving recent immigrants from Hong Kong in Vancouver, B.C. Another (Howe, Eisenhart, & Betebenner, 2001) examines the school choice debate in Boulder, Colorado, and finds much in the way of “smoke and mirrors.” Both stretch the ideological net considerably beyond that presented in this volume.
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