Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education
reviewed by Terence A. Beck - 2003
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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Rosemary C. Salomone is a law school professor who has moved from advocating church-state separation and believing that vouchers would skim off the most "successful students and involved parents from the public schools" (p. xi) to a belief that parental choice is the best way to stop what she sees as the unraveling of the social fabric. She writes from a position of privilege. Her change in views came primarily from watching her Caribbean nanny and other working class families deal with the New York City public schools and from her own process of finding the best possible (private) school for her son.
Salomone begins building her case with two chapters of history followed by three chapters of legal precedent. She then moves to directly considering political philosophy before examining the realities of accommodating dissent within the current system and the benefits of parental choice.
In her discussion of history, Salomone traces the influences of republicanism, Protestantism, and progressivism on the formation and development of public schools. She makes the case that public schools are non-neutral places that indoctrinate by "normaliz[ing] a dominant ideological perspective" (p. 38). Salomone then introduces historical conceptions of childhood and parenting. She walks the reader through the theories of Locke, Rousseau, and Mill, "organized child saving" (p. 47) from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Salomone introduces Martha Minnow's notion of the relational rights of children, asserting that children have rights to autonomy, connection, and protection.
Enter the Supreme Court. Salomone examines major court cases regarding the question of parental, student, and state interests in education and the place of religion in schooling for democracy. Using legal precedent, Salomone establishes the rights of students to educational opportunity, the rights of parents to direct that education, and the right of the state to compel attendance and make reasonable regulations for all schools and curriculum. She gives a thorough hearing to the claims of conservative advocacy groups, examining the generally tepid responses such claims have received from the courts. She considers the Court's recognition of religion's unique place under our constitution, pointing out that schools cannot coerce expression (e.g. saluting the flag), but acknowledging that "mere exposure" to offensive materials does "not place a burden on the free exercise of… religious beliefs" (p. 124).
Salomone completes this section with a case study of a controversy in the community of Bedford that began over the game of Magic, illustrating the impact of values-based conflict on schools and communities. Throughout these three particularly cogent and cohesive chapters, Salomone creates a picture of a Court hesitant to interfere in the management of schools but dedicated to parental authority in directing the education of their children, provided such education is not "inimical to the public welfare." She further suggests that children have the right "to be educated in values that are not inimical to those of the family, provided those values are not contrary to democratic citizenship" (p. 99).
Through political philosophy Salomone addresses questions of what she means by democratic citizenship education, educational authority, and core (and therefore non-negotiable) values in a democratic education. To Salomone, democratic education "instills in students those political beliefs and values that are the bedrock of a liberal democratic state" (p. 198). She takes issue with Gutmann's (1999) assertion that "political education is a mechanism for leading children to appreciate and evaluate ways of life that are contrary to those of their family" (p. 199), preferring to trust parents to act in the best interests of their children, with the state policing only the extremes.
She concludes this section with an examination of what is entailed in accommodating those who dissent from non-core values in common schools and a discussion of how a system of common education might be accomplished apart from common schools. Salomone argues that accommodation is an unhappy and unwieldy compromise for families and administrators, denying students a cohesive education that works in harmony with the values of the family. Salomone's answer is a system of choice that includes government-regulated sectarian schools, giving maximum authority to parents without sacrificing the legitimate interests of the state. A system of vouchers that pays full tuition or maintains a graduated scale would allow families to select a school that affirms and reinforces their own values and would give to the poor the choices currently available to affluent Americans.
Visions of Schooling is well researched and despite the use of right-wing terms like "government monopoly," the author generally avoids the "ideological and inflammatory rhetoric" (p. 9) that so often surrounds discussions of the future of schooling in the United States. Particularly strong is Salomone's discussion of several values-based court cases. While especially beneficial to educational practitioners and theorists, this book might be appropriately required of pre-service administrators and teachers. Still, the work is not without problems to which readers should attend. I note two here.
First, throughout the text Salomone maintains that we must examine the specifics of solutions, not simply abstract notions of how they are supposed to work. Thus, she challenges common schools based on what they actually do rather than relying on the theory behind the status quo. This is a viable standard that is not generally applied to Salomone's own solution. In fairness, the voucher plan Salomone advocates has not been tried and thus we cannot know the specifics. However, it is disingenuous to assert that the untried is superior simply because we cannot see the devil in the details. For example, it is one thing to speak abstractly of government regulation to make sure that schools receiving vouchers are not acting in ways inimical to the public welfare. It is another thing entirely to monitor such schools effectively. Can a school dedicated to the unquestioned authority of scripture nurture the kinds of critical thinking and notions of equality a liberal democracy demands? Salomone's notion of policing this extreme may invite perceived and actual discrimination toward certain religious and cultural communities.
Second, in her desire to provide students with communities that support their families' values, Salomone fails to appreciate fully that coherence between the school and the home is necessary but insufficient for democratic education. As Robert Putnam (2000) has pointed out, democratic citizens not only require such "bonding" groups but also participation in groups that bridge differences. In "bridging" groups students expose their primary moral language to the examination of those who do not share it. Clearly, Salomone is not blind to this need. However, her emphasis on supporting the values of the home leaves it no real place.
Salomone recognizes that her solution is not perfect. She concludes by stating that the issue concerns "what imperfections society is willing to accept and what tradeoffs it is inclined to make in promoting divergent interests" (p. 266). Visions of Schooling is a significant work for anyone willing to consider seriously these important questions.
Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.