Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling
reviewed by Kathryn Benson - 2004
Title: Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling
Author(s): John L. Rury
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Mahwah, NJ
ISBN: 0805833390, Pages: 255, Year: 2002
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Claiming that Americans “hold an extraordinary belief in the transforming power of education” (p. x), John L. Rury cogently points to the fact that education and social changes are intertwined and conjoined in complex fashion, and the strands must be untangled and analyzed for historical and social meanings. He stresses the necessity of understanding American educational history within the confines of larger societal pressures where human agency demonstrates “the ability to adapt to shifting historical circumstances and to devise imaginative and effectual responses to the problems that arise from them” (p. xi).
This book should be of interest to educators and students as it is a comprehensive and concise study of American education and society from the colonial period to the end of the twentieth century. “Do schools change society, or does society change the schools?” queries Rury (p. 1). The question is an essential yet multifaceted one, a question that requires a study of the functional relationships between school and society, the public and the private, the individual and the group, as influenced by the social, economic, and political forces of the larger society.
Discussing the value of historical studies in the beginning chapter “Introduction: History, Social Change, and Education,” Rury introduces the social science concepts of cultural capital and social capital to allow for a discussion of culture, cultural transmission, and human capital. Other social forces such as industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and cultural conflict are shown to have had significant impact on the development of schools and other educational institutions. Such an explication of the framework of the lens through which the author views his subject should aid the reader in following his writings in subsequent chapters concerning the topics of the colonial origins of education; the beginnings of a modern school system in the 19th century; ethnicity, gender, and race in the 19th century; the Progressive era of the 20th century; and, finally, education in postwar America or the human capital revolution.
The strength of this book lies in the author’s conscious and conspicuous placement of education within the larger social milieu of the particular era. The reader is afforded a broad view of society and learns how education affected and was affected by social structures. Beginning with the Colonial origins of this country and moving through the centuries to the current era broadens the perspective and deepens the understanding of the educational institutions of that time. However, particular emphasis is given to the 19th century with chapter three titled “The 19th Century: Beginnings of a modern School System” and chapter four titled “Ethnicity, Gender, and Race: Contours of Social Change in the 19th Century.” The latter chapter asks a pertinent question “Has schooling helped to change the prevailing social structure, or did it reinforce existing patterns of inequality?” (p. 91). The answer to this question is one that we educators must continually ask of ourselves as well as each other as we attempt to teach the American Dream to all students.
Progressivism, the great educational reform movement of this century, is detailed in chapter five “The Progressive Era: Reform, Growth, and Differentiation.” Admitting to the complexities, even controversies, of the effects of (or lack thereof) the educational movement that challenged traditional educational practice, Rury writes comprehensively about the history of the various groups within the movement. It is easy, from this vantage, to see within the modern reform movement traces of the “administrative reformers” that are described by Rury, as well as to understand more fully how we now find ourselves ineluctably linked to accountability as evidenced today by standardized testing, curriculum standardization, and uniform, prescribed teaching practices in pre-packaged curriculum materials.
Finally, in the last chapter “Education in Postwar America: the Human Capital Revolution,” the last half of this century is outlined using the topics of the growing importance of formal education, youth culture, persistent institutionalized racism, and, ironically, more emphasis on traditional ideas concerning educational practices. The discussion of the role of the federal government in demanding that public education lead the way to a more just and equitable society at a time when reactionary and conservative voices were the loudest heard in educational discussions offers a look at how various presidential efforts at the national level affected education.
Clearly, Rury gives a treatment to the subject of education and social change, dealing with the thorny issues of how education has benefited certain groups of our society while lacking ameliorative effect for others. The complex issues that he explains are those that we find extant still, and this discussion of societal factors that interact with education helps educators and students understand the underlying structures of current issues and problems in education today. He claims as his purpose that this work can “help generate insights into the ways in which formal systems and practices of education have been related to social change” (p. x) and asks the reader to think about educational and social problems “a little more clearly and more expansively” (p. 21). We must do so if we agree with those who call for the education of a citizenry capable of living and creating in a participatory democratic society.