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Public Education, Democracy, and the Common Good


reviewed by Warren Langevin - 2005

coverTitle: Public Education, Democracy, and the Common Good
Author(s): Donovan R. Walling (Editor)
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington
ISBN: 0873678540, Pages: 175, Year: 2004
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The central premise behind Public Education, Democracy, and the Common Good is the core relationship between the provision of public education and the democratic foundations of the United States. More specifically, the volume’s editor proposes that contributors will determine whether universal public education is still necessary for American democracy and pursuit of the common good. If so, what is the best course of action for proponents of traditional public schooling given the credible threats posed by secular and religious privatization? Although several of the volume’s authors offer substantive arguments with diverse ideological foundations, the volume will not satisfy readers who seek broad disciplinary representation and a more extensive discussion of democratic governance.


The unifying theme of this volume is the integral connection between the political tradition of representative democracy and the success of American government. Beyond the scope of this general theme, however, the contributors fail to generate the same level of scholarly consensus on the contribution of public schools to a sustainable democratic polity. Several authors argue that the principal contribution of public education to the common good is grounded in the reinforcement of moral values and character development. By shaping the moral dimensions of the individual, according to Goodlad, it is possible to unite citizens in a moral ecology oriented to democratic practice (p. 7). On the other hand, Doyle and Kubow delineate a normative ideal of public education in terms of political socialization without explicit moral foundations. What is the actual role of moral values in teaching and learning, then, if both approaches result in comparable democratic outcomes? An intuitive explanation is that both conceptions of public schooling may produce a different mode of democratic citizenship and ideological conformity depending on the role of moral values in the curriculum. As Westheimer and Kahne observe in one regard, “a narrow and ideologically conservative conception of citizenship . . . reflects neither arbitrary choices nor pedagogical limitations but rather political choices with political consequences” (p. 30). Unfortunately, the collective volume does not reconcile these two perspectives to explain competing visions of American democracy.


The lack of broad disciplinary representation among the contributors poses a similar challenge to a final determination of the relationship between democratic practice and public schooling. A notable collection of scholars and practitioners certainly provide compelling answers and critical insights for the volume’s intended audience. Every reader must seriously consider Giroux and Giroux’s argument for an intellectual revival of citizen-scholars with regard to the current legal restrictions on professional faculty involvement in the political process and traditional standards for dispassionate inquiry in the social sciences. Another particularly well-received point is offered by Manos, who finds limited academic options for gifted students inconsistent with a coherent vision of democratic sustainability. Yet the entire volume simply does not match normative arguments with the same level of empirical analysis. Many readers will correctly attribute the overall lack of interdisciplinary coherence to limited disciplinary exposure. To engage the modern scholarly debate on public schooling as a private good, for example, the editor should have welcomed an economic perspective on the empirical study of private sector partnerships and market interventions. The greater presence of empirical research to bolster the psychological work of Sternberg and survey experiment of Westheimer and Kahne would further strengthen normative interpretations, such as Engvall’s assertion that “citizens feel powerless and uninvolved with their civic structures” (p. 97). Even if the limited engagement of empirical questions does not shape the final critique, however, many readers may still not comprehend why the authors provide minimal analysis of democratic political systems in a volume designed to explain popular support for public schools over the course of the nation’s existence.


Although the major focus of the volume should be a consideration of public schooling in the promotion of democratic behavior, it is centrally important for authors to relate their theoretical orientation to American political institutions as the deliberative forum for democratic outcomes. The unique role of local school boards in mobilizing voters for annual budget referendums is often voiced as a primary reason for maintaining local autonomy during the current period of federal activism and state centralization. In a different sense, the fact that state legislators are the principal negotiators in the education policy process should necessitate their consideration in this ambitious volume. One cannot reclaim public schooling as a public good, as Giroux and Giroux explain, without recognizing that “politics cannot be separated from pedagogy and the sphere of culture” (p. 76). Yet many readers will be disappointed by several contributors’ failure to adequately explain political dynamics shaping the policy process. With the exception of Allen’s promising work on governance reform and citizen voice, nearly every contributor avoids the key issues of electoral competition, interest group involvement, and governmental intervention at the forefront of recent political scholarship. Accordingly, the recurrent criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act may be undeserved without any substantial empirical support. Although Mitchell and others disagree with the electoral incentives of political leaders, they provide only rhetorical support for a harsh indictment of education reform. How can one seriously consider the criticism that teacher “knowledge and expertise must supersede the agenda of noneducators” when the author does not explain why teacher professionalism to the exclusion of political agents and citizens represents an acceptable standard for democratic practice? Or when the “battle pending for the survival of our public schools” may be directly linked to this deliberate political disconnect in contemporary governance arrangements (pp. 59–60)? A careful reader might question whether Mitchell’s criticism is empirically valid, given the willingness of national and state candidates to invest their political capital in education reform for economic development.


In considering the democratic nature of public education, this volume seeks to answer one of the most prominent questions for researchers and policymakers in the education policy field. While several authors make substantive contributions to the academic literature, the volume as a whole does not accomplish its primary objective in defending the connection between universal public schooling and democracy. Many religious schools that successfully foster the development of social capital, as Harris-Shapiro notes, can easily complement the public school system for those students who seek greater educational outcomes. Ultimately, one might even reasonably assert that the provision of public education requires neither universal access nor constituent support to achieve democratic outcomes, and would find no single argument in this volume to the contrary.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1529-1531
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11728, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 10:36:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Warren Langevin
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    WARREN ELLIOTT LANGEVIN is a Harold Stirling Vanderbilt Scholar at Vanderbilt University. He is currently involved in a national study of state takeover of local school districts as a reform strategy, as well as a time series analysis of Title I appropriations since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. His research interests are state policy leadership, federalism, intergovernmental relations, political institutions, and education policy.
 
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