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Re-Envisioning Education and Democracy

reviewed by Kathleen Kesson - August 28, 2007

coverTitle: Re-Envisioning Education and Democracy
Author(s): Ruthanne Kurth-Schai and Charles, R Green
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1593115628, Pages: 236, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

It was with great anticipation that I picked up Re-envisioning Education and Democracy, a new book about school reform. The topic is timely, as the civic debate over democracy heats up over questions of international policy and relations (Is democracy a universal value? Can it be imposed forcefully on societies with no democratic traditions or must it evolve organically?) and also over questions about democracy’s place and purpose in education -- especially as part of the critique of No Child Left Behind with its narrow emphasis on increasing academic achievement as measured by test scores. This is not a new debate; at least since the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916) there have been tensions and contradicting visions between those who believe schooling in the U.S. should function to prepare people for roles in a competitive economy and those who espouse education’s potential to educate citizens for full participation in civic life. Predictably, there are those in the middle who believe that schools can and should do all things for all people. This book takes a clear stand in favor of educating for democracy. The authors are well positioned to write such a book; Kurth-Schai is Chair of an Educational Studies department (at Macalester College), and Green is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science (also at Macalester College). The collaboration yields a dual focus on both the aesthetic/poetic dimensions of “deep democracy” (Green, 1999) and the nitty-gritty politics of educational reform.  

“Re-envisioning” is defined here as “imagining new possibilities and bringing these into existence” (p. xii), and the book is an extended argument for developing the social imagination and including more creative, exploratory processes into conventional educational reform strategies. It is designed to engage readers of multiple and differing sensibilities with its experimental format that mixes narrative, expository, and what the authors call “oracular” expressions, which in their words, “draw attention to the interplay among intuitive, aesthetic, emotional, kinesthetic, and ethical dimensions of educational policy and practice” (p. xiv). Each chapter is framed around a generative concept — “prophetic dispositions” (p. xiv) — including Reform, Crisis, Reflection, Intuition, Inquiry, Advocacy, Imagination, Risk, Inspiration, and Courage, and follows a similar format: a poetic interpretation of the prophetic disposition that frames the chapter, a segment of fictional narrative about educational reform that serves as the anchor for the book, a “query” that serves as the organizing frame for the exploratory essay that follows, and a set of thematic bibliographic references that can facilitate the reader’s continuing inquiries into the topic under consideration.  

The narrative is built around a main character (Jonathon Caine) and his fluctuating political fortunes. Caine is the exemplary thoughtful politician who immerses himself in educational issues with the intention of standing the moral ground. He is involved with various government agencies and non-profit community/school groups that are working to bring about democratic school reform. One main narrative arc is the establishment of a charter school, and the book explores Caine’s moral dilemmas around his support for that movement. Another narrative arc follows the implementation of an experimental ninth grade program in a high needs, low-performing school. The hypothetical school program serves as a vehicle for highlighting the authors’ notions about some of the concrete elements of more deeply democratic schools: (i) an expanded concept of the homeroom as a way to develop community among the students, assess student needs, develop support for students individually and collectively, and provide for continuing reflection and connection” (p. 117), (ii) an integrated core curriculum with genuine opportunities for real world experiences in democratic participation, and (iii) the infusion of multicultural literature and media studies, arts and popular culture into the curriculum.  

Dramatic conflict in the narrative comes in the form of budget bottom lines, the difficulties of getting parents involved, problems with school governance and disciplinary procedures, teacher evaluations, etc. Herein lies one problem with the text. Perhaps the drama of educational change is simply not exciting enough to engage our emotions in the way that the authors must have hoped for. After all, budgets, scheduling, and proposal writing are not generally grist for popular films and novels. Or perhaps the characters are necessarily too one-dimensional, as the focus is on civic processes, which inevitably take the form of meetings. Again, not the stuff of juicy fiction. The authors clearly worked hard to create a believable, coherent story that would include many of the core issues of educational change movements. However the narrative seems to lack the depth and drama that might connect it more consistently to the poetic elements in the “oracular” sections of the text.

The authors are to be commended for their efforts to create a more inclusive text with the varied “entry points” for engagement with the topics. This is a relatively new format for the field of education, and it is a promising one. Scholars interested in innovative ways to present educational ideas will appreciate the obvious care taken to craft a text that explores new presentation formats. I think it would have worked better for me, as a reader, had the elements actually been woven together more seamlessly, rather than standing as distinct components.  There are places in the narrative where some more interpretation or analysis might have revealed some of the layers of meaning contained within events. Likewise, the expository essays, which contain numerous nuggets of wisdom and insight that reflect the authors’ combined years of experience with educational and political change, could have benefited from anecdotes and examples that might have clarified the more abstract claims and grounded them in concrete realities.  

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is its effort to deepen and widen the possibilities for the public discourse around education, to integrate “intuition and inspiration, prophecy and poetry, enchantment and emotion, mystery and movement, silence and spirit” (p. 56) into civic processes that shape policy. This effort is not some fuzzy new age approach to public problem-solving. As the authors note, “[s]eeking wisdom—deep understanding that is fundamentally expansive (across domains of self, society, environment, time, space, and spirit) and integrative (across dimensions of truth, beauty, and justice)—requires discipline, humility, and persistence” (p. 58).  However, I believe there is another dimension to this proposed expansion of the public discourse which is not substantively addressed in this book, and that is an articulation of the knowledge base necessary for both educators and the public to be able to address the complex issues of race, social class, identity, aesthetics, politics, and ethics in a meaningful way. This problem, addressed most comprehensively in Henderson and Gornick’s Transformative Curriculum Leadership (2007), is perhaps key to developing and sustaining informed discussions that might truly move us beyond the conventional wisdom that suffuses the various educational reform movements.  

Re-envisioning Education and Democracy offers compelling insights into what keeps educational reform skimming the surface of the radical, purposeful shift that needs to occur if we are to move towards a deeper, stronger democracy. Kurth-Schai and Green couldn’t be more relevant in their call to develop the social imagery around issues of deep democracy and educational change. Their call to action is inspiring. I am still left with a sense of anticipation after completing the book, a sense of wanting more, in terms of an exploration of what it might mean to truly re-envision schools and society. While the authors acknowledge and critique structural and institutional factors that maintain the status quo, they seem disinclined to imagine that things could be radically otherwise (one sub-heading, for example, reads “Our lives will continue to be shaped by capitalism,” another reads “Our lives will continue to be structured by bureaucracies”).  I say, while we’re at the envisioning process, let’s let our imaginations loose and envision a world that might really nourish deeply democratic conditions of equity, freedom, human development, creativity, justice, and environmental sustainability, and see where that takes us.


Dewey, J.  (1916). Democracy and education.  NY: The Free Press.

Green, J. M. (1999). Deep democracy: Community, diversity, and transformation.  NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Henderson, J. G, & Gornik, R. (2007). Transformative curriculum leadership (3rd edition).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 28, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14593, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:10:16 PM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Kesson
    Long Island University
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN KESSON is Professor of Urban Childhood Education at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University, where she teaches courses in the foundations of education and teacher research. She is co-author, with Jim Henderson, of Curriculum Wisdom: Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies (2004) and (1999), and editor, with Wayne Ross, of Defending Public Schools: Teaching for a Democratic Society. She is also the author of numerous book chapters, book reviews, and academic articles in such journals as Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, The Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, English Education, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Curriculum Inquiry, and Teachers College Record. Her interests are in the areas of democracy and education, critical pedagogy, aesthetics and education, and teacher inquiry and reflection.
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