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Sociocultural Studies in Education: Critical Thinking for Democracy

reviewed by Robert E. Lee & Jerry B. Olson - April 13, 2015

coverTitle: Sociocultural Studies in Education: Critical Thinking for Democracy
Author(s): Richard A. Quantz
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1612056946, Pages: 308, Year: 2015
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In the introduction to his textbook for college students, Quantz envisions his work as one that “explores some of the fundamentals around which disagreements in education arise (xii).” He claims to provide undergraduate students with concepts and skills that will enable them to develop a deeper understanding of the controversies facing education in the United States. The challenge for Quantz is to present complex ideas about the philosophy of education, culture, and society in a persuasive manner, without over-simplifying or distorting ideas. He enlivens his account with pop-culture references to newspapers, movies, and the Internet. In some cases he uses language that engages the student reader, as when he describes cultural narratives in education as “Individualism (Stand On Your Own Two Feet), Rags to Riches, and Minority as Exotic Other” (pp. 41-53). Whether his popularization of these intellectual concepts is indulgent is a factor professors should consider before using this text.

In order to teach his readers to think critically about education, Quantz divides his textbook into four sections: basic concepts; philosophy of education; ideology and education; and educational narratives in a sociocultural context.


The basic concepts are a refreshing deviation from a typical analysis in education that overlooks how narratives can be of great value in understanding educational thinking and in gaining a deeper appreciation for the cultural underpinnings of institutions and issues. More often than not, the study of education relies too heavily on empirical analyses and experimental or quasi-experimental forms of inquiry in its romance with scientism. This is in contrast to an increased emphasis on narrative in other social science fields like sociology and anthropology.

Quantz might have considered providing references where readers would benefit from accessing more details in the analysis of narratives; for example, he refers to a study of university students who won’t register for courses with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week, as well as research that chronicles the decline in average study time for college students (Arum, Roska, & Cho, 2010). And while it may not have been possible to extensively discuss major theorists of narrative analysis (seminal writers like Clifford Geertz, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Jerome Brune), references to their work at the end of each section would have been helpful.

One would also hope that students view an introductory text as just that: the beginning of an inquiry in a field of study. Perhaps if students see their textbook as having some value beyond the course itself, they might not run off and sell it at the nearest re-sale bookstore as soon as the course has finished, but rather keep the book in their personal library to consult as the basis for and guide to future learning. As such, the strongest chapter in this section is on text critique, which provides students with a variety of tools such as argument, rhetorical analysis, and textual interpretation for critical examination of educational concepts.

Nevertheless, it isn’t clear how the pop culture narratives presented in the fourth chapter will be of great use to students, since many of the narratives are truncated to the point where they are of limited value. It might have been more useful to present fewer concepts in more depth to enhance students’ understanding of how cultural narratives shape education reform. Rather than just listing narrative types, providing more information on what narratives are and how they operate would give students additional tools to understand and work with them.


This section is the strongest and provides an arid synopsis of how philosophers reason and a thoughtful discussion on perennialism, essentialism, and progressivism. Given the space available, we would have preferred a more complex rendition of the various schools of epistemology and ontology, even though we understand that this rather truncated and oversimplified summary was all that Quantz might have thought could be managed. For example, the concept of the hermeneutical circle, since it is so critical to the analysis of narratives, is worthy of a more extensive discussion of not only how it functions as a form of analysis, but how it has been historically useful in revealing layers of meaning in textual narratives.

In contrast, the chapter on relation-based ethics is especially well written, with a thorough discussion of how the work of Nel Noddings on the ethics of care can guide educators on the creation of a nurturing school environment. As was the case for the previous section where we suggested an annotated bibliography, the discussion of philosophy here could have clearly benefitted from the inclusion of the giants of philosophy who undoubtedly informed Quantz’ discussion. There might also be value in including distinctive biographical text and exposition on perennial leaders in the fields of hermeneutics, critical theory, existentialism, and political philosophy (i.e., Charles Taylor, Jürgen Habermas, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Rawls).

Fleshing out the philosophies in this way might also make the summaries more interesting and intellectually intriguing for the reader; many of these philosophers in their own right are individuals whose original ideas are worthy of a more detailed biographical discussion, even if they must be stated somewhat tersely. In this way, the actual work of philosophers could come to life for students without reverting to a dumbing down of the textbook with news clippings and movie references meant to enliven the narrative.


Quantz here makes a distinction between philosophy and ideology in order to show how ideology operates in society as something that influences the social and political decisions that people make, and in particular, how these ideological underpinnings frame decisions in education. While he does soften his distinction as the section develops, his initial explanation of philosophy as the use of reason to arrive at conclusions and ideology is somewhat misleading. It could lead the reader to think that there is, in fact, a non-ideological “view from nowhere,” which one can reach by employing the tools of reason properly, when it is far from clear that this is the case in reality, since all observation and interpretation of facts is to some degree theory-laden. That said, Quantz does concede later that neutrality is an unattainable goal, and that educators who think that they have completely rid themselves of bias are, in fact, simply unaware of their biases. In contrast with the sharp distinction made earlier in the chapter, Quantz seems to be calling for a healthy level of introspection so that educators will become aware of their own ideological commitments, as well as the ideological commitments of others to better sort out the ways in which these predispositions can affect one’s ability to reason. This is an admirable aim, and this section gives the student reader a good foundation from which to begin examining the baselines of their own thinking.


This last section of the textbook does what Quantz might have done in the first two sections—it provides historical context for his arguments and identifies the major figures that have shaped our understanding of educational narratives in a sociocultural context. One could argue about the omitted authors and the points he makes about those he cites, but on balance, this section provides students with a much deeper understanding of social inequality, racism, sexual identity, and sexual orientation. One area where Quantz could have provided more information was regarding the differing narratives associated with sexual orientation. In our opinion, a discussion surrounding the debate between essentialism and social constructionism in the context of sexual orientation was lacking.


Despite the reservations cited above, overall this text offers a much-needed addition to the field of educational studies. Of particular value are the discussions of the critical role that narratives play in gaining a deeper understanding of educational issues, and the arguments, evidence, and interpretations offered to support educators addressing sociocultural problems in education.


Arum, R., Roska, J., & Cho, E. (2010). Improving undergraduate learning: Findings and policy recommendations from the SSRC-CLA longitudinal project. Social Science Research Council. Retrieved from: http://www.ssrc.org/workspace/images/crm/new_publication_3/%7Bd06178be-3823-e011-adef-001cc477ec84%7D.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 13, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17926, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:42:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Lee
    Illinois State University
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT E. LEE is the founding executive director of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline™ at Illinois State University, which is grounded in social justice and works to cultivate and sustain innovative, resilient, and effective educators for urban schools and their communities. This collaborative model of urban teacher preparation has raised teacher quality to improve school progress and student achievement. Lee’s most recent publications include a co-authored paper (2014), A survey to assess barriers to urban teaching careers, in the journal Urban Education; and a co-authored chapter, Beyond the Ivory Tower: The role of contextually based course redesign in a community-embedded urban teacher preparation model for the Routledge publication, Moving Teacher Education into Urban Schools and Communities (2013). In 2014, Lee was awarded a $10.1M US Department of Education grant entitled URBAN CENTER (Using Research-Based Actions to Network Cities Engaged in New Teacher Education Reform) Project to replicate the successful Chicago pipeline model to additional urban school districts in Illinois.
  • Jerry Olson
    Northeastern Illinois University
    E-mail Author
    JERRY B. OLSON is a former Associate Dean and Professor Emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Olson founded in 1978 the Chicago Teachers’ Center, a recognized leader in educational reform in Chicago. Currently, with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in education and a Doctorate in Psychotherapy from the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago, Olson functions as an external evaluator on several federal and state grants for various not-for-profit organizations and universities in Chicago, and is a practicing psychotherapist.
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