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Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984

reviewed by Jose R. Rosario - 1987

coverTitle: Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984
Author(s): Ira Shor
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226753603, Pages: 262, Year: 1992
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Soon after publishing Michael W. Apple’s Ideology and Curriculum in 1979, Routledge & Kegan Paul, a division of Methuen, Inc., launched a series on “critical social thought” to capitalize on the rising interest in Marxist thinking among young intellectuals in the United States working in the field of education. The initiative was part of an earlier pattern established by this publisher in England with the marketing of the “new” sociology of education and the work of such prominent social theorists as Rachel Sharp, Anthony Green, and Basil Bernstein.

In the United States, Michael Apple of the University of Wisconsin-Madison had been following the Routledge & Kegan Paul development closely, and much of the new sociology began to find its way into his own work. It was no surprise, then, to find Routledge rushing to create and exploit a new American market with his Ideology and Curriculum. With Apple as series editor, Routledge has published so far no fewer than ten volumes in critical social theory, with others in the works.

A recent addition to the series, Ira Shor’s Culture Wars is intended to expand the market, to broaden the audience and increase the readership for critical social thought in the United States and elsewhere. Speaking for the series, Apple frames the search for new readers in terms of making the “private language” of the researcher more accessible to others, especially those who in Apple’s view do not seem to handle theory and abstractions very well. An understanding of what this marketing line really means in the “culture and commerce of the textbook,” as Apple would say, is worth pursuing. No less interesting would be to pursue what Routledge’s investments in critical social thought mean in terms of profit (not necessarily financial) for the firm, its parent company, and its stable of series authors, some of whom are former students of Apple. These interesting and necessary inquiries make for a good subject in a later commentary on the selling and buying of critical social thinking in the American education market, but my task here is much simpler and less ambitious: to convey my views of Routledge’s new author and book.

To begin with, this new product in the critical social thought line is nothing more than pop criticism for a pop audience, a kind of high-brow critical social thinking gone low-brow, or Marxism packaged for Education 101 students. With a sarcasm that “carries the shame of the superficial,“1 Shor unleashes a thesis having more bark than bite. The book hinges on the claim that the turbulent and liberalizing 1960s have gradually given way to a conservative restoration brought about through culture wars that use schools as battlegrounds and curricula or programs as weapons.

Culture Wars and conservative restoration are terms Shor fails to define. The sense I make of culture wars is that it is, in its simplest form, a metaphor for dynamic struggle. It describes the mechanism by which competing social groups contest for control of social processes. In culture wars, “right words” displace “wrong words.” It is a “double process” (dialectical?) endemic to cultural transmission in which language is deployed to hide and achieve latent ends.

Conservative restoration is such a latent end. The term denotes a particular aim or effect of culture wars. In Shor’s case, it represents reversals in liberal and egalitarian tendencies and redemption of traditional values and culture.

Shor’s contention is that the United States has been experiencing a conservative restoration that began with the Nixon administration, when three so called wars began to be waged: the war for “careerism” (1971-1975), the war on “illiteracy” (1975-1982), and the war for “excellence” and against “mediocrity” (1982-1984). The first was used to depress activism and aspirations, the second to promote authority, and the third to disguise authority and inequality. All three represent a driving force to get us to “settle for less.”

Shor’s discussion of careerism focuses on the work of Sidney P. Marland, commissioner of education under the reign of Elliot Richardson, Richard Nixon’s secretary for Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW). Marland, known as the father of career education, introduced, at the urging of Nixon, a brand new program—vocationalism and occupationalism in the guise of careerism and career education—to deal with the apparent disjunction at the time between education and later employment.

Shor’s problem here is how to explain the introduction of career education at a time of deep recession and mounting criticism against its value. Marland’s own HEW report on work in America, for example, could not substantiate the presumed connection between occupational training and later employment.

Shor’s explanation for the push for vocationalism in the face of the evidence is that career education was introduced to dampen aspirations and lower expectations. The policy also aimed to quarantine students from critical thinking.

Shor’s problem in his treatment of the war on illiteracy is again similar: to explain the push for basics in the absence of hard evidence substantiating school achievement declines, and in the face of strong pedagogical arguments against them. He again sees the drive to get Americans to settle for less, to accept the fact that schools were doing a poor job in educating citizens. The villains are the same: the protest culture of the 1960s, the Vietnam war, open access to education, civil rights, and so on.

This is also a war for restoring authority and the dominant language, and against cultural relativism and dialecticism. It is not so much a war waged to bring back the basics, but to bring back the ideals supposedly lost to the troubled 1960s. Back to basics was nothing more than a strategy for hiding “an unequal and unworkable economy” (p. 97).

In Shor’s view, the purpose of the third war in the conservative restoration, for excellence and against mediocrity, is to reactivate rather than deactivate students. The war for excellence solidifies the back-to-basics war. It elevates reading, writing, and arithmetic to the “new basics,” the academic skills all students should have.

This is also the culture war that breaks Shor’s linear logic, in that the call for excellence is less a conservative than a centrist movement. This breakdown in logic, of course, forces a question: Is there anything to Shor’s thesis of conservative restoration?

The question can be answered in different ways depending on one’s view. If, for example, the thesis is seen as a kind of theory—or, better still, a model or metaphor—for how change in education occurs, we can concede that Shor seems to have something. Social change in education can be cast in terms of conflict and struggle, of competing political and economic forces trying to attain some degree of supremacy, permanence, or dominance over each other.

As a general model of social transformation in education, Shor’s view seems well grounded. There is multidisciplinary support for it if we take a systems view of how order is produced, maintained, and changed. In other words, forms, whether social, physical, or biological, achieve internal order through stabilizing mechanisms that hold certain forces in check while allowing others to dominate.2

Shor, however, fails to exploit the significance of this principle for understanding change in education. He seems more preoccupied with marketing a brand of pop criticism than with trying to explain why certain forces in education come to dominate others in times of instability and dynamic change. The cutesy allusion to the Bob Dylan song in the heading “Under the Pentagon: subterranean homesick blues” (p. 147) is indicative of this kind of preoccupation and analytic concern. Shor works very hard to pass off critical social thought as a K-Mart blue light special.

Let us take the thesis from a different angle and ask whether there is anything to the notion that the three reforms—careerism, back-to-basics, and excellence—function in the interest of a conservative restoration. From’ a strictly functional view, there seems to be, but not as Shor implies.

There is a kind of linear logic to Shor’s case. First came careerism to dampen aspirations and reduce employment expectations; then came back to-basics to dampen these aspirations even more; and finally came the push for excellence to give restoration forces more solid footing. The logic sounds nice, the reasoning seems neat and tight, and the argument looks rational, but do reforms function as linearly as Shor wants us to believe? It is difficult to make the case that they do. Even Shor’s story does not support the logic. He blurs the distinction between a reform’s intent and how a reform might function. To say that the school reforms of the last fifteen years or so have worked to restore conservatism in American education is one thing. To suggest as well that conservative restoration is the reforms’ guiding purpose without really showing that it is, is quite another, Shor seems a bit presumptuous in assuming that American education had somehow lost its conservative drive.

There are too many loose ends in Shor’s book. There are also some careless contradictions. Take, for example, Shor’s constant reference to student performance strikes as an explanation for low student productivity in schools. According to Shor, students do not see value in current forms of schooling, which serve to alienate rather than engage them, so they refuse to perform and resist instruction. If students are indeed resisting, however, how can Shor cite ambiguities in test results to show that the claims of restoration forces that students have been performing poorly are vacuous? He seems to want his cake and eat it too.

But suppose students have not been scoring as well on, say, the SAT or ACT, why should poor performance be automatically equated with strike or resistance? Because it fits the neo-Marxist conflict model of stability and change in social systems? Can it possibly be something else? Even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that poor student performance amounts to strike or resistance, at what level of schooling is this resistance most noticeable? Among what ethnic groups? Shor has no answers.

From yet another angle, is there anything to Shor’s claim that the school reforms are working to slow down, if not stop, the progress of minorities? The claim seems to make sense. After all, tightening high school and college requirements can in fact work against students who traditionally have not done well in public education, and seems to suggest an attempt, perhaps quite deliberately from some angles, to keep these students from gaining. Can this same phenomenon be seen differently? What if we were to say: “Up to now, nonstate intervention and local decision making in school matters have worked to keep blacks and other minorities out of the educational mainstream. Now that more of these students are being served as a result of increased access and equal opportunity, we have to assure that they be prepared adequately. Therefore, let us’ standardize expectations across the nation and establish common criteria for evaluating performance.” From this perspective, the reforms appear as safeguard mechanisms to assure that blacks and other minorities receive a quality education in the nation’s classrooms. By tightening criteria and calling for better performance, one may also be setting standards for holding educators and other public servants accountable for serving well those students who have not been served well in the past.

We need to bear in mind that the public school student population in this country is becoming more and more a population of the poor and linguistically and racially different, thus making the country’s economic development more dependent on how well this segment of the American population is educated. To assure that this segment of the population is well educated, there is need for more access to the kind of instruction normally associated with and afforded by the lucky few with substantial income and power.

Shor’s critique of current reforms smacks of a tacit elitism that works, in a latent way, against the very progress of the so-called disempowerment that he claims to speak for and defend. His self-directed classroom for desocialization as a solution to the dilemma of equity and excellence in education calls for a so-called liberating pedagogy that I find patronizing, condescending, and highly contradictory. “Teachers must initiate desocialization in their courses,” he says, “because students are not able to do it for themselves” (p. 185). These are the same students who have an ability to see what is not in their best interest and to resist and strike. They seem to know how to strike, but not how to desocialize themselves. To say that only teachers can desocialize students is a bit self-serving at best. Perhaps teachers are the only ones who can desocialize the already alienated, a contradiction in terms requiring great skill indeed.

In sum, there seems to be something to Shor’s thesis from the angle of how stability and change occur in educational systems. When he tries through sarcasm and puns to make critical social thought more palatable and to formulate an ideological position for advancing a so-called democratic view of education, however, his arguments lose force. He should have spent more time trying to explain the process of order and transformation in education than in trying to show how wrong and devious restoration forces can be. I suppose restoration forces can be and often are wrong and devious, but so can any other force. It is simply a question of value and degree, and how responsible we want to be. Perhaps image makers like politicians, policymakers, publishing houses like Routledge & Kegan Paul, and authors like Shor should exercise a bit more responsibility when peddling their views, since the consequences of their profiteering on the less critical consumer of these views can prove harmful indeed. Slick packaging does not always mean good product. To try to pass it off as if it does, when it does not, is not just misleading. It is wrong.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 2, 1987, p. 312-317
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 571, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 8:18:49 AM

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