- Purchase/rental options available:
Social Text 22.2 (2004) 13-35
[Access article in PDF]
Education And Social Class
The crisis in American education, on the one hand, announces the bankruptcy of progressive education and, on the other hand, presents a problem of immense difficulty because it has arisen under the conditions and in response to the demands of a mass society.
At the dawn of the new century no American institution is invested with a greater role to bring the young and their parents into the modernist regime than public schools. The common school is charged with the task of preparing children and youth for their dual responsibilities to the social order: citizenship and, more important, learning to labor. On the one hand, in the older curriculum on the road to citizenship in a democratic, secular society, schools are supposed to transmit the jewels of the Enlightenment, especially literature and science. On the other, students are to be prepared for the work world by means of a loose but definite stress on the redemptive value of work, the importance of family, and, of course, the imperative of love and loyalty to one's country. As to the Enlightenment's concept of citizenship, students are, at least putatively, encouraged to engage in independent, critical thinking.
But the socializing functions of schooling play to the opposite idea: children of the working and professional and middle classes are to be molded to the industrial and technological imperatives of contemporary society. Students learn science and mathematics not as a discourse of liberation from myth and religious superstition but as a series of algorithms, the mastery of which are presumed to improve the student's logical capacities, or with no aim other than fulfilling academic requirements. In most places the social studies do not emphasize the choices between authoritarian and democratic forms of social organization, or democratic values, particularly criticism and renewal, but offer instead bits of information that have little significance for the conduct of life. Perhaps the teaching and learning of world literature where some students are inspired by the power of the story to, in John Dewey's terms, "reconstruct" experience is a partial exception to the rule that for most students school is endured rather than experienced as a series of exciting explorations of self and society.1 [End Page 13]
In the wake of these awesome tasks, fiscal exigency and a changing mission have combined to leave public education in the United States in a chronic state of crisis. For some the main issue is whether schools are failing to transmit the general intellectual culture, even to the most able students. What is at stake in this critique is the fate of America as a global model of civilization, particularly the condition of its democratic institutions and the citizens who are, in the final analysis, responsible for maintaining them. Of course, we may contend that the "global model" is fulfilled by the relentless anti-intellectual bias of schools and by a ruthless regime of the virtual expulsion of the most rebellious students, especially by secondary schools. Hannah Arendt goes so far as to ask whether we "love the world" and our children enough to devise an educational system capable of transmitting to them the salient cultural traditions. Other critics complain that schools are failing to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity for good jobs for working-class students, whether black, Latino, or white. Schools unwittingly reinforce the class bias of schooling by ignoring its content. The two positions, with respect both to their goals and to their implied educational philosophies, may not necessarily be contradictory, but their simultaneous enunciation produces, with exceptions to be discussed below, considerable tension for the American workplace, which has virtually no room for dissent. Individual or collective initiative is not sanctioned by management. The corporate factory, which includes sites of goods and symbolic production alike, is perhaps the nation's most authoritarian institution. But any reasonable concept of democratic citizenship requires an individual who is able to discern knowledge from propaganda, is competent to choose among...