Michael BladesKeywordENG 501″We are faced with a public arena of shallow optimism, of grandiose banality and vulgarity, ofsweeping machineries of surveillance, and of brutal structures of violence that tunnel through the fleshand marrow of everyday life” (McLaren 9). With such a conception of public life at hand, and with generations of school bound children andadults ready to strap on their backpacks to be schooled, where do we find the public schoolsthemselves?If “the schools are a great theater in which we play out conflicts in the culture” (Cohenand Neufeld 86), what conflicts have arisen as a result of our public school system, and how areprofessional educators addressing these conflicts? This essay could have been titled “Schools. ” However, in thinking about school and itsrelationship to education, it would be much too broad a subject to cover, even in a limited sense. Therefore, as school relates to our conception of education, it can be systematically split into twodistinct camps, public and private.
The main difference between the two is apparent, or at leastsimplistically apparent. Everyone has the distinct notion that public school is a service provided andregulated by the state, and comes at an extremely low cost to the citizen of that state. The statecollects taxes, then disperses those funds back to the community for the regulation and creation ofschools. The school belongs to the community, and children attend the public school at no additionalcost to the family. Private schools, however, run on a much different principle. They are supportedby private funds and not open to the public at large.
Students pay tuition to attend the school, andthe school is usually run around a central and private ideology. For example, the Catholic Churchoperates schools designed to educate children in accordance with Biblical educational ideals. Youwill not find a community elected school board dictating the policies of a private school. The onlyresponsibility private schools have to the community is in positioning themselves to make theireducation more attractive than the public alternative.
However, as I hinted earlier, there is not such aclean split between public and private interest. Public schools carry the baggage of the term “public”which is problematic and multi-dimensional. Before we can examine present day public schools and their relationship to the term “public”, abrief history of the origins of public schooling needs to be addressed. John Dewey, a central figurein educational theory, posits the rise of publicly funded education in early nineteenth centuryGermany. Following the work of philosophers Fichte and Hegel who “elaborated the idea that thechief function of the state is educational” (Dewey 96), the push for public education gainedmomentum.
From this philosophical tradition that iterated the importance of an educated citizenryfor the progression of the industrial state, “Germany was the first country to undertake a public,universal, and compulsory system of education” (Dewey 96). German students’ educations werefunded from primary school through university, provided their intellectual abilities were capable ofsustaining promotion. Therefore, from its inception, public education has been used as a primarysocietal tool, a way for the government to educate its citizenry for future national progress. Immediately following the German models of public education, the rise of public education in theUnited States coincided with the rise of industrialization, urbanization, industrialization andimmigration in the latter-nineteenth century (Katz 103). However, some educational theorists claimthat, unlike Germany, public education was not instituted to promote societal progress. It wasinstituted to deter the negative forces of a changing country.
With the rise in the population ofilliterate immigrants and urban poor came social ills not seen earlier in the century, namely crime andcultural dissonance. This cultural depravation was blamed primarily on illiteracy. “The popularassociation of illiteracy with crime, poverty, and immorality fueled public enthusiasm for a universalfree public education system” (de Castel and Luke 162). However, what public were de Castel andLuke addressing? The enthusiastic public does not appear to be univocal with the public schoolattending public. One is addressing those with power to create the public schools, and the other isaddressing those without power to attend the public schools. Instantly, there is a power asymmetryassociated with the notion of “public.
” Further, Michael Katz offers public education as agovernmental ploy to “offer an alternative environment and a first-rate set of adult role models, acheap and superior substitute for the jail and the poorhouse” (Katz 104). Schools were determinednecessary by the government to acculturate the new citizenry and to provide a place for the idlingmasses to keep their wicked and illiterate hands busy. Public education was modeled as acontrolling force–the control of one public over another. The main concentration in early public schools was on “habit forming,” namely to form the habitsof “alien, uncouth, and menacing” Irish Catholics (Katz 104).
Public education, Katz argues, hasbeen about improving poor people. However, by improvement, the country meant the opportunityto be molded by Protestant patriarchy (the powerful public), charity cases for the rich Anglo-Saxonsworried about the future of American “ideals”. “Public school systems existed to shape behavior andattitudes, alleviate social and family problems, and to improve poor people and reinforce a socialstructure under stress” (Katz 110). From their inception, American public schools were notestablished to serve an idealistic and humanist notion of education. “Notice a missing goal among theoriginal purposes of public education: the cultivation and transmission of cognitive skills andintellectual abilities as ends in themselves”(Katz 110). So we find ourselves in the present with our public schools tied to a history of patriarchy andcultural assimilation, yet “represent(ing) themselves as public spheres, consensual and democratic”(Fine 186).
In fact, some conservative educational theorists, E. D. Hirsch and William J. Bennett(the former Secretary of Education) for example, would applaud the history of cultural assimilation asa democratizing force.
They would agree that the transmission of “cultural capital” and the teachingof dominant morality should be the primary function of public schools. There is a “need indemocracy to teach children a shared body of knowledge” (Hirsch 17). Witness also Bennett’spublication of The Book of Virtues, a “treasury of great moral stories for young people” (cover). Has the nature of public schooling changed over the course of history? On the surface it wouldappear so. In contrast to the early years of public education when “public often was equated withpauper” (Katz 131), public now incorporates a wide range socio-economic strata.
After all, publicschools exist not only in the poorest sections of the country, but the wealthiest as well. However,most progressive educators would still advocate that the system really has not changed much at all. Although “public schools may be said to be public because in most states taxpayers subsidize them”(Katz 189), there is still a strong distinction between where the poorest and wealthiest members ofsociety send their children. “96% of students in households with incomes of less than $7000 attendpublic school, and only 68. 8% of students in households with incomes over $75000 are enrolled inpublic schools” (Fine 189). This number indicates that despite the greater universalization of publicschooling, the wealthiest members of society are still choosing not to enroll their children in publicschools.
We must ask the question why? As the history of public education indicates, public schools have been mostly interested in filling,maintaining, and determining the slots of society. Those that attend the public schools are not thecreators in public policy, as economics is the greatest determining agent of public policy, and publicschool attendees do not hold the economic capital. Wealthy families, the engine of capitalism, are thedeterminers of social policy and not the recipient of it. Therefore, education theorists SamuelBowles and Herbert Gintis see public education as a place not for the capitalist elite, but for themasses, for the gears of society. Writing in Schooling in Capitalist America, they share thisviewpoint. “The American education system is subordinated to and reflective of the productionprocess and the structure of class relations in the United States.
” The public school is seen as aplace for social reproduction where the ideology of capitalism is served. There is no competingideology; it is ideologically centered to benefit the empowered public, not the powerless public. It isnot a place where students go to receive an open and liberal education. Arising out of the history ofpublic education as a place to culturally determine students, modern public schools are overtlydetermining.
They are “organized around power asymmetries and reproductive of social inequalities,they generate a series of fetishes that construct, justify and distract” (Fine 186). Maxine Greenesuggests that we are all at fault for perpetuating this system, because of the ways we rate theeffectiveness of schooling. “The schools must demonstrate their effectiveness (To society) byequipping students of all groups to meet current market demand” (Greene 14). However, not only are the previous public distinctions perpetuated in public schools, there is amore insidious question. Michelle Fine wonders if public schools can really be considered publicwhen they are “filled by private interests” (187).
By private interests, Fine is indicating the strong tiesour public schools have to business interests, and their complicity in fostering a pro-business,capitalist agenda. As public schools are rooted in this culturally determining history, there is thecontention that there is a considerable amount of overt pressure placed on public schools by privatebusinesses. It is so pervasive that Fine is willing to assert that “private business interestssystematically influence public schools” (187). Fine is suggesting that businesses use public schoolsas a means to determine a future work force. Jonathan Kozol further suggests that public schools goso far as to pander to business interests. “They (public school administrators) are even willing toadjust their schools and their curricula to serve the corporate will” (Kozol 82).
Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities, makes a further case that public schools are not really publicat all. He notes the funding differences that appear as funds are allocated by states according toproperty tax collection. Therefore, schools residing in high-income area with high property vales willreceive greater funding for their schools. The difference is all too apparent when the averageexpenditures between Chicago’ North Shore schools and Chicago’s inner city schools arecompared. The funding of the North Shore schools is nearly double the per student funding forChicago Schools (Kozol Appendix).
What does this say about our notion of public? It is less afunction of national public, and more a function of a localized, homogeneous, and insular public. Ourconcept of “public” arises out of extremely local concerns, and we fund our schools accordingly. Further complicating the philosophy and position of public schooling are the movements to fundcharter schools, establish voucher programs, and operate schools on market principles. Charterschool issues are being debated in every state, with commercial concerns positioning themselves fora piece of public funds. Even private schools are competing for public funds by lobbying for schoolvouchers, seeking a portion of public funds under the auspices of school choice. How public arethese enterprises and should they be allowed access to public funds? The gap between the public and the private has become even more blurred as we move into aneven greater laissez-faire economic period, and we must begin to wonder what exactly constitutesthe public in public life.
As public schools become increasingly determined by external fundingsources with political agenda (Witness the showing of the program Channel One to high schoolstudents, and notice its inclusion of commercial content. The schools that participated in thisprogram received technological rewards) and as neo-conservative educators such as MiltonFriedman advocate for schools to be run on market principles, we must continually re-evaluate ourdefinition of public schooling. Public schools should be communities grounded in trust, flowering bymeans of dialogue, kept alive in open spaces where freedom can find a place (Greene 134). Inother words, public schools must make themselves genuinely public, and not perpetuate their historyas a mask for democracy and consensus. Works Cited Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. Schooling in Capitalist America.
New York: Basic Books, 1976. Cohen, David K. and Barbara Neufield. “The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education. ” Daedalus.
110: 86. De Castel, Suzanne and Allan Luke. “Defining ‘Literacy’ in North American Schools: Social and HistoricalConditions and Consequences. ” Perspectives on Literacy.
1988: 159-174. Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press, 1966.
Fine, Michelle. Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School. New York: StateUniversity of New York Press, 1991. Greene, Maxine. The Dialectic of Freedom.
New York: Teachers College Press, 1988. Hirsch, E. D. The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Katz, Michael. Improving Poor People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. Keppel, Francis. The Necessary Revolution in American Education. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. McLaren, Peter. “Critical Pedagogy: Constructing an Arch of Social Dreaming and a Doorway to Hope. ” Journalof Education.