Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1996 Issue »

    Visions of Community and Education in a Diverse Society

    By Joseph Kahne, Joel Westheimer, and Sabrina Hope King
    This collection of three reviews examines different visions of community in light of the diversity present in the United States today. We review four influential contemporary works that invoke community as a goal for social and educational policy. We consider when, why, and how the invocation of community is compatible with the project of democratic and public schooling in a multicultural society. In the process, we underscore the tensions that exist between liberal, communitarian, and democratic commitments.

    In 1955, noted sociologist George Hillary published Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement.1 He surveyed the academic literature on community and identified ninety-four different definitions with few areas of agreement. While the meaning of "community" remains elusive, the term seems more popular than ever. As Perlstein points out, a subject search of the term "community" in the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) database yields 96,439 citations.2

    This fast growing crop of literature reflects a rhetorical, but not a substantive consensus. Politicians (Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan), social theorists (Robert Bellah, Cornel West, Christopher Lasch, and Benjamin Barber), and educational researchers (Mary Anne Raywid, James Coleman, and Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot) stress the importance of community, but hold significantly different understandings of its nature, its antecedents, and its value. Although a steady stream of educational literature asks analysts, policymakers, and practitioners to focus their attention on creating a "community of learners," building strong ties with the students' "home communities," and creating "professional communities" for teachers, little clarity exists regarding the meaning of community in these different contexts. The lack of attention afforded these differences downplays important normative commitments.

    Discussions of community often obfuscate the norms and values communities embody. Not surprisingly, these norms and values are often the subject of conflict. To say this is not to argue that communities are necessarily coercive or constraining. Nor is it to deny that communities can offer support, direction, and a sense of belonging. We believe, however, that the quest for community must be problematized and that developing a means of negotiating diverse opinions, beliefs, identities, and priorities must be a central concern of those who promote "community" as a desirable goal.

    This is one of the central challenges facing educators committed to the pursuit of a democratic society. Community, as Dewey and others make clear, requires a sense of unity, common bonds, and commitments that transcend differences. At the same time, because democratic societies respect individual and group differences, communities must also acknowledge and support diversity — providing methods for negotiation and space for dissent. Although the challenge this presents is enormous, current proponents of community often sidestep these issues.


    1 George Hillary, "Definitions of Community: Areas of Agreement," Rural Sociology, 20 (1955), 111–123.

    2 Daniel Perlstein, "Community and Democracy in American Schools: Arthurdale and the Fate of Progressive Education," Teachers College Record, 97, No. 4 (in press).
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    Winter 1996 Issue


    The Colonizer/Colonized Chicana Ethnographer
    Identity, Marginalization, and Co-optation in the Field
    By Sofia Villenas
    "To Take Them at Their Word"
    Language Data in the Study of Teachers' Knowledge
    By Donald Freeman
    Inclusion, School Restructuring, and the Remaking of American Society
    By Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner
    Sustained Inquiry in Education
    Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size
    By Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light and Jason A. Sachs

    Book Notes

    Saving Our Sons
    By Marita Golden

    This Is How We Live and Tapori

    Wasting America's Future: The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Cost of Child Poverty
    By Arloc Sherman; Introduction by Marian Wright Edelman; Foreword by Robert M. Solow

    Blacked Out
    By Signithia Fordham

    Works about John Dewey 1886–1995
    Edited by Barbara Levine

    By Matthew Lipman

    Diversity in Higher Education
    By Caryn McTighe Musil, with Mildred Garcia, Yolanda Moses, and Daryl G. Smith

    Handbook of Qualitative Research
    Edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln.

    Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy
    Edited by Rick Ginsberg and David N. Plank.

    The Multilevel Design
    By Harry J. M. Huttner and Pieter van den Eeden.

    Search and Seizure in the Public Schools (Second Edition)
    By Lawrence F. Rossow and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.