Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1999 Issue »

    Editor's Review - Common Schools/Uncommon Identities by Walter Feinberg, Curriculum as Institution and Practice by William Reid, and Successful Failure by Hervé Varenne and Ray McDermott

    Julie Pearson Stewart
    Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity And Cultural Difference
    by Walter Feinberg.
    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. 272 pp. $28.50.

    Curriculum as Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition
    by William Reid.
    Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999. 232 pp. $49.95.

    Successful Failure: The School America Builds
    by Hervé Varenne and Ray McDermott.
    Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. 264 pp. $61.00.

    In the United States, school curriculum is often a site of struggle and conflict as politicians, parents, and pundits clash over curriculum’s central issues: what knowledge is of most worth, how best to present that knowledge, who will present it, who will receive it, and why. Since these questions concern diverse values as well as diverse pedagogies, conflict is inevitable — and even desirable — in a democracy. How we choose to deal with and work through that conflict, however, is debatable. One way is by reducing these complex questions to either/or answers, such as either core knowledge or project-based learning, either affirmative action or merit. The debates that arise over such issues use argument and rhetoric as the predominant language. In these debates, each side is locked into defending or attacking a position rather than seeking solutions.

    Another way of dealing with curriculum conflicts can be found in deliberation, a philosophical tradition that involves the discussion and consideration of all sides of an argument. Deliberation, a method of inquiry that provides the framework for philosophical works such as Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s Dialogues, can expand the scope of possible solutions by moving discussion outside the restrictive boundaries of rhetoric and argument. Although endemic to philosophy in general and to the more specialized philosophy of education, it is less used in curriculum matters. This approach, however, offers educators a way to seek solutions to controversial curriculum issues rather than assume them a priori. Three recent books approach curriculum issues from this perspective: William Reid’s Curriculum as Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition, Walter Feinberg’s Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, and Hervé Varenne and Ray McDermott’s Successful Failure: The School America Builds.

    While traditionally a method of inquiry in philosophy, deliberation has previously been used to negotiate the contested terrain of curriculum. In 1902, for example, John Dewey used this approach in The Child and the Curriculum to analyze two ideas that divided U.S. education at the turn of the century into what he terms “schools of opinion” or “sects” (p. 182): teaching the child vs. teaching the subject. Examining this work briefly reveals the traditional deliberative framework that Reid, Feinberg, and Varenne and McDermott use in their more recent books: presentation of the debate between two competing ideas, inquiry about the nature and consequences of each idea, and redefinition of the issues they address based on the preceding inquiry.

    First, Dewey details the debate between advocates of teaching the child vs. teaching the subject. He then considers the idea of teaching the child, exploring what that idea means and its benefits and consequences. He repeats this process for the idea of teaching the subject. Based on his inquiries into each position, Dewey reasons that this dichotomization transforms the “really serious problem” of how to meet the needs of the individual and the society “into an unreal, and hence insoluble, theoretic problem” (p. 182). Dewey therefore concludes that educators must stop trying to resolve the irresolvable issue of teaching the child versus teaching the subject and focus instead on finding a way to reframe the issue. This method of inquiry leads Dewey to the idea that teaching the child and teaching the subject are actually parts of a whole that he redefines as teaching through experience.

    In Curriculum as Institution and Practice: Essays in the Deliberative Tradition, William Reid acknowledges curriculum studies’ debt to this Deweyan model of deliberation. He asserts that science’s ascendancy in curriculum planning at the turn of the century relegated philosophical deliberation to an inferior position but that Dewey’s works “kept the tradition alive” (p. 5). In Curriculum as Institution and Practice, Reid uses this tradition to examine an important question concerning curriculum: Is it institution or practice? He first explains the debate and defines the terms surrounding it. For example, he defines deliberation as “the careful weighing of possibilities, which may relate to what we are to do, or what we are to believe, in the light of available evidence, without the expectation that what we decide will be the only possible thing to do or believe, or the only correct thing to do or believe” (p. 2). To make certain that readers have a clear definition of the terms he uses and thus enter the discussion from a more or less common starting point, Reid includes a glossary of the “language of deliberation.” He suggests that curriculum decisions usually require deliberation because of “the awkward relationship between its two main elements: its character as practical endeavor, and its character as human institution” (p. 3). As a practical endeavor, it involves action and choice of action. As an institution, it is a “constellation of publicly embodied values, attitudes and aspirations” (p. 207).

    Having defined the issue, the debate, and the terms he will use, Reid examines each school of opinion on curriculum and inquires into the merits, costs, implications, and benefits of each. In the first part of the book, Reid looks at the idea of curriculum as practice — what we do in schools and what works. It is impossible to look at curriculum only as practice, Reid argues, because it offers only a description of what is taught in schools and not an explanation of why. Reid then turns to the idea of curriculum as institution. As such, it involves actions within the context of a “wider reality” (p. 97), for example, a grade, a school, a state, and a culture. Since both are vital parts of curriculum, curriculum decisions require inquiry into the relationships between what is done in schools and these wider realities.

    As Dewey did with the concepts of teaching the child vs. teaching the subject, Reid suggests that “the two faces of curriculum . . . collaborate with each other” (p. 97) and are actually parts of a whole. He then redefines curriculum as “institutionalized practice” (p. 109) — that is, curriculum is practice shaped and determined by the various institutions within which it is set. To illustrate this concept, he uses deliberation to examine the curriculum of the upper secondary schools in nineteenth-century England. His examination of this specific curriculum leads him to explain it, not as the result of social and economic forces external to the school or of the practical actions of various headmasters and teachers, but as the result of the complex interaction of all these elements.

    In Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, Walter Feinberg uses the deliberative model to examine two competing ideas on the goals of curriculum in the United States: preservation of national identity vs. preservation of cultural identity. In that model, he presents each competing idea, opens an inquiry around it, and redefines the issue that both ideas address. Feinberg carefully sets the context for his investigation, defining the title’s central terms. By “common school,” Feinberg means the traditional concept of citizenship or civic education as “schooling to develop a shared national identity and a common loyalty” (p. 2). “Uncommon identity” refers to what Feinberg calls “the present moment in education” (p. 3), a chronological and philosophical time in which the emphasis in schooling is on multiculturalism and difference. To establish a common starting point for deliberation, he also defines other key terms in the discussion that can be variously construed or misconstrued, such as culture, ethnicity, identity, nation, and state. He then asks, “Given our new understanding of cultural differences, is there any role for the common school, and if there is, what is it?” (p. 4).

    Having set the terms he will use, Feinberg then considers the ideas of citizenship education and multicultural education to examine the nature and possibilities of both rather than to determine which is right and which is wrong. He first explores the pluralist idea of the common school, an institution charged with the development of a national identity and the transmission of collective and individual values that reflect and support that identity. Feinberg then inquires into the nature of national identity: its historical roots, its definition, its benefits, its purposes, its arbitrariness, and its consequences in the multicultural society. To do so, he examines the arguments for citizenship education from other scholars such as John Dewey, Emile Durkheim, and A. R. Luria, examining the diverse facets of national identity in each to show its complexity and investigate its possibilities. With his readers, who are included in every step of this exploration, Feinberg considers what poet Louis MacNeice (1986) would call the “incorrigibly plural” (p. 923) concept of national identity as an end of education.

    He then explores the multiculturalist idea of the school as an institution charged with the transmission of uncommon identities, that is, the collective and individual values that reflect cultural identities. As with the idea of national identity, he carefully defines the term “culture” and inquires into this idea’s complexity: the role of culture in education, perceptions of culture, the transmission of ideas across cultures, and the consequences of difference. From this deliberation, he extracts three key questions that he attempts to answer with the ideas he has explored: Can “citizenship education in a liberal multicultural society have any value content or . . . must it simply relegate any instruction about values or the good life to particular cultural subgroups” (p. 204)? Is stability likely in such a society unless citizenship education nurtures attachments to the nation itself? If stability does require national identity, what values does a democratic and multicultural society need to promote?

    Feinberg determines that there are costs involved in citizenship education, but that stability demands creation of a national identity through common schools. What is at issue, he concludes, is what that identity should be. In a multicultural society, Feinberg suggests that this involves

    a mutual search for the terms under which we can live together and flourish within and across our different communities. Citizenship education in a liberal, multicultural society involves developing a commitment to this mutual search and the skills needed to carry it out. The goal is to identify, preserve, and invent the communal conditions that are required for the growth and development of all citizens, including those whose backgrounds and cultural commitments will continue to differ from our own. (p. 228)

    It is this redefined and expansive national identity that the common schools seek to reproduce. Thus, through deliberation, Feinberg, like Dewey and Reid, moves beyond the simplistic definitions of national and cultural identity to construct new meanings.

    In Successful Failure: The School America Builds, Hervé Varenne and Ray McDermott use deliberation to examine the controversial issue of merit in U.S. education, an issue that has been dichotomized into those who have it (the “successes”) and those who do not (“the failures”). In particular, they address educational researchers who have debated, argued, and defined these concepts to create policies and programs aimed at fostering success and eliminating failure. As do Dewey, Reid, and Feinberg, Varenne and McDermott present the polarized concepts of success and failure, but they use qualitative studies that bring them to life through real students, real situations, and real schools.

    The book’s first four chapters present children who are usually labeled failures by educators and educational institutions, although the words attached to these children are seldom so direct as “failure.” Instead, they are perceived as disabled or disadvantaged in some way — by testing performance, economic status, or race. Varenne and McDermott examine the schooling of Adam, a nine-year-old identified by testing as learning disabled; the literacy of Sheila Farrell and Joe Kinney, two elementary school students in a working-class section of New York City; a classroom at New York’s West Side High School, a school of last resort for eighteen- to twenty-year-olds who have not graduated from regular schools; the extracurricular choir members at the Inn of the Good Shepherd, a shelter for “street kids.” Chapter five presents the students of suburban Allwin Junior High School, “a school known to be part of an excellent school system [in] the best of all American worlds” (p. 110).

    Varenne and McDermott begin their inquiry around these children where most research begins, with the research question. They maintain that most educational researchers focus on why individual students, schools, programs, teachers, or parents succeed or fail, studying why some have merit and others do not. In doing so, educational researchers begin with questions in which success and failure are accepted as cultural facts. By asking such questions, researchers act on and perpetuate socially constructed assumptions that categorize people as either successes or failures. Even if such research makes no explicit comparison and aims solely at identifying and explaining why some individual, some group, or some school is a success, it simultaneously categorizes some unnamed individual as a failure. If, for example, a study asks why White students at suburban high schools score an average of 1300 on the SATs, the shadow of those who are not White and do not score well is always present. The converse is also true.

    Varenne and McDermott’s conversation between the ideas of success and failure leads them to shape two possibilities. The first is that success and failure constitute an interrelated and interdependent system. The children at the Inn of the Good Shepherd, for example, experience success in the choir room that does not translate into success outside. For the successful students of Allwin Junior High, the possibility and threat of failure is ever present, as each successive test threatens previous successes and competition drives the school and divides its students. The second possibility is that, in asking why, educational research, which often aims at reform, actually entrenches the status quo rather than challenging it. These possibilities lead them to the same conclusion that Dewey reached in The Child and the Curriculum: “Only by getting away from the meaning of terms that is fixed upon and coming to see the conditions from another point of view, and hence in a new light” (pp. 181–182) can any new solutions be found.

    First, recognizing that by adhering to these two solutions and these two solutions alone researchers disable all students that they study, Varenne and McDermott then seek a way to step outside the “long tradition of work that has toyed with ‘why’ questions” (p. 208). They seek instead to redefine the ideas of success and failure by creating what they term “a new language” for educators and educational researchers that avoids these either/or categorizations. They thus shift the emphasis from examining the individual student, teacher, or school to examining the culture that has created and defined these categories. Rather than ask why a student, teacher, or school succeeds or fails, they ask how educational researchers and U.S. society create success and failure. They further ask how educational researchers, educators, and society can work outside these categories to escape that self-fulfilling system.

    These three books thus continue the philosophical tradition of deliberation on curricular issues seen previously in Dewey’s Child and the Curriculum. Each explores new possibilities that would allow educators and researchers to escape and redefine traditional and accepted dichotomies that are too often accepted as an inevitable part of the education. Even if we disagree with their conclusions, these books have value because of their use of a methodology that moves controversial topics from rhetoric and argument to a constructive exchange of ideas. The process of deliberative conversation that Reid, Varenne and McDermott, and Feinberg use opens the search for solutions beyond the limitations of the dichotomies they examine in their books. In so doing, they offer readers, educators, teachers, policymakers, and researchers a way to approach and possibly resolve many of the areas of education that, to date, remain locked in polarity.

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    Fall 1999 Issue


    The Development of Professional Developers
    Learning to Assist Teachers in New Settings in New Ways
    Mary Kay Stein, Margaret Schwan Smith, Edward A. Silver
    Streets and Schools
    How Educators Can Help Chicano Marginalized Gang Youth
    James Diego Vigil
    The Mind Is Its Own Place
    The Influence of Sustained Interactivity with Practitioners on Educational Researchers
    Michael Huberman

    Book Notes

    Teacher with a Heart
    By Vito Perrone

    Political Correctness
    By Stanley Fish

    School Leadership
    By Kathleen Sernak

    The Students Are Watching
    By Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer

    Black Power/White Power in Public Education
    By Ralph Edwards and Charles V. Willie

    Learning in the Field
    By Gretchen B. Rossman and Sharon F. Rallis

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