Harvard Educational Review
  1. If Schools Didn’t Exist

    A Study in the Sociology of Schools

    Nils Christie; translated by Lucas Cone and Joachim Wiewiura

    Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2020. 246 pp. $35.00 (paper).

    In his preface to If Schools Didn’t Exist, Norwegian sociologist Nils Christie writes, “Schools are like radars. Through them we can discern the nature of our society” (p. lvix). He takes that view seriously, spending much of the book showing his readers Norwegian society as seen from the perspective of its schools. His take isn’t flattering. What Christie shows us are disaffected young people for whom Norwegian society can find little use and a school system whose chief purposes are warehousing these useless young people and legitimating an unequal, stratified society.

    In the final two chapters of the book, however, Christie shifts from a descriptive register to a normative one. He develops an account of what schools might be—how they might be governed, how they might be organized, how they might engage students—and how these new schools might transform society. As he writes in the final chapter, “My dream of a school is a dream of a society that has learned so much from its schools that the very notion of school for children and young people is defunct” (p. 160). Christie’s aspirations for a more authentic, meaningful school experience, then, are also aspirations for a society that no longer needs its schools to act as warehouses and sorting machines.

    I start at the end of the book for a reason. Christie first published If Schools Didn’t Exist in 1971. It wasn’t until 2020, however, that the book was translated into English and published in the US. As translators Lucas Cone and Joachim Wiewiura ask in their introduction to this new edition, and as most American readers will surely wonder too, why should we read a fifty-year-old book about a context few, if any, of us will be familiar with? I believe the answer to this question rests in the promise of Christie’s critical vision of the school as an authentic community. Especially today, when contemporary education practices continually constrain our imagination of what a school can and should do, Christie’s argument for a new kind of school offers to show us new paths forward.

    There are two different, though related, aspects to Christie’s normative project. The first concerns reforming who should exercise control over schools. Schools, Christie argues, should not be left “in the hands of the educationists” (p. 69). These educationists—supposed education experts, bureaucrats in various state bodies charged with overseeing schools—are narrowly trained in developing schools that are able to efficiently carry out their traditional mission, passing down the standard curriculum as devised by subject specialists. They have no expertise in helping ensure that schools are places where anyone wants to be. While Christie notes that the Norwegian parliament pays lip service to the importance of making the experience of school valuable in itself, tasking narrowly trained educationists with this mission ensures it will never be accomplished. Rather, granting the schools themselves—teachers, students, parents—“dominion over [their] own [lives]” (p. 92) is what is needed. For Christie, this is the only way to ensure that schools become authentic, collaborative communities where people want to spend time.

    The second key aspect of Christie’s project concerns articulating a new vision for what goes on inside schools, or what he calls their “internal life.” Importantly, reforming the internal life of the school is intimately bound up with, and even dependent on, reforming school governance. Understanding Christie’s vision of the thriving school community demands an understanding of this connection. A thriving school community, he explains, is one in which all members engage in cooperation on meaningful tasks. When critical decisions are made elsewhere—when hiring decisions are directed by the school board, when hired professionals take care of the school building—the school is deprived of the very stuff that allows for authentic collaboration and community. The thriving school, then, isn’t one where, say, all students perform well as measured by standardized tests but, rather, a community where all students and teachers are engaged in authentic collaboration on tasks that matter to the life of the school. Only in this way, Christie concludes, will students become independent people able to function well in society.

    A number of Christie’s ideas seem familiar. John Dewey’s work, in particular, is a clear influence. “The School and Social Progress” seems an especially important precursor. In it Dewey (1907) wrote that we must think of the activities children engage in at school “in their social significance, as types of the processes by which society keeps itself going”; it’s only in seeing these activities in their full social significance that schools can “be made a genuine form of active community life, instead of a place set apart in which to learn lessons” (p. 27). For Christie, as for Dewey, encouraging a spirit of “community mindedness” in the school demands that educators work to build a school where authentic collaboration—working together on tasks that matter for the life of the school—flourishes (p. 159).

    Christie’s embrace of conflict as part of a healthy community offers us a vision for community life better suited for our world than more romantic visions that emphasize harmony. Dewey (2004) praised “the assimilative force of the American public school” (p. 21) and, despite acknowledging that diversity of background and outlook promise to enlarge our perspective in valuable ways, maintained that schools must synthesize a new, cohesive whole out of the multitude of students who enter their classrooms. In contrast, Christie holds that community-mindedness is fully consistent with conflict. He argues that the truly thriving school “would live an arduous life.” In this school, “disagreements . . . would be mercilessly forced out of the shadows” and “harrowing divides would appear” (p. 153).

    Certainly, other democratically minded theorists have also encouraged the embrace of conflict, insisting that even thoroughgoing conflict should be seen as an ordinary, even important, aspect of authentic democratic politics. Christie’s focus on the classroom, however, sets his call apart. He offers the idea that not only is conflict not a problem, but it is part of the richness that makes a school or classroom a community someone might want to be a part of. Especially today, when teachers can be reprimanded and even fired for engaging their students in discussions of controversial issues, this perspective is valuable, offering us another perspective on what a successful classroom looks like (Levinson & Reid, 2019). Making this work is harder than Christie acknowledges, however. In a country marked by deep racial and class inequality, like the US, the classroom he describes will be reliably more arduous for nondominant students than for students who enjoy, for instance, race, class, and gender privilege. Yet, taken as a challenge, Christie’s insistence that conflict and community can be mutually supportive is well worth taking seriously.

    Readers today should also take seriously the frank immodesty of Christie’s vision for a transformed school. Tinkering toward utopia this is not. Rather, Christie calls for significant, even radical, changes across a number of related domains—governance reform, curricular reform, social reform. He wants the educationists to give up their control of schools, schools to give up their role in sorting students into the labor market, and teachers to give up their commitment to narrowly defined subjects. Out of the inevitable void created by these shifts, Christie hopes that true community life will emerge and that schools will become the kinds of places where we want to be. Though I’m less optimistic about our chances of achieving these transformations soon, there is value in taking Christie seriously. Today, when educational success remains hopelessly tied to background despite the efforts of generations of reformers, embracing such boldness in a push to transform our schools may well be called for.

    If Schools Didn’t Exist is a rich book and well worth reading. While many of its key insights will feel familiar to readers well-grounded in other critical accounts of education, Christie speaks in a voice that is sufficiently unique to merit our serious consideration.

    Ellis E. Reid V


    Dewey, J. (1907). The school and social progress. In The school and society (pp. 19–44). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. New York: Dover.

    Levinson, M., & Reid, E. (2019). Polarization, partisanship, and civic education. In C. M. Macleod & C. Tappolet (Eds.), Philosophical perspectives on moral and civic education: Shaping citizens and their schools (pp. 86–112). New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis. doi.org/10.4324/9781315146928

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    A Letter from the Editors

    Book Notes

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    The Campus Color Line
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    A Field Guide to Grad School
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    Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Public Schools
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    If Schools Didn’t Exist
    Nils Christie; translated by Lucas Cone and Joachim Wiewiura

    Educating Students to Improve the World
    Fernando M. Reimers