American outlook

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Many people in the United Kingdom support the inclusion of citizenship and values in the new curriculum. But in the United States, where the teaching of democratic citizenship and American values has long been seen as a key function of schools, the issue is sharply problematic.

In an ever more pluralist and consumerist society, there is increasing disagreement about the boundaries between individual and collective action. How extensive are parents' rights? Do diversity and choice extend to values? Is there still a place for that all-American symbol, the common school.

Rosemary Salomone, author of Visions of Schooling (Yale University Press pound;20) is an academic lawyer, and her book highlights recent cases that have exposed these issues. In Westchester County, New York state, for example, parents challenged the Bedford school board for allowing curricular use of a popular fantasy card game because they believed it threatened their children with the forces of evil.

The "Bedford Witchcraft Case" went as far as the Supreme Court, which held that it was up to "the community", not individual parents, to determine values issues - an open door, the author believes, to further litigation.

She writes from a conservative standpoint , and takes it for granted that the US public school is in terminal decline. Her solution - a mix of private choice schools funded by voucher, publicly funded charter schools and publicly funded public schools around a minimal core of values - has adherents in the UK. This is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. I recommend it.

Walter Feinberg, author of Common Schools, Uncommon Identities (Yale pound;18.95) may disagree. His sub-title is "national unity and cultural difference". He claims that the US public school was fundamental to American nationhood and is fundamental to its future. What is needed, he says, is a justification for it that recognises diverse cultural identities and changing views about rights and duties.

That justification lies, he argues, in the educational values that all protagonists - conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, old American and new - must recognise as central to national identity and growth. He identifies these asequality of opportunity, freedom of association and individual growth.

In their fullest sense, he argues, only public schools can promise these. In other words, the rights of individuals and groups (and certainly of parents) must be subordinate to these core values. The movement towards vouchers and privatisation, he believes, threatens them.

How, in practice, then, can the common school respond simultaneously to multiculturalism and core values? In essence, that is a curriculum issue - and two recent American titles both address it. Multicultural Curriculum (edited by Ram Mahalingam and Cameron McCarthy, Routledge pound;13.99) incorporates international perspectives on theory as well as policy and practice. It's an academic volume - analytical, multi-layered, very conscious of contested ground - but it contains several striking chapters: for instance, Michael Apple's argument that a national curriculum and a national testing programme are essential steps towards marketisation, not core values, resonates powerfully in this context.

The thesis of Tomorrow's Children by Riane Eisler (Westview PressPerseus Books pound;19.50) is simple in comparison. Curriculum, Eisler says, always mirrors the dominant pattern for structuring relations. That pattern lies on a continuum, with the dominator model at one end (authority, control, exploitation, masculinity) and the partnership model (equity, multi-culturalism, sustainability and gender-fairness) at the other. Schools must move towards the latter if we are to survive, she writes. And while she says little about the politics of that, she is interesting on approaches, materials and resources.

Finally, Parents and Schools by William W Cutler (University of Chicago Press pound;17.50) is, the author says, a history of the 150-year struggle for control of American education, and a reminder that today's school wars have longish antecedents. Central to the book is the rise of the parent-teacher association movement in the face of the schools' unwise assumption of ever more powers in loco parentis. Without parental support for school values, Cutler argues, public education will die. Which parents, though - and which values? He doesn't ask.


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