“We are faced with a public arena of shallow optimism, of grandiose banality and vulgarity, of
sweeping machineries of surveillance, and of brutal structures of violence that tunnel through the flesh
and marrow of everyday life” (McLaren 9).
With such a conception of public life at hand, and with generations of school bound children and
adults ready to strap on their backpacks to be schooled, where do we find the public schools
themselves?If “the schools are a great theater in which we play out conflicts in the culture” (Cohen
and Neufeld 86), what conflicts have arisen as a result of our public school system, and how are
professional educators addressing these conflicts?
This essay could have been titled “Schools.” However, in thinking about school and its
relationship 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 two
distinct camps, public and private. The main difference between the two is apparent, or at least
simplistically apparent. Everyone has the distinct notion that public school is a service provided and
regulated by the state, and comes at an extremely low cost to the citizen of that state. The state
collects taxes, then disperses those funds back to the community for the regulation and creation of
schools. The school belongs to the community, and children attend the public school at no additional
cost to the family. Private schools, however, run on a much different principle. They are supported
by private funds and not open to the public at large. Students pay tuition to attend the school, and
the school is usually run around a central and private ideology. For example, the Catholic Church
operates schools designed to educate children in accordance with Biblical educational ideals. You
will not find a community elected school board dictating the policies of a private school. The only
responsibility private schools have to the community is in positioning themselves to make their
education more attractive than the public alternative. However, as I hinted earlier, there is not such a
clean 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”, a
brief history of the origins of public schooling needs to be addressed. John Dewey, a central figure
in educational theory, posits the rise of publicly funded education in early nineteenth century
Germany. Following the work of philosophers Fichte and Hegel who “elaborated the idea that the
chief function of the state is educational” (Dewey 96), the push for public education gained
momentum. From this philosophical tradition that iterated the importance of an educated citizenry
for 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 were
funded from primary school through university, provided their intellectual abilities were capable of
sustaining promotion. Therefore, from its inception, public education has been used as a primary
societal 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 the
United States coincided with the rise of industrialization, urbanization, industrialization and
immigration in the latter-nineteenth century (Katz 103). However, some educational theorists claim
that, unlike Germany, public education was not instituted to promote societal progress. It was
instituted to deter the negative forces of a changing country. With the rise in the population of
illiterate immigrants and urban poor came social ills not seen earlier in the century, namely crime and
cultural dissonance. This cultural depravation was blamed primarily on illiteracy. “The popular
association of illiteracy with crime, poverty, and immorality fueled public enthusiasm for a universal
free public education system” (de Castel and Luke 162). However, what public were de Castel and
Luke addressing? The enthusiastic public does not appear to be univocal with the public school
attending public. One is addressing those with power to create the public schools, and the other is
addressing those without power to attend the public schools. Instantly, there is a power asymmetry
associated with the notion of “public.” Further, Michael Katz offers public education as a
governmental ploy to “offer an alternative environment and a first-rate set of adult role models, a
cheap and superior substitute for the jail and the poorhouse” (Katz 104). Schools were determined
necessary by the government to acculturate the new citizenry and to provide a place for the idling
masses to keep their wicked and illiterate hands busy. Public education was modeled as a
controlling force–the control of one public over another.
The main concentration in early public schools was on “habit forming,” namely to form the habits
of “alien, uncouth, and menacing” Irish Catholics (Katz 104). Public education, Katz argues, has
been about improving poor people. However, by improvement, the country meant the opportunity
to be molded by Protestant patriarchy (the powerful public), charity cases for the rich Anglo-Saxons
worried about the future of American “ideals”. “Public school systems existed to shape behavior and
attitudes, alleviate social and family problems, and to improve poor people and reinforce a social
structure under stress” (Katz 110). From their inception, American public schools were not
established to serve an idealistic and humanist notion of education. “Notice a missing goal among the
original purposes of public education: the cultivation and transmission of cognitive skills and
intellectual abilities as ends in themselves”(Katz 110).
So we find ourselves in the present with our public schools tied to a history of patriarchy and
cultural 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 as
a democratizing force. They would agree that the transmission of “cultural capital” and the teaching
of dominant morality should be the primary function of public schools. There is a “need in
democracy to teach children a shared body of knowledge” (Hirsch 17). Witness also Bennett’s
publication 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 would
appear so. In contrast to the early years of public education when “public often was equated with
pauper” (Katz 131), public now incorporates a wide range socio-economic strata. After all, public
schools 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 of
society send their children. “96% of students in households with incomes of less than $7000 attend
public school, and only 68.8% of students in households with incomes over $75000 are enrolled in
public schools” (Fine 189). This number indicates that despite the greater universalization of public
schooling, the wealthiest members of society are still choosing not to enroll their children in public
schools. 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 the
creators in public policy, as economics is the greatest determining agent of public policy, and public
school attendees do not hold the economic capital. Wealthy families, the engine of capitalism, are the
determiners of social policy and not the recipient of it. Therefore, education theorists Samuel
Bowles and Herbert Gintis see public education as a place not for the capitalist elite, but for the
masses, for the gears of society. Writing in Schooling in Capitalist America, they share this
viewpoint. “The American education system is subordinated to and reflective of the production
process and the structure of class relations in the United States.” The public school is seen as a
place for social reproduction where the ideology of capitalism is served. There is no competing
ideology; it is ideologically centered to benefit the empowered public, not the powerless public. It is
not a place where students go to receive an open and liberal education. Arising out of the history of
public education as a place to culturally determine students, modern public schools are overtly
determining. 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 Greene
suggests that we are all at fault for perpetuating this system, because of the ways we rate the
effectiveness of schooling. “The schools must demonstrate their effectiveness (To society) by
equipping 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 a
more insidious question. Michelle Fine wonders if public schools can really be considered public
when they are “filled by private interests” (187). By private interests, Fine is indicating the strong ties
our 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 the
contention that there is a considerable amount of overt pressure placed on public schools by private
businesses. It is so pervasive that Fine is willing to assert that “private business interests
systematically influence public schools” (187). Fine is suggesting that businesses use public schools
as a means to determine a future work force. Jonathan Kozol further suggests that public schools go
so far as to pander to business interests. “They (public school administrators) are even willing to
adjust 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 public
at all. He notes the funding differences that appear as funds are allocated by states according to
property tax collection. Therefore, schools residing in high-income area with high property vales will
receive greater funding for their schools. The difference is all too apparent when the average
expenditures between Chicago’ North Shore schools and Chicago’s inner city schools are
compared. The funding of the North Shore schools is nearly double the per student funding for
Chicago Schools (Kozol Appendix). What does this say about our notion of public? It is less a
function of national public, and more a function of a localized, homogeneous, and insular public. Our
concept 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 fund
charter schools, establish voucher programs, and operate schools on market principles. Charter
school issues are being debated in every state, with commercial concerns positioning themselves for
a piece of public funds. Even private schools are competing for public funds by lobbying for school
vouchers, seeking a portion of public funds under the auspices of school choice. How public are
these 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 an
even greater laissez-faire economic period, and we must begin to wonder what exactly constitutes
the public in public life. As public schools become increasingly determined by external funding
sources with political agenda (Witness the showing of the program Channel One to high school
students, and notice its inclusion of commercial content. The schools that participated in this
program received technological rewards) and as neo-conservative educators such as Milton
Friedman advocate for schools to be run on market principles, we must continually re-evaluate our
definition of public schooling. Public schools should be communities grounded in trust, flowering by
means of dialogue, kept alive in open spaces where freedom can find a place (Greene 134). In
other words, public schools must make themselves genuinely public, and not perpetuate their history
as a mask for democracy and consensus.
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.
De Castel, Suzanne and Allan Luke. “Defining ‘Literacy’ in North American Schools: Social and Historical
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: State
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.” Journal
Education. 173: 9-34.