Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education

By Barnett, Timothy | Composition Studies, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education


Barnett, Timothy, Composition Studies


Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education by William Lyons and Julie Drew. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Punishing Schools: Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education describes punishment as a powerful, systemic force in education that stems from a culture of fear and operates on multiple levels: From the bureaucrats who "punish" schools and students by drastically underfunding public education to the schools themselves who punish students by criminalizing youth and difference and establishing prison-like facilities for wealthy and poor alike. This study of two Ohio high schools-one a wealthy, mostly white suburban school and the other a poor, predominantly Black inner-city school-will primarily interest those who view education as a critical tool for democracy since the book argues convincingly that opportunities for progressive education are increasingly compromised by powerful state and corporate interests. It should also appeal to the growing numbers concerned with our country's efforts to balance civil rights and public safety.

Compositionists will also find this book significant because many of us view literacy as central to democratic education and because Lyons's and Drew's focus on the precarious role of public schools is suggestive of the place writing programs often find themselves. Like the schools Lyons and Drew describe, composition programs are under surveillance by the university, public, and state (who simultaneously require, seek to control, and demean literacy instruction), as they also represent these groups, disciplining students so that they fit in, linguistically, with societal norms. We are the punished and the punishers, even as we espouse liberatory goals, and Punishing Schools highlights significant parallels between public schools as depicted by Lyons and Drew and composition-arguably the most public and contested educational subject of all.

Punishing Schools consists of six chapters, with chapters 1 and 6 detailing the book's often compelling argument. Chapter 2 describes the conflicts present in "Suburbia High School" (SHS), a state of the art institution with upper class white students and high tech surveillance techniques, while chapter 3 focuses on the movie Pleasantville as the authors suggest the multiple ways popular culture contributes to the demonization of youth and difference and helps construct identity at schools such as SHS. Chapter 4 documents the politics and history behind Ohio's troubled urban schools, and chapter 5 offers a close study of "Urban High," an inner-city school whose plight as a "school without a neighborhood" exemplifies the difficulties of urban education and the abandonment of urban communities.

The book succeeds on many levels but also reminds us just how difficult it is to comprehensively analyze something as complex as public education. In particular I appreciate Lyons's and Drew's overall argument that the state punishes schools-both "good" and "bad"-as a way of deflecting attention from the fact that it is not investing in education. Schools pass on this punishment to students, feeding off of a culture of fear and conflict stemming from exaggerated images of dangerous youth preying on each other and on society. Because of this culture of fear, Lyons and Drew argue, middle class administrators, parents, and teachers focus on students rather than the state as the "problem," and, even more, focus on those who are already marginalized-inner city youth of color-as their primary fear. For their part, inner city communities have been virtually abandoned by the state and, left to fend for themselves as a result of white and capital flight, have few resources to fight the legal, political, and cultural battles necessary to make real change. Ultimately, Lyons and Drew suggest that because our educational critiques depend on misplaced fears of youth and racial difference rather than a comprehensive critique of the state, regressive goals for education-which use strategies of discipline to conserve and expand existing nodes of power-are prevailing over democratic ones. …

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