Punishing Schools, Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education

By Richardson, John G. | Law & Society Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Punishing Schools, Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education


Richardson, John G., Law & Society Review


Punishing Schools, Fear and Citizenship in American Public Education. By William Lyons and Julie Drew. Ann Arbor: The Univ. of Michigan Press, 2006. Pp. 264. $65.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Lyons and Drew explore what has arguably been the dominant trend of American public schooling over the past several years: the increasing likeness of public schools to prisons and the criminalization of youth culture. As conveyed in their subtitle, Lyons and Drew examine how a culture of fear, aggravated by the shootings at Columbine, but accelerated by 9/11, has so deeply permeated the daily routines of public schools. The sweep of this change is their topic, for it is American education in general that has been altered, and altered in ways that reach beyond police searches and lockdowns. Of far greater consequence is a transformation of the understood social contract that is public education. This is a deeply thoughtful work that integrates a variety of perspectives into a compelling interpretation of what has happened to American education. It is superbly written and is, as such, accessible to a diverse audience.

The title implies a double entendre. By punishing schools the authors certainly mean an environment that has surveillance and control as an ever-present focus. The object of this preoccupation is the defiance that emanates from youthful sexuality and its racial overtones. The school as panopticon exaggerates the menacing potential of the youthful body and its private demeanors, promoting in consequence a "slow hemorrhage of freedoms" (p. 89). With a reference to Foucault, the authors suggest how the microtechnologies of backpack searches and lockdowns facilitate this punishing gaze, yet have their counterpart in the continuous flow of boyfriend-girlfriend conflicts that blunt the demeaning character of searches and lockdowns.

But it is a second meaning that is the authors' primary intention. This meaning is framed by a strategy that compares two schools that differ markedly in racial and socioeconomic composition: one suburban (SHS) and one urban (UHS). As the authors reveal the differences between the two schools, they develop a theoretical interpretation that is multilayered, empirically convincing, and deeply nuanced. Their comparison reveals how schools are differentially punished by the wake of deindustrialization; differentially abused by the false prophets of charter schools, redirected lottery funds, and urban renewal; and differentially neglected by local and state politics unrestrained by the racial coalitions that once upheld the social contract of a public education.

With great insight, the authors pinpoint a difference between the schools that illustrates these larger changes. For the suburban school, the punishing routines of daily life emanate from within.

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