Education under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal and Radical Debate over Schooling

By Stanley Aronowitz; Henry Giroux | Go to book overview

PREFACE

For most of the twentieth century American schools enjoyed a unique place in our political and cultural life. Even as deep flaws appeared in our economy during the Great Depression when Americans deepened their suspicion of government and political leaders, schools, teachers and others involved in public education enjoyed positions that offered trust, prestige, hope. While many critics doubted the ability of schools to deliver on the promise of greater equality, few questioned that the American ideology of equal opportunity could be achieved. And, even though few immigrant groups were enabled to rise from the ghettoes and slums by public education, the ability of even a small minority to do so provided an example for sustaining the dreams of millions who might never move up in the social structure.

Formal education simultaneously represented a departure from, and continuity with, the figure of the self-made man for the working class. School was not designed to foster entrepreneurship, but instead prepared the most successful students for bureaucratic and professional labor. The notion persisted that it was up to the individual to perform well in the classroom in order to achieve liberation from manual labor. In failing to acquire school knowledge, which by the turn of the century was the universal signifier of the promising student, kids condemned themselves to follow their parents into the mines and mills unless they could acquire economic capital. For most working people capital could not be accumulated through hard work after the 1880s when the frontier was closed forever. Most of the farm land had already been tilled, the giant corporations had displaced many smaller firms, and although there existed a few sectors in which skilled workers owned small shops as well as engaged in wage labor, most accepted the idea that you’ll never get rich through hard work. The avenues to small capital accumulation were best demonstrated by such groups as athletes who managed to prevent promoters and team owners from fleecing them; those who entered the underground economy of prostitution, drugs and other illegal trades; and the few skilled workers who started small businesses that grew.

As the twentieth century matured it became increasingly apparent that the schools, more than other institutions, had become the wish mechanism for Americans: that more citizens placed hope for their children in them, and that those who worked in schools were charged with the awesome task of fulfilling the American dream.

-ix-

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