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

By Stanley Aronowitz; Henry Giroux | Go to book overview

ONE

Rethinking the Nature of Educational Reform

AFTER NEARLY TWO decades of benign neglect, schools are once more the subject of an intense national debate. In the recent past, discussion has centered on three issues: whether schools can be the central institution for achieving racial and sexual equality; in higher education, whether the traditional liberal arts curricula are still “relevant” to a changing labor market; and whether the authoritarian classroom stifles the creativity of young children or, conversely, how permissiveness has resulted in a general lowering of educational achievement. All of these issues are still with us, but they have been subsumed under a much larger question: how to make schools adequate to a changing economic, political and ideological environment?

As has been the case with most public issues in American society, the conservatives have seized the initiative and put liberals and progressives on the defensive. Their arguments have force not only because conservatism has become dominant in the ideological realm, but because their critique seems to correspond to the actual situation. In the first place, conservatives have joined radical critics in announcing that the schools have failed to educate, a perception shared by most parents, teachers and administrators. And, secondly, they have coupled their point with a clear analysis of the causes and a program for curing the affliction. To be sure, their analysis is by no means original or intellectually challenging. They have taken their cue from radical critics who claim that schooling is merely an adjunct to the labor market. But, unlike the left, conservatives criticize the schools for failing to fulfill this function. With some exceptions, they are happy to jettison the traditional liberal vision that schools must be responsible for transmitting western cultural and intellectual traditions. Instead, they have repeated the 1960s radical attack that schools are not relevant to students’ lives. However, at a time when nearly everyone is anxious about his/her place in a rapidly shifting job market, relevance has come to mean little else than job preparation. While many jobs require applicants to know how to read and write and to possess skills for specialized employment, few employers require

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