How do our public schools assimilate large waves of new immigrants and Native Americans from outside the mainstream culture? Now that education is once again central to our national debate, that question often is presented in crisis terms. But as UC Berkeley historian Paula Fass illustrates in her scholarly but eminently readable book, "Outside In," the question is not new.
Fass's argument is based on a fundamental tension in American schools. They must teach, socialize and pass on the dominant culture. But they also must respond to individual students and to the many cultures found in their classrooms. This creative tension, Fass shows, has helped produce the unique qualities of 20th Century American education.
"Immigrants, blacks, women, and Catholics were outside the power networks that organized schools systems," Fass writes. "They did not devise the ideology which connected schooling to success in America." But, Fass adds, these groups, often through the schools, have "redrawn the boundaries of the culture which had initially defined them apart."
She demonstrates how important changes in our schools came unexpectedly, sometimes from forces outside the educational system, often as unintended consequences. Federal New Deal relief programs, and later Army literacy programs, for example, were aimed at putting people in jobs or training more effective soldiers. But their pragmatic, non-academic approach simply highlighted the connection between poverty and educational achievement.
After that, according to Fass, "the issue for blacks would become very like that of immigrants in the early 20th Century whose special problems became matters of concern for the schools as well as for the society." Throughout, Fass draws out and clarifies paradoxes and complex patterns without over-simplifying them.
One original and illuminating chapter demonstrates that although children of immigrants "absorbed great quantities of American culture" in school, when permitted to choose extracurricular activities, they often grouped themselves by ethnicity.
Fass studied yearbooks for 15,000 seniors in seven New York City schools between the years 1931 and 1947. Jewish males, for example, were over-represented in science clubs, Irish males in politics, black males in track (possibly, she speculates, because in track the athlete is dependent solely on himself and is not so easily excluded by other students).
"The school, as it was envisaged by educators and often imagined by historians, was never as powerful an integrator, equalizer, or socializer as it has been portrayed . . . The young brought to school as much as they took away, or rather, what they brought gave meaning to what they learned."
This is a timely book. In California, for instance, we are told that minority students will become the school majority by 1990. Furthermore, the number of students whose first language is not English (they represent 41 languages) doubled between 1977 and 1983 and continues to grow.
In contrast to Fass' broad historical look at how students themselves were a basic force in transforming American schools, "The Diverted Dream" takes a narrower focus, contending that the country's community colleges have been changed by their leaders against the wishes of their students.
Sociologists Steven Brint of Yale, and Jerome Karabel of UC Berkeley trace the transformation of public, two-year institutions from middle-class academic junior colleges to comprehensive community colleges which they characterize as "primarily vocational institutions." It has been a change, they say, that diverted the dream of equal educational opportunity for all.
They argue their case in two parts. One is a detailed history of the two-year college movement from the first such institution, Joliet Junior College in 1901, to a national system that today enrolls more than 50 percent of the nation's freshmen. The second part is a case study of the growth of two-year colleges in Massachusetts; their assumption is that the Massachusetts experience is typical.
The authors offer detailed documentation of how the community college leadership worked to vocationalize these institutions, but curiously--despite 37 pages of notes and a 715-item bibliography--they provide virtually no data for one of their major theses, namely that students resisted the vocational curricula.
They present three models for organizational change. One is the "business domination model" in which outside institutions change the curriculum, another the "consumer choice model," in which student demands create the curriculum, and the last, which they characterize as true for community college, the "institutional model," in which an institution is changed by its own leadership. Unfortunately, the authors treat these as mutually exclusive forces.