Friday, July 23, 2010

What, Exactly, Are Schools For in the Good Society?

I have been working on a grant proposal to create a course on "The Good Society." I want to build up from the small institutions to the large, focusing on the process of making well-ordered and virtuous lives, institutions, and societies. Yes, I know, there are many arguments to be had about what constitutes good. That is a somewhat interesting part of the making process.

My subject today, though, is the unexpected puzzle I ran in to in making up the core ladder of institutions came in the middle. At the starting point, we have families and religious institutions. At the end we have the economy and the state.

In the middle my first instinct was to put schools. This, I think, is the keystone of the arch of the liberal view of society. But I am following Tocqueville as my guide, and he would put something else at the keystone: voluntary associations. And that is what I am inclined to go with, a theoretical and empirical consideration of Tocqueville and Robert Putnam on the state of voluntary associations in civil society.

Which leaves me with a puzzle: how to think about schools? On the left, they are agents of the state or, more cynically, of the market. On the right, they are expressions of the family and the religious institution. I can't, at this moment, see what independent foundation schools rest on, what distinctive good they serve. And I say this as a teacher, married to an education reformer, with three kids in school.


Eunomia said...

Wouldn't you say that the place of schools in society has changed over time in ways that the place of family or church has not? I'm wondering if offering a historian's answer to a sociologist's question is my confusing of the issue -- but in Tocqueville's time, schools were surely more like voluntary associations than the institutions they are now. They seem to float up or down on your core ladder over time.

And maybe part of the problem now is that they don't quite fit anywhere, pulled from left to right as they are. Well, that's a predicament.

Adriana said...

The role of school has changed, and is determined based upon one's lens. In a Foucaultian sense, schools can serve to perpetuate dominant power and ideals, as schools were originally designed to educate good citizens and maintain the status quo. However, on the flip side, curriculum and schools by nature often continue to disregard the diversity of perspectives and experiences of students, instead privileging one set of values rather than focusing on how respect for pluralism can make us a collective good society.

Gruntled said...

So where do schools get their culture aims from?

Anonymous said...

Seth Godin had a blog post a couple of years ago listing the things that he could think of the schools were for. I know it's not exactly your question, but it might be worth checking out.

I'll take a quick look and see if I can find a link.


Anonymous said...

Boy, he makes it easy to search.

That took about 10 seconds to find the link. The title is"What is school for." He lists 27 things.