For much of its history, the city, located on one of the continent’s great natural harbors, was essentially surrounded on three sides by nearly impenetrable wetlands and forests, which even today, Wilson says, make up “one of the largest surviving wildernesses in the eastern United States.” Mobile’s geography, as Wilson notes, exerted an “isolating effect” on the city’s relationship to the rest of the country, even while making Mobile unusually open to the rest of the world. The upshot, revealed in this uncommonly effective marriage of photographs and text, is a place at once deeply southern and more than a bit foreign.
Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling
David F. Labaree
In this important book, recently released in paperback, the skeptical, contrarian, and cheerfully pessimistic Stanford education professor Labaree trenchantly exposes the true purposes behind the establishment and the reforms of American public schools and explains why the institution can never fulfill the dreams of those who use it or those who attempt to improve it. The common system of public schools was established, in the years before the Civil War, to minimize the country’s growing class divisions and create a morally and civically minded populace to support the young republic; and even as the population grew increasingly diverse, public schools continued to be regarded as the panacea for maintaining equality. Reformers ever since have hoped to use the complex machinery of the schools to solve a vast array of social ills, although the goal has steadily shifted away from producing good citizens and toward training efficient workers.
As Labaree points out, however, the goals of the reformers and policy makers who sought to use the public schools to redress inequality by providing everyone with the same opportunity are directly at odds with the goals of the individual families—the consumers of public schools—who want to use education to either get ahead or to stay ahead. This is why, for instance, when those in the working class began to attend high school as a way to climb into the middle class, those in the middle class had to start going to college to keep in front of those who might displace them; and now that everyone goes to college, the elite must go on to graduate and professional schools.
Along with the problems inherent in this zero-sum game, Labaree delineates conflicts at many other levels in the enormous mechanism of American public schools, including the historical rift between what he calls administrative progressivism (responsible for the comprehensive high school, with tracking, wood shop, health classes, and physical education) and child-centered progressivism (Dewey’s notion of self-directed learning, which has enormously influenced the rhetoric surrounding education, if not its practice); and the current divide between the baldly market-driven “standards” movement and the “choice” movement, which rejects the entire framework of the system. His section on the incompatibility between the teachers (who must be ultra-flexible and specialized in responding to their individual classes) and the policy makers (who must try to make one size fit all) is especially insightful and lively—perhaps because it is the most partisan; he obviously sympathizes with the teachers.