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  Chapter 9
  Chapter 10
  Chapter 11
  Chapter 12
Tools for Critique: Chapter 2
History and Culture: How Expanding Expectations and Powerful Ideologies Shape Schooling in the U.S.


Chapter 2, “History and Culture: How Expanding Expectations and Powerful Ideologies Shape Schooling in the U.S.,” presents an overview of important events in the history of schooling in the United States. The chapter sketches how expectations for schools have increased over the past 200-plus years. It also discusses two powerful and pervasive ideologies—meritocracy and racial superiority—that have shaped and continue to shape schooling in this country.

Chapter Headings

  • A History of Increasing Expectations
    • Common Public Schools Should Secure Democracy
    • Public Schools Should Pass on and Preserve “American” Culture
    • Public Schools Should Support the Nation’s Workforce and Economy
    • Public Schools Should Ensure National Security and International Competitiveness
    • Public Schools Should Solve Social Problems
  • A Culture of Powerful Ideologies
    • The Myth of Merit
    • Deficit Thinking, Racial Superiority and White Privilege
  • Teaching for Democracy

Generative Questions and Activities

    History and Culture: How Expanding Expectations and Powerful Ideologies Shape Schooling in the U.S.

  1. Third-grade teacher Kim Min eloquently states: “Inequality, injustice, discrimination, and racism are terms we generally do not associate with school.  However, they are real.  We must face and define these terms for our children and ourselves, as we try to make sense of what school is and can be.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?  Consider your own experiences as a student and/or teacher.  In what ways has your experience in schools been influenced by historical injustices and inequalities?  How does this history of schooling affect the way schools are now?  How does it impact our ability to imagine the way schools could be?  In what ways might it limit and/or inform our understanding of current inequalities?

    A History of Increasing Expectations

  2. The authors note that public schools have faced increasing expectations over the past 350 years, as society has charged them with various social responsibilities, such as securing democracy, preserving American culture, supporting the nation’s economy, ensuring national security, and addressing social inequalities.  In your view, how realistic are these expectations?  In particular, how much of an impact do you believe schools can have on addressing social inequalities?  What other social processes, structures, and institutions might mediate the extent to which educational reforms can even succeed, let alone impact broader social reforms?  How does this expectation relate to expectations around preserving American culture, supporting the national economy, and increasing international competitiveness?  To what extent can schools be expected to take on all of these social roles simultaneously?  In what ways might some of these expectations contradict each other?
  3. In discussing Thomas Jefferson’s views on public education, the authors note that his plan for the schooling of slaves was limited to industrial and vocational training and that he “was not confident that black men ‘could be made the intellectual equals of white men.’”  It was this thinking that supported much of segregation’s legal status until the mid-twentieth century.  What is the impact of this legacy on schooling today?  In particular, do you think that current disproportionate dropout rates, behavior referrals, and academic underperformance are related to this historically unequal access to educational opportunities?  If so, explain how.  If not, to what do you attribute these disparities?

  4. How did you learn about participating in a democracy?  Of course, this is a complex question, but try to identify several specific experiences in democratic practice (at home, at play, in the community, at school, at work, etc.) that may have contributed to developing your democratic sensibilities.

  5. Consider two different emphases that schools might take to promote a democratic society: first, to teach students to change society so that it is more just and democratic; and second, to teach students to fit into a society that, if not perfect, is pretty much worth keeping as it is.  Few people would argue that either of these emphases should be excluded, and most would claim to have a vision that could accomplish both; however, most people would lean toward one of the two positions.  Which position are you inclined to favor?  Why?  How might your inclination be related to the ideologies that have predominated in schools historically? How might your position influence your pedagogy, either directly or indirectly?

  6. The authors discuss the push for “Americanization” that occurred in the Indian Boarding Schools movement and also in response to increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Do a dictionary search for “Americanization” and “assimilation.”  What can be some of the risks and benefits of these cultural processes?

    Interestingly, such calls for assimilation have historically coincided with significant demographic shifts.  In what ways is the current influx of Latino immigrants to the United States similar to this earlier demographic shift?  To what extent has it generated a similar response from educators, policymakers, and politicians?  In what ways has it generated a different response?

  7. Continuing with this theme, the authors also suggest that the push for Americanization was a response to both “hopes” and “fears.”  To what extent can the same thing be said about the response to current demographic shifts in the United States?  Do you think that recent English-only legislation and the ban of ethnic studies in the southwest (e.g., California’s Proposition 227, Arizona’s Proposition 203, Arizona’s House Bill 1070) is a response to fears more than it is a response to hopes?  If you believe that it is more a response to fears, then what exactly do you suppose voters are afraid of?  The authors argue that many Americans “perceive the newest waves of immigrants …  as somehow threatening ‘American’ culture.”  Do you agree with this assessment?  Why or why not?

  8. View the documentary film, Precious Knowledge, which chronicles the struggle for ethnic studies—and Mexican American/Raza Studies, in particular—in Tucson Unified School District. How does the film represent the hopes and fears typically associated with Americanization efforts?

  9. Many scholars describe schools as mechanisms that support economic stability. In particular, some argue that the common school and common curriculum emerged to prevent the working classes from rebelling against their bosses, thus undermining the capitalist economy.  Do you believe this to be true?  Why or why not?  What evidence do you see of this in schools today?

  10. According to the authors, schools at the end of the nineteenth century were institutions that preserved culture in addition to maintaining patterns of economic distribution.  Do you believe that schools today generally still share this purpose of cultural and economic preservation?  What evidence do you have (from current policy debates) to support your position?  Can you find some exceptions to your general view?

  11. The authors also argue that conservatives’ partial answer to poor school performance is to provide “character education” and instill “traditional values.” Can this emphasis on character and tradition be considered a form of assimilation?  Why and/or why not?

  12. The authors discuss the increased policy and political emphasis on globalization and the need for U.S. schools to prepare citizens for “international competitiveness.” To what extent do you think globalization affects curriculum and instruction in U.S. classrooms? How should teachers contend with preparing students for an increasingly global society? How might recent policies (e.g., English-only legislation; an increasingly standardized curriculum; etc.) impact efforts to ready students for a globalized world?

  13. Have you ever wondered why governments seem unwilling to provide children of color in working class communities with schools that are as well-equipped and teachers who are as well-qualified as those intended for wealthier white students? How can you explain this?  To what extent do you think race and/or racism plays a role in such unequal spending?  Consider, for example, that California one of the few states in the nation in which people of color outnumber white people, and that it ranks lower than most states on per-pupil spending on education.  Why do you think this is the case?

    A Culture of Powerful Ideologies

  14. The authors state, “The problem with the myth of merit is that it presumes basic equality of opportunity and resources, and assumes that individual merit represents the only variable of real consequence.”  Given, as we saw in Chapter 1, that all other things are not equal, how is it that so many people still believe in the myth of merit?  Listen to someone you know who argues in favor of the idea of meritocracy and try to identify the logic in their argument.  Do they address the issue of unequal opportunities?  If so, how?  If not, try to complicate their argument by suggesting that they consider that equality of educational opportunities does not exist.  How do they address or try to get around this fundamental issue?

  15. Note some instances when you received benefits for something you may have “deserved” but did not necessarily “earn.”  Do you believe that “merit” can be passed from parent to child—such as when a person claims to deserve optimal schooling opportunities because “my parents worked hard to raise me right and give me a good education”?

  16. The trend for women to act and be treated according to traditional female stereotypes is much diminished in today’s schools, but it still continues.  What teaching and administrative practices have you noticed that indicate that gender stereotypes persist in schools? How has the role of women has evolved in the teaching profession and with what implications for schooling, in general?

  17. First-grade teacher Rosalinda Perez Silva describes the deficit thinking of teachers at her school: “Prior to the first day of school, I had already been told that ‘these kids are low,’ and not to worry if the students did not do as well as I hoped because ‘the entire school is low overall.’”  Think about teachers’ attitudes at your own school.  Have you ever encountered this type of deficit thinking?  How do you (or how would you) respond to such deficit views about students?

  18. The authors briefly trace some of the historical links between racism and conceptions of intelligence (and provide further background in Chapter 7). How much of this history did you already know?  Is such background information appropriate for students to learn in their K-12 schooling?  In your own schooling, did you ever learn about these historical explanations of race and the qualities that were attributed to race?  Can you think of any current policies and programs that might be informed by these racist conceptions of intelligence?  In what ways might standardized tests perpetuate this racist legacy?  Do you think that race-based conceptions of intelligence still influence people’s thinking about education and/or still influence educational outcomes?  If so, how?

  19. Consider the anti-immigrant measures highlighted by the authors (such as California’s Propositions 187 and 227 and Alabama’s House Bill 57). As a teacher of students who might be affected by these laws, what do you see as your role?  Would you comply?  Resist?  Perhaps a combination of both?  To what degree would you involve your students in the struggle?  Is involving students appropriate/ professional? Why or why not?

    If you viewed the documentary, Precious Knowledge, (mentioned in question 8) you witnessed how high school students and teachers acted together to resist efforts by the Arizona government to dismantle ethnic studies programs. What do you think students gained from participating in, and in some cases, leading this struggle? Are there any downsides to their participation? If so, what might they be?

  20. “Privileged” may be defined as possessing special opportunities that not everyone has.  Perhaps this explains why, in a democracy, it is not a label that people wear comfortably when it refers to advantages that we think we ought to earn rather than something we are born with.  How can being middle class or wealthy or going to a fine school be described as privileges?   How is it the same or different to say that one is privileged to have nice parents or to live in the United States?  How can simply being white or male privilege members of these groups? 

  21. The authors argue that white privilege “allows people in positions of relative power to believe that their ways of knowing and being in the world represent intelligence and merit, and, therefore, to believe that they deserve the disproportionate school and life advantages they enjoy.”  If you are a person of color, have you ever been able to talk to a white person about their privilege?  If so, did they acknowledge their privilege?  What made this conversation difficult or easy?  If you are white, to what extent do you acknowledge the privilege that you have by virtue of your racial identity?  If so, what enabled you to do so?  Is this something that is difficult for you to talk about?  Have you ever talked to a person of color about this?

  22. Many people who are personally horrified by the existence of racial prejudice and believe themselves to be free of it are surprised to learn that the arguments prejudiced people use to support their beliefs are extensive, logical, and scientific sounding.  Describe a person you know who cannot be swayed from a belief in the fundamental inferiority of one or more groups of people.  Provide this person’s arguments in as much detail as possible. Where are the easily identifiable flaws in this person’s argument? Which dimensions of the argument are more difficult to challenge?

  23. Any exploration of racism in the United States is bound to be long, complex, deep, and uncomfortable—even painful. Why do you think that is?  And because a single discussion neither eliminates experience nor changes society, such conversations require extraordinary patience, goodwill, and endurance.  Try talking about these difficulties with someone of your own race.  Then try talking about them with someone whose race differs from yours.  Were the conversations different?  In what way?  How do you make sense of any differences?

  24. Describe racism that you experienced or witnessed in school.  Some people tend to see a certain “equality” in racism—finding all racism basically alike and equally deplorable.  For example, they might consider racial conflicts between African Americans and Latino students (or teachers) and those between whites and other races to be essentially the same.  They may go so far as to say that “since everyone has prejudices,” we cannot suggest that any one group has a greater responsibility for changing its attitudes than any other group.  Other people, while not condoning any racist behaviors, believe that racist attitudes can never be separated from the relative power that groups have in society in general.  People with this view would say that racist actions taken by groups with the most power, such as whites, are more serious and damaging than racist actions taken by less powerful groups.  Do your experiences lead you to one of these positions? Why or why not?

  25. The authors write about Christine Sleeter’s work in tracing her own privilege through investigating her family genealogy. The authors state that Sleeter “argues that by reconstructing one’s own history, whites can begin to cultivate the more positive aspects of their identities, while also owning up to and moving beyond patterns of privilege that limit their capacity to participate justly in society.” How might you have benefitted from historical privileges accrued by your family? What impact might a history of familial privilege – or lack thereof – have on teachers and students? Why?

    Teaching for Democracy

  26. High school history teacher Matthew Eide wrestles with the history and traditions of schooling as he seeks to implement a transformative and culturally relevant pedagogy for his students.  He asks himself the following questions: “How do issues of race, class, language, and gender influence what I do?  How does my classroom resist and perpetuate the institutional racism, classism, linguicism, and sexism of education and society?”  To what extent do such questions inform your own teaching and/or thinking about schools and students?  How can an understanding of the history and traditions of U.S. schooling better enable you to provide a more transformative and socially just education for your students? 


    Palos, A. L., & McGinnis, E. I. (Director and Producer) (2011). Precious Knowledge. A co-production of Dos Vatos Productions, the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Arizona Public Media, and Latino Public Broadcasting, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (Disenfranchised high school seniors become academic warriors and community leaders in Tucson, Arizona's embattled Ethnic Studies classes while state lawmakers attempt to eliminate the program.)
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