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Mathison, Sandra & Ross, E. Wayne (Eds.) (2009) Battleground: Schools. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press

Pp. xiii + 737         ISBN 978-0-313-33943-1

Reviewed by Nancy C. Patterson
Bowling Green State University

July 17, 2009

In Battleground: Schools, editors Mathison and Ross have generated the ultimate cocktail party guest list—a collection of 118 authors from across the ideological continuum—weighing in on an impressive list of 93 persistent social issues, all converging on the well-established battlefield of the public school. The editors have fashioned these two volumes as an encyclopedia of issues deemed controversial in schools for their longevity and perceived persistence into the future. They describe the work as “a historically situated description of salient controversies in schooling during the past century” (p. vxii).

The encyclopedia is written for a broad audience, from students to teachers to researchers; whoever may require quick reference to what is happening in schools. The rationale for such an assemblage is what the editors consider to be the welcome “steady state of controversy” (p. ivxx) that exists in our public schools as evidence of our working democracy. They define controversy as “topics about which reasonable people disagree…topics about which there is lack of consensus of values or belief” (p. xvii) and argue that schools as the battleground both mirror and predict how the larger society in a democracy should be.

They spend some time in their introduction framing the battleground metaphor and begin by arguing that the “universality and high expectations about what schools can accomplish” (p. xvii) preclude a static, autocratic, doctrinaire school milieu. They assert that the nature of free public education as a universal human right imbues it with controversy. Article 26 of the International Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) states that everyone has a right to education, and that it should be free in the elementary and fundamental stages. It should be “directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  The presence of controversy in our schools, the editors argue, while no insurance of resolution, is the canary in the mine and the common ground upon which differences in values are made public.


Sandra Mathison

This introductory framework is followed by a brief history of controversy, organized by key events (courts cases; legislation; educational research and scholarship; societal, technological, and political events) and people (Taylor, Dewey, Rugg, Counts, and Tyler) over the last century. There is a somewhat underdeveloped timeline of landmarks that have contributed to controversy that includes both events and people, beginning with Taylor’s Principles of Management at the turn of the century and ending with Hurricane Katrina and the No Child Left Behind act. 

Beyond the alphabetical table of contents, there is a “Guide to Related Topics” that clusters controversies into broad topics, including Legal Issues and Legislation; School and Classroom Practices; School Organization and Forms of Schooling; Schools and Society, School Subjects and Disciplines; Social, Moral, and Emotional Development; and Teachers and Teaching. The editors have also provided a comprehensive index, an appendix of contributor biographies, and an extended bibliography. The topics included are indeed wide-ranging, from traditional persistent topics such as academic freedom and curriculum scope and sequence to more recent issues such as e-learning and technology. Each entry describes the nature of the controversy, highlights people and events, and provides a set of recommendations for further reading.


E. Wayne Ross

In the case of these volumes, with their unique framework of presenting a snapshot of school controversy, I was intrigued by the notion of bias in an encyclopedia. Who are the experts holding forth here? “Encyclopedia” implies neutrality, one being a compendium of “the most relevant accumulated knowledge” on multiple subjects that are historically “researched and written by well-known, well-informed content experts.” (Wikipedia Contributors, 2009). The editors do not claim neutrality. Indeed, their attention to the issue of potential bias is mostly absent, aside from stating that “no particular ideology prevails,” (p. xvi) and that they welcome counterpoint.

The selection process for contributors was conducted by an Editorial Advisory Board of ten, half of whom were also contributors, who chose contributors based on their prominence in a particular area of expertise. A review of the author biographies shows that among them are both award-winning scholars and practitioners, primarily education professors (over 60%). A smaller number are social science professors, center directors, and graduate students. I gleaned from the research agendas referenced in the author biography section that contributors tend toward the post-modernist and progressive, with a preponderance of foci on inequality, social justice, minority rights, freedom and democracy, and urban education reform.

For the requisite reading of sample entries, I decided purposefully to select some entries to test the editors’ assertion of no particular prevailing ideology. What approach did each take to describing the nature of the controversy? Where both sides of the conflict presented, and to what degree? Did the authors weigh in on a side? I found several entries in the index that referenced Diane Ravich, a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education who has persistently challenged educators across the continuum and read those as a beginning. These entries represented a fortunate sampling across different “Guide to Related Topics” categories.

Title

Author

Category

Accountability

Sandra Mathison and
E. Wayne Ross

Legal Issues

Citizenship Education

Gregory Hamot

School Subjects and Disciplines

Pedagogy

Stephen C. Fleury and
Michael L. Bentley

School and Classroom Practices

The first entry, Accountability, by the editors themselves, was decidedly critical of the topic as it is interpreted and enacted in today’s society.  Mathison and Ross frame their critique in the Foucaultian notions of surveillance and spectacle, stating that while accountability in and of itself is not inherently misguided, current notions of it are simplistic and detrimental in their top-down configuration. They provide a history of the field that describes the conflict on both sides, but argue that the pro-standards side has a weak framework and few defining principles. Standardization movements such as this inevitably compare “failing” and “high-quality” schools, the implications of which are unmistakable, ultimately promoting a “one-sided standardization imperative and the subsequent normalization of whiteness, wealth, and exclusionary forms of knowledge” (p. 17).

While they do not explicitly describe ways in which the counter argument may run, they do include a 2006 public statement published by the American Evaluation Association that warns of the danger of the inappropriate use of evaluation and suggests a set of foci for educational accountability systems, including multiple measures, measurement of student progress over time, context-sensitive reporting, data-based resource allocations, accessible appeals processes, and public participation and access.

In the second entry, Citizenship Education, Gregory Hamot uses three lenses through which to describe the history of controversy surrounding citizenship education: market economy and social reform, pluralism and national unity in the context of modernization, and patriotism. These three contexts each embody controversy. In presenting the tension between market economy and social reform, Hamot discusses Progressive Era struggles spurred by immigration and the challenge of educating a diversifying population.  He lays out the social efficiency of David Snedden as juxtaposed with the Pragmatism of Dewey reflective practice of community approach as emblematic of this time.

The growing impact of the mid-century multicultural movement is the fertile field upon which the “pluralism versus unity” debate takes root. Hamot describes the pubic controversy provoked in conservative scholars such as Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlessinger by the work of multiculturalists such as James Banks. Examples he gives of the difficulties in defining patriotism as blind faith or critical thought are proposed on a pendulum from the 1916 NEA report and the Rugg curriculum that promoted critical thought to the WWII era that ignited assaults on issues-centered, critical approaches to teaching citizenship. Sentiment swung back during the Vietnam War era, and back again after September 11.

The third and final entry, Fleury and Bentley’s Pedagogy, presents a fascinating history on the topic from the ancient Greeks forward. The contributors frame the controversy around Axelrod’s (1991) distinction between didactic and evocative approaches. Recitation in the form of reading, writing, and memorization are characteristic of didactic pedagogy, the assumption of which is that one must learn prior to thinking. This dichotomy is set forth in the opposing ancient Greek schools of Protagoras, who taught a pedagogy of change, and Pythagoras, who espoused traditional pedagogy. The Pythagorean techniques later came to be known as Socratic or Maieutic, a way of thinking through problems to arrive at the “right” answer.  This classical notion of learning was disrupted by evocative, Enlightenment-influenced educators such as Rousseau, who placed the focus for learning on student thinking. The authors argue the Progressive movement that emerged at the turn of the century in the United States had its roots in the evocative tradition and took hold during a time of social transformation during the Industrial Revolution.

In the end, the authors submit that the most enduring pedagogical ideology in Western civilization is Pythagorean recitation, as evidenced by the recent events that have diminished the impacts of the Progressive movement: the anti-Communist fervor that charged Progressives with weak education, the successful launching of Sputnik and the ensuing accountability movement. Critics such as Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, and Arthur Bestor have mounted this challenge in recent decades.

After tracing the history of the controversy, the authors weigh in with a heavy criticism of the accountability movement, which they term “administrative progressivism.” The sacrifices to such efficiency are great, argue the critics, including study of breadth over depth, the deskilling of teachers, and the prescriptive nature of the content due to over-reliance on textbooks. Ultimately, the practices of administrative progressivism “narrow the relationships between students and teachers, and equally important, between students and knowledge” (p. 482). The authors end with an overview of the work of progressive scholars such as Vygotsky, Gardner, Perkins, Friere, Bruner, and Kozol, and on a note of faith in the enduring progressive vision for a more just society.

If these three entries are at all representative, Battleground: Schools is a must-have resource that is created unapologetically in the evocative tradition, so buyer beware or be delighted. These three entries offer up focused snapshots of the battleground, and indeed reinforce the larger history of school controversy from all sides of the field:  a modern history of accountability, evolving debates over education of U.S. citizens, and the enduring legacy of ancient history and its competing pedagogical ideologies. All three entries included balanced presentation of the controversy under discussion, and in two of the three entries, the authors weighed in on one side or the other of the debate. While the editors assert there is none, I picked up a strong prevailing ideology. This is an unacknowledged strength of these volumes—that many of the entries are expert opinion pieces.

Of the evocative persuasion myself, I have much to applaud after sating myself on these readings. I have only one minor complaint and only one caveat. A palpable omission is the absence of an author index. My first instinct upon reading the table of contents was to go directly to the first entry, “Academic freedom,” and find out who wrote it. I did not know the contributor and so flipped to the author biographies to read more. That led me to thumb through the author biographies to survey the list of contributors with the express purpose of reading among my favorites. This was difficult in the absence of any cross listing of authors with their entries.

Related to the absence of an author index is my one caveat: Given the encyclopedia-esque structure and the framework in controversy for these volumes, I would assert that closer attention to authorship and bias toward issues, however well-informed, are key, and a stronger focus on this aspect of the encyclopedia is warranted. I wanted to know more about the soliticitation process and the orientation of the editors toward this work. This is only fair when dealing with controversy.

It is in fact common for encyclopedias to be accompanied by disclaimers that infer the “experts” speak for themselves and not for the editors, and that some option may have crept in with fact. I would argue that over history much we have labeled “truth” has proven false, or a mere shadow of reality. It seems to me that encyclopedias in a post-modern age do well to admit and even tout their expert biases and the evolutionary nature of what we know about and how we resolve controversy in schools. With the recent popularity of online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, an open-source compendium, the notions of “expert” have broadened somewhat, as knowledge is amassed by a voluntary association of individuals and groups working to develop a common resource of human knowledge. Wikipedia does not guarantee the validity of information found there, as information may recently have been altered in some way, whether updated or vandalized by its multiple contributors. No matter the encyclopedia, scholars consider them a tertiary source and therefore not appropriate as the sole source for any information. It is worth noting that other encyclopedias, Britannica for one, include similar disclaimers, and that there is no such disclaimer in Battleground: Schools.

That said, I can see multiple uses for Battleground: Schools in my life and work, as a source for background information; as a reference for correct terminology, key events and people; and as a starting point for further research, just like with any encyclopedia. The thing you will find here that is nowhere near Britannica is that it is chock full of expert opinions. It can’t help but be that and should be that, controversy and battlefields being what they are. It is not your grandmother’s encyclopedia.

The encyclopedia is certainly one-of-a-kind and an invaluable resource for its intended audience. This is a cocktail party not to miss, with the palpable absence of Diane Ravitch herself. She is referenced in several articles in the company of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Arthur Schlesinger, Chester Finn, Arthur Bestor, Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, none of whom are contributors. The party would be even more interesting had she and some of her friends accepted the authors' invitation to attend. Whether evocative or traditionalist in your leanings, of course there is something here for you. It is a smorgasbord of controversy in its steady state, of revolution and resolution on the battleground called school.

References

Axelrod, J. (1991). Didactic and evocative teaching modes. In J. L. Bess (Ed.), Foundations of American Higher Education (pp. 473–479).

Encyclopedia. (2009, May 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved May 22, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Encyclopedia&oldid=290892063

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved May 12, 2009 from http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.


Nancy C. Patterson

About the Reviewer

Nancy C. Patterson is an Associate Professor of Social Studies Education at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She got her Ph.D. in education from the University of Arizona and has taught secondary social studies methods worked in urban school reform in northern Ohio for seven years. Her research interests include equity in education, academic freedom, and democratizing schools.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Gustavo Fischman, Melissa Cast-Brede

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