Commentary Magazine


Worlds Apart, by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot

What Are Schools For?

Worlds Apart: Relationships Be-Between Families and Schools.
by Sara Lawrence Lightfoot.
Basic Books. 257 pp. $12.95.

Worlds Apart is an interesting book, less for anything it has to say about the “relationships between families and schools,” which is its subject, than for what it demonstrates about the educational establishment today and what that establishment will support. The government (Office of Child Development), the academy (Harvard, Radcliffe, Wellesley), and the Ford Foundation have all made funds and assistance available for a work that presents opinion as though it were fact, and concludes with some obvious generalizations (parents and teachers should respect each other and value each other’s roles) couched in the impenetrable jargon of the sociology of education (there is a lot of interacting and intersecting at various interfaces).

The author, who is on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, simply takes as axiomatic the assumptions of one particular group of writers, namely, the revisionist critics of education for whom “middle class” and “elitist” are automatic pejoratives, who believe that “American schooling was (and is) a mechanism of social control . . . a place to inculcate workers with the motivational schemes for factory work,” and who charge that schools do not foster mobility or assimilation or “change the results of primary socialization in the home.” But is this what education is all about? What is the function of schooling? How well is it being accomplished? What can be done to improve it? Such questions are not asked in this doctrinaire book—they are begged.

Professor Lightfoot believes that poor black children do badly in school not because of any deficiency in their pre-school experience or home environment, but because the white-dominated institutional bureaucracy systematically fails them. Her method of arguing this point is simply to assert it, invoking supporting statements from social critics who agree with her and characterizing as racist those who disagree. The contrary findings of a number of respected scholars in the field of child development, we are to believe, are merely rationalizations for racial prejudice.

But these findings are no longer at serious issue. Though Professor Lightfoot writes as if everything crucial to a child’s progress in school happens once he is already there, we now know that a great deal that is decisive to a child’s later educational career has already happened before the child even gets to school. We know that a child’s earliest relationship with a reasonably consistent and responsive adult is the basis for his later capacity to learn, to develop self-respect, to care for others, and to be interested in the world and how it works. Children who have been deprived of the opportunity to develop this capacity—deprived not by race, but by the culture of poverty—are the future victims and victimizers of our society.

It is these deprived children that Professor Lightfoot is writing about in her indictment of the American educational system. Yet she ignores or dismisses the careful and sensitive observations of such lifelong investigators of child development as Rene Spitz, John Bowlby, Anna Freud, Jean Piaget, D. W. Winnicott, and Margaret Mahler. To have taken them into account might perhaps have interfered with the straightforward simplicity of her indictment.

A second assumption underlying this book is that the most important function of schools is to promote social goals—equality in particular—rather than to transmit what others would call academic skills but what Professor Lightfoot calls the “dominant white culture.” Comparing, for example, a teacher who believes that school is for learning how to “productively relate to children from a variety of backgrounds” with another teacher, who believes the children are in her classroom “for one reason . . . to learn and study,” the author is clearly on the side of the first teacher. She admits that the children of the second do “learn how to read, every single one of them . . . some at third- and fourth-grade level,” but this is simply not as important as what the first teacher tries to accomplish: “socializing children . . . she works to move children beyond their egocentric needs to explore the potential richness of group experiences.”

Such a comparison between teachers might have served to raise the question of what the schools are for—a question which must be asked before we can judge how well or badly they are doing their job and whether or not they should be changed. But Professor Lightfoot does not raise this question. She does not spell out or defend her concept of the school as a laboratory for social change and seems unaware that an alternate definition exists—of the school as an instrument for transmitting the culture of the past and imparting the skills that will make it possible to extend that culture into the future. Her view is not even an opinion, but rather a prejudice, and it is one that is never acknowledged, explained, or defended, but simply taken for granted.

In the past, ironically, the schools have served as an instrument of social change, yet they have done so precisely by imparting the mastery of certain basic skills to a variety of poor immigrant groups. It is the children of those immigrant groups of the past, formerly impoverished and despised, who make up the present American majority, a majority that includes middle-class blacks in business, professions, government, and the arts. It seems perverse to say, as Professor Lightfoot does, that instead of continuing to impart these skills, the schools should now adapt themselves to the limitations of the very people who have the most to gain from being brought into the mainstream of society.

To ask no more of poor black children than that they retain what they already have in the way of social, intellectual, and cultural resources is to play a rather cruel hoax on them. And as for the educational establishment which rushes to support such a doctrine with grants and research assistance, it must be very cynical about the chances of the black poor to better themselves or about what, in fact, schooling can and cannot accomplish.

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