Commentary Magazine

Schools and Society

To the Editor:

Rita Kramer’s review of my book, Worlds Apart [Books in Review, January], was an outrage. First, I would suggest that she read the entire book before beginning her uninformed tirade—this time with a more intelligent and responsible vision and voice. Mrs. Kramer begins by accusing me of a biased and prejudicial perspective, but her entire review selects pieces of my book out of context and shapes them to match her angry obsessions.

First, Mrs. Kramer claims that I have bought the revisionist rhetoric asserting that schools are vehicles of oppression and repressive instruments of society. The passage she quotes from my book to prove her point was a paraphrase of views expressed by Bowles and Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America, not a “doctrinaire” theme of my book. If Mrs. Kramer had read as far as the fourth or fifth chapter of Worlds Apart, she would have found a very extensive discussion of some of the socio-historical and contemporary interpretations of the “real” purposes of school. More importantly, she would have found that I do not take as “axiomatic the assumptions” of the revisionists, but offer critical perspectives on a range of competing historical interpretations—one being the efforts and success on the part of immigrant and minority groups to transform and shape social institutions, not merely respond to an established, static order.

Mrs. Kramer follows with a complaint that I ignore the importance of the early development of children in families before they reach school; that I believe that “everything crucial to a child’s progress in school happens once he is already there.” Here I am absolutely baffled by the reviewer’s misrepresentation, for one of my primary reasons for writing this book was to underscore the profound and deeply etched learnings that occur in families before formal schooling. Anna Freud’s important work on the subject is not forgotten by me. Once again, if Mrs. Kramer had read as far as Chapter III she would have found that Anna Freud is central to my discussion and analysis of the differentiated roles of mothers and teachers in the lives of young children. In fact, in Worlds Apart I recite a litany that continually refers to families as the primary educators.

If families have such a crucial function in shaping the development of young children, it follows that schools must recognize their critical role and find effective ways of building bridges between the two environments. This does not mean, as Mrs. Kramer suggests, that I ignore the early socialization of children, nor do I believe that learning in schools should be imitative of or merely reactive to familial learning. I argue that some level of conflict between families and schools is inevitable in a changing society where families and schools have different socio-cultural functions and that some institutional distance and discontinuity is important for the autonomous growth and expression of young children.

The recognition of the need for a sense of continuity and the productive uses of conflict are particularly important for schools and families in poor and minority communities. Here I do not claim that reading and writing are part of the “dominant white culture,” and, therefore, should not be bought into by blacks. (Did Mrs. Kramer miss the long chapter on black families where I describe the passionate dreams blacks have always attached to education as a vehicle of liberation and the extreme importance black parents give to traditional forms of schooling that emphasize academic skills and training?) Rather, I argue that in order to teach black children more effectively, children whom most schools have failed abysmally, teachers must find pedagogical strategies and interactional modes, and build relationships with families and communities that support the learning of skills and the enhancement of self-image. I do not see the intellectual, social, and psychological spheres of the child’s learning as distinct and separate. They are part of a whole. Interestingly, Mrs. Kramer responds to these suggestions for the restructuring of educational institutions as necessarily adapting to “the limitations of the very people who have the most to gain from being brought into the mainstream of society.” I see them as attempts to articulate the consonant values that are shared by black families and schools about the value of learning and an effort to recognize and support the growth of black children in all of the enduring environments where learning takes place.

I could go on. It does seem senseless, however, to respond to individual points of distortion and obfuscation on the part of Mrs. Kramer because it is her tone and her ideology that are most distressing and that pervade the discussion, limiting her clear vision of Worlds Apart. I find it very interesting that Mrs. Kramer is preoccupied with “racism” when I studiously avoid such charges in my book—choosing rather to describe institutions and individuals in more complex, subtle terms. Happily, Mrs. Kramer does not have a prominent seat on the boards of the institutions and granting agencies that she charges with misconduct in supporting my research and writing. If she did, I fear she would choose people who would be mere reproductions of Rita Kramer.

Sara Lawrence Lightfoot
Harvard University
Graduate School of Education
Cambridge, Massachusetts



Rita Kramer writes:

Like most authors, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot would wish her book to be judged by her intentions, but like all reviewers, I was limited to evaluating her book strictly in terms of its content. Unhappily, Mrs. Lightfoot’s letter is not a faithful representation of the book itself.

If Mrs. Lightfoot has any disagreement with her paraphrase of Bowles and Gintis (“In actuality, American schooling was [and is] a mechanism of social control”), it is not apparent in her writing. The passage is quite consistent with many similar statements of Mrs. Lightfoot’s own, such as her characterization of American schools as “social and economic vehicles of oppression and denial” (p. 125).

Mrs. Lightfoot claims to show the mutual responsibility of families and school, but her actual position is to credit families with a “passionate commitment to learning” that is sabotaged by the school system, which alone she blames for creating “casualties and failures.” Nothing is said about the effects of disorganized, rejecting families, but on pp. 206-7 of Worlds Apart Mrs. Lightfoot writes that “schools displace the origins of failure onto families” and criticizes educators for “searching out the origins of pathology beyond the school walls.” It is the school, in her words, “that needs to be restructured and changed.”

Mrs. Lightfoot claims that Anna Freud is “central” to her discussion, yet she quotes her only on peripheral issues like the teacher’s role, not on issues basic to Anna Freud’s work, such as the development of ego strengths, the question of how children develop the psychological capacity to learn. Mrs. Lightfoot demonstrates no understanding of Anna Freud’s contributions to the study of normal and abnormal development or of its implications. What follows from what we know about the influence of early childhood experience on the capacity to love and to learn suggests not just that schools should be different but that some kinds of family life should also be different, not just that the schools, necessarily limited institutions at best, have “failed abysmally,” but that we have to find ways of lessening the kinds of deprivation, social and emotional, that predispose children to learning difficulties of various kinds before they even come to school. On this subject Mrs. Lightfoot has nothing to say.

Mrs. Lightfoot says that she has studiously avoided charges of racism in her book. Yet after telling us that “researchers have created theoretical and methodological strategies that have given scientific validity to racist assumptions” (p. 155) and referring to “the discriminatory visions of social scientists eager to justify the unequal nature of society” (p. 167), she characterizes the position of Daniel P. Moynihan as “racist” (p. 168) and that of James Conant as “prejudicial” (p. 195). In Mrs. Lightfoot’s discussion, fragmented families and street violence are treated not as observable social realities to be understood in order to be dealt with, but as mental constructs of malevolent social scientists.

Rather than the “complex, subtle” discussion she sees in her own work, Mrs. Lightfoot’s book offers at its best a few platitudes (the need for understanding and cooperation between parents and teachers), often stated in awkward and pretentious jargon (“This volume begins to record some of the complex dimensions of family-school intersection by recognizing both the consonant and dissonant faces of the relationship and by exploring some of the microscopic, interpersonal dynamics as well as the more macroscopic, structural patterns of interaction”).

If indeed the schools have failed abysmally with some children, perhaps it is because they were expected to accomplish something they could not possibly do—to reverse the effects of impoverishment at an early age at home.

Of course schools should be criticized whenever they fail to fulfill their responsibilities, but a balanced and scholarly analysis also requires that family and community share the responsibility for children who have been deprived of affection and nurture. Their emotional scars, the residue of wounds inflicted in infancy and early childhood, may appear in school as lack of motivation, apathy, and aggressiveness, but there is no doubt that these are merely symptoms whose causes often lie outside the school. Surely Mrs. Lightfoot knows that her call to restructure the schools will be of little help to those children who need help.

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