There is nothing false nor extravagant in declaring that
at the present time different sciences of education are not only possible but
J. Dewey (1959: 116)
What is a high school? And how does it do what it does?
We all know the easy, common sense answers: Schools teach. They teach the English language, mathematics and science, some history and socio-psychology, etc. Teachers teach these things by telling students about them, asking students to read textbooks, and giving various tests and exercises to practice the knowledge and to demonstrate its presence.
We also know that schools teach more than that. We know that the process is not that simple. We know that schools teach ways of life, manners of looking at the world, certain styles for doing various things. We suspect that they do it by the very way they are set up. In the United States they teach, or perhaps do not teach quite enough, or perhaps overly do teach, "America," democracy, self-reliance and also, perhaps, class stratification, racism, irresponsible egoism. We may disagree among ourselves as we try to decide what schools do on these matters. We may wonder whether they have been successful. We may fear that they are responsible for the various ills which we see around us. But all of us know that schools are not neutral. They do something. They embody a culture. They participate in its reproduction.
What I do in this book is explore how one school, a high school, in the New York suburb of "Sheffield," in fact does do what it does, culturally. I do this from the point of view that schools teach by placing children and adults in a symbolic environment which organizes their everyday life by suggesting possibilities to them, blinding them to others and placing often painful dilemmas in front of them.
A high school is a place in a town. It is a building. It is people. It is the same people meeting day after day, for months, years. These people do something with each other and to each other. Together they compose a history, the remnants of which become solidified as parts of the environment for successive generations. Administrative decisions are taken that later exist as committees, forms, requirements. The memory of old disputes between the administration and teachers lingers on. Students pass to each other impressions of teachers. As these impressions filter back, the teachers must react to them. All these people bring to school unique experiences from their family life and other non-school environments. They also bring what everybody else brings, stereotyped parental histories of the ways things were "when I was young," generalized knowledge of American customs passed by the mass media and by simple interaction with friends and neighbors. Students and teachers, without having to be told, know an enormous amount about what they are to do together and none of this has to be specified. They know they will speak English with each other. They know that the student population will be divided into classes, the day into periods, the curriculum into subjects, the student body into cliques. They know all about the ceremonies they will participate in--Homecoming, the Prom, Commencement, etc. Everybody knows that students will be tested, evaluated, tracked in more or less subtle ways and that their adult life is dependent on such things. Everybody knows that the adolescents in the school will have a hard time, that many will be anxious, confused and that they will suffer, psychologically.
All this, and many other things, form an environment. It is there, waiting for students and teachers even as they walk into the school for the first time after the summer vacations. Much of it is not literally there. The cliques have not formed. The Homecoming queen has not been elected. No student has been tested. But everyone is ready for these things. They are present as patterned memories that will ineluctably move from dormancy to flowering at the appointed times. And yet, this will not happen unless the people actually do something. Physical and emotional energy will have to be spent. The people will get tired. The appointed tasks will lead to interest clashes. Teachers will fail certain students. These students will fight back. Nobody can know who will be failed, who will fight back and how. In what contexts will reactions take place? And to what eventual end? The assistant principal who has spent so many hours ensuring the proper fit between teachers, rooms and students will wonder whether he has made a big mistake and dreads the sudden hospitalization of a teacher that will send him back to the drawing board. In other words, the participants know the school as an environment and as a generalized script, but they do not quite know how things will unfold. They are certain to be surprised. The most they can do is to be ready.
The interaction of order and uncertainty in the school is a central concern of this book. We will first search for the order as it is revealed in the hesitant behavior of people in the school. We will then see how this order organizes certain aspects of the hesitation and creates the kind of dilemmas that make everyday life difficult.
The evidence suggests that all human societies have been conscious, to various degrees perhaps, of the need to build environments where children are indoctrinated. Language, certain patterns of body posturing and mental activity may be learned very early and altogether mechanically. To produce fully functioning adults is more complex. All societies have worried that their children will not become competent adults and have created explicit mechanisms to ensure it, from simple rites of passage, to the years of formal education that characterize our modern cultures. From Plato onward, philosophers, priests, scientists, political thinkers and, surely, many unheralded humble hunter, peasant, worker or middle manager, have worried, suggested solutions, and implemented many mechanisms to complete the socialization that begins when a mother suckles her child, and a father holds it in his arms. Parents drill their children as they learn to speak. They tell them about their kin and the various stories attached to each. They read to them. They buy them educational toys. And they send their children to school. They expect the school to do certain things to their children. Some fear the school. Others try various techniques to gain control. In any event, the school is an aspect of an imaginative response to a fundamental difficulty. To look at schooling is in fact a priviledged entry into an understanding of the forces which organize modern life.
Schools--as a response to a difficulty--have a history. We can follow their development. We can trace transformations in the rhetorical justification for their existence, in their curriculum, in the extent of their becoming available to the various people who make our societies. And yet, however certain we may be that, as a society, we have made our schools, we still do not quite know what we have created. We do not like what we see. We do not like what is done to our children and we continually tamper with the organization of the schools. Shall we oblige our children to take civic classes to prepare them for participation in a democratic society? Shall we make them participate in symbolic ceremonies where our ideals are expressed and transmitted artistically and symbolically rather than explicitly and intellectually? Shall we simply rely on the implicit shaping that is inevitably produced by any environment? To be on the safe side we end up doing a little bit of everything. But we are still not satisfied.
Uncertainty is the lot of the human species. We cannot escape this uncertainty. But we also know that there are orders in the world and that, in the knowledge of this order, lies a power that we can exert. Life may not be a game, quite, but there are rules to it even if, as some would have us believe, they are as ephemeral as the rules Alice had to contend with in Wonderland. The rules, in fact, are much less ephemral. It is certain also that to know the rules of a game is not to know the outcome of an instance of this game. It is, at the most, to know the range of fates that are the usual outcomes. To know this systematically is to know much.
If there is an order to the way schools are organized, it is our responsibility to find out. As I suggested earlier, we do have intuitions of such orders. We know that schools, however disorganized and messy they may appear on the surface are not, in fact, neutral places with little or no impact on our children. We believe that their very "disorganization" has an impact and a very specific one at that. In fact, research into disorganization generally reveals the presence of strict orders that are just not those which a casual observer could easily recognize. Indeed, by trying to re-organize any social situation that seems disorderly, we reveal our abiding belief in the possibility of order. But these same experiences underline that discovering the specific character of any order is no easy task. It is easier to act appropriately in a certain environment than it is to know what rules were followed to be successful. Most of us cannot explain what one must do to ride a bicycle, and the few people who might know could not ride if they tried to do it in terms of the rules they had arrived at. But we all do know that wild and random thrashing about will not do. We must coordinate, order, our various muscles in a specific manner.
The same thing can be said of schooling. We may not know how we are doing what we are doing. But we do not do it randomly or haphazardly. It is on this order, as it reveals itself in the daily life of the people who participate in Sheffield High School, that I focus in this book.
As a French anthropologist, that is as both a foreigner and a professional observer, I have always been struck by the orderliness of America, and particularly by the orderliness of the expression of individual freedom and self-determination. That this expression should lead to the appearance of a disorderly surface is, as far as I am concerned, an aspect of the American order. My personal experiences in the United States, and my previous research (1977), have suggested to me that "democracy," as a social principle that focusses attention on the individual creation of a socio-political environment, is indeed fundamental to American life, from fleeting interaction between strangers, to the long lasting joint life of teachers and students in a school. I have lived long enough among Americans to know how scandalous it is to make such an assertion. It is a challenge to their view of themselves as a "free" people to suggest that they are not continually creating new forms. It is also untrue to their experience of themselves as human beings who, like human beings everywhere, do not know where they are being led, who fear the uncertainty of the future and who may be dismayed at what the past has brought. To American participants, even the conservatives, democracy has not quite been achieved, at least not everywhere. How can I say that there is an order to America?
"America," in American rhetoric, is a utopia in terms of which specific situations are judged to determine whether they conform to it. From this "native" point of view, to decide whether something that happens in the United States is "American" is a task for a moralist. It is not as such a moralist that I write here. I do not compare actual situations to an ideal. Rather, I try to find the ordering of the situation and label this ordering "American" (and democratic) for pragmatic reasons first. This is how the people who participated referred to themselves. I do it also for the more theoretical reason that I consider the specific ordering of many situations in the United States to be, in some specifiable ways, unique and different from what it can be even in other advanced industrial societies. There is something that orients action in settings that is all the more noticeable in its power when one has had less experience with it. It is because they have had so little experience with America that foreigners can be so sensitive to its formidable power. For those who have lived in American environments, the perception of this power often fades. The only thing that may remain is the vague feeling that situations are not quite neutral and that things might be otherwise.
"America," for me, refers to a way of ordering action in the world that has become historically specified. It does not refer to outcomes. Nor does it refer to psychological characteristics more or less shared by members of a population. America is a process.
Many have been those who tried to describe such cultural orders in general, and in the context of schools. They have done it in many different ways. Most familiar to many may be the studies based more or less solely on the aggregation of answers to survey questions. Such answers can then be stratified in many different ways, and a certain kind of picture is built. This picture, when it is handled sensitively can be useful. A book like Lortie's (1975) tells some things about teachers, their self-evaluation and the people, institutions and regulations which shape their world. But it does not tell us quite enough. It is not simply that, in surveys "scope is purchased at the cost of intensity" as Lortie writes (1975:ix), it is also that surveys can only tell us how individual informants (however many of those there may be) respond to preestablished questions in one, very limited, environment (the one in which they answered the questionnaire). No survey can investigate answers to which there are no questions. No survey can effectively discover whether the same person may say very different things about the "same" question depending on the context in which the question is asked. No survey can tell us a thing about orders that are not located within individuals but emerge through their interaction in situation. Above all, no survey can capture the ordering of a process. Only intensive observation can begin to address such concerns. This kind of intensive observation is generally labelled ethnography.
There is now a rich literature on the value of ethnography for educational research. This literature says much about what constitutes ethnography and what it can offer. I do not want to repeat here what has been well said elsewhere. [ftn 1] Suffice it to say that a central goal of ethnography is a multifaceted account of events happening in a particular location. Rigor in ethnography, if not validity, lies in the attempt to capture an event from many different points of view. One does this in the hope that one's own point of view (the questions one asks before one starts finding what questions to ask) will not so much be cancelled as specified. Ethnography is an exercise in self-knowledge as well as an exercise in knowledge of the other. It is an exercise in questioning the questions one wants to ask and the questions which the participants seem to be asking of themselves. The worth of an ethnography is to be measured in terms of the extent to which one can be convinced that the author has sampled extensively throughout relevant situations in which his informants act. It may also be measured in terms of the wealth of details which can be mustered. And, finally, it may be measured in terms of the plausibility of the description and analysis given the reader's own personal knowledge. In other words, ethnography takes it as a given that it is a human activity that is submitted to the same constraints as those which organize other human activities. This implies the recognition that the reader of an ethnography is active too and brings something that cannot be disregarded even though it cannot be controlled. For an ethnographer, the issue never concerns the elimination of bias. It concerns the assimilation of the actual constraints of the activity to make them produce a different and more powerful knowledge than the one one always possesses by virtue of being human.
The above is altogether common sense in the most interesting discussions of ethnographic research. Much less has been written on the second aspect of this research--the step that follows the time of observation and analysis: The writing of the "monograph." What should it include? How should it be organized? In most cases, authors end up producing reconstructed didactic pictures according to their own plan. Most commonly, this plan is one that is provided by traditional notions of the various parts or domains of school activity that must be covered separately to achieve certain ideas of completeness. In other cases, the plan is provided by theoretical notions of relevant categories or--in the best of cases--by categories that were produced by the analytic process. In all these cases the analytic process is, in fact, hidden. We cannot see directly what the analyst did, which leads he followed and which he abandoned. In areas where there are few ethnographies, this may be defensible. In an area like American schools where the literature is abundant, a simple filling in of common categories would now be redundant, particularly if the school studied is as traditional and unsurprising as Sheffield's.
The research tasks that now confront us are of a different order. What we have been told until now only begins to tell about the actual day-to-day life of the people. We know what kinds of peope are supposed to be in schools, what they are supposed to be doing, and even--after much investigative sociology --what they are supposed to be "really" doing. What the new work is demonstrating is that this level of knowledge itself hides much. We know that there are "teachers" and "administrators" in schools, but we do not know much about the manner human beings live their "teacher-ness" or their "administrator-ness." We know that they "evaluate," but we know little about the sequencing of the acts that are eventually glossed as "evaluation." Above all, we do not know how we know.
This present work, along with some others, is intended to open a new route for research in schools. It should be looked at in conjunction with Goldman's work (1982, forthcoming) on a middle school in the system adjacent to the one where I worked. Her work examines the altogether ritual character of competition displays, and the way teachers make rankings among the students. Together, we present a more processual image of everyday life than has been offered until now. In particular, we bring to the surface the process of our own activity on the "data."
It is to do the latter in a more systematic way that I have organized the present book so as to mimic my analytic activity. The book starts at an arbitrary point and, moving from question to question about this original event, it follows a thread which brings us, after a while, to a statement of pattern, or structure, which, I hope, will appear more grounded in the data than it might have been had I followed the more usual route of stating this pattern and then justifying its relevance through illustrative examples. This obliges the reader to spend more time on matters of detail than has been usual in recent ethnographies. We have reached the point, however, where broad strokes are not sufficient.
To highlight the analytic process is also to make it necessary to justify this process as it unfolds. An ethnography written in the expository style is generally so assertive by virtue of this very style that one can easily forget to ask hard questions about the exact source of the statements that appear on the pages. In the present case the form of the writing pushes the reader in the opposite direction. I separate the description and analysis from the justification but the movement from one aspect of the work to the other is continual. Thus the following introductory chapter expands on certain issues raised implicitly in this prologue. The second chapter of this expanded introduction is a general presentation of Sheffield in the expository style that I later eschew. It will complete the case for the argument that it is not very useful to write a full ethnography of a high school in this style. When these background matters have been set, it will be time to move on into the actual analysis. For some readers, the first of these introductory chapters may be something to skip. Others may want to come back to it after reading the body of the work. Nevertheless this chapter, and the theoretical discussions throughout, are central to an evaluation of the enterprise as a whole.
1) For the best work being done see Gilmore and Glatthorn (1982) or Spindler (1982). <!*******************************>