The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 13, No. 3 (Fall 2011)

Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control

Charles Glenn

New York: Continuum, 2011.

Reviewed by Ashley Berner

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 13.3 (Fall 2011). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2011

(Volume 13 | Issue 3)

Educational philosophy asks four distinct but related questions: What is the purpose of education? What is the nature of the child? What is the role of the teacher? And, finally, where does authority about these matters rest? Charles L. Glenn’s book focuses on the fourth question, that of the political philosophies that underwrite distinctive educational systems. Hovering in the background of Glenn’s work, of course, are the first three questions—those that concern the nature of the child, the aims of education, and the teachers’ authority—for it is disagreement about these things that necessitates the political arguments in the first place.

In the book we are drawn into the question that moved nineteenth-century statesmen and illiterate peasants alike: who controls the ideology that schools inevitably impart? Glenn contrasts the development of a civil-society model of schooling that became predominant in Belgium and the Netherlands with the state-control model that shaped Prussian and Austrian schools. A civil-society model assigns high value to the varied communities of commitment within society (whether religious or otherwise) and allows them wide space educationally; it assigns to the state the tasks not of providing but of funding and regulating schools. A state-control educational model, in contrast, assumes that society’s interests are best met by the state’s (monopolistic) provision of schools, a situation that aims for uniformity, not plurality.

These political philosophies generate quite different educational systems, as Glenn’s text makes clear. Perhaps most striking is the story of educational change in the Netherlands—in which an 1806 law that supported national and putatively neutral schools was overturned sixty years later, the fruit of decades of elite argument and grassroots passion, to make room for a system that funds more than forty types of schools on equal footing. Parents in the Netherlands today may select schools oriented towards their own convictions and preferences—whether Roman Catholic, Jewish Reform, or Montessori. In contrast, Germany’s centrally controlled system, although structured to allow both Catholic and Protestant schools, was open to ideological abuse at the hands of the National Socialists who crowded out any particularity but their own. No wonder, then, that the post-war constitution of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland forbade federal involvement in education, the variety and regulation of schools being left now to the various states.

Glenn’s book is a good historical read, whether or not one is interested in education itself; it illustrates how Enlightenment philosophy played out in different countries, shows the consequences of an expanding electorate upon politics, and introduces us to some of the more articulate statesmen of the nineteenth century. Americans who work within the field of education, however, should pay particularly close attention to Contrasting Models of State and School for two specific reasons.

First, the book reminds us that education is all about commitment and belief. This point is all too easily lost upon Americans, long accustomed to a received wisdom about public schooling that considers it neutral and objective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, every component of schooling is chosen and therefore charged through and through with beliefs about the child, the teacher, and the classroom’s ultimate purpose. Never mind that these matters often go unrecognized in the twenty-first century. The 350,000 peasants who signed a petition to the King of the Netherlands in 1830 demanding Catholic education for their children knew what they were dealing with: a clash of educational philosophies that had consequences for the next generation (74). Our own educational debates would become more straightforward if we acknowledged the beliefs behind divergent pedagogies and priorities, our policies more generous if we made institutional space for disagreement.

Second, the book challenges our cultural imaginations. The United States historically falls much closer to the state-control model than the civil-society model, as Glenn’s earlier Myth of the Common School (1988) illustrates; the roots of our present system lie within the Massachusetts of the 1840s. The point is that we have spent nearly 175 years living within a once-contested framework that now seems sacrosanct; we are limited not only by law but by imagination. Reading about how other liberal democracies manage educational pluralism challenges our expectations for what is possible.

Certainly, Glenn’s history invites American scholars and activists to ask the big questions all over again in light of our increasingly pluralistic society and post-Enlightenment outlook. Put differently, our current need is to understand

how the freedom of parents to choose how their children will be educated can be balanced with the opportunity for educators to create and work in schools with a distinctive character, and how both of these in turn should be limited by some form of public accountability to ensure that all children in a society receive a generally comparable and adequate education. (ix)

In this endeavor, one could look for no better guide than Contrasting Models of State and School.

Ashley Berner is Co-Director of the Moral Foundations of Education Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Her degrees are from Davidson College (A.B. History) and Oxford University (M. Litt., D.Phil. Modern History), and she has taught at a Jewish pre-school, an Episcopal high school, and an open university.

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