What’s at stake for American democracy when the politics of recognition is the driving force behind American education? How has this focus on difference affected the ability of schools to promote equality? And how much civic educational impact do schools actually have? Faculty and graduate students packed the Boisi Center’s seminar room in late February to hear distinguished Harvard law professor Martha Minow speak about these and other issues, all of which she addresses in her book-in-progress entitled Just Schools.
Brown v. Board of Education banned racial segregation in schools on the grounds that it violated the principle of equal protection under the law, but disagreement on the precise meaning and implication of equality has confused subsequent school reform efforts, Minow argued. What does equality mean, for example, for the burgeoning ranks of public schools tailored to students with particular identities or needs: single-sex schools; charter schools organized around Arabic or Hebrew languages, or African-American culture; schools for gay, lesbian and transgendered youth; or religious schools funded with public vouchers? To answer this question, Minow distinguished between two forms of equality: individual equality promises each person the equal opportunity to thrive, while group equality focuses on the equal respect owed to diverse cultural groups. Schools are more likely to foster individual equality, she argued, if they share a common mission and seek to promote at least minimal common values. Common values and missions are undercut, however, if promotion of group equality produces balkanized schools whose internally homogeneous student populations never learn to interact with one another. Alas, Minow noted, current data is unclear whether trends toward group equality and decentralization of school governance actually foster social segregation.
Minow closed by challenging the commonly held view that school reform can ultimately enable widespread social reform. Hence the dual meaning of the title Just Schools: schools should foster justice, but reformers should remember that they are merely schools, and can’t solve all our social ills.