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In No One Way to School, Ashley Rogers Berner shows that a variety of schools cultivate civic virtue in students and argues that public schools are inferior to their charter and private counterparts in this endeavor...

No One Way to School: Pluralism and the American Public Education by Ashley Rogers Berner (185 pages, Palmgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Few education policy books are enjoyable to read; they often suffer from jargon, confusion, or such abstraction that words like “content” or “assessment” lose any connection to the world of actual students in real classrooms. Ashley Berner’s No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education suffers from none of these flaws. She makes a cogent argument about the nature of public education in America, identifying three mistaken assumptions to be questioned, and supports her argument with a philosophical and political meditation on the nature of public education. Her contentions apply to the vast majority of public educational contexts, and many of her suggestions may be applicable to private sector schools as well. The level of research in this slim volume (only 146 pages of text) is impressive. No book is perfect, and Dr. Berner’s suffers from at least two logical flaws. Overall, however, No One Way to School is an excellent contribution to the ongoing conversation about how America should conduct public education.

Dr. Berner’s argument is relatively straightforward. She contends that since a democracy is made up of different value systems which are held to be valid (pluralistic), public education should also be plural. Instead, the American public education system is monolithic, enforcing a sort of government-approved materialistic orthodoxy upon the public. She argues that this system developed in response to three false assumptions: “first, that only state schools can create good citizens; second, that only state schools can offer equal opportunities to all children; third, that any other arrangement is constitutionally suspect” (1). The bulk of No One Way to School is spent debunking these three assumptions. Dr. Berner shows that a variety of schools cultivate civic virtue in students and argues that public schools are inferior to their charter and private counterparts in this endeavor; she examines several small democracies in Europe (Finland, Sweden, England) and finds that these governments support a variety of educational systems (public, religious, and ethnic), creating a pluralistic educational environment; after examining recent Supreme Court cases, Dr. Berner shows that American jurisprudence is moving in favor of pluralistic school options.

Beyond her research, Dr. Berner also makes a philosophical case for why a pluralistic educational model best suits a democracy. She contends that the public educational systems has a political and educational philosophy at its core. If public schools are the only funded schools, then the public school position is privileged above the value systems endorsed by groups within the United States. Dr. Berner shows that the current monolithic system developed out of nineteenth-century efforts from a Protestant majority to protect America from a feared Catholic influence; over the twentieth century, the Protestant element has faded out, leaving only a hollow secularism as the philosophical core of public education. A democracy, Dr. Berner argues, cannot privilege the secular view over a religious view. Her solution is that the funding for education from both state and federal sources, which currently supports a secular materialistic monolithic system, ought to also be given to alternative schools. The pluralistic environment which Dr. Berner imagines involves federal funding supporting a variety of public, charter, private, independent, religious (Protestant, Catholic, Islamic) and special approach schools (Montessori and Waldorf). She envisions the monolithic public school system evolving into a pluralistic approach where parents could ensure the transmission of their values to their children through educational options reflecting their convictions.

Dr. Berner offers one specific criteria for determining which schools would be excluded from this pluralistic system: psychological harm. Her writing implies that schools violating existing laws would not receive funding, but the specific criteria she describes is that of psychological harm. She examines Brown v. Board of Education, citing the precedent employed by the court of psychological harm as a helpful criteria: Schools which could be shown to cause such harm to students would not receive funding. One problem which Dr. Berner fails to address is the vagueness of psychological harm. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes harm, and Dr. Berner cites disagreement among psychologists regarding whether such harm existed in the original Brown v. Board of Education scenario. She explains a difficulty with pluralism, writing, “the state will end up funding some beliefs and practices that differ from those of the cultural majority; any individual might find a particular school distasteful or even heinous. In this respect, educational pluralism mirrors what happens in every other domain of democratic deliberation. At the same time, the state cannot fund beliefs and practices that cause psychological harm to entire categories of students” (116). Without a clear definition of psychological harm, Dr. Berner’s imagined educational pluralism lacks defining parameters: What measurements exist to stop ISIS or al-Qaeda from establishing a school under pluralistic concerns? Would schools rejecting the ideas of virtue or truth receive funding? Could adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster receive federal funding for a school? For her encouragement towards educational pluralism to bear fruit, her plan requires further definition.

Beyond a problem of unclear criteria, Dr. Berner’s study suffers from a faulty assumption. She assumes that, in a future state of governmentally created educational pluralism, a governmental body will regulate funding for the different schools involved under an attitude of disinterest. Her vision is based on the idea that a supervisory board would fulfill the goal of educational pluralism; she assumes that a religious school which supports a six-day creation-based approach to science would receive equal footing as an evolutionary based science; she assumes that a school which taught traditional gender roles would receive equal respect as a school on the front lines of “LGBTQIA” discourse. The experiences of universities and colleges wrestling with federal dollars in the time since the passage of Affirmative Action, the Equal Rights Amendment, and Obergefell serve to illustrate that these assumptions are not valid. Federal money comes with strings attached; Hillsdale College learned that they could not receive even GI Bill money without surrendering curricular and admissions control to federal oversight, and determined that its independence was more significant than federal funding. Part of Dr. Berner’s argument for pluralism lies in a democracy’s different views on significant questions, yet this same reality makes the creation of a common recognition of the ultimate end of education impossible. Without such a common goal, a “rational set of values” becomes equally impossible. By the end of No One Way to School, this reviewer remains skeptical that the vision of thirty-plus different school models being funded would actually develop with disinterested, equal funding.

While Dr. Berner’s argument is specifically directed to public education, much of her argument supporting pluralism applies to the private sector. She sees America as a diverse population, made up of multiple ethnicities, religions, and value systems. Adults in each of these domains seek education for their children which affirms their positions on essential questions. While private schools should seriously consider the implications of accepting federal dollars, they would do well to adopt the language of pluralism. Dr. Berner explains that relativism flattens truth claims, but pluralism recognizes the complexities of different thought-systems. While traditional Christians and orthodox Muslims disagree on the answers to questions like who is God, and how should people please Him, pluralism calls people to respect other individuals’ intellectual capacities to come to different answers in complex ways. A democracy necessitates an atmosphere of pluralism to some extent, and a secular democracy like the United States of America requires a pluralistic attitude in most areas of the public square. The language of pluralism, however, does not require one to reject the existence of truth or deem contradictions valid; pluralism examines the route people take to reach their conclusions and respects people as thinking beings. For secular private schools seeking to pass on an appreciation for truth, the language of pluralism may be Dr. Berner’s most helpful contribution.

No One Way to School: Pluralism and the American Public Education is an engaging, well-researched, philosophical critique of the direction in which American public education has evolved. Dr. Berner wields the tools of historical research, philosophical reasoning, and political exposition into a fascinating depiction of the possible. She shows that while American democracy upholds pluralism as a good in many domains, the educational funding of a single type of school does not cohere with the ultimate values of a democracy. She looks to European democracies, illustrating that a pluralistic educational environment is possible. While her work does not clearly outline how such a program could be developed in an American context, Dr. Berner offers an insightful, well -researched voice into the contemporary discussion of American public education. Russell Kirk argued that politics was the “art of the possible.” In that sense, No One Way to School is an excellent work of political discourse expanding the possibilities of the American public education system to reflect the pluralism of a thriving democracy.

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2 replies to this post
  1. It isn’t clear to me where this book offers any new insight to education. Also, I do believe that we live in a country that is a government of a representative republic, not a democracy, which has become the preferred word to describe our unity. This book’s author ‘s premise, whatever it is being unclear, is flawed from the start showing her lack of political knowledge.

    If pluralism is the new word for denominationalism, than it seems that we will all be bringing our already free private values into the public square. What exactly will the plural unify around? In books like this review, when there is no clear definition of what is meant by the words like values, culture, monolithic, materialistic, etc., it’s just a jibberish flow with no coherent message.

  2. I’ve always felt the best way was for education to be completely private. People should be able to select schools for their children the same way they choose a grocery store. A wide variety of options would be available to parents. Religious schools for those who want a religious education. Secular schools for those who want them. Conservative schools, leftist schools, specialized technical schools would all be allowed with no government interference. Education wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

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