by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
For educational historian Daniel Perlstein, the long road from Brooklyn's Clara Barton High School to Berkeley's Graduate School of Education began with a student who signed her papers "Juicy Joyce."
Clara Barton is the public high school where Perlstein taught social studies and English for several years in the 1980s. Joyce was a student "unengaged in my class," he says, "and unengaged in school."
Then one day he happened to see Joyce sing in a local church. Her performance was riveting, and so was the realization that came with it: those "absences" she displayed in his classroom "were not her, but her in class. In another setting, she was completely focused."
Although he had learned to be a competent teacher, there was something in the organization and/or social function of schooling, Perlstein concluded, that made his classroom "into an obstacle to Joyce's expression of her humanity, rather than a vehicle for it."
In 1987 Perlstein left high school teaching in order to study the history of education. As a Stanford graduate student he first researched the Freedom Schools-a rare and "uplifting" experiment in progressive education during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, "at the last moment in the past half century when activists believed that interracial dialogue could contribute to the creation of an integrated society in the United States."
Public school teachers whom he interviewed, many from New York City, recalled their participation in the Freedom Schools as the best teaching experience of their lives. Yet when asked how it had impacted their work in the city schools, they were at a loss.
Those blank looks motivated Perlstein to explore the political and institutional obstacles to democratic, progressive education.
In a series of research projects he has addressed the relationship between democratic ideals and the governance, political organization and pedagogy of public schools. He notes that in the United States, education is one of the "pre-eminent arenas" where matters of race and class are debated.
As an historian, he finds precedent in the past for the heated educational debates of the moment. His dissertation focused on the 1968 New York City School crisis, in which a relatively progressive teacher's union, consisting largely of white teachers, cited labor rights and due process in a confrontation with African-American activists demanding community control of their local schools.
"Through the mid-1960s," he observes, "the liberal commitment to social justice and individual opportunity fostered movement toward greater racial equality."
But the signature development in racial politics since that decade, he believes, "is the transformation of the liberal notion of color blindness from a means of challenging racial inequality into a means of preserving it."
The '68 New York school conflict "heralded this transformation by pitting two of the core constituencies of American liberalism against each other."
The father of two young boys enrolled in public schools, Perlstein has a personal stake in what he sees as a number of positive recent developments in public education. Among these he counts the range of cultures represented in the curriculum, greater gender equity and the growing willingness of schools to affirm gay and lesbian students.
He is also encouraged by the implementation of increasingly so-phisticated programs in such areas as bilingual education, service learning, and teachers' professional development and collegial work.
Still, Perlstein sees these trends dwarfed by persistent racial and economic inequalities, the increasing popularity of punitive and mean-spirited methods of motivating, evaluating and controlling students, and by a growing commercialization and privatization of public schools.
The declining commitment to schooling as a public good, he believes, "has not only limited the schooling of poor and minority students, but has also impoverished all children."
How to foster the recovery and expansion of democracy and social justice as pre-eminent goals of public education is something Perlstein intends to research and to explore with his graduate students at the School of Education.