Americans agree that education needs reforming in this countrybut after that, agreement ceases. The forces of diversity square off against those pushing cultural unity. The call for a national curriculum clashes with a call to decentralize school authority. This book brings a measured voice and fresh perspective to the educational maelstrom. Considering the debate from the perspective of constitutional law, Toni Marie Massaro offers a remarkably fair and lucid account of both sides, of their historical antagonism, and of what is at stake in the contest over the soul of America's schools. At the same time, she moves to break through the current impasse by offering the first principles of a curriculum mindful of all concerns.
Constitutional Literacy plumbs the most powerful arguments for and against national standards to reveal that these curricular battles reflect a broader, culture-wrenching struggle over whether official recognition of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other differences causes more hostility and divisiveness than tolerance. Central to both conflicts is the tension between our desire for a shared national culturethe melting pot idealand our fervent belief in our right to dissent. Thus, Massaro shows, the American constitutional commitment to equality, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion is intensely relevant to the curriculum controversy. Constitutional history and practice reveal a crucial paradox: What binds Americans is their common faith in the right to break away from cultural consensus. As such, a call to a national curriculum is inherently a call to conflict and dissent.
Constitutional principles, past education reform efforts, multicultural critiques of American education, modern studies of students' knowledge of American history and government, and ten years of experience teaching law all come into play in Massaro's analysis, and she concludes that shoring up our store of shared knowledge is a proper national objective. But this common store, she insists, must reflect our cultural and ideological differences lest it distort the reality of American life, past and present. Massaro thus proposes that constitutional principles form the basis of a core curriculum for a multicultural nation.
In a debate often characterized by polemics and polls, this eloquent book presses for a different, more nuanced and responsive public vocabulary about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. Constitutional literacy, as Massaro defines it here, may be a necessary first step toward this goal.