PBS film schools viewers in education

Preview: `School' will teach more about the U.S. public schools than any history class.

September 03, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

School: The Story of American Public Education is PBS doing exactly what public television should be doing above all else: bringing context, clarity and perspective to an emotionally charged and often-misunderstood part of our shared national experience.

The experience examined in this ambitious and richly researched four-part documentary premiering tonight is public education -- from the first classrooms in Colonial America with their emphasis on religion, to school vouchers and private contractors changing the face of public education today.

It is a politically charged history and an incredibly complicated current reality that affects us all whether or not we've ever had to personally hand a frightened child over to a public school teacher hoping he or she and the administrators they work for are people of good conscience and intelligence. As this documentary shows, good conscience and intelligence have waxed and waned in our national educational practices and policies.

The strongest aspect of the film, narrated by Meryl Streep, is in its chronicling of the intellectual history of American public education and how that history is always, always, always tied to politics. Like many things in American intellectual life, it mainly starts with Thomas Jefferson and his goal for a public system of schooling in the New World: "To rake the best geniuses from the rubble."

Tonight's first hour takes us from 1770 to 1890. It starts with Jefferson, convinced that America could not work without a certain level of education, calling for a "crusade against ignorance" to "establish and improve the law for educating common people."

The hour extends through Horace Mann, the 19th-century reformer, trying to establish "a free school system" that "throws open its doors and spreads its bounty for all the children of the state," to become "the great balance wheel of the social machinery."

Tonight's second hour shows public schools in New York City trying to serve as just such a balance wheel in response to the great influx of immigrant children at the start of the 20th century. This is where the film really hits its stride in explaining the ideas behind the continuing debates about how we should educate our children.

The filmmakers bring us author Alfred Kazin saying, "Officially, the idea was to get us out of the barbarism of our immigrant background. But the idea was to `Americanize' us ... and they did."

There's also Theodore Roosevelt using his bully pulpit to proclaim what was more or less the consensus early in the 20th century: "We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language; for we intend to see that crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality -- not as dwellers of a polyglot boarding house."

But by the 1960s, those were fighting words as multiculturalism started to radically change our notions of public education. As Gary Orfield, author of Public School Desegregation in the United States, says in the film: "In the middle '60s and '70s, we took a society that was like South Africa, an apartheid society where everything was defined by race, in 17 of our states, and we made it the most integrated part of the United States."

The final hour looks at the last 20 years of public education with a special focus on the experiments and some of the failures in cities like Baltimore, where deeply troubled systems have driven many of those parents who can afford it to the suburbs to keep their children out of city public schools. The film does a nice job of letting many voices be heard and then measuring the promises against results.

Viewers hear John Golle, the founder of Education Alternatives Inc., preaching his gospel of privatizing public schools. Then they get to see what that gospel wrought when the Golle's Minnesota-based for-profit company took over several Baltimore public schools in the 1990s.

On the issue of school vouchers, viewers will hear a public official in Wisconsin who says they are "saving the lives of children." That's followed by author Jonathan Kozol saying, "The day the conservative voucher advocates tell me that they will give every inner-city black, Hispanic or poor white kid a $25,000 voucher to go to Exeter, I will become a Republican."

These are issues that make the blood boil. And School: The Story of Public Education isn't afraid to look such emotions squarely in the eye. But it's the light of understanding, not the heat of emotion, that ultimately makes this such an illuminating film.

Tonight's TV

What School: The Story of American Public Education

When Tonight and tomorrow from 9 to 11

Where MPT (Channels 22, 67)

In a nutshell An illuminating look at public education in America.

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