Skip to main content

Sherman Dorn: American Education Is a Tilted Ecology

In his presidential address to the (U.S.) History of Education Society, Ben Justice pitched his argument that schooling has historically been a white good. Further, he wrote, the extent to which schooling has served the public interest has been the result of explicit efforts to counter white supremacy, led by non-white activism.1 In part, Justice’s address was an effort to reconcile the potential of education with its frequent historical failings. Whether or not you agree with part or all of his address, it is a serious effort to frame the historical flaws in formal schooling in the U.S.

I want to extend the discussion in a different direction: in what useful ways can we more generally talk about the historical unequal tendencies of American education?

Justice leans into an argument that the historical core of formal schooling is white supremacy — not that the entire history is supremacist, but that its roots are in white supremacy. That’s a plausible reading of the history; it’s not the only one, and I suspect Johann Neem would likely have the most vigorous argument with Justice. But Justice’s framing is a challenge to historians: how do we explain the resilience of inequality in American education writ large — not just public schools, not just private schools, not just K-12, but why is something so unequal where people fight for equal educational opportunity and where some clear examples exist of creative, just lagoons of equality and great education — why still demonstrably unequal, and intensely unequal in much of the past?

Calling this long pattern systematic racism is both correct and incomplete. It is correct in the sense that the twisting history of racism is embodied in the evolved practices of organizations. It is incomplete in the sense that system can tempt us to see the behavior as coherent in a way that it is not.2 While historians of education in the past several decades have eschewed earlier reductive accounts of inequality, we have tended to write about individual, bounded organizations, and in an indirect way that professional practice may have contributed to this misleading sense of coherence in systematic racism. Our hunt for archival and other sources generally finds materials structured by organizations: archived collections, oral histories bounded by geography and local social networks, newspapers whose reporters focused on their beats; even when we can travel to material in distant locations, we work in individual archives, day by day. But we also have tended to think of feasible projects as leading to articles or books focused on bounded subjects: controversy over desegregation in an individual city or state, for example. Or when we make cases about systems, they tend to be bounded in some way: desegregation in public schools, for example. The exceptions stand out because of that common way of working: Michelle Purdy’s Transforming the Elite is so notable in the desegregation literature because it focuses on private-school dynamics.

But we need to go beyond individual systems to understand the long history of education inequality. Jim Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1865-1935 casts a long shadow in this historiography not only because of his careful work reconstructing the private philanthropic network that boosted Jim Crow within education, but also because his argument captured the nature of inequality after Reconstruction as reaching beyond individual organizations. A small group of staff members at philanthropies controlled money and facilitated political connections, connections that took advantage of the white power structures of individual states. Both the philanthropic network and local and state white politicians shaped the early 20th century development of high schools in the South, predominantly for whites only. But as Vanessa Siddle Walker and others have noted, there was an active response by Black educators and communities, one that also stretched beyond individual school districts and organizations. In her hands, the roots of the legal fight over desegregation lay not only in the brilliance of Charles Houston3 but in the network of Black education leaders across the South who tracked the pulse of events. And as other historians such as Hope Rias have documented, it also lay in the grassroots organizing in individual communities.

This dynamic that stretches across and between systems is evidence that we need to think about the history of education in the U.S. as the history of an education ecology: a soup of changing organizations and networks and actors who all influence each other. Education practices and politics appear within public school districts and state politics. But private schools are not entirely separate from public-school systems — the history of segregation academies is clear evidence of that fact — and competition is not always the defining trait of that relationship.

Seeing education as an ecology that includes organizations and stretches beyond them helps us use but not be captured by the sometimes politics-free literature on systems: loosely-coupled systems, institutional isomorphism, sensemaking, etc. I have taught from Weible and Sabatier’s text cataloguing a number of useful theories of the policy process, and I think one of the challenges for graduate students is reconciling a sometimes-bloodless depiction of politics with what they know as the roiling substance of conflict. Horsford, Scott, and Anderson’s 2019 text on the politics of education policy is a useful supplement (or corrective), one rooted in the critical tradition and seeking explanations in the interplay of power and politics. That interplay is much closer to the historical literature, even while I think there is much that historians can learn from more abstract theorizing about how policy evolves. In an ecology, individual organizations can swim against the tide, but no individual organization or organizational system is entirely separate from broader dynamics, which in the U.S. has often revolved around the politics of racial and other inequalities.

My point is not particularly profound, but I think it does provide a framework that might be useful in understanding the changing nature of system and inter-system histories. It’s not so much a system as an ecology.4 The history of this education ecology has included plenty of efforts to boost the public interest and equality, but on the whole it has tilted towards inequality. That tilt has been far from inevitable, the extent of it has varied over time, and it is not inevitable now or in the future. But it certainly exists.


  1. Justice’s address is open-source and not behind the History of Education Quarterly paywall. []
  2. In some ways, it disturbs me far more that racism thrives in a contradictory, incoherent system than that it might be the result of a relatively small group of actors over the years. []
  3. Houston embodied that interorganizational stretch: dean of Howard University’s law school, special counsel for the NAACP. []
  4. Media studies folks also use this metaphor to explain that public media is not necessarily a coherent system. []


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Sherman Dorn

Sherman Dorn is the Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at the Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and editor...