In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Context of Education

  • Introduction
  • Democracy and Education
  • Schools and Society
  • Family, School, and Community Connections
  • Gender and Schooling

Education Social Context of Education
Claire Smrekar, Lydia Bentley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0039


The study of the social context of education explores contemporary issues in education through the lenses of philosophical, political, and sociological theories, concepts, and research traditions. Studies in this field involve the relationship between schools and society, with specific reference to the role of race and ethnicity, social class, and gender in education. The focus often rests on the intersection of schooling and broad social policy, including health, housing, work, and community development. Scholars in this field explore issues of equity, opportunity, and the organization of schooling across an array of school contexts, including domestic and international, traditional public schools, choice programs (e.g., magnet, charter, voucher), and home-based and private schooling. Pertinent questions related to social stratification and social reproduction commonly frame studies in this domain: How do race and class affect the educational experiences of students? Did desegregation contribute to closing the achievement gap? How do neighborhoods coalesce with educational institutions to produce patterns of inequality? How does the organization of schooling (e.g., tracking) shape student outcomes? Broader frameworks in the field probe fundamental questions about the relationship of schools to society: What is the purpose of public education? How do principles of democracy and civility shape contemporary school policies and educational debates? The citations included in this bibliography encompass the core concepts and important research studies related to the social context of education. Some are included because they are seminal works that have shaped the field and the foundational studies that have followed; others are listed here because they reflect the most recent, rigorous, and insightful work in this field. The entries listed here span books, book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, policy reports, and issue briefs. All the citations represent significant contributions to understanding the social context of education.

Democracy and Education

What is the purpose of public education in a democracy? Tyack 1966 answers this question with a seminal piece on the history of public education. Barber 1992 moves from the historical rationale for public education—creating a civil society—to examine the contradictions and challenges of this education goal in a contemporary democracy filled with consumerism and cynicism. Fuhrman and Lazerson 2005 provides a contemporary context to assess the historical arguments for devising and sustaining a public school system as an engine for producing a civil and free society. For readers interested in philosophical debates and policy dilemmas, Gutmann 1999 underscores the tensions between liberty and civility, the central tenets of a democracy, and the challenges facing educators as efforts are made to reconcile and balance these tensions. Ravitch and Viteritti 2001 complements these works by presenting an edited volume with chapters that span multiple disciplinary lenses through which to consider the power and limitations of public education in a democratic state. How do you apply the principles of democratic education to the formation of student-citizens? Readers interested in this question will find thoughtful analyses and substantive models in Westheimer and Kahne 2004, related to elementary and secondary contexts, and should refer to Colby, et al. 2003 for a robust discussion of civic engagement in higher education programs and policies. Skocpol, et al. 1999 provides a provocative, deeply theoretical perspective on civic engagement.

  • Barber, Benjamin R. 1992. An aristocracy of everyone: The politics of education and the future of America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A vision of education as the fount and mainstay of a democratic society. Incorporates themes relating to postmodernism, conservative excess, and community service.

  • Colby, Anne, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens. 2003. Educating citizens: Preparing America’s undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Describes how some colleges are attempting to shape the moral and civic development of students, explains the nature of this development, articulates the challenges faced in the process, and offers recommendations for future efforts.

  • Fuhrman, Susan, and Marvin Lazerson, eds. 2005. The public schools. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A compilation of essays covering historical, theoretical, political, and pragmatic topics related to democracy and the American public school. Provides a historical frame of reference and discusses matters of citizenship and mechanisms for enhancing democracy through education.

  • Gutmann, Amy. 1999. Democratic education. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Defends the cultivation of deliberative skills and virtues necessary for civic education and advocates the principle of shared educational authority among parents, citizens, and educators.

  • Ravitch, Diane, and Joseph P. Viteritti, eds. 2001. Making good citizens: Education and civil society. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    This collection of work targets politics, values, and religion as topics intrinsic to the connection between education and civil society. Includes multidisciplinary perspectives from history, psychology, philosophy, political science, and law.

  • Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina, eds. 1999. Civic engagement in American democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

    A compendium of predominantly institutionalist and rational-choice theoretical perspectives on the roots of civic engagement, long-term changes in civic activity, and the need for a more critical analysis of newer forms of civic activism.

  • Tyack, David. 1966. Forming the national character. Harvard Educational Review 36.1: 29–41.

    A historical account of how Jefferson, Rush, and Webster formulated educational theories pertaining to the republicanization of the young nation.

  • Westheimer, Joel, and Joseph J. Kahne. 2004. What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal 41.2: 237–269.

    DOI: 10.3102/00028312041002237

    This article unpacks the concept of good citizenship by drawing on a two-year study of democratic educational programs while exploring the political ramifications of such programs.

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