Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Is "Paternalistic" the Right Term?

I recently reviewed David Whitman's new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism, in which he argues that some of the most successful inner-city schools in the country are successful in part because they're paternalistic.

The term "paternalistic" seems to have raised a few eyebrows. Mike Petrilli seems to like it, but Jay Greene doesn't, and Jay Mathews wrote a column asking readers to suggest a different phrase.

First of all, I don't think everybody shares the same definition of paternalistic (read Wikipedia and Dictionary.com to see how many different ways one can interpret the word). That many see it as a loaded phrase may both help (any attention is good attention) and hurt (people ignore the substance to decry the subtitle) the book. I, for one, don't really have a problem with it. The usage may or not be precise (I'm no expert on the term) and it certainly doesn't seem to be viewed as PC, but I think it largely makes sense. These schools, in general, seem to make decisions for their students that are in the best-interest of the students despite the fact that most wouldn't choose those routes on their own.

But, more importantly, I'm not sure I really see the point in debating whether or not the term is apt. I see the central findings of the book as much more important than the subtitle -- and it seems that discussion on the book should focus on the former rather than the latter. I think the central argument is important. The subtitle . . . not so much.

Update: I originally wrote that Petrilli didn't particularly like the term, but e-mailed me to inform me that I was wrong . . . my apologies. Meanwhile, Richard Whitmire appears on Eduwonk with another declaration of distaste for the term while Robert Pondiscio takes the opposite perspective on the Core Knowledge blog.


RDT said...

Not liking the term "paternalistic" for the qualities Whitman is writing about seems like an unwillingness to face up to the potential difficulties of very structured schools -- which exist even if there are a lot of positives as well.

I think one of the potential challenges for public schools is that schools which seem to be successful in with kids who come from families with a low academic focus are actively unappealing to families where there is more focus on school success at home.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

That's an interesting point. If my kid is excellent student with tremendous self-control, would I want him/her to enroll in one of these schools? I'm still waiting to find some good studies on the characteristics of those who enroll in these schools.