Saturday, November 20, 2010

Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980

Copyright © 2002 José Cossa

A Book Review of Tyack, D. & Hansot, E.  (1982).  Managers of Virtue.  New York, USA:  Basic Books.  This book was also reviewed in following journals:  (a) The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 2. (Sep., 1990), pp. 499-524, by Paul H. Mattingly;  (b) The American Historical Review, Vol. 89, No. 2. (Apr., 1984), pp. 531-532, by David Nasa; and, (3) The American Political Science Review, Vol. 77, No. 4. (Dec., 1983), pp. 1058-1059, by Frederick M. Wirt.

The book seeks to address the problems of today’s American public school system in light of the role played by school leadership in the building and reconstruction stages of public education in America.  It engages the reader in a historical visit to public education and, particularly, to the lives of those who created, managed, led, shaped, and reshaped the American public school system.

Tyack and Hansot rest on the thesis that the school as an institution gains meaning through the influence of organizational forms, as well as social meanings attributed to it.  The authors advocate that understanding the leader in the schools of the past, i.e., his social environment, background, beliefs, attitudes, and values are indispensable to understand the role that schools played in the past, and becomes a window through which we can perceive what is lacking today; however, such understanding of the individual must be in relation to “the broader matrix of the organization and societal change”  (Tyack and Hansot, 1982, p. 12).  The authors’ agreement with Marx’s aphorism seems to serve as keynote in authenticating their position and perspective of the leader in society:

We agree with Karl Marx’s aphorism that ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.’ Those conditions are always specific to time and place – that is, historical and particular.  (p. 12)

In writing this book, the authors seem to intend to do two main things:  (a) show how the legacy of American education has lost meaning in the eyes of those who have inherited it from the founding leaders of the public school system; and, (b) to challenge those currently in leadership of public schools to take seriously the task of building “a new coherence and community of commitment in public schools”  (Tyack and Hansot, 1982, pp. 249-262).

The authors believe that, in contemporary America, there is a significant lack of faith in public education and that such faith must me restored if public education is to be effective.  In the forefront of this process – to restore faith in public schools – they view the role of the educational leaders as a prominent one.  In chapter nineteen, Tyack and Hansot seem moderately inclined toward functional structuralism in regards to the role that schools play, or must play, in changing society.  Unlike the position held by the authors of the book, Perko (in ELPS444 lecture, 2002) states “fundamentally schools are products of society rather than transformers of society.  Schools provide a reflection of how America understands itself, i.e., what values are held by the American society.” – the author of this review also holds this position, which seems to lack emphasis, if present at all, in Tyack and Hansot’s discussion of the new coherence and community commitment.  Their argument on the erosion of the traditional American faith in public education is very well stated, but the direction of the methods of intervention suggested seem focused on changing the schools in order to change societal attitude towards schools rather than the opposite.  Tyack and Hansot state the following:

What might be some common grounds of agreement on such a public philosophy of education?  A commitment to a common school starts with values that are not subject to empirical demonstration – in short, they are beliefs about what sort of society America should become… The public school represents the only commitment by which American society guarantees to look after the needs and interests of all citizens, at least when they are young.  (p. 261)

In regards to a conceptual analysis of the book, the title Managers of Virtue:  Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980 suggests that there are five concepts to be addressed in the book, namely management, virtue, public school, leadership, and America from 1820-1980.  These five concepts provide anticipation and definite conceptual framework and readiness on the part of the reader, but one will disappointingly find in Tyack and Hansot a non-traditional approach to some of these concepts, i.e., leadership and management.  The authors’ option to place their perspective of leadership at the end of the book seems very unreasonable in relation to providing a fair framework to the reader from which to draw all understanding and criticism.  The “Afterword” serves a good purpose in describing how the study came about, but definition and discussion of concepts, and their application in the study could have been appropriately placed in the preface or in the beginning of the first chapter.

Although Tyack and Hansot make their case known in regards to the use of the term leadership, they use the term interchangeably within the text and sometimes the reader may get the impression that these terms are indeed synonymous, and even synonymous to superintendent.  The author of this review deems the distinction between the managers and leaders a crucial one – one that has often been neglected by writers and practitioners in various fields.  If Tyack and Hansot had been more argumentative about the reason they call school leaders of the past “managers of virtue,” (a description that is disputed by this reviewer as we will see later) and at the same time they recognize them as leaders more than managers in its strictest sense – since these leaders main interest was developing people and not the mere advancement of an institution and economic productivity – the study would have been without fault in nomenclature, at least in its title, and would have been a fairer description of what the authors really promised to write about. To make such a distinction would enhance the strength of the study and its compatibility with technical terminology used in leadership and management studies.  However, the weakness discussed here may be justified by the attempt of Tyack and Hansot to break from the traditional conceptualizations of leadership.

Some critics may accuse Tyack and Hansot romanticizing the past.  This reviewer does not believe that such is the case in the book, but praises the way in which virtue was observed as a fundamental element of education that was lost by American public schools.  The authors’ acknowledgement that the founders and re-inventers of American public school system discussed in the book are not perfect individual is an attitude that will validate the claims made about the importance of these leaders.

One cannot fail to notice that the detailed historicity with which the book is written is indebted by the credentials of the writers.  As a team made of a social historian and political theorist they share interests that are important and relevant to the study of school leadership in the context of the past forces at work in American society.  However, one would expect them to dedicate more space in their book to practical issues regarding slavery and segregation, which are interlinked with the standards for judging virtue.  Considering that this book hinges mainly on the concept of virtue, it is surprising that very little is said about issues of slavery and segregation in relation to those leaders considered managers of virtue – a question could be asked “’whose virtue’ were they managing?” – and in light of such a question one may argue that perhaps the decreasing faith in the educational system is not contingent upon getting back to managing virtue, but rather to moving forward towards redefining virtue in a multifaceted society, the role of schools in a diversified and fragmented society, and whose role it is to create coherence and community of commitment.  These and other related issues are still to be carefully considered before one can make a case for virtue.

One weakness of the study is found in the fact that the authors dedicate a part of their study establishing the reader in their own bias in relation to other approaches – they present their methodology at the expense of other approaches, as if their own approach was without fault.  It seems like they are attempting to establish claims of inerrancy of their own method and approach to the facts observed.  However, other critics have noticed weaknesses in the methodology and approach of Tyack and Hansot.  In The Journal of American History, Vol. 77, No. 2. (Sep., 1990), Paul H. Mattingly states the following in his 1983 critique of Tyack and Hansot:

For all its fair-mindedness and subtlety Managers of Virtue makes no attempt to develop a conceptual breakthrough itself.  It accepts the established categories of, say the era of common school reform and progressivism as if they were conveniently demarcated periods.  Too many of their key conceptual ideas – Professionalism, evangelicalism, the “educational trust,” “administrative progressives,” decentralization, centralization, institutionalization, for example become static assertions rather than historical notions. In spite of the fact that are aware of the problem of evolving meanings for ahistorical fields like psychology, and sociology, the authors too often seem unaware of the problem in their own work.  (p. 113)

Despite the weakness pointed above and other weaknesses that may be observed by readers with different frames of thinking and intellectual fronts, the book is a great tool in casting suspicion of our present day society in relation to the school system.  We, today’s educators and particularly the American educator, are called to reexamine our school conflicts and motives in education.  The role of the leader has been sadly diminished in today’s educational system and such role needs to be redefined and promoted in our new community that presupposes “a new coherence and community of commitment in public schools.”  Instead of promoting constant conflict of interests and controversy, which often lead to complex forms of societal defragmentation, Americans need to raise the standard in their trust and faith in the school system and those who lead it.  As rightly stated in the book, the irony of trusting principals with buildings and people as objects, but not trusting them with little sums of money nor with the ideological formation of the youth is a situation that needs to be seriously addressed if America wants to run schools in a more dignified way.  Obviously, in no way is the reviewer of this paper suggesting that there is a short cut to such solutions, nor suggesting that this is an achievable goal (or even a utopia), but certainly this is a desirable goal.  The problem of trust is a very important one to be addressed in works like Tyack and Hansot because trust is only possible when someone is trustworthy (as used in the Covey’s paradigm of Principle Centered Leadership to refer to the feeling of being worthy of trust as a prerequisite to trust others and to empower others.)  With so much distrust of self in today’s society it is very hard for others to trust a stranger in things that really matter in life – by this I mean those things individuals value the most.  Tyack and Hansot infer to this point of trust, and although they do not dwell in it, they have underlined its importance throughout the book as they describe the networks and personal actions of those who shaped American public education.
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