Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

The Cosmopolitan School

The social roles and cultural values of a provincial society have given way to a cosmopolitan era. Our schools reflect these dramatic social transformations.

When society changes, schools change. Tectonic shifts in society in the United States over the past 50 years have transformed our classrooms; the public school at the beginning of the 21st century is a far different social institution than it once was.
Our society has changed from modern to postmodern. Modern society in the United States was provincial in its conservative social values, its clearly articulated sexual and occupational roles, and its spatially and temporally defined activities. In contrast, our postmodern society is cosmopolitan—a worldly mixture of liberal cultural values, blended sexual and occupational roles, and spatially and temporally overlapping activities.

Modern Provincialism

The prevalent belief in our modern, provincial society was that the United States had a common ethos, or set of values, different from, and superior to, all others (Carter, 1998) and that all immigrant groups would accept and incorporate these values. The metaphor for becoming assimilated was the cultural melting pot. Our educational system was the operative melting pot, instilling middle-class values in the newcomers whatever their ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds. The Dick and Jane reading series presented white, middle-class children as models for all children to emulate.
Clearly demarcated roles defined parents, principals, teachers, and children. Mothers were homemakers and fathers were good providers (Bernard, 1981). Likewise, teachers taught children, and parents reared them. During the early days of Head Start, much discussion centered on whether teachers should serve the children lunch; providing meals was considered a parental, not an educational, prerogative.
Expectations were that boys would be naughty and girls well behaved, that children would show respect for their teachers and other adults in positions of authority, that adolescents needed moral guidance, and that youth valued what they learned from adults. Many adults organized and led clubs to provide guidance and support for young people. There were exceptions and role reversals, but the expectations were clear.
Place, time, and activities were closely tied with one another in the modern school. Many modern elementary schools did not have lunchrooms because children ate lunch at home. Children did homework, but school was the venue for most educational activities. Time and function were also closely joined; the school day was a time for work, and after school, weekends, and summers were times for play. Meals had a regular schedule and were devoted to eating and to conversation.

Postmodern Cosmopolitanism

The postmodern period has challenged our provincial notions of common values and defined roles. The civil rights movement revealed the prejudice embodied in society's ethos and the need for equal educational and occupational opportunities as well as for the recognition and valuation of minority achievements. In addition, the women's rights movement overturned the traditional differences between male and female roles. The acceptance and valuation of cultural diversity has generally replaced the white, middle-class ethos. We are rewriting our history books to acknowledge the contributions of minority men and women to science, literature, music, and sports. Contemporary reading primers depict children of different racial and ethnic groups and at different socioeconomic levels.
The clearly demarcated social roles of the modern era have given way to the more overlapping and less rigid roles of the postmodern era. Today, women are free to enter all occupations, and as many women as men are currently entering medical and law schools. Male roles have not changed as much, but society expects men to be sensitive and compassionate as well as competitive and high achieving.
Parents have transferred many of their traditional functions to the school, a change that has transformed the teacher's role. Teachers now engage in more socialization of their students than ever before. New technologies have also contributed to a change in the teacher's role. Many young people are now more proficient in these technologies than the teachers are, so teachers often learn about new technology from their pupils.
Children's roles have changed as well. The modern child was regarded as innocent and in need of adult guidance and protection. In contrast, the postmodern child is seen as competent, ready and able to deal with life's challenges. This new perception of competence helps explain why educators are pushing down the curriculum, expecting children to know their numbers and letters before entering 1st grade. Society also expects adolescents to be sophisticated in matters of technology, sex, and drugs. Middle and high schools provide fewer adult-organized activities for young people than in the past (Elkind, 1994).
Finally, many of the technological changes that contributed to the transition to postmodernism have helped sever the once tight connections among space, time, and activities. Thanks to the fast-food revolution, we now eat 25 percent of our meals in cars. Individuals and families eat meals in front of the television; professionals eat lunch in their offices; and travelers eat dinner on a plane while watching a movie. The eating place is now also the travel place, the recreation place, and the workplace.
The ties between time and activity have melted as well. Television has turned many forms of information into entertainment. When children watch Sesame Street, they are being entertained and are also, presumably, learning. This blurring results in the expectation that teachers be entertaining—half ham and half egghead. With cell phones, fax machines, and notebook computers, adults work during vacations, further dissolving the boundaries between time and activity.

Postmodern Innovations

The public schools have mirrored these social transformations of the postmodern era. Problems arise when we treat the sociological imperatives for postmodern innovations in the schools as if each change had a curricular rationale. Such misreading often means that the new programs fail to achieve their intended goals and sometimes even have a regressive impact. Postmodern innovations—inclusion, multiculturalism, full-day kindergarten, and character education—are the offspring of our new, cosmopolitan society. Educators who understand the origins of these innovations will be able to implement changes more effectively.


The inclusion of students with special needs into the regular classroom is a postmodern innovation. It stems directly from broadening our national social ethos to acknowledge and appreciate those who are physically and mentally challenged. Inclusion, however, does not arise from any new theories or research regarding the educational effectiveness or value of this practice (Elkind, 1998). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal legislation that mandates the mainstreaming of students with special needs, was passed in 1975 as a result of the lobbying efforts of parents, not of educators.
Nonetheless, inclusion is too often regarded as an educational, rather than a social, challenge (Agne, 1998). Educators focus on the curriculum and not on the social adjustment of the children. Developing a curriculum, however, is much less important than making each student feel welcome and accepted among his or her peers (Sapon-Shevin, 1996). Developing social acceptance is the real challenge of inclusion. Teachers have to model a respect both for the child as an individual and for his or her special needs. Discussions about the types and number of students with special needs to include in any particular classroom are really about social dynamics, not the curriculum. When we look at inclusion as primarily an effort to gain respect and appreciation for a particular group, then we have inclusion in the right perspective (Giangreco, 1996).


Like inclusion, multiculturalism reflects the change in our national ethos, from the glorification of the melting pot to the valuation of the rainbow. At the heart of multiculturalism is the recognition of our common humanity and of the truth that our differences just make us different, not better or worse, than one another. This openness does not mean that anything goes. There is evil in the world, and every society has prohibitions against murder, incest, and violations of persons or property. Individuals can be right or wrong, good or evil, kind or cruel—but races, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups are not.
Unfortunately, as in the case of inclusion, we too often treat multiculturalism as a curricular issue rather than as a matter of teaching tolerance (Banks, 1991). Certainly, it is important for children to learn about different cultures, races, and religions and to study different histories, languages, and modes of life. All too often, however, the curricular focus on difference undermines the real goal of multiculturalism. Emphasizing differences, without making a serious effort to help children value them, may have the wrong effect. Children may unwittingly associate being different with being bad or inferior (Elrich, 1994). True multiculturalism emphasizes our common humanity. It teaches children that whatever our religious preferences, whatever the color of our skin, whatever our cultural values, we all love our parents and children, take pride in achievements, and grieve for failures and disappointments.
Presenting multiculturalism in this way is not always easy. In teaching about other races and cultures, for example, teachers tend to look at, or away from, a minority student whose race or ethnicity is under discussion. Teachers also face the dilemma of recognizing a particular child's ethnicity but continuing to treat him or her as any other child. And there is always the temptation of asking a child to speak for his or her race or ethnic group when the child does not want to be acknowledged in this way. Respecting children as both unique and part of the group is one of the major adaptational problems posed to teachers by the new valuation of our common humanity. It is much more than a matter of curriculum or instruction.

Full-Day Kindergarten

The development of full-day kindergarten is a good illustration of how a social problem gets misinterpreted and given an educational solution.
The changing roles of women in our society and the entrance of many mothers of young children into the workforce created an enormous need for child care. There were not enough affordable, accessible, and quality child care facilities to meet the needs of all the parents who required these services. Many working parents began looking to the schools for help. Parents trust schools. Schools are safe and clean, and the teachers are trained and certified. The need for child care, combined with the new view of children as competent, created a strong demand for full-day kindergarten.
Administrators, for their part, found that arguing for funding for full-day kindergarten required playing the education card. Full-day kindergarten, they argued, would better prepare children for 1st grade. Unfortunately, this argument has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The widespread introduction of full-day kindergarten has led both administrators and 1st grade teachers to raise their expectations for the skills necessary to succeed in 1st grade.
In the past, children with and without academic skills entered 1st grade, but this open door is fast closing. Many 1st grade teachers expect that children coming into their classrooms will know numbers and letters, and if a child does not, the teachers recommend holding the child back in kindergarten. In fact, we retain 10 to 25 percent of kindergarten children each year in the United States in spite of considerable controversy over the efficacy of retention (Thomas et al., 1992). Full-day kindergarten was introduced to meet a child care need but has contributed to too many children being held back or put into transition kindergarten classes.
Likewise, the current movement toward universal preschool is another child care initiative, not an educational one. The distinction between child care and education is not always easy to draw because good child care is always educational. The issue, however, is not educational versus noneducational. The real concern is appropriateness. Full-day kindergarten or programs for 4-year-olds can be beneficial if the programs take into account the children's need to rest in the afternoon and to learn from manipulatives rather than from symbols. The mischief starts when the 1st grade curriculum gets pushed down to kindergarten and 4-year-old preschool programs.

Character Education

Like the full-day kindergarten, the introduction of character education into the public school curriculum has a social, rather than an educational, rationale.
The introduction of character education into our schools began around the turn of the last century and lasted for a few decades. Introduced as a response to the waves of immigrants arriving in the United States, character education was supposed to combat the lawlessness and immorality of the so-called ignorant hordes. After World War I and the decline in immigration, the demands for character education subsided. For example, psychologist Gordon Allport (1927) argued that measurable personality, as opposed to immeasurable character, should be the proper focus of psychological and educational concern. The coup de grace came with the studies of Hugh Hartshorne and Mark May (1928–1930), who found that moral education had little or no relation to moral behavior.
The work of Lawrence Kohlberg (1975), who elaborated and extended the work of Jean Piaget (1948), brought about a revival of interest in moral education. Coming on the heels of the civil rights and women's rights movements and the concern for social, economic, and educational inequalities in our society, Kohlberg's work was timely. Moral development became a major topic in psychological textbooks and found its way into the school in many different guises, such as "value clarification" curriculums.
Although the impetus for moral education came first from the social justice movements, changes in the family and in gender roles fostered a new interest in moral education. Single parents and dual-career parents have, on the average, less time to parent. In addition, children and teenagers face influences from television, video games, and mass marketing. Parents are not able to monitor children's exposure to these new sources of information, entertainment, and sales promotion. As a result, parents share their role in character formation with outside influences over which they have little or no control.
This lack of control, together with the many cases of cruelty and violence in schools, has fueled the contemporary enthusiasm for character education. Indeed, the Internet has hundreds of sites devoted to character education, which has become a widely accepted curriculum topic in our schools. Yet the contemporary demand for character education, like that at the turn of the last century, is a response to a social problem and not a reflection of research supporting the effectiveness of these programs (Kohn, 1997).
Character education programs are almost sure to fail their intended aims. They are ineffectual because they attempt to use schools to solve social problems that originate elsewhere. Using schools in this way has not worked in the past and will not work now. School busing is a case in point. It solved neither the educational inequality of our schools nor the racism that gave rise to it. Busing did not work because most parents did not integrate with those of other races; they did not socialize even though their children did. At home, children still picked up vicious racist messages that smothered any positive sentiments they might acquire at school. Children learn racism from their parents and other significant adults, not from one another.
The same is true for character education. First, character is an ambiguous term. In education, the most common definition is that of the "good person," who is a paragon of such virtues as honesty, truthfulness, fairness, generosity, loyalty, and fidelity. Most character education programs, however, focus on two major traits, honesty and fairness, which are basic to maintaining the school's sense of society. Even if we limit the discussion to these two moral attributes, there are still problems. One of these is developmental, the other situational.
With regard to the development of honesty and fairness, we need to remember that children understand these terms in different ways as they mature. Children who are 8 or 9 years old, for example, often invent hypotheses (that adults are tempted to call lies) to explain their dishonest actions (such as taking something from a store). Once they verbalize such hypotheses, the children often believe their stories and may even bend the facts to fit them. What an adult would call a lie is thus not a lie from the perspective of the child, who now believes in the reality he or she has created. We should not condone either stealing or lying, but we should approach the child's behavior from a developmental perspective. We might, for example, test out the child's hypothesis without judging it false in advance.
This example illustrates two points. One is that character education is better learned from real experiences than from fictional stories. Second, a teacher's modeling of fairness and honesty is the best way to teach honesty and fairness. A teacher who does not prejudge, but instead allows children to test out their hypotheses, provides a model of objectivity and fairness that children can emulate.
Moral behavior is situational as well as developmental. A child may behave morally in relation to his or her friends, for example, but not in relation to strangers. This tendency is not limited to children. Adults at a convention in a strange city where they are not known may behave in ways that they would never behave at home. And we all tend to be more moral when we are under public surveillance than when we are not. There is thus a clear difference between moral knowledge and moral behavior. Character is not absolute; it is relative to both development and situation.
Character education, then, like the full-day kindergarten, has its origin in social change, not in any newly demonstrated research as to its efficacy. In fact, character education can be counterproductive if it merely adds to the teacher's already heavy curricular load. Character education does take place in the classroom, but not by way of any curriculum. Educators who are competent, prepared, and responsive to their students' individual needs are the best teachers of moral values. Once we see that the demand for character education is a social and not an educational imperative, we can remove character education as a curricular subject and give teachers the time and freedom they need to be the best moral exemplars they can be.

Technological Innovations

Technological innovations have played a dramatic role in creating our postmodern, cosmopolitan society. Computers, fax machines, the Internet, and cell phones have liberated activities from their usual spatial and temporal ties, and we can now reach anyone at any hour. Unlike the postmodern school innovations that have sociological rather than educational origins, technological innovations can benefit education directly, but their misuse for sociological or psychological purposes can compromise their educational value.
Internet research, for example, has broken the spatial tie between research and the library. Karl Marx camped out in the British Museum doing the background reading for his classic Das Kapital, but today's student can sit at home and conduct a more extensive library search than Marx ever could have. Unfortunately, prurient appeals linked even to the most neutral words and the relentless stream of sales pitches can compromise the educational value of Internet research.
As for e-mail communications, students and teachers can contact one another not only in the classroom and during school hours, but at any hour. This increases teacher-student communication, but the informal nature of e-mail sometimes encourages inappropriate requests.
One of the most far-reaching educational advances to derive from the new technologies is distance learning. Attending a lecture was once limited to being in the same room as the lecturer, but that is no longer the case. For instance, with the help of a video camera and a telephone hookup, I recently gave a lecture and answered questions from students on several different campuses simultaneously. Distance learning also breaks the once close ties between time and activity. With electronically stored lectures, students no longer have to attend lectures at particular hours on particular days; they instead can listen to them whenever they choose.
We do not yet know the sociological and psychological consequences of distance learning, but it may pose a risk to teachers' job security. If students throughout the world can take a master teacher's course in economics, the need for tenured economics teachers may decrease. Another risk might be the lack of direct contact with teachers; distance learning does not provide for the personal contact, advice, and supervision that are important parts of the educational process.

Understanding Innovations

Mirroring society's transformations, our schools have changed from provincial to cosmopolitan institutions. When we fail to see cosmopolitan innovations as social problems to be solved and misread them as subjects to be taught, we force curricular changes that do not achieve their intended social aims. Instead, we should pay attention to how the potential misuse of technological innovations can compromise their educational value. Understanding the origins of postmodern innovations can help us place them in the proper perspective. We need to recognize that social change creates problems and that new curriculums are not always the solutions.

Agne, K. (1998, Spring). The dismantling of the great American public school. Educational Horizons, 76(3),143–146.

Allport, G. (1927). Character and personality. Psychological Bulletin, 24, 284–293.

Banks, J. A. (1991). Teaching strategies for ethnic studies (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Bernard, J. (1981). The good provider role: Its rise and fall. American Psychologist, 36, 1–12.

Carter, S. P. (1998). Civility. New York: BasicBooks.

Elkind, D. (1994). Ties that stress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elkind, D. (1998). Behavioral disorders: A postmodern perspective. Behavioral Disorders, 23(3), 153–159.

Elrich, M. (1994). The stereotype within. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 12–14.

Giangreco, M. F. (1996). What do I do now? A teacher's guide to including students with disabilities. Educational Leadership, 53(5), 56–59.

Hartshorne, H., & May, M. (1928–1930). Studies in the nature of character (Vols. 1–2). New York: Macmillan.

Kohlberg, L. (1975). The cognitive developmental approach to moral development. Phi Delta Kappan, 56(10), 670–677.

Kohn, A. (1997, February). How not to teach values: A critical look at character education. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(6), 429–437.

Piaget, J. (1948). The moral judgment of the child. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Thomas, A. M., Armistead, L., Kempton, T., Lynch, S., Forehand, R., Nousinen, S., Neighbors, B., & Tannenbaum, L. (1992, October). Early retention: Are there long-term beneficial effects? Psychology in the Schools, 29(4), 342–347.

Sapon-Shevin, M. (1996). Full inclusion as a disclosing tablet. Theory into Practice, 35(1), 60–68.

David H. Elkind has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 100286.jpg
The Changing Context of Education
Go To Publication