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Q & A: Sociologist Describes Center on Society and Education

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As part of a ceremony this spring commemorating the 10th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, the landmark study that helped spur the school-reform movement, the University of California at Berkeley announced the formation of a consortium to study issues of society and education.

Headed by Sheldon Rothblatt, a professor of history at Berkeley, the Consortium for the Study of Society and Education is expected to examine a wide range of topics, including the creation of international comparisons of educational systems, the effect of peer culture on students, and the role of higher education in society.

The consortium is also expected to incorporate Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education as well as Policy Analysis for California Education, a highly regarded educational-policy-research group headed by James W. Guthrie, a professor of education at Berkeley and a co-director of the consortium.

Neil J. Smelser, a professor of sociology at Berkeley and another co-director of the consortium, spoke about it with Associate Editor Robert Rothman.

Q.
There have been hundreds of study groups on education since A Nation at Risk. What can your consortium do that others have not yet done?

A.
Our mission as a consortium ... on the Berkeley campus is much broader than the concerns over American high schools aired in A Nation at Risk. That was simply an opportunity. The 10th anniversary of A Nation at Risk coincided with our own birth. We looked upon it as a public initiation for our own consortium.

Our constitution, our mission is much broader than that. We are looking at primary, secondary, and higher education, and their articulation with one another. We have a heavy stress on comparisons among education systems, not just America's. And we are doing this with an eye toward critical evaluation, and, to the extent the research allows, with guidelines for educational policies. ...

At the moment, we are seeking funding for two studies. One looks at the importance of peer groups in high schools, with special reference to their influence on students' decisions about their own careers. The second line of research is a critical assessment of the kinds of information students receive at the secondary school level with respect to the economy and with respect to further educational opportunities. That's a major empirical study we are now in the process of formulating.

Q.
You are a sociologist; Professor Guthrie is an education professor; Professor Rothblatt is a historian. How will this diversity of perspectives contribute to your work?

A.
In expected ways. The division of labor, if you will, is that Guthrie is closer to questions of education policy than either of us. One unit that is dissolved into the consortium is Policy Analysis for California Education, which he is the head of.

My own work is on the social structuring of education. I've done comparative work on primary education in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and done work on higher education in the United States. Rothblatt is a historian of higher education in the United Kingdom.

We have weekly meetings together. We don't sit around trumpeting our perspectives, but rather focusing in on problems. [Our perspectives are] enriching.

Q.
Do you intend to have a group of scholars focusing on these questions?

A.
We have an advisory committee we meet with from time to time. Our intention is to have an international advisory board. ...

The two examples of research [I mentioned earlier] are of sufficient magnitude and breadth [that] they are not something the three of us sitting around in libraries could complete. We intend to fan out and involve people of various sorts in the operation. Ultimately, it could be a systemwide organization.

Q.
What products do you expect will come out of your research?

A.
Research monographs, policy documents outlining policy implications, articles in scholarly and applied journals, as well as doctoral dissertations. We plan to make [the consortium] a center for doctoral-dissertation work. Various departments will be involved--sociology, history, economics, education, psychology, maybe.

Q.
Who do you see as the audience for your work?

A.
Scholars, education-policy leaders, government agencies involved in education and cultural spheres, students, the general public. Our audience is as broad as our mission.

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