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Brown on the Ground: A Journey of Faith in Schooling

Author(s): Molly Townes O'Brien

Although Brown v. Board of Education set the stage for the civil rights movement and ended an era of strict racial segregation in schooling, it did not deliver all of the expected educational benefits for black children. Fifty years after the Supreme Court declared an end to the separate but equal doctrine in public schools, America's schools are still substantially segregated and unequal. It is safe to say that the educational results of Brown have been a disappointing. In this article, I contend that much of the disappointment of Brown stems from a misconception of the power of schooling and a disconnect between America's faith in its schools and their operational reality.

So much was expected from Brown because many believed, or at least hoped, that ending segregation in schools would - in itself - make inroads into the structure of a racially oppressive society. Implicit in the Brown decision and in the litigation leading to Brown is an unexamined faith in the institution of public schooling and its power to effect social change. That faith encompasses the beliefs that public schools are capable of serving as the social balance wheel for a capitalist society; that they create citizen affinity; and that they operate as engines of societal reform. Each of these beliefs is contestable and worthy of examination. This article examines Brown as an expression of faith in public schooling and considers its power to be a democratizing force in American society. It then puts that faith in the context of the public school's discriminatory history. I go on to consider two ways in which schooling was expected to accomplish its democratizing effect - by establishing equality and by creating racial affinity - and explain reasons to doubt that the schools alone can ever accomplish these goals. Finally, I conclude that fifty years of experience with Brown require us to take a new look at the social framework for achieving equality and social cohesion. Given the limits of the power of schooling to effect social change, we cannot simply reform schools and expect resulting social and political changes. Instead, we must strive for greater equality and cohesion in society if we hope to achieve equal opportunity in schooling. School reform cannot take place in the absence of supporting social reform.

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Research theme: Criminal Law, Human Rights Law and Policy, Law and Social Justice, Legal Education

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