Book Review

Toni Marie Massaro, Constitutional Literacy: A Core Curriculum for a Multicultural Nation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 200 pages, $24.95.
Reviewed by Robert A. Burt, Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law, Yale University.

Recent debates about American culture have been waged in sharply dichotomous terms: whether we are fundamentally unified or fundamentally diverse, a "melting-pot"or a multi-cultural "mosaic." During the past decade, conservative critics have lamented the absence of cultural unity and have advocated, as a supposed remedy for this absence, that our public schools teach a nationalized "core curriculumS of great books that illuminate superior values. This call to intellectual arms has attracted considerable popular attention. In 1987 two books espousing related versions of this theme became national best-sellers: Cultural Literacy, by E. D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia, and The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago; and political leaders prominent in the Reagan and Bush administrations were quick to embrace this theme and their professorial exponents. Toni Marie Massaro, a professor of law at the University of Arizona, gives a paradoxical spin to this debate. There should be a core national curriculum, Massaro asserts, but it should not purport to promote unified cultural values; the core curriculum should instead "teach the conflictsS Q that is, it should identify the persistent tensions between unity and diversity in American cultural life and should offer students a coherent intellectual framework for thinking about these tensions without insisting that they choose one side over the other. Massaro proposes that instruction in constitutional law would be the best vehicle for providing a specifically focused content to this curriculum.

In the first part of her book, Massaro sets the contemporary debate into the context of educational controversies that have raged for at least a hundred years in this country Q the "competing pulls," as she puts it, "of common culturalism and multiculturalism [that] have caused educational policies to swing toward and away from the poles of strong, national assimilation and strong, local pluralismS (p. 22). At the end of this survey, Massaro concludes that "any national core curriculum must reflect both the core curricularists' interest in cultural solidarity and their critics' interest in cultural pluralism, because both interests are integral to our national constitutional character "(p. 65).

In the second part of her book, Massaro suggests the way that teaching constitutional law, at varying levels of sophistication and complexity from sixth grade upwards, could accomplish this curricular integration of the competing themes of unity and diversity. Massaro maintains that constitutional law is a good, and even a preferable, curricular instrument because Americans historically have tended to define themselves in its terminology. She correctly observes that public debates on issues of unity vs. diversity "typically occur against the backdrop of our constitutional commitments­ using constitutional language as our common vocabularyS­ in matters such as secularism vs. religious expression in public institutions, unrestrained vs. restricted expression in the media and other public forums, and claims regarding use vs. misuse of race, gender, disability or sexual identity categorizations (p. 70).

Massaro's discussion of specific Supreme Court decisions addressing these various matters is the most useful part of her book. She presents these decisions clearly and accessibly for lay readers, and in doing so, she demonstrates the feasibility of her claim that classroom discussions of constitutional law can serve the educational purposes that she has proposed. At the same time, however, Massaro's specific case discussions underscore the difficulty in achieving her proclaimed goal of merely "teaching the conflicts" without pushing students toward some pedagogically preferred resolution of these conflicts. Massaro works hard to be scrupulously fair-minded in her presentations, and attentive to the complexity of the competing social goals in controversies such as public support for religious preferences in educational institutions or school censorship of student speech or claims for racial- or gender-based affirmative action policies in educational institutions. But Massaro has a clear ideological commitment in these matters­ a complex, even paradoxical conviction that constitutional doctrine should give essentially equal respect to the "competing parts of the American personality: a liberal instinct to permit dissent and escape from common standards [and] an assimilationist instinct to enforce common standards" (p. 101).

This position mirrors Massaro's pedagogic commitment to teaching rather than resolving these conflicts. In substantive constitutional law, this position leads Massaro to prefer some Supreme Court decisions to others; thus, in discussing recent cases that uphold school censorship of student speech and newspapers, Massaro sharply observes that the "current Court, led by the statism of Justice Scalia, seems profoundly unconcerned about protecting the liberal instinct from overweening assimilationist forces" (p. 101). However persuasive this criticism might be, it would not sit comfortably within the non-directive pedagogy that Massaro appears to espouse in her core curriculum design.

But Massaro is not guilty of inconsistency here. There is a deeper consistency in her own thinking that she does not adequately acknowledge. The deeper consistency is that, from her perspective, the Supreme Court is obliged to teach the same lesson to the nation at large that she proposes for its school curriculum­ the lesson that equal respect is required for the demands both of diversity and of unity in our culture. Maintaining balance between these contradictory impulses is itself a substantive position which is both difficult to accomplish and inevitably controversial in its specific, practical applications. Accordingly, Massaro's proposed curriculum is not, as the first part of her book might appear to suggest, a non-judgmental middle ground between the contemporary avatars of cultural unity and diversity. There is no escape from making value judgments on these matters, whether in deciding court cases or designing curricula.

By the end of her book, Massaro admits as much, and she explicitly justifies her proposal to "teach the conflicts" as a way of giving heightened visibility to multicultural perspectives which­ as she views the present moment­ are threatened with suppression by the most vocal contemporary proponents for a national core curriculum. I myself am persuaded of the virtue of Massaro's proposed curriculum. But it does not strengthen her case to deny that, in our current mood of "culture clash," many triumphalist advocates will disagree.


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