Schools as Imagined Communities

Edited by Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Sherman Dorn, and Barbara J. Shircliffe

As the federal government forces states to create centralized systems of accountability, the notion of a “community” school is now less and less defined by substantive decisions on core curriculum. Yet, the idea of a school as community survives, through the local politics of education or the policies of magnet and charter schools with small student populations. This collection explores the extent to which our collective notions of school-community relations have prevented us from speaking openly about the tensions created when we imagine schools as communities.

“This anthology of historical case studies brings together rich narratives… Inparticular, the editors’ excellent introduction draws meaningful insights from various scholarly fields and taught me how to think about ‘communities’ with fresh eyes.”—Jack Dougherty, author of More Than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee

“Individually and collectively, the essays in this volume ask readers to think deeply, more critically, more thoughtfully, about the unspoken assumptions and the political implications of our common tendency to conceptualize schools as ‘communities.’ Issues of nostalgia, of inclusion and exclusion, of racial and social and sexual differentiation, are all deftly handled, highlighting new contributions in the history of American education. Well done.”—Michael Fultz, author of “The Displacement of Black Educators Post-Brown” and “African-American Teachers in the South, 1890-1940: Powerlessness and the Ironies of Expectations and Protest”

“As a whole, the book offers sociologists several themes to ponder, such as the uneasy relation between ideals of school community and formal equality, the tension between legal initiatives and subjective experiences of belonging, and the meandering path from political battle to institutionalized practice.”—Scott Davies, in American Journal of Sociology


  • Introduction: Schools as Imagined Communities
  • Education in an Imagined Community: Lessons from Brook Farm
  • Crafting Community: Hartford Public High School in the Nineteenth Century
  • Student-Community Voices: Memories of Access versus Treatment at University of Illinois
  • From Isolation to Imagined Communities of LGBT School Workers:  Activism in the 1970s
  • School and Community Loss, Yet Still Imagined in the Oral History of School Desegregation in Tampa, Florida
  • Imagined Communities and Special Education
  • The Glover School Historic Site: Rekindling the Spirit of an African American School Community

Order the book today. All royalties are donated to non-profit organizations, and the links below are not connected with Amazon’s associates program or Powell’s partners program.

Excerpt from introduction:

There is a nostalgic myth about some idyllic relationship between schools and communities that some are sure existed in the past…. This nostalgia may be consistent with the experience of individual parents or educators, but it does not reflect our national history with its crosscutting arguments about communities and schools. As the authors in this book discuss schools as communities in our country’s history, they look carefully at the historical definitions of outsiders, whether based on geographical boundaries, role within a school, race, class, religion, or sexual orientation. They also examine the broader definition of community and who has been responsible for identifying members and defining the terms of membership. An alert observer must ask whether viewing schools as communities has been inherently problematic or whether it has reflected the type of community that schools have propagated? What have we meant by terms such as “school as community”? And, finally, why have we imagined schools as communities?…

If there is any clear pattern in the history of school community in the past two centuries—whether one is speaking of rhetoric, policy, or practice—it has been a subtle shift in the focus from battles over what constitutes a school within a community in the nineteenth century to battles over what constitutes a school community in the twentieth. In the early nineteenth century, when local control still flexed considerable muscle, considerable experimentation in the forms of schools led to debates over what was a good school and who properly controlled it. By the end of World War I, by contrast, increasing state control made schools much more standardized in form, commonly part of bureaucratic systems that were either fully centralized or consolidating a centralized form. This standardization created a common understanding of a “real school” and shifted debates over who controls the school community into fights over access, inclusion and exclusion from desirable communities.

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
Paperback ISBN: 1-4039-6472-6
Hardcover ISBN: 1-4039-6471-8

Schools as Imagined Communities cover

Schools as Imagined Communities cover