For historian and educator Lynn D. Gordon, this week's PBS television series called "School" marks her debut as a script consultant on a topic that present-day parents and communities sometimes think began with them.
"Beyond Brown v. Board of Education, most people don't know much about the history of schooling and all the conflicts and issues involved," says Gordon, associate professor at the University of Rochester's Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development and in the Department of History. "Ever since schools became a mass institution, there have been controversies about what students should study, should they have vocational education, all the issues we hear about today."
When Gordon was president of the History of Education Society almost 10 years ago, two women sought her advice as they envisioned a television special that would chronicle the story of universal public education in America from colonial times to the present. Over the years, Gordon received scripts to critique and offered feedback for revisions.
"They wanted their work to be historically accurate with all the subtleties and yet appeal to a general audience," she points out. "There are interviews with leading historians, a great deal of photography, and archival material. From what I've read and seen, it's pretty good."
"School: The Story of American Public Education" is being shown nationwide on PBS stations this week. Actress Meryl Streep, whose brother teaches in a New York City public high school, narrates the four-part series.
Gordon felt that her specialty in the history of women in higher education and the professions wasn't a perfect match for on-screen interviews, but she directed co-producers Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton to other historians whose research is devoted to the history of public schools.
A public engagement campaign will follow the airing of "School," its creators say, to spark discussions about the role of public schools in American life. Gordon believes that the series offers a perfect introduction for such useful conversations. "I can see this showing at a town meeting and continuing the dialogue in those forums. It would be great for that."