Historians and social researchers have viewed social policy in America as primarily concerned with issues of equality. In this article, David K. Cohen argues that an equally important theme—a sense of loss—has gone largely unnoticed. Examining the role of loss in the historical development of social policy for public education,he demonstrates that policies aimed at creating equality have been confounded—and to some extent undermined—by policies aimed at repairing loss. The author contends that in general the sense of loss has led to a vision of community which is based on order and compulsion. He argues, however, that community may be organized on principles of reciprocity, equality, and choice. The author reviews alternative explanations for why the sense of loss has been pervasive and persistent; he offers the view that loss persists and community eludes us because of a particular cultural bias, and he illustrates how this bias continues to affect social policy.

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