Education Commentary

The Post-Millennium Blues

By Maurice R. Berube — April 12, 2000 4 min read
Have we reached the end of education, too?

As the last millennium ended, many reputable scholars had dismissed their fields of inquiry as having reached their end. Notices went out that it was “the end of art,” “the end of science,” and “the end of history.” Many knowledgeable—and unknowledgeable—critics simply ignored the messages of these Cassandras.

I am not so sure that we have not also reached “the end of education.” There are many signs that we have accumulated enough knowledge about teaching and learning that we have little to look forward to that is truly new and mind- sweeping in educational research.

I came to that conclusion a few years back, when I finished a book I was writing at the time, American School Reform: Progressive, Equity, and Excellence Movements, 1883-1993 (Greenwood, 1994). It seemed to me, looking over the history of American education, that there were three great school reform movements, and that there was unlikely to be another. There would be innovation, yes, but nothing approaching the grand scale of these three major movements.

I was also bolstered in my thinking about “the end of education” by a provocative meta-analysis (a sophisticated review of the literature in one area) that was published in the Review of Educational Research in the fall of 1993. The authors, Margaret C. Wang, Geneva D. Hartel, and Herbert J. Walberg, had reviewed an enormous body of studies on teaching and learning. In writing this mother of all meta-analyses, they found a knowledge base “distilled from an enormous body of knowledge extending over the last half-century” that constitutes “a reasonable basis for formulating educational policies and practices.” In short, we know all that essentially needs to be known about knowing.

As an educational historian, I shared certain assumptions about the nature of history with my academic colleagues in art, science, and history. In a word, we are all disciples of Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolution,University of Chicago Press, 1962), which means that we view history in terms of paradigms, “big bang” shifts in the development of human kind. We do not approach our particular discipline of history in linear fashion, with incremental progress as an inevitable process.

What we Kuhnites are saying is that the major discoveries have been made in our areas. What is left to discover is important, but minor. We have reached the end.

Consider the art critic Arthur Danto’s provocative essay “The End of Art” (in The Death of Art, Haven, 1984). “The history of art has no future,” Danto argues, “against the paradigm of progress, it sunders into a sequence of individual acts, one after another.” After Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, he believes, there will be no other major art movements. “There is no longer any reason to think of art as having a progressive history,” Danto concludes. “The age of pluralism” is what remains. Art has reached its final paradigm shift.

Likewise, John Horgan in The End of Science (Addison-Wesley, 1996) feels that “science may be ending because it worked so well.” The only major discovery remaining is the unified-field theory in physics, a Holy Grail that eluded Albert Einstein for the last 30 years of his life.

What “discoveries” remain would be minor, what Horgan calls “ironic science.” Ironic science would not be the kind of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. Ironic science, Horgan contends, cannot give us “the answer.”

If the historical law of paradigms truly exists, we cannot foresee major turning points.

Finally, we confront the end of political history. In his essay, later expanded into a book, “The End of History?” (The National Interest, 1989), Francis Fukuyama contends that the end of the Cold War brought the major political movements to an end. Between the struggle of fascism, communism, and democracy, the end of the Cold War marked a “triumph of the West, of the Western idea.”

What happened was “very fundamental,” Mr. Fukuyama argues, so that there occurred “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” In the wake of the end of history, we are faced not with global conflict but smaller regional religious and national confrontations.

Could we Kuhnites—and Kuhn himself—be wrong? If the historical law of paradigms truly exists, we cannot foresee major turning points. It is unlikely. Some leading educators have already accepted the fact that it is the end of knowledge. The eminent educator John I. Goodlad has written that “we have an incredible body of knowledge.” The late teacher- educator Madeline Hunter was quoted as saying that “we now know enough about teaching.” Even former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett declared that teaching and learning was no longer “mysterious,” and that “discovering what works has been a signal achievement of the reform movement to date.”

What we may be left with is nostalgia for a time when the struggle to know was still in doubt. Mr. Fukuyama has admitted that for him “the end of history” is a “sad time,” occasioning a “powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.”

It is the beginning of the post-millennium blues.

Maurice R. Bérubé holds the position of eminent scholar of educational leadership at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. His most recent book, published in January, is Eminent Educators: Studies in Intellectual Influence (Greenwood Press).

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as The Post-Millennium Blues