History: 'A Lamp To Light the Present'

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New York--Harper & Row Publishers this month will release the last volume in Lawrence A. Cremin's trilogy on the history of American education. With American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980, Mr. Cremin, Frederick A. P. Barnard Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, completes what one reviewer has called "one of the most important projects of our time."

The three-volume history, which took Mr. Cremin 23 years, begins with the Colonial experience and spans the two centuries of American nationhood, concluding with the present day.

Last week, the historian talked with Associate Editor Lynn Olson about his work.

QYour three-volume history poses a very broad definition both of education and of educational institutions, ranging from schools to churches to television. Why?

ASince I think history should be a lamp to light the present, I thought if I pursued a broader interpretation, I could be helpful to people thinking about educational policy today, because they would be able to canvass a broader range of institutions in looking for the solution to educational-policy problems.

QAt one point in the third volume, you refer to education as the "characteristic mode of American reform." Do you view that as positive or negative?

APopularization, proliferation, and politicization. Each is a leading characteristic of American education. Since I used politicization in the Aristotelian sense of education being responsive to social needs and social aspirations, I see these as strengths.

But I see each one having an obverse of problems. The strength of politicization is that the schools have been responsive to the public. The public has seen education as a way of achieving certain social goals. Education has been very much intertwined with the most fundamental American aspirations. I use the Greek word "paideia" to talk about that.

On the other hand, there is sometimes an unrealism to what Americans think they can accomplish through their schools. Hannah Arendt, the late philosopher, wrote an article in the 1950's in the Partisan Review in which she said: Isn't it interesting that Americans in seeking to desegregate their society begin with the schools and lay the burden on children, instead of beginning with housing and other institutions, as another society might?

There are intimations of that in the people today who think that, somehow, if we redraw the curricu4lum of the secondary school, we'll suddenly become economically competitive in the world, without recognizing that it has everything to do with government economic policy, the Federal Reserve, etc.

And when schools are responsive, sometimes they're too vulnerable and too responsive. American schools over the years have been vulnerable to people who want to use the schools for very partisan purposes, either by excluding certain things from the schools or by turning the schools into vehicles to push this or that or the other political cause.

QPeople have talked about trying to "de-politicize" the schools. Is that possible?

AOne of the great strengths of American school governance is the continuing relationship and tension between the professionals and the lay people.

I don't think we can ever take the schools out of politics in the United States, nor do I think we should take them out of politics. But we should be aware that certain kinds of political arrangements are healthier for the schools than others. I would lament a political arrangement which subjected schools to the pull-and-haul of ordinary partisan politics. Nevertheless, I would never want to take them wholly out of the governance of lay people.

QIn the book, you highlight the progressive movement as the point when the politicization of schools took off, based on the notion that schools could, in fact, be the vehicle for social change. Why do you emphasize the progressive movement, and what do you see as its lasting effects?

AI portrayed the progressive movement in The Transformation of the School [published in 1961]. Then I came back to the progressive movement in this book. But I came back to it in ways that were different in two respects.

First, here I was looking not only at schooling, but also at child-saving agencies, at day care, at the recreation movement--all of which boomed during the progressive movement.

Second, as you know, there's been a tremendous amount of historical writing on the progressive movement from various perspectives. It's been a very conflicted historiography in the past 25 or 30 years.

What becomes clear is that as the U.S. became a "metropolitan society," reformers of various persuasions seized upon the school as a vehicle to reform the society. In a sense, Americans moved the school--and education--front and center in the management of their society. Knowledge became more important. Training for vocations and the professions became more8important. Training for civic responsibility became more important.

In social, in economic, and in political ways, people seized upon the school and said, "We need education to achieve certain purposes of the society."

But as Aristotle said, when people seize upon education, they will use it to try to achieve the "good life." But people disagree on what the good life is, and therefore they disagreed on how the school would function in achieving the good life.

If you ask, what's the difference between the way I saw the progressive-education movement in the 1960's and the way I see it today, I think we were bequeathed a much more conflicted and divided heritage by the progressive movement than I was aware of in 1961, and than we are aware of now.

I talk in the book about these various conflicts, in which the National Education Association says, "We're going to professionalize teaching, and we see that as progressive." And the American Federation of Teachers says, "We're going to unionize teachers, and we see that as progressive." And the businessmen say, "We're going to build vocational schools and help children to become better-skilled to work in factories, and we see that as progressive." And the Chicago Civic Federation says, 'No Way. We're going to have comprehensive high schools, because that's progressive."

And the fact is, all of those people saw themselves as progressive and at least some others saw them as progressive.

Unless we understand that, we don't understand what motivates us today as a people to write reports that say, "If we do this to the 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, we're going to get ahead of the Japanese." It's a very characteristic mode of educational rhetoric.

QOne of the intellectual skirmishes that you describe is the battle between the "fundamentalists" and the "modernists" during the 1920's. Do you see those same debates recurring today?

AOne of the reasons I gave so much attention to our religious traditions as they bear on education in all three volumes is I simply don't think we understand present-day America without understanding the deep commitments that religious groups have made to education.

People were surprised in the 1970's and 80's, with the rise of Jimmy Carter, with the rise of the various evangelical sects, Jerry Falwell, and others. Where did this come from?

There had been a certain outcome to the Scopes trial in Dayton in 1925. The fundamentalists went out of the headlines, but they didn't go out of business. They had constructel10led a very effective complex of educative institutions, which taught their values and their way of life all through the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. They were not off-beat and marginal. They were right at the heart of things.

A place like the Moody Bible Institute is not as well-known in intellectual circles as the University of Chicago, but it's a very powerful institution that has had a very powerful effect within the United States and abroad. And there are dozens of these institutions. They survived the Depression very well. They've grown up. Many of them have become accredited.

The fundamentalists were among the pioneers in the use of radio for education, in the use of mass publishing for education, in the use of Sunday schools, youth groups, and other institutions for education. Indeed, they understood the power of these constellations--these configurations of institutions--much better than some of the secularist intellectuals, who really thought that the school alone could change the social order.

The evangelicals of the 1970's and 80's have transformed many of the fundamentalist views to say participation in politics is a good thing, and we need to evangelize the social order to make it a good social order. Mr. Robertson's candidacy is testimony to this at the present time.

QDo you see any signs that a consensus is developing around the role of the school in moral education?

AThe schools have a very important role in moral instruction. But the schools--which in the 19th and early 20th century put themselves forward as neutral, but tended to teach a kind of undenominational Protestantism--are now having to come to terms with a vigorously pluralist society.

There will always be some people who refuse to make an accommodation, and think any accommodation you arrive at is itself a new religion. These are implacable people. But I think there is a sufficient understanding in the United States today about the need to have a vigorous pluralism, and at the same time, the need to have enough commonality to live together peacefully and productively that people of many faiths and persuasions are participating in the effort to redefine this.

Characteristically, we're using our battles over the schools to attempt this redefinition, and I think it's now going forward. As is usually the case in these school redefinitions, the Supreme Court is involved, the legislatures are involved, all kinds of pressure groups are involved.

On the one hand, I don't think it's going to be defined by some kind of common curriculum that every child, no matter who, has to study. On the other hand, laypeople and professionals alike have to work constantly at the relation between the one and the many, the common and the plural, in the school curriculum, in the school value pattern, in the relation between the school and television, the school and families, and so on.

There's a point of view which says the school, particularly the public school, has to be totally reflective of the families around it, and they should have control. Well, up to a point, there's merit in that position.

On the other hand, a free society owes it to its children to have the schools, at a certain point, begin to make the children aware of points of view, to make the children aware of knowledge, to make the children aware of phenomena and experiences that they will not get in their families or in their neighborhoods.

QThe way television does?

ATelevision today gives the society many of its common points of reference--its saints, its icons, and so on--in the way the publications of the American Tract Society and the McGuffey Readers did 100 years ago.

But I'm not prepared to leave it to television, particularly bottom-line television run by commercial enterprises, to define the values of the American people. On the other hand, we have to be aware that television is there. I might say, parenthetically, I don't think any of the recent reports on education have been sufficiently aware of what the American people could do with public television that they haven't done, as a device for public education.

We once saw radio and television as a very important public domain, but in the recent move to privatization, we've given up that crucial sense that television and radio belong to the people.

I think one of the most important things public television could do is to educate the public about how television leads you to do certain things, how the grammar and rhetoric of film and filming technique is a grammar and rhetoric of its own that is subject to certain critical standards.

QWhat has happened to John Dewey's notion of the educated community? Do you believe his vision was realistic?

AJohn Dewey is the greatest philosopher we've produced in the 20th century. By great philosopher, I mean he set problems, he showed us ways of thinking about things that were extremely important.

I believe we are going to have a revival of interest in Dewey, and one of the reasons that I produced the third volume as I did was to hope to have a part in pointing to the relevance of his thought. It's not that we have to go back and take his works as a kind of bible to follow, but his works are a point of departure from which to think about education.

Dewey gave the American people a noble vision of what education might be and do. One of the reasons he was so appealing--he, himself, was aware of this and said it again and again--is he thought he was able to articulate what he heard the American people saying, very much the way Walt Whitman thought he could articulate what he heard his country people saying.

His noble vision was that education had to be concerned with individual human beings, and it had to do its best to help them "become all they could be," to quote the Army recruiting posters, as worthy human beings. He thought any effort to talk only about citizens, or producers, or parents was insufficient as a goal.

It's one of the insufficiencies I've seen in some of the recent reports. Any education that's designed solely or principally to make us competitive in the world is an insufficient education for American children. The only education worthy of our kind of society and of American children is to try to make them the most rational, the most intelligent, the most deeply believing people, with the finest vision of what they might be and what society might be, that we can help make them.

Dewey believed that if the schools helped produce that kind of young man and young woman, that would be, in his words, "the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society that is worthy, lovely, and harmonious." Now, that's a noble vision.

QDo you think that his notion that schools have the power to change the social order is true today?

AIn 1975, I argued in Public Education that Dewey placed his bets on the school and that we have to place our bets on a panoply of educative agencies, intelligent about what each can do.

Dewey's notion of how education would change society is that the school would produce good people who were effective in participating in a democratic community and committed to the idea of service rather than rapacious greed.

When we make [people] effective participants in the society, commit them to the idea of service, Dewey thought that would be enough to guarantee that the schools would be engines of good reform. His view was a view of a democratic, socialist, participatory society--not Socialist with a capital S. He was aware that other people had other views. But he wanted people to debate these views. And that gets education inevitably involved in politics.

He said the only way to rebuild the public is to rebuild the great community. How do you do that? Through guided conversation, through debate, and so on. Is it visionary [or utopian]? I don't think so. Chesterton once said of Christianity, it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it's never been tried at all. Dewey's vision of what the American community might be has not been tried and found wanting, it's never been tried at all. And it's a very promising vision of what might be.

QDo you think that schools have lost the ability to focus on the individual, as Dewey would have them do, by becoming increasingly systematized to deal with ever-growing masses?

ASome schools have, some schools haven't. I have spent a lot of time in a lot of schools over my 40 years in the profession. I have seen a great deal of superb teaching. There is a lot of room in any school system for a charismatic teacher, who cares deeply, to do his or her work extremely well. What we know less well is how to empower, enable, and facilitate the average teacher in doing his or her job exceedingly well.

With systematization, as you know, came bureaucracy, came formal curricula. Bureaucracy can do two things. It can stifle and it can ensure that people get a fair shake.

The schools have always been able to do extraordinary things for some youngsters. The effort we've been making over the past 20 or 30 years--and one that we need to redouble today--is to have the schools do as well for this most recent group, the 20 or 30 percent that you include when you move toward truly universal secondary education.

What doing well by that group involves is a much greater range of pedagogical knowledge, which I sub8mit we do not have: The ability to teach mathematics, to teach language, to teach history, to teach the sciences to youngsters who haven't had the stoking up in these fields at home, to youngsters who are uninterested; the ability to meet the styles and the interests of the enormous variety of recent immigrants, poor children, well-to-do children who are alienated, and hold them in the schools--not merely hold them by locking them in the schools, but engaging them. We don't have that pedagogy.

What we frequently do is, instead of saying, "Well, you need a very different way of getting at fractions, and mathematics, and what mathematics is as a language for these youngsters," we say, "Well, they really shouldn't be having mathematics. Let's give them shop." That is to rob them blind.

QYou discuss in the book researcher Larry Cuban's study, in which he found that teaching methods have remained remarkably stable over time. Some people argue that the only way to change teaching would be to tear apart and reconstruct the entire system. Is that what is needed?

AThat is totally utopian. That's lingo. Nobody tears apart and reconstructs an entire school system.

Cuban is a pessimist about school change. Cuban really believes that a school is a school is a school, and that by and large that's what schools are like around the world. John Goodlad had much the same findings in A Place Called School, but was more optimistic about the ability to change it. I am as optimistic as Goodlad, and I believe on review of the evidence that schools have changed more than Cuban says they've changed.

As I indicate in my chapter on the schools, I think they've changed fundamentally. Discipline has changed. The feeling in the classroom has changed. The instructional materials have changed. The ways of teaching have changed. American schools are more comfortable places to be. They are happier places to be. And that's a good thing.

It's not good when those things go with an unnecessary "dumbing down" of textbooks and this kind of contract where the teacher says, "I won't bother you too much if you don't bother me too much."

We haven't put nearly enough good ideas, good techniques, good potential, skillful teaching devices in the hands of the average teacher. We need to do much more.

QWriting of the family's role in education, you describe Joseph Lee's contention that if all the elements of familial education were reallocated and well performed, but the family was weakened, civilization would not survive. Has the family turned over much of its educative function to other groups, and, if so, can that role be revived?

AI agree with Mary Jo Bane's title, The Family Is Here To Stay. But it's changed, very fundamentally. It's changed not only in its composition but in the allocation of time and who does what. Who diapers the children and who spends time with the children and how much time is spent with the children and so on. Lee was living through a revolutionary change in the family, and that change has gone much further.

We know a great deal about the kinds of things that might be done in the family which set children on the road to learning, which help them in school, and so on.

I don't know a parent in the world--including a frightened teen-age parent who doesn't know what to do with her life--who wouldn't like to have that knowledge for his or her child. This society doesn't make it easily available.

We have done less than most industrial societies in the world to provide that family with the social supports we might provide as a society that would help that family do as well as it might by its children, whether it be a teen-ager who has children or a single-parent family headed by a father or a mother, or a two-parent family with dual careers. We're just backward with this stuff.

QYou also suggest that schools have failed in their willingness to accommodate to the families and problems of low-income blacks and Hispanics.

AI don't think the schools have done as well as they might by a long shot for these children. But let me add that frequently the school in a poor neighborhood--be it black, Hispanic, Asian--is the one remaining institution that cares at all about anybody. Many of these schools and these teachers are heroic in how much they care. But we as a society haven't done well enough.

We frequently haven't given those teachers the knowledge, the public support, and the other institutional supports that the school needs. It can't do the job all alone, unless it becomes a public-welfare agency, unless it gets the children much earlier, unless there's been day care.

By the time some of these children are 3 or 4 or 5 and come into the schools, their nutritional problems, their problems of simply relating to the world have already become so severe because of the failure of family supports of one kind or another that we ask the school to take on a very difficult problem.

One of the reasons that I included that lengthy chapter on child-saving institutions was to make readers aware of what a remarkable tradition we have in that domain, but also of the extent, for example, to which day care has never been there for the children. It's always been there as an instrumental, ancillary thing for something else.

In the New Deal, when we had preschools, we had it to put out-of-work teachers to work. During World War II when we had the Lanham Act, it was so women could go to work in the factories. We abolished all of that in 1945 because we thought the women would go home and be housewives again, but they didn't. And we really haven't done anything as a society since to take account of that.

QYou write of America's popularized "culture." But you also allude to the problems of access to and use of knowledge. Do they remain to be confronted?

AWe need to be aware, when we think of the problem ofequality and equity, that not only do deprivations in the early years before schooling begin to effect what happens in school, but that it's a continuing ripple effect, so that schooling will frequently set the pattern of how much a person will use the available resources like the library, the museum, and so on.

And that implies two things. One, that we must be aware that the deprivation mounts geometrically through a person's life. Therefore, what happens early is crucial. This society has given most of its time in the past seven or eight years to what happens in the secondary school. It gave some attention to what happens in the early years in the 60's, but there's a great unfinished agenda.

The second thing is the school itself frequently is remiss in not introducing children sufficiently to these other institutions where they can learn.

Schools frequently see themselves as self-sufficient. They're insulated. But the fact is there's been a tremendous development of museums of all kinds, and there's also been a tremendous development of transportation in the United States, and yet youngsters don't go outside the school to have complements and supplements to their education that could make their education more real and more vivid, and that could make them users of these facilities later on.

[P]articularly in the kind of learning society we've developed, one of the most important things a school can do is equip the youngster to educate himself or herself.

QPeople often complain that educators, in particular, lack an historical perspective--that they revisit the same issues with no notion of having been there before. What lessons would you hope educators take away from your trilogy?

AI would hope they would take away a sense of the centrality of education in our society over a long period of time; a sense of the variety of opportunity; and a sense of the extraordinary complexity of education--that you don't just doctor it all of a sudden and write a report one year, and then the next year the nation responds, and the next year the governors respond, and Bill Bennett's writing letters out now so we can have the four-year response. I mean, that's P.R. It's not real.

In 1968, when Columbia was in turmoil and the city was in turmoil, I was writing the first volume. And my students would figuratively and rhetorically grab me by the lapel and say, "Harlem is burning down, and you're writing this goddamn book."

But the fact is that I consider my historical writing very much activism, because I believe if I can provide this perspective--that combines a sense of the breadth, the complexity, the centrality of [education] in our experience, and the brilliance of some of these people whose work I've explicated--that it would reinvigorate the debate over education, and broaden it from what I think has been the very narrow agenda of the last five or six years.

I think we've been given an impoverished agenda, focused solely on economic concerns, solely on academic matters, solely on one part of the education system. That's not to say those concerns are trivial, but it's to say it's a narrow debate, when we need a broad and encompassing debate on education.

American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980 will be available by the end of the month. Its cover price is $35.

Vol. 07, Issue 25

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