Books: The Ideal of Popular Education

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The "genius" of American schooling, according to the education historian Lawrence A. Cremin, is that it "provides a place for everybody who wishes one, and in the end yields one of the most educated populations in the world."

In the following excerpts from Popular Education and Its Discontents, Mr. Cremin cites the system's achievements and outlines what he sees as the major challenges it faces in the future:

Popular education ... is as radical an ideal as Americans have embraced. It is by its very nature fraught with difficulty, and the institutions we have established to achieve it are undeniably flawed.

Yet it is important to be aware of what has been accomplished in the movement toward popular education and of the possibilities for the future.

I believe that the predicament of American schooling during the early 1980's was not nearly so dire as the report of the National Commission [on Excellence in Education] suggested. ...

If there is a crisis in American schooling, it is not the crisis of putative mediocrity and decline charged by the recent reports, but rather the crisis inherent in balancing this tremendous variety of demands Americans have made on their schools and colleges--of crafting curricula that take account of the needs of a modern society at the same time that they make provisions for the extraordinary diversity of America's young people; of designing institutions where well-prepared teachers can teach under supportive conditions, and where all students can be motivated and assisted to develop their talents to the fullest; and of providing the necessary resources for creating and sustaining such institutions.

These tough problems may not make it into the headlines or onto television, and there is no quick fix that will solve them; but in the end they constitute the real and abiding crisis of popular schooling in the United States.

In thinking about the search for solutions, it is well to bear in mind that there remain some 15,000 school districts in the United States that sponsor about 59,000 elementary schools and 24,000 secondary schools, and that there are also almost 21,000 private elementary schools and 8,000 private secondary schools. ...

Given this multitude of institutions organized into 50 state systems--some highly centralized, some loosely decentralized--programs of education will differ, and local as well as cosmopolitan influences will prevail.

For all the centralizing tendencies in American schooling--from federal mandates to regional-accrediting-association guidelines to standardized tests and textbooks--the experience students have in one school will differ from the experience they have in another, whatever the formal curriculum indicates might be going on; and the standards by which we judge those experiences will derive from local realities, clienteles, faculties, and aspirations as well as from cosmopolitan knowledge, norms, and expectations.

The good school, as [the researcher] Sara Lightfoot has argued, is good in its context.

Harper & Row, Publishers, 10 East 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10022; 134 pp., $17.95 cloth.

In History of the School Curriculum, Daniel Tanner, professor and director of graduate programs in curriculum theory at Rutgers University, and Laurel Tanner, professor of education at the University of Houston, study influences on curriculum development and trace curricular-reform movements in American schools from the 18th century to the present.

In the following excerpts, the authors explore the importance for education of an understanding of history:

If the main currents and conflicting currents that shaped and continue to shape the curriculum are accurately identified and evaluated, the result is more than a better understanding of our history. By revealing the consequences of past ideas and events for the present, history can provide us with both perspective and direction. ...

History should provide us with a sense of identity and collective conscience. Not only does history show the connectedness of events in the stream of time, but it also shows the force of great ideas.

The American Revolution had an educational significance as well as a political significance. The idea of equality of opportunity has led to increasingly greater access to the curriculum for groups in our society that were previously excluded.

Yet if we accept the principle merely in its negative sense (to protect children from denial of opportunity in the form of ability grouping or tracking, for example), we may forget that one of the purposes of equal access to knowledge is to become a community of shared interests.

Another purpose of equal access to knowledge is to help children and youth think and behave as responsible self-governing citizens. This was the underlying reason that our forebears--Jefferson for instance, who was one of our first curriculum theorists--were so passionately committed to the idea of popular education.

They understood that the working of the ideal of American democracy depended on making the idea of popular education a reality. Our highest and widest social ideals are intimately connected to our educational ideals. And these all come down to earth in the school through that experience we call the curriculum.

Macmillan Publishing Company, 866 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; 399 pp., $34.95 cloth.

Vol. 09, Issue 23

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