Opening the Doors: Introduction

Lessons of a Century, Part One

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Americans in the 20th century have made tremendous efforts to create, in the words of Noah Webster, "a system of education that should embrace every part of the community."

In this issue, Education Week begins a yearlong series chronicling the successes and setbacks in those efforts over the past 100 years. "Lessons of a Century'' will appear in 10 monthly installments in place of the On Assignment section. Stories by staff reporters will examine aspects of the educational landscape--people, trends, historical milestones, enduring controversies--with an emphasis on their continuing relevance as the century draws to a close. Essays by leading scholars and other observers will offer additional perspective.

The first part explores how the United States in this century built on foundations envisioned by Webster and others soon after the American Revolution and laid down during the 1800s. Though most Americans already were receiving some formal schooling before 1900, policy decisions and social and economic forces since then have brought millions more students into the public schools, for longer periods of time and for more varied purposes. But while access has been assured, questions remain about the quality of schooling and the value of a diploma.

Future installments will look at the changing lives of students, the battles for integration, competing philosophies of education, the expansion of the curriculum, and the rise of testing, among other topics.

Lawrence A. Cremin, the late dean of American education historians, once warned school reformers that they should not expect any lasting fame from their efforts, whatever the results. "For reform movements," he wrote, "are notoriously ahistorical in outlook. They look forward, rather than back; and when they do need a history, they frequently prefer the fashioning of ideal ancestors to the acknowledgment of mortals."

The same could be said of America's view of its schools. Nothing of the moment is ever quite enough to match the expectations we invest in these engines of opportunity. And when we need a history--some ideal marker on which to calibrate progress--we prefer the fashioning of golden ages to the acknowledgment of mortal cycles of reform.

It is tempting, in this season of millennial reflection, to declare the whole of 20th-century American education a golden age.

By any measure, the educational achievements of the past 100 years are heroic in scale: universal public schooling; broad-based access to college; vast systems that stretch to every level of government for funding and administering programs; deepening commitment to social justice as a goal; the democratization of a melting-pot culture; and provision of the skills and wherewithal to power an economic miracle, win victory in two world wars, land on the moon, and defeat Communism.

But the story of 20th-century education is not a simple, linear progression to greatness. It is a tale of cycles of reform. A fitful journey of stops and starts through the social, political, and philosophical conundrums of a defining age.

Its triumphs are fueled more often by the frustration of necessity than by grand design. And its contradictions and crosscurrents run as deep as those of democracy itself.

What can this 20th-century journey teach us about ourselves, our past, and our future? That question will provide the subject matter for a yearlong end-of-the-century project that begins this week with the special report on educational access that follows.

Produced by the staff of Education Week with contributions from leading scholars, "Lessons of a Century" will comprise 10 monthly installments examining aspects of the educational landscape of 20th-century America--the people, trends, historical milestones, enduring controversies, political conflicts, world events, and socioeconomic forces that have made this period a time of unparalleled growth and influence for the field.

If the lessons of history reveal themselves in recurring patterns, education in this century provides a veritable textbook of déjà vu.

The century opened with John Dewey's call for a "science of education." It closes with growing influence for educational research and new promise from the cognitive sciences. At the end of the 19th century, the industrial-age needs of an expanding U.S. economy led to a push for greater curricular rigor, new forms of schooling, and systematized ways of measuring school results. The era of standardized testing and vocational education had begun.

As the 20th century ends, the information-age needs of a global economy are spurring a drive for common, rigorous educational standards, national testing, and, yes, new forms of schooling. The era of charter schools and school-to-work has begun.

Even the fin de siècle social dynamics that complicated schooling 100 years ago are eerily re-emerging. Today, as then, educators must deal with historic levels of immigration (18 million immigrants came to these shores between 1890 and 1920; 12 million have come in the 1980s and 1990s).

And then, as now, the dislocations and social fissures caused by population shifts and cultural change were producing a search for political cohesiveness. At the end of the last century, migration from the farms to the factories built up teeming cities, with the urban blight, machine politics, and ethnic strife that came with them. Today's echo of that tumult is in suburban sprawl, "white flight" from decaying cities, the rise of hate groups and divisive politics, and the decline in community life.

What happened between these periods is, quite simply, the coming of age of a nation, with its evolving education system providing the stimulus. These 100 years represent a span of accomplishment so transforming that by its end, the link between education and national progress was firmly established in the public mind. In the words of Marvin Lazerson: "Educational opportunity had become a measure of the aspirations and possibilities of American democracy."

But the ascendancy of education was a double-edged sword. It set up an all-things-to-all-people contradiction at the heart of the emerging national consensus on education's purposes. And this, in turn, has led to enduring tensions that define the role, scope, and nature of movements to change the schools.

Nothing, in fact, so characterizes this educational age as its prevailing metaphor: the swing of the pendulum back and forth between extremes. Wide, cyclical shifts in public mood and professional thinking have left unsettled to this day such fundamental questions about the enterprise of learning as what makes a good curriculum, how teachers should be trained, who best decides the policies and practices of a school, and where the proper balance lies between public needs and private destinies.

The persistence of such questions over time and the seeming inability of any reform cycle to outlast its swing of the pendulum convince scholars such as Seymour B. Sarason that the unwieldy and structurally unconnected system of education built up over the century is incapable of supporting broad institutional change and thus is "unrescuable." The whole system must change--or be bypassed.

Others locate the future in raising the caliber and preparation of teachers, perhaps through a reprise of 1910's influential Flexner Report on medical education, this time aimed at securing the professional standing of teaching.

In the end, as Jerome S. Bruner writes, "Each generation must define afresh the nature, direction, and aims of education to assure such freedom and rationality as can be attained for a future generation." What the generations of this century leave us is a legacy of optimism, activism, and faith in education's capacity to be, as Dewey said, "the fundamental method of social progress."

If the 20th century is, as commentators have proclaimed it, "the American Century," then those qualities surely helped make it so.

PHOTO: Students board a New York City school bus in 1930. This century has seen enormous growth in access to public schooling: More doors opened for more and more Americans, and a high school diploma became a given for the vast majority of young people.

Vol. 18, Issue 17, Page 1

Published in Print: January 27, 1999, as Opening the Doors: Introduction
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