In Our Schools We Trust
Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1988

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by Lawrence A. Cremin Harper & Row; 781 pp; $35

THIS IS the third and final volume of Lawrence Cremin's History of American Education. The project was conceived in the golden days of Lyndon Baines Johnson, when the long, utopian dream of liberal educators that schooling would at last cure the ills of an unjust society seemed about to be realized. It is now concluded in the winter of education's deepest discontent.

In the half century before the hopeful start of the Headstart program, schools and access to them had expanded enormously. Despite the demise of formal Progressive Education in the mid '50s, progressive views had come to dominate American pedagogy, determining what should be taught in schools, how and by whom. Scholars dedicated to such real disciplines as history or chemistry had retreated to their universities, leaving the schools in the hands of educators who often deplored such "subject-matter fields," favoring teachers stuffed with Teachers College courses rather than real knowledge, offering students a smorgasbord of "functional, life-adjustment courses." Parents were thoroughly cowed, half convinced that common sense had no place in evaluating pedagogy.

In this closing volume it was Lawrence Cremin's aim to trace the evolving theory and philosophy of education, as well as its ever-expanding role in America from 1876 to 1980, with scholarly restraint and wide-ranging wisdom. Professor Cremin is a distinguished and innovative educator-historian, as well as former president of the Columbia Teachers College. Education is literally crucial to even the short-term survival of American democracy. One had a right to expect an illuminating and perhaps important work.

Unfortunately, although Cremin's tone is humane and his effort monumental, this book seems lamentable in nearly every way. A key reason is Cremin's impossibly broad definition of his subject. For the book's purposes, he insists, education is nothing less than the "sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, skills, and sensibilities, as well as any learning that results from that effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended."

One sees how good the book might have been if Cremin had confined himself to education as it is generally understood, a process conducted at schools and colleges in fairly measurable terms following specific curricula that can be debated and modified. He writes skillfully about the evolution of educational theory, etching in the Victorian faith in religion and the family -- and above all the mother -- as principal instruments for inculcating values and learning. He describes the shift, around the turn of the century, when the new breed of child psychologists and social "scientists," who mixed evolutionary ideas with Christian hopes for moral improvement, began to distrust the family. The school, they decided, must take over the family's job.

Cremin deals even-handedly with the theories of John Dewey and the Progressive Education Association (founded in 1919) regarding public schooling as a means of creating a great society, and with how the importance of "problem solving" as a learning device gradually led to pervasive "life-adjustment" pedagogy. But he is too busy compiling repetitive catalogues of people and institutions that had a general influence on education to explore these theories in depth. Settlement houses, foster homes, public libraries, popular books by the likes of Dr. Spock, church schools, orphan asylums, Chatauqua lectures, reformatories, almshouses, the 1939 New York World's Fair, the U.S. Army, the CCC, the WPA, newspapers, radio, the movies and, of course, television vie for his attention. There is even the following note: "The Arthur Murray Dancing School in the 1940s taught thousands of men and women to do the rumba and the samba."

Scores of philosophers, educators -- and educatees -- emerge as thumbnail sketches, among them Charles Eliot and Arthur Flegenheimer. As President of Harvard, Eliot first unleashed the elective system on the banks of the Charles and helped create great research universities in America.

Flegenheimer, a Bronx boy with a lot of entrepreneurial skill, eventually turned out to be the gangster Dutch Schultz. Cremin includes him among a handful who profited from the endless variety of educational possibilities in New York City, a place Cremin treats as the prototypical American educational unit for the 20th century. Like other New Yorkers, he writes, Schultz "faced a widening range of vocational choices -- illegal as well as legal -- more than had been true earlier or was true elsewhere."

What the book does communicate is an almost religious faith in the multiplying varieties of educational experience in America. Its author seems happily afflicted with a progressive historian's sweeping, yeasty, upbeat sense of our "ever more" (a favorite Cremin phrase) students, schools offering "ever more" learning choices, and catering to the special life needs of minority groups and the poor. This is a generous vision. Most of us still subscribe to it, because it is heartening and quintessentially American.

But for that end, the means insisted on by educationists have proved not only inadequate, but wrong-headed in destructively utopian ways.

Offering both means and ends in 1988, with very few reservations, in a volume of history whose chronology runs up through 1980, seems a perverse lapse in judgment. 

PROFESSOR Cremin's three volumes have taken 23 years to complete, and in that period something dreadful happened to this particular American dream.

Just when progressive educators seemed closest to getting much of the money and most of the reforms they had long called for, reading skills, writing ability, SAT scores and general knowledge slumped sickeningly.  It was a period when modern elementary school textbooks and teaching techniques had made a multi-million-dollar disaster area out of something as relatively simple as teaching the average child how to read. It was a period when society deprived schools and teachers of the means of disciplining, or even controlling, students who made study impossible for others by bringing knives to class or beating up on their fellows. It was a period when liberals, in a misguided (and unwittingly racist) attempt to help minority students, actually harmed them, and everyone else, by further watering down course requirements and handing out rubber diplomas all around. And it was a period when college students turned their colleges into a shambles, declaring, among other things, that learning is elitist.

There were many causes for these things. Progressive educators all too easily round up the usual suspects, starting with the Vietnam War and moving on to TV and feckless parents. Meanwhile the rest of us understand that, in trying to make education do everything, we have succeeded in making it do almost nothing, and that it might be wise to shorten sail a bit, recollecting that a core curriculum, insisted on and properly taught, can at least provide the essential skills and knowledge without which further education is impossible.

But by blandly ignoring such questions as if they were local and temporary issues soon to be remedied by ever-improving versions of pop education, Lawrence Cremin has produced a peculiar book. Imagine an immense, upbeat history about the philosophy and steadily advancing techniques of military defense, perhaps closing with an approving analysis of the future peace-keeping abilities of the Maginot Line -- but produced 10 years after the fall of France.