School & Society

Traditions of American Education.
by Lawrence A. Cremin.
Basic Books. 172 pp. $8.95.

One might suppose the history of American education to be a quiet scholarly backwater, dominated by academics far removed from the intellectual battles that rage both in other branches of history and in contemporary studies of educational policy, and one would not be entirely wrong. Much that passes for educational history is indeed pedestrian and uninteresting. But it would be a pity to look no further, for the subject also offers a rich assortment of controversies, a fine vantage point from which to glimpse the evolution of American society and its present discontents, a raft of information about an intrinsically important set of institutions, and a handful of distinguished scholars to help guide one through its byways. Of these scholars, none is more distinguished than Lawrence A. Cremin, the president of Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The only obstacle to calling Cremin the “dean” of American educational historians is that two major schools of educational history have grown up in the past fifteen years, and the dean of one would not be acceptable to the members of the other. Both began as modern reactions to earlier scholarship in the field, particularly the work of Ellwood P. Cubberly and his contemporaries, who celebrated the public school as the apotheosis of American education, indeed of the American experience, and whose writings tended both to isolate the development of formal schooling from other educational forces and to remove education from its social, political, and intellectual context.

If we now regard these early toilers as unimaginative, short-sighted, and insufficiently critical of the institutions whose tale they told in extravagant detail, it is largely because the mainstream of educational historiography today flows from the work of Cremin and his colleagues in what might be termed the first revisionist school. The three lectures that comprise the body of Traditions of American Education offer a solid introduction to the ideas of these historians and to the learned catholicity of their scholarship at its best. Their accomplishment is the reconceptualization of educational history, one which regards the public school as a single thread in an intricate web of forces and institutions—formal and informal, public and private—and the story of education itself as inseparable from the larger drama of men, events, ideas, and social organizations.

Cremin chooses to define education as “the deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, attitudes, values, skills, or sensibilities, as well as any outcomes of that effort.” To him, the family, the church, the printing press, and the factory are joined in the “configuration” of “educative” forces. Not surprisingly, education emerges from his analysis as both agent and reagent, as a set of influences on other historical developments as well as one of their principal products.

Given the scope of Cremin’s endeavor and the brevity of this volume, it is not surprising that his brushstrokes are broad. He devotes about forty pages to each of three large periods that collectively span the American experience from 1607 to the Bicentennial. Cremin does not shrink from sweeping conclusions, but, in the manner of Oscar Handlin, he also displays a gift for the evocative example, peppering his account with excerpts from diaries, autobiographies, and secondary works, and with enough data to sustain his judgments.



Are there identifiable “traditions” in American education? In order fully to comprehend Cremin’s response one must reckon with the second revisionist school and with the message of those scholars who would not recognize him as their dean, indeed whose work is in no small part a reaction to his own and whose assumptions and conclusions he seeks to refute in this volume. That second school consists of radical historians and social scientists like Walter Feinberg, Colin Greer, Michael Katz, Joel H. Spring, Herbert Gintis, and Samuel Bowles. Their combined oeuvre is characterized, in Diane Ravitch’s words, by “their thorough rejection of liberal values and liberal society and their shared belief that schools were consciously designed as undemocratic instruments of manipulation and social control.”1 Their marked unease with the teachings of Cremin, Bernard Bailyn, and other members of the first school is at least as much political as intellectual in its origins. Because the radicals start from the premise that American society is gravely flawed, because they disdain liberal efforts at social reform, and because they tend to view every social institution as part of a generalized conspiracy to perpetuate inequality and exploitation, it follows that they regard formal education as yet another instrument of repression, a means of keeping people ill-informed and docile, a tool for socializing the young into unrevolutionary (if highly skilled) servitude. They share the first school’s insistence that education be viewed in context, but they despise the context.

Through most of Traditions of American Education, Cremin ignores the radical revisionists, preferring instead simply to tell the story his own way. In the final pages, however, he spells out his assumptions clearly:

Contrary to the drift of a good deal of scholarly opinion during the past ten years, I happen to believe that on balance the American education system has contributed significantly to the advancement of liberty, equality, and fraternity, in that complementarity and tension that mark the relations among them in a free society.

Fully aware that the evidence is mixed, and conscious that educational institutions, being human, “have been guilty of their full share of evil, venality, and failure,” he nonetheless judges that

the aspirations of American education have been more noble than base, and that its performance over the past two centuries has been more liberating of a greater diversity of human energies and potentialities than has been the case in most other eras and in most other places.

One is not surprised to discover that a man who has found education to be a flexible, responsive, and generally positive force in American life for nearly four centuries holds to an optimistic view of its potential for the future. Unlike many others who have spent their careers in institutions devoted to the training of schoolteachers and administrators, however, Cremin does not dwell on the promise of the public schools. Although he continues to feel that the school-based compensatory programs of the 1960’s “demonstrated that a massive increment in public funds could provide more knowledge, more committed personnel, and more resources in sufficient quantities to begin to make a discernible difference in the direction of progressive aspirations,” and although he is still bitter that “the effort was halted too soon and for all the wrong reasons,” he locates the frontier of educational policy not in the traditional classroom but rather in our handling of early childhood education, in the broadcast media, in the experience of work, and in the uses of leisure time. That is not an especially original insight; many educational policy-makers and analysts have been saying much the same thing for years. What is special about Cremin is that it flows so naturally from his magisterial account of education’s enduring capacity for social adaptation.

1 “The Revisionists Revised: Studies in the Historiography of American Education,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Education, Vol. 4, 1977, pp. 1-84. See also my review of Gintis and Bowles, Schooling in Capitalist America, COMMENTARY, June 1976.

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