Dr. Carson is Professor of American History at Grove City College,
In the third place, the administrator… will realize that public education is essentially education of the public: directly, through teachers and students in the school; indirectly, through communicating to others his own ideals and standards, inspiring others with the enthusiasm of himself and his staff for the function of intelligence and character in the transformation of society.
-John Dewey, 1937
A new public mind is to be created. How? Only by creating tens of millions of new individual minds and welding them into a new social mind. Old stereotypes must be broken up and new "climates of opinion" formed in the neighborhoods of
… The young should receive careful training in mutual undertakings, in organizational work, and in social’ planning so that they may form the desired habits and dispositions. -George S. Counts, 1952
Nothing is so unlikely as that the established institutions in a society should be used to transform and reconstruct society. After all, the institutions derive their reason for being and support from the existing order, if they are not anachronisms. They exist to perpetuate and serve that order. In a word, they are conservative. Certainly, this has almost always been true of such fundamental institutions as the home, the church, and the school. The home has traditionally been the place where the child has been civilized, has been taught rudimentary manners, has been taught how to get along with others, has been nurtured and trained in manners and morality. This training derives largely from the experience of the parents, what they have been taught, and what understanding they have of the world in which they live. The school has been the place for the teaching of the accumulated knowledge from the past, and the church has been the rock which served to anchor man in the enduring as he tended to adapt himself to the winds of change. These are conservative functions, for by them the experience, heritage, knowledge, and Revelation are passed from one generation to another.
Yet, in this century, a concerted attempt has been made to undermine and/or direct these institutions to the ends of social reconstruction. Religion, as has been shown, was drawn into the stream of social reform by the social gospel. Parents have yielded much of their responsibility for the upbringing of their children to various social agencies, notably the schools. And, whether they have or not, the authority which they formerly wielded has been restricted by new doctrines on child rearing, by the assaults upon custom and tradition, by the loss of confidence in the wisdom embedded in the heritage, and by the wedge that has been driven between the old and the young by the "peer group" orientation and conformity. The parents most affected by these changes probably fall into two categories (with some overlapping): the "best educated"—that is, those who have spent the most years in school—and those who are glad enough to avail themselves of the irresponsibility that is involved.
That some people should revel in their irresponsibility requires no explanation—though why they should be encouraged to do so does. But that those who should be best educated are inept in appropriating and using their heritage is a matter warranting careful consideration. This consideration brings us to the subject of this article: the undermining of education, the transformation of the schools, and the instrumentation of education for melioristic reform.
Perverting the Tradition
There are few possibilities more remote than that the schools should be made into instruments of reform. It required great ingenuity and imagination to bring it off—a concerted effort over an extended period of time by men dedicated to the task. The reason for such difficulties is not far to seek. Schools have for their task the education of children. Education has, at least historically, been concerned with conveying knowledge; or, at any rate, it has been associated with the acquisition of knowledge. Such knowledge consists of the skills, methods, and information which has been learned in times past. To put it another way, knowledge is of what is and what has been. There is no knowledge, in particulars, of what will be in the future, though much may be deduced from a knowledge of the universe and what has happened as to what can and cannot be in the future, but even this is only knowledge of what is and has happened.
But the educational reformers proposed to use schooling as preparation for building a different society for the future. That is, they were futuristic, oriented to what would be rather than to what was and had happened. In short, they proposed to use the schools as breeding grounds for social change rather than for education. Theirs was, and is, a flight from the reality of knowledge upon which education is supposedly based. Insofar as such education is focused upon the future, it is usually an uninhibited exercise of the imagination. Insofar as it is an attempt to implant some ideological version of what the future should be like, it is nothing but propaganda. Insofar as it is concerned with rooting out traditional ideas and beliefs, it is brainwashing. Insofar as schooling has been turned from imbuing with knowledge to social reconstruction, it has been turned from a solid task to sentimental hopes and vague visions of the future. (But, it may be objected, education is to prepare one for living in the future. So it is. It is for the future [or the extended present], but it is of the past and what now is. If there is aught of value to be learned, in school or elsewhere, it has to be of the past and what is.)
Explaining What Happened
There is general agreement that education has been transformed in
This account will focus upon three major developments in education: (1) the undermining of education, (2) the reorientation of schooling and its instrumentation to social reform, and (3) the centralizing of control over education. Attention will be centered on the educational reformers, their aims and accomplishments. It should be clear that this results in only a partial account of what has happened in education. The reformers have quite often been thwarted in their aims by determined classroom teachers, by resisting administrators, and by the tendency of people to continue established methods. Still, the reformers have succeeded, much more than they have been inclined to admit, in transforming the schools.
The main impetus to educational reform and the central tendency of it came from the Progressive Education movement. The chief proponent, and later patron saint, of Progressive Education was John Dewey. As early as 1897 he declared that "education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform."¹ In The School and Society (1899), "the school is cast as a lever of social change, educational theory, becomes political theory, and the educator is inevitably cast into the struggle for social reform."² He was to follow this with many articles and books on education, and the theme of reform is always there, either in the forefront or as assumption. As has been pointed out before, Dewey was a central figure for reform in general. He had come under the influence of a new conception of reality and was an indefatigable worker in trying to bring this world into conformity with it. Dewey would, and did, put the matter otherwise: he had perceived the underlying direction that things were taking and used his energies to try to persuade men to make the appropriate adjustments and changes so that they might stay in the stream of history. He was a monist, a meliorist, an antitraditionalist, a social analyst, an environmentalist (modified), an equalitarian, a democratist, a historicist—in short, a Progressive.
Dewey was under the sway of a new conception of reality. What was real to him was change, society, and psyche. His ideas stem from William James, from G. W. F. Hegel, from Charles Darwin, from Lester Frank Ward, and from the gradualist revision of Marxism. His conception of change had the mystical overtones conferred upon it by Hegelianism, Darwinism, and the reform Darwinists. It was something produced by such "forces" as industrialization; it was not to be denied, but it could be controlled and directed by human ingenuity. What was important to him was society. It was the firm reality in terms of which one acted, wrought changes, and made improvements. He wrote much about the individual, about individual freedom, about the individual child, but the reality within which the individual moved and had his being was always society. The psyche was both the obstacle to reform and the means by which reform was to be brought about.
Dewey was not so much an innovator as a prodigiously productive amplifier. He was in a stream of American reformers—Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Lester Frank Ward, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and so forth—which goes back into the nineteenth century, and which broadened and became more numerous in the twentieth. Moreover, many of these conceived of this social function for education. To Lester Frank Ward, according to one historian, "education was the ‘great panacea’—for political as for all others evils."3
Dewey was by no means alone, even at the beginning, but he was a central figure. He went to
In all he taught some 35,000 students from every state in the
Others spread the word from rostrums in other universities: Boyd Henry Bode at
The Rise of Relativism
Before the New Education, or New Schooling as it should be called, could be installed, however, the old education had to be discredited and displaced. The discrediting of the old has gone on for many years and at many levels. The deepest level of attack was the philosophical, and at this level it was an attack upon the possibility of knowledge. Throughout a long career John Dewey carried on a running attack upon absolutes—that is, upon all claims to truth, to established knowledge, to any fixity in the universe. Dewey was a relativist, as have most of the Progressives been. The following are examples of Dewey’s own avowal of relativity:
Reference to place and time in what has just been said should make it clear that this view of the office of philosophy has no commerce with the notion that the problems of philosophy are "eternal." On the contrary, it holds that such a view is obstructive..
This movement is charged with promotion of "relativism" in a sense in which the latter is identified with lack of standards…. It is true that the movement in question holds since the problems and issues of philosophy are not eternal they should link up with urgencies that impose themselves at times and in places.°
Dewey was, of course, a master of answering criticism by miscontruing the objections to his philosophy. Surely no one was taking him to task for dealing with contemporary issues, or denying that what interests men may change from time to time. The question was rather of whether or not there are enduring principles and laws in terms of which questions may be settled. Dewey did not believe that there are. He affirmed his relativism in what was for him a rare lack of ambiguity in the following words:
In the second place, liberalism is committed to the idea of historic relativity. It knows that the content of the individual and freedom change with time; that this is as true of social change as it is of individual development from infancy to maturity. The positive counterpart of opposition to doctrinal absolutism is experimentalism. The connection between historic relativity and experimental method is intrinsic. Time signifies change. The significance of individuality with respect to social policies alters with change of the conditions in which individuals live.¹º
In short, everything is continually changing. Other Progressives attacked the belief in established truth and proclaimed their relativism. Note the disdain which William H. Kilpatrick had for those who believe in truth:
When people have interests they wish to hold undisturbed, they fall naturally into this older Platonic logic and, as if they had some private access to absolute truth which establishes beyond question the positions they wish to uphold, call all new ideas… subvertive and pervertive. These people in their hearts reject freedom of speech and freedom of study because they themselves already have "the truth" and these freedoms might if followed "subvert" their "truth."¹¹
Boyd Henry Bode asks us:
… to consider the nature of an educational system which centers on the cultivation of intelligence, rather than submission to authority. Such a system recognizes no absolute or final truths, since these always represent authority in one form or another, and since they impose arbitrary limits on social progress and the continuous enrichment of experience.¹²
The Tradition Undermined
The relativism of the Progressives is a crucial point for their educational theories. If there is no truth, it is appropriate to inquire what education is about. Why should children be sent to school? Why should there be a huge educational establishment? The Progressives had answers to these questions which satisfied them, but their answers will be told at the proper place below. The point here is that the relativistic position served as the point of departure for the undermining of traditional education. If there is no truth, the teacher who lectures to his class is indoctrinating or propagandizing them. If nothing is established, the giving and grading of examinations is a spurious undertaking. If there is nothing enduring, the teaching of subject matter is surely a waste of time.
The assault upon education was not usually carried on in so blunt a fashion; had it been, it is doubtful that it would have been as successful as it was. It was conducted on a more piecemeal basis, until many of the traditional courses and methods had been discredited. The traditional schools were charged with being aristocratic, with perpetuating inequalities and being unsuited to the generality. Educational reformers parodied the idea of mental discipline and held their distortion of it up to scorn. Many of the subjects were virtually useless, they claimed; for example, Latin, higher mathematics, and various other "cultural" courses. (At the beginning of the twentieth century, "culture" did not have its present high standing among "democrats.") Drilling in facts was deplored, along with emphasis upon content itself. The teacher who exercised authority was castigated as an autocrat. In short, they tended to undermine the authority of the teacher, discredit the courses of study, deplore the imparting of information, and assail disciplinary techniques.¹3
The traditional was disparaged and conservatives denounced by Progressives. For example, Dewey declared that the "traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity.14 Kilpatrick claimed that there were many conditions hampering the schools from performing their social function. "Most obvious among such hindering conditions stands the common tradition… that the work of the school is properly limited to a few simple and formal school subjects, the assigning of lessons in these, and hearing the pupils recite what had been assigned."
In short, "the traditional school was thus a place where lessons were assigned and recited…. To each question asked there was always one and only one right answer. Subject-matter was, on this theory, the kind of thing that could be assigned and then required under penalty. If the assignment were not recited precisely as required, the pupil could be held responsible…."¹5 Dewey called for the "modification of traditional ideals of culture, traditional subjects of study and traditional methods of teaching and discipline…."¹6
Dewey spoke favorably of reason and intelligence, but the traditional modes for training and sharpening these were largely displaced from the schools. One historian points out that the academies, and presumably many of the other types of high schools as well, used to teach, among other things, political economy, ethics, moral philosophy, mental philosophy, mental science, and logic.¹7 Undoubtedly, there was much that was open to criticism in the older education, as there is with all human undertakings. But Bernard Iddings Bell makes some informative points about it. "Latin and Greek did teach language qua language. There was almost no instruction in English, but young people who learned how to use other languages found themselves surprisingly proficient in the use of their own." Moreover, "the use of symbols and graphs in algebra and geometry and trigonometry and the insistence upon the supremacy of logic in mathematics did make for sound abstract thinking."
He concludes that those "who advocate the new subjects seem to suppose that their critics are vexed merely because they are no longer willing to teach the ancient languages or some other particular course sanctioned by tradition. This is not the real source of criticism. The point is that the older schools taught their students to think and that the newer schools mostly do not."¹8 My larger point, which the above tends to bear out, is that the advocates of Progressive Education were undermining education itself.
This will become clearer by examining what they proposed to substitute for the older education. It should be clear that the Progressives did not believe that there was any body of knowledge to be purveyed in the schools. There was no enduring reality, on their view, to which such a body of knowledge could refer. Nor were they overly enthusiastic about skills and methods, for these, too, would change with changing conditions. Two things might be worthy of study, in the manner in which learning has been conceived traditionally: contemporary conditions and the historical forces and trends at work.
Conditioning the Child for Social Reconstruction
There was a two-fold purpose of education: (1) training the child to adjust to changing conditions, and (2) developing in the student a favorable attitude toward and ways of thought suited to continuous social reconstruction. These two purposes were not separate; rather, they were intertwined. Taken together, virtually all of the recommendations and programs of Progressive Education can be subsumed under them. The programs that are a part of the adjustment motif also fit into a larger pattern.
Education should be child centered, not subject matter centered, they said. They were able to evoke with this slogan a great deal of sentimentality which people have come to lavish upon children. Moreover, the rationale for child centeredness in education had a rather long, if not respected, historical background. It went back to Rousseau, to Froebel, to Pestalozzi, and came down through E. L. Thorndike and John Dewey. Fundamentally, it held that children are naturally good, that each of them has his own little personality which unfolds as he grows up (maturation was the scientistic term applied to this), that if he is allowed to develop freely and spontaneously the natural (and good) product will emerge, and that the teacher should be a kind of midwife in the process. These doctrines, like most others, can probably be traced back to Plato.
Dewey and his disciples subsumed the residues of these ideas into their ideology and turned them to the purpose of socializing the child. Child-centered schooling, in this framework, takes the authority away from the teacher for imposing an order upon the experience and from teaching certain things. It vests the determination of this in the children.
Many methods were devised for doing this: the discussion method in class, in which each child "expresses" himself; the curving of grades, which places the "standard" in the class rather than with the teacher; social promotion, by which a child is kept with those of his same age regardless of achievement.
The Progressives talked much about the individual child, and many have supposed that this was the central concern. Some may have supposed this was the aim, and adopted it as their own, but the child-centered method does not individualize; it socializes. The facts are these: a child is not a fully developed individual; usually, he does not know what he wants; he has only a very limited number of ideas to express; his will is undisciplined; he does not know what to do in most circumstances. In short, he turns to those around him for guidance and for standards. If the teacher, or an adult, does not direct him, he turns, perhaps gladly and sometimes initially, to the other children. John Dewey knew this. He said:
The conclusion is that in what are called the new schools, the primary source of social control resides in the very nature of the work done asa social enterprise in which all individuals have an opportunity to contribute and to which all feel a responsibility. Most children are naturally "sociable." A genuine community life has its ground in this natural sociability.¹9
What Dewey was saying was that the new schools would bring the child under the social control of the group because of the natural "sociability" of children. The teacher need not be excluded entirely from the process, of course. As Dewey said:
… When pupils were a class rather than a social group, the teacher necessarily acted largely from the outside, not as a director of processes of exchange in which all had a share. When education is based upon experience and educative experience is seen to be a social process, the situation changes radically. The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator but takes on that of leader of group activities.²º
A cheer leader, one supposes, by which the uninformed utterances of children are encouraged and rewarded!
The process would be one, ineluctably, of adjustment of the child to the group. More broadly, however, the group would be adjusting to the contemporary situation, or, at any rate, shifting to every wind that blew. Children, so untaught, would have nothing upon which to base their actions but what other children did; all would likely follow the line of least resistance by yielding to whatever pressure was exerted upon them from whatever quarter. They would know nothing but the momentary, would see no farther than the end of their collective nose, would be, in a word, conformers and adjusters.
This would fit them for the larger, and ultimate, purpose of Progressive Education—social reconstruction. Children who have little besides their shared ignorance upon which to base their ideas can be readily drawn into the orbit of social visionaries. They can be, and have been, filled with notions of the goodness of people, of how everybody deserves this or that, of how unjust certain things are, and so on. They would have no clear notion of the limiting character of the universe, of cause and effect, of an order which makes things turn out the way they do. They would have been encouraged to assert their wills ("express" themselves) and have no reason to suppose that the way they (collectively) think that things ought to be would not be the way they could be. In short, they would be admirably fitted out with the pretensions of social reformers.
Changing the Social Order
There can be no valid reason for doubting that the Progressive Education leaders conceived of social reconstruction as the prime function of schooling. This strain runs through their writings from the earliest to the latest. They have differed from time to time as to the bluntness with which they stated it (it reached its apogee in the 1930′s), but it has been a continual refrain. Dewey declared at the outset that "the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true
George S. Counts said, "In the collectivist society now emerging the school should be regarded… as an agency for the abolition of all artificial social distinctions and of organizing the energies of the nation for the promotion of the general welfare…. Throughout the school program the development of the social order rather than the egoistic impulses should be stressed; and the motive of personal aggrandizement should be subordinated to social ends."²³ Harold Rugg maintained that changes that have occurred necessitate "the scrapping of the formal school and setting up of a thoroughly new one." The reason for this is that "the climates of opinion of American communities, those now dictated by the dominant groups that own and control the economic system, must be made over….24
In order to use the schools in this way, the habits and training of teachers had to be changed, for, above all, it was the teachers who could assure this employment of the schools. Harold Rugg described one aspect of the program in this way:
Summing the matter up, then, I see the necessary strategy of the educator in educational and social reconstruction as that of (1) creating intelligent understanding in a large minority of the people, (2) practicing them continually in making group decisions concerning their local and national issues, and (3) having them constantly exert pressure upon legislators and executives.
Goodwin Watson gives these pointers to teachers on how to develop social reform habits:
… When the young student goes to visit the tenements of crowded slum areas, he is working on the first level…. When he joins a housing movement or association…, he begins participation. As he begins to accept committee assignments, he enters the third stage…. When he goes out into a community backward in its housing and succeeds in starting some effective action, his development has reached the stage where he can initiate on his own responsibility…. Activity in aiding unemployed youth, in consumer’s co-operatives, inter-racial good will, world peace, public health, parent education, political parties… will follow a similar course.26
Harold Rugg held that "the teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest…. To the extent that they are permitted to fashion the curriculum and the procedures of the school they will definitely and positively influence the social attitudes, ideals, and behavior of the coming generation." 27
By Force, If Necessary
The character of the social reconstruction which Progressives had in mind should not be left in doubt. Though they may have differed as to the extent to which society should be reconstructed and as to how this should be done, they did not differ in believing that it would involve radical change. John Dewey said, "In order to endure under present conditions, liberalism must become radical in the sense that, instead of using social power to ameliorate the evil consequences of the existing system, it shall use power to change the system."28 An examination of the writings of a goodly number of these men indicates that they favored a direction which is generically known as socialism.
As a matter of fact—and it is a hard and enduring fact—people do not generally want to be made over. They do not want themselves and their society (for a given society is all the people in it) reconstructed according to somebody’s blueprint. Certainly, parents do not want their children used as instruments of such reconstruction nor the schools turned into social reform institutes. Parents, insofar as they give such matters thought, want children to be made into adults for the societyin which they live. The Progressives faced tremendous obstacles all along the way. Parents wanted the old education, at least in substance; school boards resisted their innovations; teachers persisted in teaching as if they had some knowledge to purvey.
Instruments of the State
The schools were, however, an attractive target for social reformers from the outset. Many of them were tax supported by the beginning of the twentieth century, and by then or within a few years all of the states compelled attendance. Early in the twentieth century, David Snedden noted that the schools were "the only educational institutions which society, in its collective and conscious capacity, acting thru the state, is able to control." In these, an education could be introduced which proceeded "from the broadest possible conception of society reconstructing itself."29 But this was easier said than done. Schools were usually locally controlled, frequently locally financed, under the keeping and direction of local boards of trustees. These were resistant to the innovations that the Progressives advanced.
To accomplish the ends which they sought, the schools had to be brought under their power and control. The effort to accomplish this was conducted on many fronts, always under such rubrics as "efficiency," "modernization," and "progress." Subtle attacks upon "reactionary" boards, communities, and parents were carried on. Patriotic groups were defamed." More to the point, control of the schools was shifted away from local control. States began to supplement the income of schools, certify teachers, provide normal schools and schools of education, and to specify courses of study. School districts were consolidated, and school buildings located away from many communities. Courses in "education" were required for teachers in the public schools, which usually brought them under the influence of Progressives. Teachers were given tenure, which tended to remove them from the disciplinary power of local communities. Various and sundry slogans and ideas were promulgated to render the resistance of the patrons of the schools of no effect. If parents object to some book being used in the schools, they are accused of "censorship" and "book burning." If they object to what is being taught, they are accused of violating the "academic freedom" of the teachers. That Progressives were frequently aware of precisely what they were doing should be clear from this statement by John Dewey:
In short, the social significance of academic freedom lies in the fact that without freedom of inquiry and freedom on the part of the teachers and students to explore the forces at work in society and the means by which they may be directed, the habits of intelligent action that are necessary to the orderly development of society cannot be created."
In short, academic freedom is necessary so that the schools may be used for social reconstruction. Another device developed by the educationists for protection of themselves from the "vulgar" is a scientistic jargon.
Methods and Results of Progressivism Summarized
A complete account of how progressivism entered the schools would call attention to the changes in the curriculum, to the submergence of such disciplinary studies as history and geography in something called "social studies," to the introduction of the problem-solving technique (which is an imaginative way to get students to become reformist minded), to the writing of textbooks informed in the new ethos, and so on. But enough has been told to suggest the character of the rest.
The Progressives have not succeeded, of course, in completely undermining education. Many dedicated teachers have persisted in teaching fundamentals, at least in the lower grades. Many administrators and boards of education have limited the extent to which changes were made. Even so, the Progressives succeeded much better than most of them have ever admitted. They have managed to introduce group-consciousness and ideas of adjustment into the very heart of the schooling process. They have convinced many young people that the welfare state is inevitable, that it is democratic to advance social reforms, and that there is little to nothing to be learned from the past. Their effort has resulted in a tendency for the young (in their "peer groups") to be oblivious to adults, for schools to be separated from communities, for children to be ignorant of or contemptuous of their heritage and tradition, and for childhood to be perpetuated beyond its normal years.
Thus have young minds been shaped to strange ends, and thus have Americans proceeded on their flight from reality. To what end? Bernard Iddings Bell summed it up felicitously, if fearfully, some years ago:
When men or nations get tired of dodging fundamental questions in a multitude of distractions, they turn to a search for something else that will, so they suppose, give them the sense of significance which they know they lack…. If they remain adolescent in their approach to life they are frequently tempted to seek meaning for themselves and for their nation in terms of coercive power. They develop a Messianic complex. They seek to live other people’s lives for them, ostensibly for the good of those other people but really in the hope of fulfilling themselves.³²
The next article in this series will discuss the transition
"From Ideology to Mythology—I."
1 Quoted in
2 Ibid., p. 118.
3 Henry S. Commager, The American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 214.
4 Quoted in Cremin, op. cit., p. 99.
5 Quoted in Edward A. Krug, The Shaping of the
6 Ibid., p. 254.
7 See Augustin G. Rudd, Bending the Twig (Chicago: Heritage Foundation, 1957), pp. 235-37.
8 Cremin, op. cit., p. 220.
9 John Dewey, Problems of Men (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 12.
10 Ibid., pp. 136-37.
11 William H. Kilpatrick, ed., The Teacher and Society (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1937), p. 36.
12 Joe Park, Selected
13 For examples of such criticisms, see Krug, op. cit., p