Book Review (for a class)


The selections we read in class this week from Learning from the Past address a variety of contemporary educational problems. Gary Nash continues in Reed Ueda’s footsteps of emphasizing the dangers inherent in multicultural education, specifically when it takes the form of “Afrocentrism,” which he criticizes partly because he sees it as black chauvinism and partly because its focus on the grand cultural heritage of blacks does not solve, or even address, the real problems that inner-city black students confront in their daily lives. Diane Ravitch provides a history of attempts to erect “standards” for American education; the context of her article is the political effort in the early 1990s to impose sweeping national standards by the year 2000. David Tyack provides a similar history, in a similar political context, of attempts to “reinvent schooling” by, e.g., using new technologies for instruction, by contracting out education to private corporations, by “emulating management and budgeting techniques in business or government” (p. 193), and by reforming the teaching profession on the basis of an “ideology of competition and hierarchy and a practice of unequal rewards borrowed from other organizations” (p. 194). His history demonstrates that most of these ambitious endeavors have ended in ignominious failure, largely because they ignored the complex institutional realities of American education. Paul Peterson’s article is an intriguing discussion of the dialectic between liberalism and statism that has characterized the history of American schooling, with statism predominant especially before the 1960s (Horace Mann, John Dewey and others promoting ideologies quite compatible with Hegelianism), and liberalism, or a “politics of choice” in the form of magnet schools, alternative schools, and vouchers, making inroads since then. Lastly, Joseph Kett considers the issue of “school leaving,” i.e., dropping out of school, from a historical perspective, describing how educators from 1900 on have responded to the problem.


The best article—best-organized, best-written, and most informative—is probably David Tyack’s. He shows how utopian, uninformed, and, not surprisingly, capitalistic most “break-the-mold” reform attempts in the 20th century have been. Looking at the history of it all, one sees how right Hegel was that what we learn from history is that people never learn from history. Also, one is struck by the truth of Ed Hunt’s remark in class last week that teachers in America are treated with overt or subtle contempt because they are workers, i.e., part of the problem and not the solution, being (supposedly) intrinsically prone to laziness, inertia, a lack of creativity, benighted self-interest, bureaucratic routinism. Like the working class as a whole, they are merely raw material to be shaped at will; and if the resultant shapes do not prove as fine as the artist had hoped, it’s because the clay is not pliable enough. The possibility of the design’s being flawed in its essence is discounted. Innovators have been enamored of models from business and technology, despite the consistent failure of these models. In the early 20th century, Ellwood Cubberley, who thought of schools as “factories in which the raw materials (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (p. 195), proposed that school administrators act more like business managers in order to make schools more efficient and cost-effective. Following in the tracks of this failed idea, “the cult of efficiency in education during the 1960s and 1970s” engendered the technocratic, McNamaran fads of “management by objectives,” “zero-based budgeting,” and other such educational applications of corporate concepts, which usually only increased inefficiency by adding new bureaucracies and new excuses to waste reams of paper.


The myriad attempts since the birth of radio and television to use new technology in the service of learning (and thus, incidentally, make profits for the businesses selling these technologies) have met a fate similar to that of technocratic models, having been rejected by teachers who thought the technologies were of poor quality or didn’t fit the curriculum or were simply not worth the trouble of setting up and maintaining. Most of these outside entrepreneurial innovators have never requested the input of teachers; they have often even advertised their technologies as promising someday the elimination of teachers as necessary ingredients in education—which has hardly endeared them to the people whose jobs were to be lost. Similarly, the many schemes of merit pay and teacher-hierarchy proposed over the decades have not been successful, largely because teachers prefer an egalitarian culture in which they have incentives to share ideas and help each other over a competitive culture that incentivizes selfishness and is in any case irrelevant to the main reward that teachers crave, which is seeing their students grow.


Another strength of Tyack’s article is that he draws concrete lessons from the failures of the past, for example to “enlist and honor teachers as the key people in reforming schooling.” Too often, innovators have shown contempt for educators, which is a peculiar attitude to have on the part of one who wants to improve education. 


I liked Peterson’s article too. Its first half, at least, was intellectually stimulating in that it made surprising connections between institutions and ideas. It seems fruitful to conceptualize American educational history, as he does, in the framework of a tension between liberalism and statism, or Kantianism and Hegelianism. Initially, with Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine and others, it was thought that government should stay out of education as much as possible, except to provide subsidies to parents so that they could educate their children however they wanted. Kant’s liberalism may have inspired these thinkers, since Kant argued that governments “are simply interested in such training as will make their subjects better tools for their own intentions” (p. 221). Education should be freed from the “artificial restraints of church and state.” Later, however, Horace Mann, and especially John Dewey, argued that state education did not necessarily have to be “restricted, constrained, and corrupted” by the interests of the state, since ideally they were synonymous with the interests of society and of the individual.[1] “Following Hegel, Dewey portrayed the school as the transmitter of the knowledge and culture that historical processes had created” (ibid.)—and the state, like society and the individual, had an interest in transmitting such knowledge and culture. He thus discarded the liberal distinction between the three entities (society, state, and individual). He should have known better: writing in the midst of World War I, he ought to have recognized that the state is not always a benign institution.


In the remainder of his article, Peterson argues that the courts, not the educators or policymakers, have effectively been the carriers of the liberal tradition, typically asserting the rights of the individual against the encroachments of state-controlled education. He also has a multifaceted discussion of the ways in which statism and liberalism have influenced and intersected with Republican and Democratic policies and the civil rights movement. The history is complex, but Peterson’s conceptual “binary opposition” proves to be an illuminating prism through which to view it.


All the articles we read, in fact, were quite informative. One of the few weaknesses I can think of is in Gary Nash’s: it seems to me that the position he is arguing against, the danger he is warning us of, does not merit all the attention he gives it. In this respect my criticism echoes the one I made of Reed Ueda’s article: Ueda is overly worried about multiculturalism, while Nash is overly concerned about Afrocentrism. Each points to a number of logical flaws in his opponent’s position, a number of ways in which the “progressive” strategy can theoretically go awry, but the fact remains that multiculturalism in education is probably incapable of leading to the sort of mass divisiveness and extremism the prospect of which Ueda and Nash bemoan. If anything will have this effect, it is economic and social conditions in society as a whole, not the curricula in a few classes at some public schools.


That isn’t to say, however, that education is unimportant. Learning from the Past demonstrates that it is not only of enormous importance but fascinating to study on a scholarly level.




[1] Mann’s arguments, at least implicitly, had much to do with his opposition to “papist superstition” and his desire to inculcate sound Protestant morals. The means to do so, he thought, was free public schooling, state-administered education, which won him the charge that he wanted to “Prussianize” American education. This was in the days before it had become possible to hurl accusations of socialism or communism, a tactic that might have worked better.


© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright