Commentary Magazine


American Education, by Lawrence A. Cremin

Schooling in Democracy

American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607-1783.
by Lawrence A. Cremin.
Harper & Row. 688 pp. $15.00.

Whether or not the crisis of our time can properly be called a revolution, most people agree that its nature is cultural. By that term we intend something deeper and more fundamental than a political or economic or even social crisis. Our schools at every level are caught at the center of this storm—who should attend which of them or even any of them, what should be taught, who should teach, and, most of all, who should decide these disturbing questions? We are used to debating the value of traditional versus progressive teaching methods, but now it is the very idea of the school itself, the very purpose of institutions of education, that is called into question. Yet for all our pretensions to getting at fundamentals, one assumption remains unexamined—except by students who in dropping out radically negate it. That is the traditional American assumption that education can and ought to carry the major share of the burden of social betterment, that the coming generation can be taught in school how to lead better lives than we do, how to make their world better than the one we live in now.

This remains the common faith despite the disrepute into which the idea of history as progress has fallen. Movements which claim to be making uncompromisingly radical criticisms of current society affirm their subscription to this common faith by the very nature of the innovations they demand. This is true of demands ranging from the free day-care centers of Women’s Liberation to the student-power slogans of yesterday’s campus radicals to the local-control fights and open college-admissions programs of minority liberation movements. For most of us, adversaries as much as defenders of the culture, education is still the key to the fulfillment of individual and social aspirations, in a world in which every other traditional value except perhaps “love” is under siege.

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A new history of colonial education ought to tell us how Americans have come to hold this curious faith, and Lawrence Cremin ought to have been the right man to write it. Cremin is easily the most accomplished historian of American education working today. His latest book is meant to be the first of a planned three-volume study of 350 years of American education, conceived in broad social and intellectual rather than narrow institutional terms. Cremin’s project has been given the prestigious support of the American Historical Association, the United States Office of Education, and the Carnegie Corporation. The excellence of Cremin’s previous work, notably his study of progressive education, The Transformation of the Schools, leads one to hope that he would take a hard critical look at the standard American assumptions about education, and perhaps make us see that the idea of education as a mode of secular salvation is not one of the eternal verities.

Unhappily, Cremin is himself a believer. Aware as he is of the pietistic bias of his predecessors in the field, who wrote as if the public schools were the prime cause of the virtue and glory of our country, he too sees education as both individual liberation and national salvation. The thrust of his book is toward an optimistic celebration of colonial “schooling in freedom.” Literacy, for him, does nothing but liberate. Colonial primary schools, freed by the wide Atlantic from the social rigidities perpetuated in their English counterparts, the charity schools, were able to teach all comers the useful arts which stimulated colonial productivity, and the political intelligence which ultimately “sparked independence.”

Cremin’s pietism is, to be sure, newly sophisticated in method. As Bernard Bailyn pointed out more than ten years ago in his brief but significant Education in the Forming of American Society, not one of the vast number of histories of American education has had much to say about the role education has played in the general course of American development. Cremin has now brought education out of this artificial isolation into the mainstream, an achievement of great importance. He defines educational institutions in the broadest possible terms: first, families, churches, political units as small as the New England town and as large as the first British Empire; then schools, educational thinkers and practitioners, popularizers, the press. If at times he overreaches—if, as he claims, “all institutions educate,” then what is not educational history?—he has nevertheless succeeded in writing the first non-parochial work in the field.

The breadth of this approach makes it possible for Cremin to incorporate a good deal of the best and the latest work that has been done in Reformation and Enlightenment social and intellectual history, from Phillipe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood, Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, and Michael Walzer’s Revolution of the Saints, to Bernard Bailyn’s studies of the ideology and politics of the American Revolution. Cremin shares these historians’ sense of the revolutionary nature of the early modern period in both Europe and America. One of the best sections of his book is his opening discussion of the humanistic critique of scholasticism made by Erasmus and Thomas More, a critique he persuasively describes as having effected a “momentous shift in English educational thought,” which secularized education by casting “Everyman, for the first time in history, in the role of student,” and also changed its very nature “from an education that confirms status to an education that confers status.” Later, Cremin describes with equal skill and precision how the ideas of such moral and scientific innovators as Locke and Newton were made available by popularizers to a public avid for self-improvement, and soon became part of the general consciousness.

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The trouble is, he then goes on to describe the advancement of learning from Erasmus in 16th-century Europe to 17th-century Puritans and then to Franklin and Jefferson in 18th-century America as if it had moved forward as smoothly and beneficently, and free from costs and losses, as if directed by a divine hand. Most of the colonial populace, it would seem, was led in the colonial schools to desire an affluent, highly literate, democratic society. One gets no sense from Cremin’s study that this secularization of education and its consequent redirection to worldly ends met any resistance, or engendered any new sets of difficulties and new kinds of inequalities. Erasmus, for example, is shown to have stated that the goal of his ideal magistrate, the Christian Prince, should be “not merely to preserve but to extend the prosperity of the state,” and to have known that therefore education would have to be “a device for maintaining public docility and order.” Yet the discussion that ought to follow, of the problem of education as social control, nowhere appears.

Surely this has always been one of the primary and most ambiguous—and in our time, most problematic—functions of popular democratic education. For democracies, there is no automatic resolution of the contradiction between the cultural homogeneity ordinarily required for public order and the libertarian right of those outside the dominant culture to refuse to submit to it. English colonials dealt with divergent ethnic groups by excluding some—blacks and Indians—and, insofar as they were able, coercing others—the Dutch in New York, the Germans in Pennsylvania. That they tolerated the amount of difference they did was more a result of political necessity than of any high-minded appreciation of cultural variety. Cremin does discuss these exclusions as such, but this does not prevent him from saying, “It was no narrow view of education that fired the imagination of the colonists but rather a vision as open as their land and its possibilities.” This is simply too grand and happy a judgment.

Cremin is equally rhapsodic about the devotion of colonial education to economic ends. He praises Franklin for teaching that “life itself would be a continuing education for those enterprising men and women who would make it so. In the very business of living, the greatest profits accrued to those who learned most diligently.” The schools Franklin planned were similarly bent on teaching economic skills. But colonial society cannot be taken, as Cremin tends to take it, as cut from a singleminded production-oriented pattern. That Franklin’s economic utilitarianism might not have been wholly welcome to all his contemporaries is never suggested, though in our time, when technology is accused of being socially counter-productive or even of pressing us toward totalitarianism, an exploration of whatever ambiguities or resistances Franklin aroused in his fellows ought to have been undertaken.

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To claim all Cremin does for colonial education, to make village schools and tiny academies and colleges seem not merely to have served pragmatic needs but also to have inspired productivity and to have fostered a thirst for knowledge and freedom, is to raise expectations which no system of education, however wise and courageous, can ever fulfill. Schools are not independent agents which can, if only they would, bring about national virtue and harmony—and they never were. To give this traditional misconception of their capacities and their mission the backing of elaborate modern scholarship is a disservice both to the schools and to society. If Cremin had defined the role of the schools more modestly, if he had kept in view a sense of what was lost in the secularization of education, he would have served us better.

The point I am proposing here is not limited in its application to the past. The almost religious quality of American faith in education still leads us to expectations that cannot be fulfilled; disappointment leads, in turn, to gross anti-intellectualism and know-nothing hostility to the very idea of education. We are living through just such a reaction, and one way of defending ourselves against it must surely be to make our educational goals realistic, and thereby make them possible to fulfill.

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