Commentary Magazine


Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980, by David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot

An Educational Tale

Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 1820-1980.
by David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot.
Basic Books. 312 pp. $17.95.

Books whose nominal subject is the history of schooling in America have often been thinly disguised didactics, with less to say about past circumstances than about present-day controversies. This was true eighty years ago when Ellwood Cubberley, newly arrived at Stanford University from the superintendency of San Diego’s schools, was told that he had three years to make the study of education respectable.

Cubberley deployed the past as a weapon in this campaign for respectability. His version of the growth of American public schools, like that of many of his contemporaries, was Whig history, a tale of uninterrupted past successes culminating in a splendid present, the outlines of a still more luminous future visible on the horizon. This Progressive-era recounting was tailor-made for the needs of a society that sought an efficient and well-managed educational enterprise, guided by the tenets of science, to serve the demands of a burgeoning and industrializing economy. Cubberley’s message was plain: the fate of the young rested reassuringly in the hands of competent professionals.

The tone of education history was very different during the 1960’s and 1970’s as revisionist historians read America’s troubled present back into the past. To them, the Vietnam adventure spoke to the perils of patriotism, among other things. Racial and ethnic tensions confirmed the problematic nature of America’s commitment to the needs of the have-nots. The claims of professionals, in schools as in other parts of the society, were scarcely less fraudulent than those of the Wizard of Oz.

These themes soon dominated the revisionists’ portrayals of earlier epochs as well. No longer were schools seen as sources of enlightenment for their students and prosperity for the nation, but instead were assailed as class- and culture-bound institutions. Public schooling, the critique went, induced a jingoist brand of patriotism and a capacity to endure a lifetime of work at alienating jobs, acquired through patient acquiescence in numbing classroom routine. The educational leaders who had assumed such heroic stature in the writings of Cubberley and his contemporaries were scorned as men of small minds and mean ambition, driven to enlarge their power by turning school systems into bureaucratic behemoths.

There have been exceptions, of course, histories more attentive to nuance and complexity, more resistant to easy pieties: Lawrence Cremin’s wide-ranging The Transformation of the School, Bernard Bailyn’s brilliant exploratory essay, Education in the Forming of American Society, Michael Katz’s finely detailed The Irony of Early School Reform, and David Tyack’s earlier study of urban education, The One Best System, among them. Yet writing about the past has too often been turned into an opportunity to flay or celebrate the system of public education, not to understand its development.

Managers of Virtue offers us the past in something closer to its own terms. David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot inquire into the nature of leadership in education, describing the styles and analyzing the aims of those who have headed the schools, from the early 19th-century promoters of the common school to present-day urban superintendents. The matter of leadership is an important one, especially now when the best answer to the question of “Who’s running the schools?” seems sometimes to be “no one,” and when finger-pointing has replaced initiative in many quarters. But these contemporary concerns do not overpower the book. There are lessons here for the most pragmatic school official to absorb, but the historical presentation emphasizes themes that have been the central preoccupation of earlier times.

The merit of Managers of Virtue is that it tells a familiar story from a new perspective. The period of the common-school movement has traditionally been analyzed either as a triumph of educational enlightenment over know-nothingism, or, very differently, as the first step in the growing dominance of middle-class and nationalist interests over the poor and over cultural dissidents. Although Tyack and Hansot do not wholly reject either contention, they convincingly argue that the rhetoric of 19th-century educational reform, predominantly religious in tone and millennial in aspiration, deserves to be taken seriously in its own terms. That language was neither merely the precursor of scientism nor a mask for corporate capitalism, but a mode of discourse which set the tone and primed the passions of a genuine social movement.

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American public schools have been around for so long that one imagines they were always there, as if the little red schoolhouse were as enduring as Plymouth Rock. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, however, schooling looked very different. Private academies and religious schools vigorously sought attention and tax support; urban free schools, with their reputation as the pauper’s preserve, were scorned. Modern historians interested in the experience of industrialized states have described the success of the common-school movement as a victory of bureaucracy over democratic local-ism. This is a useful approach if one aims at comprehending the origins of big-city public school systems. Yet common schools of the 19th century were mostly rural, locally controlled and unbureaucratic places, where the superintendent was also responsible for teaching—and for winding the clocks. They sprang up throughout the country, in the South some years later than elsewhere, because of the remarkable efforts of a band of enthusiasts who successfully applied to education the same talent for moral suasion that made this a nation of churches.

These secular missionaries shared a belief in the divine mission of America and a faith in the capacity of education to lead the nation into the promised land. “Educate the rising generation mentally, morally, physically, just as it should be done, and this nation and the world would reach the millennium within one hundred years,” Senator Henry Blair intoned. Common schools would unite the country by stressing those civic and moral values that distinguished America. “Assure the gradual progress of solid and enlightened education,” one contemporary broadside asserted, “and take no other heed for the morality of the people.”

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Charisma, not big government, gave the movement its impetus. Horace Mann, perhaps the most famous promoter of the common school, had to depend on his powers of persuasion. As Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, he had only modest formal authority and no staff. In 1842 Henry Barnard, Mann’s counterpart in New York, traveled to almost every state in the union to spread the word. Local supporters organized revival meetings. Teachers’ institutes were designed to turn the doyens of the classroom into a moral force inspired by a mission. Popular journals like the Free School Clarion or the Illinois Common School Advocate single-mindedly promoted the cause.

The message was potent. “The free school supported by all the people was carried before the people as the Ark of the Covenant.” Testimony by a participant at a revival-style meeting led by Jabez Lamar Munroe Curry speaks tellingly of his influence:

Curry . . . pleaded with passion and power for the children of the community. I remember how he seized a little child impulsively, and with dramatic instinct placed his hand on his curly head, and pictured to the touched and silent throng the meaning of a little child to human society. It was the first time I had ever heard a man of such power spend himself so passionately in such a cause. . . . It seemed to me, and to all the young men who heard him, that here was a vital thing to work for, here indeed a cause to which a man might nobly attach himself, feeling such that, though he himself might fail, the cause would go marching grandly on.

Millennial pieties were not, of course, the only arguments propounded, for the common-school advocates were also adept politicians who varied their message to suit the inclination of their audience. To those made fearful by swarms of ignorant immigrants, they offered the common school as an instrument of assimilation—even as powerful and unassimilated groups of immigrants, Belgians and Germans who settled in the Midwest, were permitted to run public schools where English was taught only as a foreign language. Conservatives were assured that public schools would stand as a last defense against the disorderly mob. The pocketbook conscious were told that education would bolster the economy by creating a more productive work force, thus proving (to use 20th-century language) a splendid human capital investment. Public education, Horace Mann proclaimed, was at once the “great equalizer” of individual circumstances, the “balance wheel of the social machinery,” and the “creator of wealth undreamed of” for the nation.

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The sense of education’s providential purpose did not vanish with the advent of the Progressive era; it had been mother’s milk to early 20th-century school administrators, most of whom grew up in small-town strait-laced America. Yet the aspirations of these educators were regularly expressed in other terms. Schools would be efficient places—the idea of efficiency being loosely adapted from the factory and the office—and they would promote the “science” of education. If during the 19th century the coin of the educational realm was character, the dominant motif subsequently became expertise. Common-school advocates had been reformers by nature, and education was but one of the causes they promoted. Their successors saw the profession of education as a lifelong calling.

The demands of leadership during the Progressive period were also new. Whereas Mann and his contemporaries had devoted their energies to proselytizing, the mission of the new elite was to establish the authority of their nascent profession. The “educational trust,” as it was called, joined university professors with superintendents of big-city school systems and foundation heads in a common campaign to define good education. That network propounded the new orthodoxy through professional groups and scholarly journals. Promising young administrators were placed in small school districts, their actions watched and their careers nurtured by the godfathers who ran university training programs. From Boston to Boise, school surveys were conducted to standardize the practice of education. The outside experts who ran the surveys measured local practices against a national yardstick. They chided the pinchpenny—the citizens of Greenwich, Connecticut were mortified to discover that the second richest community of America was above average only in the number of vermin found in its schools—while encouraging those who spent more and adopted then-fashionable nostrums.

The leadership believed in itself, describing its mission in a language that was by turns scientific and pietistic. As late as 1952, the school administrators’ yearbook intoned: “It is the superintendent of great heart and courageous spirit, possessed of sound judgment and deep understanding who will carry the profession and the schools forward. . . . His world will be immeasurably enriched by his service and leadership.” Substitute “clergyman” and “church” for “superintendent” and “schools,” and the passage retains its core meaning.

How outmoded, how quaint even, such language sounds today, when educational leaders are more harried than haloed. The decline in the authority of school chiefs during the past quarter century is hardly new, and neither is the mounting disbelief in the claims made for education in a riven society. That may be why the last section of Managers of Virtue has the least to teach us—although the recounting is certainly thorough. The civil-rights movement and the campaigns on behalf of the handicapped, non-English speakers, and women; the emergence of teacher-union militants who challenged the “educational trust” from within; the assertions of authority by Washington bureaucrats and federal judges; the decline in school achievement-test scores and the widely voiced (if demonstrably incorrect) contention that schooling does not matter: all these and more make an appearance, like bit players in a sprawling drama. But the treatment is necessarily cursory in a book of this sweep, the conclusions familiar. What is missing is the purchase that historical perspective allows and that animates the earlier discussions.

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Compared with much current historical writing, Managers of Virtue has a certain old-fashioned quality to it. The text is dotted with carefully honed biographical sketches of figures ordinary and extraordinary, a device that Ellwood Cubberley himself might have used, if for a more transparently hortatory purpose. In its broad scope too the book recalls an earlier time, marking a departure from the specialized monograph, the close study of a single school system. Yet the work is thoroughly contemporary. It borrows from social science in framing the discussion of the movements that promoted common schools as well as the analysis of how elite networks acquired their clout. Unlike earlier paeans, this recounting attends to the dissidents as well as [he upholders of orthodoxy: to the struggle of the “Lady Pilgrims,” as the National Educational Association once described women educators, and to the plight of black and poor children, about which the Progressive experts had little to say. In thus recounting a history that is at once thrilling and deeply flawed, Managers of Virtue rings true.

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