Lawrence Cremin

Having read quite a bit by Diane Ravitch, I always wanted to go back and read more by her mentor, Lawrence Cremin, the so-called “dean” of American educational history writers and the former president of Teachers College, Columbia University.  Last month I got two more new Cremin books and I’ve just finished one, called Traditions of American Education.

cremin - traditions american education - AbeBooks

There are several things I like about Cremin’s approach.

First, he actually defines education.  This is not easy to do; I just spent a whole grad school class getting myself more and more lost in trying to understand whether education is separate from or merely subservient to political science.  Cremin’s definition clearly includes a great deal of thought about this question; it’s wide enough to include more than just schools, but narrower than pure socialization.  The key for Cremin is that it must be “deliberate.” That’s important. 

Education is “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.” He stipulates therefore that education includes self-education; also that behavior, preferences and tastes are involved, not just knowledge or understanding.  But again, he stops short of saying education is anything that happens to influence us.  Surely a car accident may “educate” us as to the dangers of driving too fast, but such an event is surely not considered “education.” It’s not deliberate.

Second, one of Cremin’s main points underlying the whole book is that education comes from a variety of sources, all of which interact with each other.  He points to a number of educative institutions — not just schools, but what he calls “rehabilitative and custodial institutions such as the asylum, the reformatory, and the penitentiary.” He writes often of the educative power of other organizations, like the family, the church, newspapers, and television.  Cremin says, “All were organized as custodial institutions, and all, with the possible exception of the almshouse, professed rehabilitative, or educative, aspirations.” 

I read somewhere that Cremin was criticized for taking the influence of such institutions *too far* into account, and leaving so little of a role for schools.  But I thought it was certainly interesting to think about the variety of institutions we’ve set up in our society to caretake and even to educate.  A prison, after all, is supposed to, at it’s best, rehabilitate, which is to say, to educate in a way.  It’s fascinating to think of the conflicting messages sent to our citizens from different institutions: a jail versus a school, for instance. Both institutions seek to change the behavior of those they caretake.  I’m not really sure what to think of this yet, but Cremin does make you at least stop to consider it.

But the most important element that brought me to Cremin was my desire to learn more about the history of what formed our educational system.  He’s pretty good on this, in this short work which as I understand contains small snapshots that would each grow into their own books based on several American eras.

Cremin, in addressing the origins of our national education (which he sees very much as intertwined with that of England and other European nations), writes about the critical moments directly after the American Revolution, when a series of “self evident truths” came to the fore, and “intertwined with them, there was widespread acknowledgment of the crucial significance of education.” Americans needed an education that would shift them from private to public mindedness.  Of the founders, he writes, “So, being above all practical, they proceeded on two fronts, establishing educational arrangements that would nurture piety, civility and learning in the populace at large and erecting a political system through which the inevitable conflicts of crass self-interest might be resolved.” The idea was to create a “cohesive and independent citizenry” using a variety of deliberately educative tools, and Cremin is not shy about pointing out that laws themselves are educative.

Cremin contends that “an authentic American vernacular in education emerged”: a “popular paideia” aimed at the creation of “a new republican individual of virtuous character, abiding patriotism, and prudent wisdom.” One interesting point Cremin makes here — and this is certainly provocative to read in 2021 — is that the spread of education during this early period moved the country in the direction of more diversity and choice.  Although many groups used education “for the purpose of social control,” still “the multitude of groups doing so, and the greater availability of diverse options that resulted from their efforts, extended the range of choice for individuals.” Indeed, several times in the book, Cremin points out that American education was not liberatory for slaves or native peoples, but he moves past this as a caveat only, arguing that on balance American education was profoundly liberating for many others in unprecedented ways.

The American education also sought to create community for an immensely diverse, constantly-moving population.  Cremin believes this early education was a “Christian paideia that united the symbols of Protestantism, the values of the New Testament, Poor Richard’s Almanack, and the Federalist papers, and the aspirations asserted on the Great Seal.” 

Later, the Progressives, during a time of urbanization, modified the early American ideal of the founding into something more modern and technocratic: “In place of the self-instructed person of virtuous character, abiding patriotism, and prudent wisdom, the Progressives foresaw the responsible and enlightened citizen informed by the detached and selfless expert, the two in a manifold relationship that would . . .  ultimately transform all politics into education.” 

There’s some in here, too, about the church, but not as much as I would like.  One nagging question I’ve had lately is the question of who is “on the other side”: in other words, who and what shaped what Americans often call “traditional” education.  I have read a great deal now about the influence of educational progressives like Rousseau or Dewey, pragmatists and Romantics, social reconstructionists, Marxists, critical theorists, and the like.  But who were the “traditional” thinkers who these others always seemed to be pushing back against.  Essentialists?  Perennialists (or neo-Platonists)?  Something has told me that there’s probably a lot of church influence there, and more than a little Aristotle (forming habits), and also American self-reliance, and maybe Benjamin Franklin’s up-by-your-bootstraps.  I wish there’d been a little more of this in Cremin’s book.

At the very end of the book, in a section in which Cremin describes sources and “problematics,” he makes a really interesting point about the need for educational scholarship to include the diverse educative influences beyond the school.  He writes, “Thurs, a good deal of the traditional work conceives of the school as the sole educator and the student as some kind of tabula rasa, and then goes on to imply that schoolbooks embody the essence of schooling, so that once the content of the schoolbooks has been ascertained the effects of schooling can be deduced.”

I think this is especially interesting to consider for those of us working in education.  On the one hand, I think that too much commentary about education makes this same mistake, assuming that schools are the only influences on education.  On the other hand, it’s an awkward place to be for educators to seem to shift the blame for social ills, to simply throw up their hands and say they have no control — there are just too many influences.  But it does point toward what I believe is a healthy understanding for educators: far from existing in isolation, we have more and less of a burden than we sometimes imagine.  We have less of a burden because we do not educate in isolation, but more because it’s incumbent on us to work together with the other influences that shape education in conjunction.

I also think that it has been fashionable to argue both extremes: first, that the school is the main, if not only, shaping factor in a child’s education and future.  Or opposite to that, and no less trendy at times — that a school has far less influence on a children than the effects of poverty, food-insecurity, or broader social policy.  But more interesting to me now is just the mission that Cremin seems to pursue in Traditions: a understanding of the meaningful ways that this variety of educative institutions shape and are shaped by each other — the subtle and often meaningful ways these players interact.

I also think that simply understanding the history of — as I put it above — “the other side” is important too.  I look forward to learning more it.