Cremin II: Public Education and the Education of the Public (1976)

Yesterday I blogged about finishing Lawrence Cremin’s 1976 book, Traditions of American Education.  Today I happened to pick up his other book from the same year, simply called Public Education.  First of all, a short side note: I love bland, overly broad titles like this.  The other day I was reviewing one of my advisee’s grades with her when we noticed that her geometry class has only one main academic “standard” simply called “Geometry.” That’d be like if I started off my 12th grade classes with a unit just called “English.” I could just say: “Look, I don’t want to restrict what we’re going to learn.” 

Public Education (The John Dewey Society Lecture) by Cremin Lawrence A.  (1976-04-01) Hardcover: Books

Anyway, I’d actually begun this book first, but had put it down and, frankly, just sort of lost it in the swirling chaos that is the living room of every family with a toddler on the loose.  My son is now tall enough that he can just reach up onto counters and tables and select what he wants: box of cookies, steak knife, major credit cards.  It sort of like living with one of those Great Danes who can just walk over and eat off the table (except with less self control, in my son’s case).  So this book had ended up buried in no-man’s land behind the couch and it wasn’t until today that I found it again.  I’m glad I did.

This book is actually better than Traditions.  Like I said, I’d actually started reading it a few weeks, but what I realized today is that book really hits its stride with a chapter called “Public Education and the Education of the Public.” It’s worth me at least getting my thoughts down about this interesting part of the book.  As I mentioned in the last post, Cremin was perhaps the most influential and respected ed historian of the last century, and from I can tell, this chapter is Cremin at his best.  It’s important to understand him, I think.

Many of the themes in this chapter were familiar to me, both from the two previous books of Cremin’s that I’d read, but also from the work of John Dewey, who Cremin explicitly cites as a major influence.  Cremin frames the chapter by establishing that if educational policy decisions are to be made by looking through the lens of what he’s just defined as an “ecological view of education” (defined largely as I described in my last post, as a theory of the interrelatedness of the variety of educative institutions in a society), policy makers and stakeholders must consider education in three ways: comprehensively, relationally, and publicly.

Comprehensively:  Cremin’s main point here is, again, similar to what I discussed in the previous post, but it’s more artfully expressed in this book.  First he writes of how, when schools are effective, it is because they have “functioned as part of a configuration of education that has usually included families, churches, and Sunday schools, all committed to similar or complimentary values.” On the other hand, when schools have not functioned as well, it is often because “the centrifugal forces of heterogeneity have overbalanced the centripetal forces of community” (58).  

Cremin’s point is not that public policy should touch all educating aspects of a society — only a totalitarian society attempts that, as he notes.  But it does mean that public policy should “at least consider each, so that wise choices can be made as to where to invest what effort to achieve which goals with respect to which clienteles.” I think this is in general a good idea, but is so fraught and difficult.  Generally I think what happens is that lawmakers or the public realize both the immense variety of influences, most of which are private and whose effects are impossible to quantify, and they focus even more on controlling the few organizations that they can oversee, such as schools.  The punitive sanctions of No Child Left Behind were a plaintive cry: “Here is one institution that we can control.” It’s the Common Core curriculum that we can mandate, as I heard one writer put it, instead of the common core of three square meals for each child that we never could.

Relationally:  Cremin beings with a really interesting way of seeing the problem.  He believes that schools not isolate themselves and their work from other educative institutions, but they isolate students from them as well (“decoupled the generations,” as he quotes one writer as saying).  Speaking of several national reports in the early 1970s, Cremin describes schools as “largely victimized by [their] own success.” The progressive era turned schools from small institutions catering to an elite class with largely academic interests into an institution enrolling 90% of American youth below 18 (and certainly even more today) with a host of aspirations and backgrounds.  

But with this success, Cremin writes, schools have also managed to increasingly isolate children from the broader world of educative institutions and experiences, organizing them rigidly into grade levels even within schools, batch processing them so that they “have little contact with either younger children or adults.” (Here is where they have “decoupled the generations.”) Cremin cites a report that terms high schools “‘incomplete contexts’ for maturation” (66).  I thought that was a great phrase.  He closes out this chapter by again urging schools to have “an awareness of what has gone on and what is going on elsewhere” (67).

Would that it were so, of course.  I think here about the student whose values and morals are shaped by some looming influence off school grounds: the farm child with a work ethic, or the religious child with a strong sense of service, the gym rat with real notions of practice and sportsmanship.  Again, this is familiar turf, but it’s something I develop more and more appreciation for, especially now as a parent myself.  Schools must work in partnership — but that’s so hard to do, given their simultaneous isolation (teachers rarely have the chance to interact with the broader community — in fact, the red tape is often prohibitive) and extreme permeability (children from all walks of life, with an almost infinitely complex planetary system of swirling influences and sub-influences, enter into the school doors each morning).  It’s sobering stuff, but I think it’s healthy for schools to have to remember their limited scope and to be reminded of their sense of partnership.  

One only wishes that testing and accountability advocates ten and twenty years down the road had listened to Cremin.

Publicity:  The most provocative and interesting section of this chapter is the last one.  Cremin starts with a discussion of the role of the judiciary in shaping public policy.  Courts, he says, “tend to stress our differences” — affirming individuals’ rights or groups’ rights to dissent from policies — while legislatures tend to advance what is common.  Perhaps this is a way of saying, if I am understanding this correctly, that courts protect the minority by checking the power of the legislature, which provides for the advancement of the majority, through the ballot box.  Yet the problem is that the courts tend to, in Cremin’s words, “short circuit” what he calls “certain educational processes vital to the long-range development of a democratic society.” If a decision is considered decided by the highest court in the land, it is as though there can be no further debate about it.  This of course gets tricky because it’s not as though courts are all bad: they surely have an important part to play in protecting minorities from persecution by majorities.  What stands behind what Cremin is saying of course, then, is an optimistic view of public debate (which I see in Dewey as well, especially the Dewey of The Public and Its Problems): for Cremin, it’s as though public debate itself always moves forward toward the direction of greater enlightenment and truth.  As the chapter moves on, he considers the limited role of policy regulation available or desireable over private enterprises such as the family or church, and instead calls for “the public dialogue about educational means and ends that is the essence of the politics of persuasion” (62).  

It’s interesting to read the rest of the section in 2021, because Cremin’s argument is still germane, but came from a very different place in 1976.  Cremin goes on to single out John Dewey’s democratic model — of a large number of civic and social groups, each with a strong sense of belonging for its members, but each one allowing permeability so that its members could also intermix freely with other groups.  In this society, a man might be part of a group of teachers at school, but also of his church, and also of some men who attend football games, and of a group of ski coaches in the winter, etc.  Cremin cites this as a way of making Dewey’s original point: that public education must concentrate on community (the “public”) as well as on individuality and pluralism.  Educational policy must flow from wide-ranging public discussions from a variety of participants, while examining the influence of and relationships among a number of disparate educative institutions — in order to talk about broad, social (public) goals — not only individual ones.  

This also sounds backwards to my 2021 ears.  Today pluralism does not mean the flowering or toleration of individuals, but of specific identity groups.  Dewey’s theory of democracy is once again threatening, but for different reasons.  Where perhaps in the 1970s it sounded like an infringement on individual freedom, today it sounds like a disregard of the importance of identity groups, most of which by definition do not allow permeation or even meaningful individuality.  The theory of intersectionality is like a bizarrely backwards version of Dewey’s ideal.  Dewey’s criteria for any group was that it led to the “growth” of its members, and the further socialization in other associations.  But intersectionality’s main criteria is to denote the lack of growth available to its members as a result of their involvement in the group.  As a means of recording and charting where we are, I would imagine Dewey and Cremin would simply nod to the truth of much of this system.  But as an actual means of social organization — as intersectionality is understood less as a means of measurement and more a means of actual social association (situating oneself in the world as aligned with one of these identity groups), I would imagine both Cremin and Dewey would be concerned.  Then it’s no longer a system of measuring our progress toward a Deweyian ideal, but it’s suddenly a Marxist zero-sum game, a warring network of mutually exclusive groups for limited amounts of power.  Is this the way the world really is?  Is Dewey naive?  Or is Marx cynical?  It’s a great debate.

Clearly Cremin comes down on Dewey’s side, and that’s part of why it sounds like he is coming from such a different perspective from our own today, speaking as he does, quaintly, about the importance of group membership as a “useful antidote to various forms of romanticism and mysticism that would reify the self and isolate it from the multifarious relationship that give it meaning” (74).  If anything thinkers today might race in the opposite direction, arguing for a carving out of at least a small sliver of space for the poor individual consciousness, outside of the requisite political calling-to-arms of various identity groups and factions.

Cremin ends this worthwhile chapter with an invocation to all of us to participate in great public debates, to “undertake anew a great public dialogue about education” — asking ourselves broad social questions of community: “What knowledge should ‘we the people’ hold in common?  What values?  What skills?  What sensibilities?  When we ask such questions, we are getting to the heart of the kind of society we want to live in” (74).

He characterizes this approach as “vintage Dewey” — citing Dewey’s famous lines in My Pedagogical Creed: “education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform” and “all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties . . . are transitory and futile.” 

For Cremin, as for Dewey, the best way to solve political problems is to ask and to debate fundamental questions about the good society (What knowledge must all citizens have?  What values?) and to work to make those a reality.  To discuss political questions at an important level is to discuss educational questions.  To discuss questions of values is to discuss questions of education.

When I step back and think of our own rancorous, polarized time, I find myself favoring Cremin’s and Dewey’s approach for our future as a profession and as a country.  Not as an antidote to the polarization and activism, but as a way to dig straight into it and to push through it.  In a sense, it is a response to the polarization by insisting on coming together to debate the way forward.  

I think many of us in education have a lot of soul searching to do, a lot of centering to do, after the excesses of the Trump era, and after the excesses of many of our responses to them.  I look forward to this process.