Lawrence A. Cremin

Does Going to School ‘Interrupt’ a Child’s Education?

VTR Date: April 4, 1976

Guest: Cremin, Lawrence A.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lawrence Cremin
Title: Does Going to School ‘Interrupt’ a Child’s Education?
VTR: 4/4/76

I am Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. However poorly we Americans may nurture our children, at least in contrast to our often stated goals, our this does remained predominantly a child oriented society, before we see ourselves and our children, what we were, what we might yet become, through them. And educating them remains a subject of great interest for us all. Well, that is our subject today. And our guest is an educator and historian Lawrence Cremin, President of Teachers College, Columbia University, and author, among many other volumes, of Public Education, his John Dewy lectures just published by Basic Books.

Dr. Cremin, Marshall McLuhan has indicated that every youngster knows that going to school interrupt his education. And I’ve wondered whether that’s your fixed on contemporary education too.

CREMIN: Well, on one sense it does interrupt. The youngster’s been educated for years. He’s been educated by his parents, he’s been educated by television. All of a sudden he goes off to something different. In another sense, it continues. McLuhan, with his usual mordant humor when saying the school gets in the way of the real education. And I would say the school increasingly becomes his real education for certain kinds of things. So in addition to interrupt, it continues, it introduces something. But the point is essentially correct that when school began, the youngster has begun his education some years before, and school simply continues, adds, and in a sense, begins to interact with that other education.

HEFFNER: in terms of changes, in the past 20, 30, 40 years, did the school have a harder time countervailing other pressures, television or other educational influences? Or is the school as important today as it was perhaps when you began your career?

CREMIN: Well, I think you’d probably say the school was not as more important and less important. I think the school has become more powerful in the last 30, 40 years. It holds youngsters longer, it does more with them, we’ve learned a good deal about how to do things more effectively. On the other hand, powerful new educators have come into being outside. Remember the television revolution is 25 years old. In 1950, maybe fewer than 10 percent of American homes had television sets. Today, television is an almost all homes. Television is a very powerful indicator.

HEFFNER: What to do in terms of our traditional desire to license and to supervise education? It’s been a function of the state – not of the nation, but of the state – and we’ve always licensed our teachers, at least for some years. If now education is a function of so many other outside – the – school influences, what happens to this notion that we keep the strict control over how are our youngsters are taught?

CREMIN: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on one of the crucial problems I try to raise in the John Dewey Lectures, namely our need to rethink where education takes place and how it takes place. I think, by and large, when American parents and American taxpayers and when the American public thinks about education, they think about schooling. And they think if somehow they can control the kind of teaches that are in the school, hours of the school, what’s taught in the school, that thereby they can control education. But as we all know, a great deal of education goes on before the youngster comes to school, while the youngster is in school. And that control is far more limited, I think, than it was 25 or 50 years ago because of the other educators. Now, that doesn’t mean that teachers should not be competent and that they should not be well educated. It may mean that the public has gotten to begin to look at some of the other educators and ask what are the public responsibilities of those educators and what ought we ask of them.

HEFFNER: To what extent does an institution such as your own, Teachers College, a great institution for the teaching of teachers, what extent does it formally recognize the fact that teaching goes on at so many different levels in our society?

CREMIN: One of the fascinating things about being at a place like Teachers College, and it’s true at a number of the other great facilities of education, is the extent to which they’re now beginning to come to terms with the revolution. For example, we have a number of stories now going on of television as educators. We have a department of family and community education which is actually looking at the family’s educator. Nevertheless, a person can go through Teachers College or through the Stanford School of Education or through the City University School of Education and remained relatively untouched by the concern for these other educators, and assume that the person’s going to teach in a school that’s fairly isolated from other agencies.

HEFFNER: But a student couldn’t go through school that untouched.

CREMIN: In a funny way, the student could go through school and untouched and yet unaware that the other agencies have something to do with his education. If you look at the language we use, families nurture, reform schools rehabilitate, museums display, schools educate. When we think education we tend to associate it with the school. And yet there is no more powerful educator than the family, not only for youngsters but for the adults in the family. How many things have you learned from youngsters? How many things have I learned from mine?

HEFFNER: I noticed in your John Dewey Lectures at one point you indicate that in the past, church and family perhaps one loomed larger than the school did in the past, that in the nineteenth century increasingly, and perhaps in the 20th – century the school has taken on the burden, or has had the burden imposed upon it, at least theoretically, if by the public. How did that come about?

CREMIN: It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve learned from my historical studies, and from a time it was a surprise. I brought a long book about the colonial period in American education. It tells more about penguins than anybody would really want to note.

HEFFNER: Penguin’s?

CREMIN: (Laughter) But one of the things that surprised me in doing their research on it was when I read colonial treatises on how to educate youngsters. They rarely mentioned the schools. The place where they were in a sense, going to place their pets, was on the home and on the church. In the nineteenth century, the American people, in a sense, became fascinated with the school as an agency of realizing their own democratic associations. As a matter of fact, if you read educational rhetoric in the nineteenth century, it’s very much like church rhetoric. It’s one of the places I think, we get all our millennial hopes for education. And Americans began it to invest the school with the hopes they had formally placed in the church for a certain kind of quality of life, a certain kind of association. What happens today is we’re still talking that rhetoric, but I think we’ve lived through a revolution in the way in which our families are organized and teach with the coming of television that forces us to rethink a whole investment. It doesn’t mean we need to invest less in schools or do less with schools it means we need to consider the whole range of institutions that educate, and ask where we’re going to invest, where, to do what public functions.

HEFFNER: Do you think schools have suffered and we have generally because of the millennial burden that we place upon them? Do we anticipate too much from our schools today, this very day? To we expect too much more than they can deliver?

CREMIN: I think we do. I think the public has paid a very large price for this millennial rhetoric. I think we’ve promised too much. And I think a great deal of the public disenchantment today has to do with the failure to deliver on promises that were really unable to be realized. On the other hand, I think we have a right to ask more of the school at what they can do well. And one of the things we need to do in a new kind of analysis is asked what kinds of things can the school to well, and what kinds of things can be better done by other situations that we’ve not thought of as educated.

HEFFNER: Tell me, what are those things?

CREMIN: Well, let’s take an example. Americans have traditionally used the school as a kind of surrogate. If something’s not being done well in this society, Americans have tended to say, “Let the school to it.” My favorite illustration has to do with driver education. We require driver education long before we required seatbelts. (Laughter) Now, take the whole question of preparation for work. I think we’ve known for a long time that the best place to prepare for some elements that a youngster needs to learn with respect to work is on the job. And yet what we tended to do in the early stages of the vocational education movement is to try to create work like situations in school. And there were two problems with them. One, they were never real. The youngsters knew they weren’t real. Second, in many of the dynamic industries, the day they moved the machinery in to the school, the machinery was out of date. I think one of the great questions we face as a people today – and a number of the recent reports on secondary education have raised this – is: How can we prepare for work by sending youngsters out to work situation without having the answers exploited, but rather keep the situation educative?

HEFFNER: You said “exploited.” And I thought perhaps when I heard the “ex -” that you were going to say “exported,” or “expelled,” or at least “extended out of the school.” I’m aware of the fact that there are many people who now say that the traditional chairs in which children have sat in elementary school and then automatically on to high school and increasingly these days automatically on to college, that those chairs in terms of our present economy, in terms of what we can anticipate from our schools themselves, really mustn’t be sat in so regularly and in that order, and that children are going to have to, we’re all going to have to recognize that even a formal education is a lifetime occupation. What are your thoughts on that as you elaborate the point you make in this book on public education?

CREMIN: Well, in rethinking of the way we educate and what we do through which institution at what stage, I think, my projection to the year 2000 would be that Americans are going to be sitting in those chairs more. But they’re going to be sitting in those chairs in different kinds of sequences. They’re going to be in, out, in, out for more of the time. And some of the chairs are going to be moved to public libraries, community centers. A great deal of educating, I think, is going to go on with in the work situations, and factories, and offices, in government bureaus. In other words, in the kind of society were moving into, where going to need to spend more time in those chairs. But the notion that those chairs have to be in the school and that person has to move through the school from K through 12 or K through 16 and again that’s the end of his education, it may die hard, but I think we’ve got to put that behind us.

HEFFNER: Okay. There are two approaches to it. One, that’s the end of his or her education. I think you’ve emphasized that we’ve got to put an end to that notion. But the in – and – out quality that you’ve referred to, I know that among my friends – and I daresay in terms of the letters we received on this program, the kinds of people who watch it – there is a basic assumption that one goes right through, no ins and outs. How are we going to deal with a public consciousness that says, “My child goes right through, doesn’t stop and move out and then come back at a later point.” What’s happening in your own institution? What are you doing? What are your colleges doing to modify this public awareness?

CREMIN: Well, the fascinating thing about our institution is the extent to which it exemplifies what’s happening in many professional schools, namely that people are in and out of places like Teachers College throughout their careers. We have students in their 50’s and 60’s studying for the master’s and doctor’s degrees, simply studying on their own, taking one or two courses, working at independent study and that sort of thing. As a matter of fact, it easier to come in and out in a facility of education for example than it is in a faculty of law for a faculty of medicine. And with respect to the parents who do indeed push (Laughter), I think we’re going to have to do is make communities conscious of the extent to which careers are already marked not merely among dropouts, but among the most talented people, people in the professions – careers are already marked by shifts between work and school. A good deal of college – going in the last five, ten, 15 years has been marked by youngsters going out and working for a time and then coming back and even finishing the AB degree. What’s more, they come back with new questions. They come back with new motivation. They come back with a new sense of reality that they’ve brought from work or what ever they downed during the year off. Some of our very best students have been students who have the Peace Corps or VISTA experience before finishing college and then going on to graduate school. And I happen to think they brought much better questions to the faculty of education than those who simply march right through to their master’s or doctor’s degree.

HEFFNER: This increasing tendency for youngsters at the end of high school perhaps to take a year or two off or to move out of the education stream or in the midst of college, is this function in your estimation of their physical or the mental maturity, or is it a function essentially of our economy? How do you explain it? What has happened that not just permits them to but in a sense makes then moved in and out?

CREMIN: I think if you talk with the youngsters – and I have talked with many youngsters – their own motivations have to do with a desire to explore parts of the world that they haven’t seen, a desire to get a sense of themselves, they decided to try their wings outside the school. My criticism would be of the society that it doesn’t make enough alternatives possible. It’s still hard for a youngster to get a part – time job. It’s still hard for a youngster to get into a situation where he or she can try his wings at an occupation, can see what it’s like to be a lawyer, can see what a glorious office is like before embarking on four years of college and three years of law school. And indeed, the opening up has to come not merely in walls of the school, but in the walls of our offices and our companies and our factories to give the youngsters a decent chance to explore work. There have been the very few experiments in enabling youngsters to come for a week or a month or six months or a summer and work as an apprentice. As a matter of fact, a good deal of our legal code prevents it from happening. And in some states, in some communities, were going to have to change the laws, change the social security arrangements to permit youngsters to experience the reality of work and test their own wings at it.

HEFFNER: And we seem to be afflicted by two contradictory pressures. One, the pressure of the young to move into the workforce, even though temporarily, very early. And two, and increasing pressure of the elderly to stay in the work force rather than be forced out by arbitrary retirement ages. What do you think’s going to give? It can’t be both.

CREMIN: Well, one or the other will give unless the society is a bit more invented in the creation of jobs. I think that we hear people say there are too many teachers. There may be too many teachers with the system we have, but not enough teachers for the kind of society I’d like to see. I would prefer to structured in such a way with the young are not competing with the old, but that there are redefined opportunities in which positions can be created where the young are paid at certain to kind of wage rates which are agreed upon in advance, which make the work real, but which don’t challenge the position of the old. There’s one other thing here that we have to see, and that is, there’s a good reason why youngsters were kept out of the work in the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. And that’s because youngsters were viciously exploited. And I have resisted those who would tend to cut back on the compulsory schooling age to 13 or 14 and say youngsters should be free to go out and explore. I’ve resisted that kind of movement until we have genuine options for them. Because to me it’s not a real option to cut them loose from the school when the only alternative is exploitative labor. And this is going to demand thinking on the part of labor, business, public people, and as a matter of fact, you and I have both talked about Willard Wurtz’a new book in which he actually recommends in communities the organization of work education councils which not only begin to filter back at your material on which craps need people, which careers need people, which careers are overcrowded, but begin to put businessmen, factory owners, labor leaders together with educators to try to arrange these options for young people will want to try their hand at different occupations.

HEFFNER: Dr. Cremin, you’re an historian. Historians are in a unique position perhaps to project into the future. What’s your estimate, realistically, forgetting the millennial burden you have to carry as the president of a teaching institution? What’s your guess as to which way we’re going to move given the limitations of our material and our psychological equipment? What do you think? Are we going to meet this challenge, or is it going to be a wish that you express and many others expressed in were not likely to accomplish?

CREMIN: I think we have enough models from a number of countries around the world, so I have every hope there going to need it. A number of Western European countries have already enacted legislation requiring businesses to work out arrangements whereby their employees can go in and out for education, can take evening courses and come in late in the morning by right, where the company is required to subsidize an employee’s education at a time, in the same way a company is required to create certain health situations. I happen to know that this kind arrangement has already been arrived at by negotiation and by collective bargaining in a number of American industries. I believe this is the way the society is going to go, particularly if some of our affirmations about making effective use of our human resources are going to be realized.

HEFFNER: But suppose we make greater and greater use of our material resources. Suppose we go further and further down the road toward mechanization and computerization and find that perhaps the work force can be smaller and smaller rather than larger and larger? That certainly was the intellectual construct that was pushed on this program 20 years ago, and I wonder what happened to it now. Now we’re faced by other realities and other needs. Are we going to abandon the notion that increasingly the labor force can be smaller, that leisure time can be much greater and longer?

CREMIN: Well, there are the clues. I think the labor force will remain large if we’re creative about jobs that need to be done which don’t yet exist. We both know that many of the jobs performed now in hospitals, for example, didn’t exist 20 years ago. Many of the jobs performed in the average school didn’t exist 20 to 25 years ago. So first, I think we’ve got to be a lot more imaginative than we have about jobs that need to be done and how people might be prepared for them. Second, I think there’s going to be more leisure in the society. And one of the great challenges to education would be to see whether we can put people with learning styles and their families, and particularly in schools, which will enable them to go on their own.

HEFFNER: I’m intrigued by this phrase, “Learning styles. ” you use it in public education in your John Dewey Lectures, and I wonder if you would just develop what it is you mean by a learning style and how it is developed within a family.

CREMIN: Well, actually the phrase is taken from one of my colleagues, Hope Weichter, and the phrase she uses is “educative style.” And one of the things she has pointed out in her research – and actually we have had a conference at Teachers College with a group of Israeli educators and the Israeli Minister of Education last week and had confirmation from their research in the same direction – that a youngster in his family tends to learn a basic approach to education. Is he willing to risk the embarrassment in trying out a new language for a new skill? Or is he shy about it? Does the youngster seek educational opportunity, or does the youngster rear back from it? One of the things we find that a youngster who learns this in the family then carries it into the school situation. Now, it’s not that the youngster learns it once and for all in the family. But the school adds to it. And the youngster either builds on it, find this tragedy he learned in the family confirmed, or has them changed. Now, if a youngster learns well in the family and well in the school, that youngster is equipped to use libraries, museums, concert halls, opportunities his employer may give him, throughout the rest of his or her life. But the key thing is to understand how much of this comes early on in conversations with parents, and learning timing with parents and learning aptitude with parents.

HEFFNER: Timing, meaning what?

CREMIN: Well, the whole sense of the rhythm of our conversation. Is our conversation back and forth meshing? Do you find me responding too slowly, too quickly? One of the things we discovered is youngsters from certain ethnic backgrounds have a slower tempo of conversation. They tended to think more before responding. They tend to laugh differently in response to humor. That’s one of the things the Israelis brought us. Their whole traditions of humor in the ethnic traditions of Israel that differ from other traditions. A youngster comes from his family and goes to the school, and doesn’t respond in the way the teacher expects response, and the teacher thinks the youngster is slow rather than different. Or the teacher thinks the youngster is unwilling to communicate because the youngster has learned that to be respectful is to avert your eyes. Or the teacher thinks the youngster is being uncooperative when the youngster has learned that boys and girls don’t walk holding hands together out the hall; that’s improper. Unless the teacher knows the families of the youngsters that are sending the children to the teacher, the youngster has no way of knowing the youngsters sense of timing, of space use, the youngsters sense of eye contact. These are not taught in the average educational methods course. And if frequently leads to tears, conflict, and worse yet, misclassification. “The youngster is slow, unresponsive,” instead of, “The youngster is different.”

HEFFNER: You say “misclassification,” which brings me to a point when we have very little time left, but classification, hasn’t that been emphasized too, too much in our school system? And isn’t there a danger that it is being emphasized even more now in terms of separating the fast ones from the slow ones and those who function this way from those who function that way?

CREMIN: I couldn’t agree more. A great study was done at Venderbilt University by Professor Hobbes in which he, commissioned by HEW, looked at the various classification systems and education systems in the big city. The mental health system, the school system, the rehabilitation system. And he literally tracked youngsters through these systems. And the systems stay separate because we have federal money for one and state money for another and local money for a third. The problem is, once a youngster gets labeled and gets into one system, it’s very hard for him to move back into the mainstream system or into another. The same thing is true with in the school when a youngster gets labeled “slow,” “fast,” “difficult,” or what have you. I couldn’t agree with you more that those labels which were initially designed to get special services sometimes hinder and construct the youngster’s education.

HEFFNER: How can we prevent that from happening? How can you as president of Teachers College prevent it, help prevent it?

CREMIN: I think there are three ways we can prevent it. One, we have to be far more careful about the way we use labels. We have to take parents into our confidence much more than we do in these uses of labels, in this classification. Second, the thing that the free school movement has taught best, even though I’m critical of it. And that’s a radical individualizing of what we do in school so the youngsters don’t get categorized in one situation that determines what happens everywhere else. And third, we have to have a willingness to have a kind of evaluation which looks at the youngster whole, said he doesn’t become a prisoner of one IQ score, one reading test, one encounter with one teacher.

HEFFNER: Dr. Kremlin, in the three – quarters of a minute that we have left, it is there anything that a parent can do to try to make certain those three principles are followed in the school that his or her child goes to?

CREMIN: Yes. The parent can refuse to be put off by the kind of professionalism we sometimes get that holds the parent out. And he can believe, as I’ve tried to preach in the book, that he is the first and foremost educator, and that all the other educators are collaborating.

One last point: The real educator of the person is the person himself. And therefore, the child must early be taught to try to get agency and direction over his or her own education.

HEFFNER: Thank you so very, very much, Dr. Cremin.

CREMIN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: It’s an optimistic and enthusiastic point of view that you express. I appreciate your joining us today.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you to join us again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as a very dear old friend used to say, “Gould night, and good luck.”