Lawrence A. Cremin

Popular Education and Its Discontents

VTR Date: March 17, 1990

Guest: Cremin, Lawrence A.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Lawrence Cremin
Title: “Popular Education and Its Discontents”
VTR: 3/17/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today I want to pick up not where today’s guest and I left off on an earlier program…but rather where he left off, when later he picked up in print with what he and I had discussed on and then off the air.

Lawrence A. Cremin is the distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of American education. Formerly president of Teachers College of Columbia University, Dr. Cremin’s monumental three volume American Education has provided much grist for our mill here on THE OPEN MIND.

And now, published by Harper & Row, his intriguing Popular Education and Its Discontents cries out for a further exchange particularly7 since in it he writes: “My friend Richard Heffner once asked me on this television program, The Open Mind, whether the ideal of popular education was not an impossible ideal, whether it not only was not working but in the end could not work…after we were off the air, I asked Heffner if he was not really asking whether the phrase “popular education” is an oxymoron, a contradiction, in its very nature flawed and unachievable. He protested not. But I think many people believe that the contradiction is there, that education in its true meaning is an elite phenomenon…and that as soon as education begins to be transformed by popularization – by popular interest, popular demand, poplar understanding, and popular acceptance – it is inevitably vulgarized”.

And I guess, Larry Cremin, I turn to you and say, “that’s putting the case beautifully”. How can you argue with that point made by those people, not necessarily by me, who talk about the vulgarization and the lowering of education content when we try to make it as universal as we do?

Cremin: Dick, I think we’ve had that very much before the public all through the 1980s. There have been a number of people who have argued in the number of widely circulating books, Mr. Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy, Mr. Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. What I would call an academic fundamentalism. They’ve said, “This is what education is. This is the canon. This is the only definition of education, in order to popularize it, we must give it to everyone.

Cremin: If we give anything else to everyone, it’s less”. My own response is that education comes in a variety of forms, unlike the fundamentalists, I believe there are alternative routes to an education, and alternative versions of an education, and therefore I believe that when education is popularized, and broadened in a way to make it more accessible to more people…it’s not vulgarized, it is popularized and equalized.

Heffner: You say, “when education is made available to more people”…

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: …It is popularized…but don’t you then have to define very carefully what education is. If you say, “we reach more people through popularization”, don’t you have to define what we reach then with and make a judgment about what we reach them with…

Cremin: I think we do…

Heffner: …in terms of its value.

Cremin: …I think we do have to define it, and one of the impoverished parts of the deliberations over education in the 1980s is that there has not been a widespread public discussion of the aims and purposes of education or the variety of positions laid out and developed. I believe if you look at our history, particularly in the 20th century, you see the argument over the nature of the true education going on all through the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. In the1930s Robert M. Hutchins the president then of the University of Chicago, contended that the only worthy education was an academic education that goes to the classics with metaphysics at its heart. John Dewey said this was absolute nonsense. John Dewey said for a modern, industrial, democratic society, we must have a great broadening of education, we must include subjects that were not there fifty, a hundred years ago. We must include training for vocations, we must include subjects in the sciences that weren’t even invented a hundred years ago. No single canon is going to do it. We must broaden, we must have alternatives, we must have a variety of routes into education.

Heffner: Yes, but Larry, when you quote Dewey as talking about including in our understanding of education many more things that relate to contemporary life, aren’t we also excluding subject matter that by and large you, and Dewey, would have assumed to be necessary to the good society…for a population to create the good society?

Cremin: Yes and no. I think in the end no educational program can do everything all at once. I think choices have to be made all along, and I think one of the great debates today is whether a single version of education must be offered to everybody or else it’s unworthy of the name, or whether a variety of kinds of education…of equal character, of equal worth can be offered, whether someone can read Shakespeare later in life and perhaps begin with another version of literature, or whether everybody has to read Shakespeare at age 16 or 17, or else his or her education is worthless.

Heffner: Are you satisfied with the notion of tracking and making the assumption that in order to reach more people you identify where they are very early in the game and then reach then, and reach then and reach then on that particular level and let others who can function on other levels attain…I won’t say “More” because of what you’ve said…but achieve differently.

Cremin: No, I think tracking is a reprehensible idea. I don’t think we have any way of determining early what a person ought to learn, how well a person can learn. I do believe in individualizing. I believe that as children go along at different stages of their development they can do certain kinds of things in mathematics, differently from other youngsters. They can do certain kinds of things in literature differently fro other youngsters, and I think astute teachers will take account of these differences and individualize programs though I think all children should have opport5unities in mathematics, all children should have opportunities in literature, all children should have opportunities in history and social studies, in the sciences, in the arts, and so on.

Heffner: Relativism…should we, should we make the assumption that that’s a word that has a place in your educational philosophy?

Cremin: Oh, I think very much so. I think a great deal of what is seen as most effective in an education has to do with the situation in which the education goes on. I think children in the central city who come out of…certain kinds of backgrounds, who have had less opportunity in their families to learn certain sorts of things that other children from different backgrounds have had an opportunity to learn need to learn those things in school where the other children, who know them at home, perhaps need to learn other things in school. I think each needs to be given that from which he or she will profit most in order to go on to further education, and what youngsters in a central city learn will perhaps be different at a given period from what youngsters in a suburb learn, or youngsters in a rural area learn, but what they learn will be of worth if it’s appropriate to moving the ahead into opportunities for further education.

Heffner: But doesn’t that sound so much like a kind of perverse…not reverse, but perverse…tracking. Let’s get them where they are, use our understanding of where they are, deal with them where they are…how do we ever take them out of where they are, if we choose to?

Cremin: You start with where they are. I don’t see how you can educate anyone if you don’t start where that person is. The question is…you must start where that person is, but carry him forward, and I’m saying there are a variety of definitions of what “forward” means. Forward for Mr. Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind is induction and introduction into the canon. Forward for those who would have a more modern education would include sciences, art, music, fields, disciplines that simply don’t appear in Mr. Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind.

Heffner: Of course, Allan Bloom, who was here to discuss his book, makes such a convenient target, and in a sense an unfortunate one because when you and I talk about Bloom, we can pretty quickly agree.

Cremin: Let’s move on to Mr. Bennett of James Madison High School. The core that Mr. Bennett puts in uses up so much of time in high school that there’s no opportunity for youngsters to engage in varieties of community service, civic education, music and the arts. No opportunity for youngsters to become familiar with television, to develop a critical literacy in television. No opportunity for them to work in certain kinds of work situations so that they can, from those situations, explore what they’d like to do with their lives, develop a sense of vocation.

Heffner: What should then go out of James Madison?

Cremin: I think what should go out of James Madison is the insistence that all children have the same thing in the ninth grade, the tenth grade, eleventh grade and twelfth grade. During the course of a life-long education there’s no doubt that they all ought to have experiences in the sciences, in mathematics, in literature, in the humanities.

Heffner: But…in reality will they, if this doesn’t happen in Madison schools…

Cremin: I believe in this society they will have opportunities. I believe that James Madison High School or whatever we call it needs to give them opportunities, but what happens all too often is the opportunities become requirements and promotion gates, and the children drop out and are excluded, rather than being interested and captivated.

Heffner: But doesn’t that simply mean that we, as educators, don’t do the right job with those standards? With that…world of…understanding that we do think is important.

Cremin: There are those people who contend, as Mr. Chester Finn of Vanderbilt University contends, he was the Assistant Secretary for Research and Development when Mr. Bennett was the Secretary. Mr. Finn contends the subject matter stays the same, the pedagogy varies. I would contend the pedagogy varies, but the entrée into the subject matter and the range of the subject matter needs to vary, too.

Heffner: Do you feel that our experience in the past half century…after all John Dewey was influential, enormously influential, the ideas that you identify with Dewey are ideas that …would you deny…have been given a chance…

Cremin: I don’t think they’ve been influential at all, Dick. Martin Mayer, the writer once wrote, “that as Chesteron once said of Christianity…it’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it’s rather that it’s never been tried at all”. John Dewey’s ideas about what a first rate education would be have been corrupted, have been put into schools partially and in corrupt versions, they’ve never been tried at all on a large scale.

Heffner: Wouldn’t someone, brighter than I am then, raise the question whether, if that’s true, whether there mustn’t be some necessity for that truth? Whether all these years of living with Dewey or presumably living with Dewey, with having Dewey’s ideas available to us, and you say, “like Christianity, it has not been realized”. It has been talked about, it has been discussed, it has been evaluated, but never realized. For some reason? Perhaps because the ideals of Christianity on the one hand are not consistent with the nature of human nature…Dewey’s ideas, perhaps, not consistent with something.

Cremin: I think the need for changes in education introduced by the development of modern society in the 19th and 20th century, the need for those changes is so fundamental, that it’s simply easier to stay with things that we’ve been doing for centuries, and so we stay with the old curriculum we stay with the old drill, we stay with the old subjects, we stay with the old tests, instead of experimenting with fundamental changes in education. And I think, particularly…during the last ten years…experimentalism has been reduced and what we’ve had is this renewed academic traditionalism, this renewed academic fundamentalism.

Heffner: Where do we go then…do you think? You, you referred to Bloom, you referred to Finn, you refer to all of this matter of fundamentalism…

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: Where do we go then?

Cremin: The opposite of fundamentalism is modernism, and I think we need a renewed effort in the United States to develop a school system and an education system at large that is able to give a genuine education to all children. What has happened as a result of the fundamentalism of the 1980s is the drop-out rate has gone up. I admire Mr. Bush’s statement of the goal that by the year 2000, 90% of our children should be high school graduates. Mr. Hechinger recently pointed out in an editorial in The New York Tines that Mr. Reagan enunciated the same goal some years ago for 1990. To enunciate the goal without providing the funds and the wherewithal to develop the experimental curricula, to develop the innovative pedagogies, to develop the fascinating arrangements in school that keep children from dropping out, to develop the sustaining technologies that help children remain in school, is utopianism at best, it’s public relations at its worst…at worst. (Laughter)

Heffner: Yes, but, but let me make the point that our former education, now drug czar, and his associate Finn, and Bloom, etc. …you say that the drop-our rate has gone up…

Cremin: Correct.

Heffner: …right? But you try to make it sound as though it is because of their fundamentalist ideas and I might turn around and say, in a sense, what you said about Dewey…it’s because those ideas have not been put into effect. It’s because we have no, really sufficiently, worked with a tougher curriculum.

Cremin: Indeed, they have been put into effect in state after state. There are new promotion requirements, there are new promotion gates, there are new requirements for graduation, and these have acted again and again as deterrents to youngsters who wanted to stay in school, who made every effort to stay in school, but were simply not only uninterested by, but were repelled by the compulsory studies that were offered to them, and simply dropped out.

Heffner: You know, just before we went on the air, I, I shared with you this New York Times Op Ed piece by Robert Pittman and Mr. Pittman will be here on THE OPEN MIND some time soon. He’s the creator of the MTV cable network…”I want my Maypo…I want my MTV”, and a fascinating thesis. He says that generations who grew up with TV communicate differently than previous generations, and goes on to say that educators must deal with that phenomenon…MTV has…successfully, and if only the educational community and the social welfare community would communicate with youngsters on a post-McLuhan, post-literate level, with pictures and sights and sounds and surround them with messages, we would get further than we are. He writes, “Maybe we could score some advances in education by incorporating the new communications techniques into traditional classroom approaches”, and…it might be totally unfair for one to say that by distorting what you really mean, one could come to this conclusion.

Cremin: Oh, I don’t think…

Heffner: Let’s go where they are…

Cremin: I don’t think so.

Heffner: …where the kids are.

Cremin: I don’t think anybody would derive that from what I’ve been arguing. As a matter of fact the fundamentalists believe that television has nothing to do with what schools ought to be doing. I do believe schools must engage with television, but not simply to make their peace with what goes on television, but to teach children to look at television critically and sensibly…to take from it where it extends their vistas in ways the schools never could…to criticize it and reject it when it plays upon their minds in such a way as to manipulate, propagandize, lead them toward commercial products where are unworthy of the youngsters’ attention. That doesn’t come in the genes, unless that’s taught somewhere, unless television is engaged somewhere, the youngsters are going to be led along by MTV, and other kinds of messages that have no sense of responsibility toward the children, but rather toward a product.

Heffner: But you know, I would be willing to make a little bet…

Cremin: A wagering man…A wagering man. (Laughter)

Heffner: I take the transcript of this broadcast up to this moment…just before we came to this question of MTV, send it to Mr. Pittman before he comes on the program, and ask him whether this isn’t a wonderful or just…you know…neutrally, send it to him…and wonder whether he wouldn’t say that what you have said, dealing with children where they are, approaching them not from the rigidities of traditional educational standards, but with the idea of this youngsters is at this level and has this perceptual apparatus…

Cremin: And that’s where we begin. It’s not where we end, it’s where we begin. If we would engage him, we must begin with where the youngster is, but that does not determine where we would like to go with the youngster.

Heffner: Well, Sesame Street does just exactly what you’re saying…it begins and then…

Cremin: Takes the child…takes the child to the alphabet…

Heffner: Right.

Cremin: …takes the child to numbers…takes the child with certain moral principles. If we looked at what John Dewey did in the laboratory schools…he took the children out into the surround of the school, and he said “let’s look at the weather, youngsters”, and then he said, “the teacher knows that’s the beginning of history, that’s the beginning of the social studies. The teacher knows…adults know where the youngster needs to go, but you’ve got to begin where the youngster is.

Heffner: But, Larry, even as we sit at this table, we have just had announced to us…the last week or so, that we have reached a quarter of a billion population…a quarter of a billion of us…we didn’t handle the question of education very well, when there were 225 million, 200 million, 150 million…do you honestly believe that given what we are, who we are, where we are…that we are going to? Now that’s …that’s a really tough question.

Cremin: What led you to think we didn’t handle it well? Ah, we may have handled better than most countries of the world. It’s easy to dump on the schools for what they haven’t accomplished, but perhaps we need to congratulate them some for what they have accomplished.

Heffner: That’s an interesting thought…tell me, tell me how you would support that more optimistic, more positive approach to this question.

Cremin: The American people need more literacy, but they have a very high literacy, they have always had a very high literacy. The American people need to participate more in politics, but according to the studies of Sidney Verber and others, they participate more in their local state and national politics than in most countries. The American people embrace 250 religious denominations…heaven knows how many ethnic groups, and the American people is becoming more diverse. We live together without a sense of brotherhood everywhere, but we live together in relative peace…religiously, racially, ethnically. This society has made enormous strides…it has assigned its schools problems this society has to contend with. It hasn’t always given the schools the money to do so…there’s been a series running in The New York Times this week which indicates that there are children in classrooms meant to have half as many children…40 in a classroom meant for 20, who’ve had 4 teachers in a year…they’re on a merry-go-round and yet they want to learn, they do learn. I think our school system has done a remarkable job given the conditions under which it has worked and given the tasks this society has asked the school system to bear.

Heffner: You know that there are those who challenge the statistics that you offer.

Cremin: I know.

Heffner: About the comparisons of educational level…

Cremin: Oh?

Heffner: …of achievement…between the Mselres and the Japanese and the Europeans, etc.

Cremin: I know…I know they do.

Heffner: …and civic participation, etc.

Cremin: I wanted to convey how difficult the tasks of the schools have been in this society over the past fifty to one hundred years. How much progress they have made granted that there are discontents, granted that progress needs to be made, how important they are to the nation and how important it is to support them in ways that can sustain the work of individual teachers in the schools with the children.

Heffner: Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents indicated that it was inevitable that there would be discontent within the framework of the restraints of civilization. Do you think the same thing about education?

Cremin: That’s why I used the title, Dick. (Laughter)

Heffner: And where do you think we are moving? It’s in a sense the question I asked you before, but you and I are getting long in the tooth, and we’ve got to make some gets as to where we think the future is going to take this nation. Where?

Cremin: Well, the policy climate of education is moving away from the academic fundamentalism of the 1980s. I think we’re going to have much more open discussions in the 90s. I think we’re going to have much more experimentation, I think we’re going to have much more legitimate concern for the children who have been left out rather than the children who are doing well. I think the nation must do that for its own welfare.

Heffner: You feel we must as a nation, but you refer yourself to the funds that are not being made available to this effort.

Cremin: I don’t think that that point of view will dominate forever. I do believe that in the Congress and in the States there is an understanding that unless we begin early, with programs like HeadStart, we’re always going to lag behind, and I think we’re going to see child development programs funded with public money, within the next five to ten years in ways that will do much better than HeadStart is doing now.

Heffner: Essentially because of working mothers?

Cremin: Essentially because of working mothers, essentially because I think there’s going to be a better understanding on the part of the public of the role of education in this society’s health and welfare than there has been with all of the fuss of the last ten years.

Heffner: You know, it’s wonderful. Over the years we’ve known each other you remain this wonderful optimist. And UI wish you could put the needle in me a little inject me with some of it. Thank you so much for joining me today, Larry Cremin.

Cremin: Thank you, Dick. This kind of discussion challenges me.

Heffner: Good. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. And I hope you are challenged, too. I hope you’ll join us again next tine. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write to THE OPEN MIND, P.P. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”. Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the New York Tines Conmpany Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.