Lawrence A. Cremin

Teacher in America, Part I

VTR Date: May 21, 1988

Guest: Cremin, Lawrence A.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lawrence A. Cremin
Title: “Teacher in America”, Part I
VTR: 5/21/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. It may be unwise, unfair, unworkable – and from time to time it is recognized as just that – but surely in our past, right now, and probably in our future, too, the continuing ideological center piece to American’s attitudes towards, assumptions about, and harsh criticisms of education – as one commentator has written – is that it, education, “Can and ought to carry the major share of the burden of social betterment, that the coming generation can be taught in school how to lead better lives that we do, how to make their world better than the one we live in now”.

And I think it not unfair to note that if one looks closer at the formulation and more realistically extends our understanding of education’s burden beyond the school and the classroom, a scholar who has most thoughtfully contributed to our awareness of the larger educative experience in America is Dr. Lawrence A. Cremin, the former President of Teachers College of Columbia University, who in the Pulitzer Prize winning second volume of his monumental examination of American education, defined it as “The deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to transmit, evoke, or acquire knowledge, values, attitudes, skills or sensibilities, as well as any learning that results from the effort, direct or indirect, intended or unintended”.

Well, now, Dr. Cremin has completed his Harper & Row trilogy, bringing his massive examination of American education up to the 1980s. And in introducing him today I must admit to something of a convergence – not a conflict – of interests. For he is my contemporary, has long been my friend, and above all else, is as well my wife’s enormously respected and admired teacher and mentor. So welcome today, Dr. Cremin. And I must say that I want to start off by asking you about the dedication page in American Education, The Metropolitan Experience, 1876 to 1980, and, after writing “For Jody and David”, you quote Margaret Mead, “Today, nowhere in the world are their elders who know what the children know. No matter how remote and simple the societies are in which the children live in the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up within a cultural system. Today there are none”. Why did you pick that quotation?

Cremin: Well, Dick, the…you picked up something very close to my heart. All three volumes are dedicated to my daughter Jody, and my son David. The first volume came out in 1970, when they were ten and eleven years old. And the dedication carries a quotation from Leviticus, the Sh’mah, which says, “Thou shalt teach them in the morning, thou shalt teach them in the evening, thou shalt teach them in the home”. The second volume came out in 1980. They were ten years older and the dedication carries an excerpt from a poem by Goethe, which says, “We have no right to shape our children. They come to us from the hand of God. It is our job to nurture and sustain them, to bring them to maturity and let them be what they must”. The third volume has the quote from Margaret Mead and it indicates, to me, the three relationships that parents have with their children that are educative. The children are young, the parents teach the children. As the children mature, the parents and children learn increasingly from one another. When the children are at the height of adulthood and the parents grow older, frequently the parents have much, much, much to learn from the children.

Heffner: Have you?

Cremin: Immensely. My children are very much involved in their work. They’re very much living happy and good and fruitful; lives and, as my wife Charlotte and I have talked with them over the years, as we’ve watched them over thee years, we’ve learned much from them about what things mean, about the way their generation perceives things. As it’s often said, “They’ve kept us young”. They’ve kept us alive to contemporary things going on. They’ve helped us adjust to change in our lives.

Heffner: Let’s talk for a moment about change in their lives and change in American education. Back in 1974, it was, in an article, in an interview with you in the New York Times, you said, it was so interesting, you said, “We tend to forget that the idea of popular education, that everyone should be educated, is only about a hundred years old”. And when I read that, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Some ideas work, some ideas fail”, and I wonder what score or grade you would give to this idea, which is after all, only a century old.

Cremin: I think the idea is still one of the most radical ideas around today. I think we, as Americans, have committed ourselves to popular education as much as any society in the world. We’ve been the leaders in many domains. And, unlike many people today, I think we have achieved more in this realm than many societies. And that we’ve achieved more than many of our intellectual leaders today give us, as a society, credit for having achieved.

Heffner: Well, of course, you say…you say the key words, “unlike many people today”.

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: And it is true whether one looks at Education Secretary Bennett or to Allan Bloom or to any number of people, there is intense criticism of American education. You’re not dismissing that are you?

Cremin: I’m not dismissing the criticism and I’m not an apologist for American education in its every aspect. But I do believe we have developed a variety of educating systems that give more people of more different kinds a chance to realize their talents, to develop their talents. Not only a chance, but a second, a third, a fourth chance, than may societies. I think the system can be improved. I think there’s a great deal wrong with it. We could go into the things that are wrong with it. But the astonishing thing is how well it has done at educating the best of our youngsters to very high standards and giving other youngsters a chance to develop the talents they have. That I believe is the genius of the American education system.

Heffner: If that’s the genius, what’s the failure?

Cremin: I think the failure of the American education system is first, to invest sufficiently in the teaching strategies, in the pedagogical research and knowledge to undergird this effort to develop a highly variegated population of many different backgrounds and many different abilities. I think, second, we’ve been less adept than we need to be at developing the variety of standards we need to judge the accomplishment of different children, of different adults, in different domains.

Heffner: What do you mean by that?

Cremin: Well, I think too often those of us who teach in the colleges and universities believe that there is a single standard of excellence, a single canon as Mr. Bloom says in his book, and that the achievement of that canon is the achievement of education. I happen to think there are many different ways of educating oneself. Many different ways of gaining a liberal education and that that liberal education is not embodied in fifty great books, a hundred great books, or five hundred great books. There are many roads to a good liberal education.

Heffner: Yes, you say there are many roads to it, but granting that, what is it?

Cremin: I think it means different things for different people. John Dewey, whose work as a philosopher I have found very useful as a starting point, frequently, for my thinking about problems…John Dewey says, “It’s not the substance of a subject that makes it liberal, it’s the way it’s taught”. And what Dewey meant by that is, that if a subject is taught in such a way as to motivate a person to go on, to expand his or her horizons, in that domain, to make his or her own judgments of what’s of worth, what’s good, what’s of high quality. In doing so to reach for other people’s judgments, historically and in other places, that person is being liberally educated. And I think you can begin in many places, with many different concerns, and develop a liberal outlook and achieve a liberal education.

Heffner: Suppose we were to accept that as a definition of “a liberal education”. Let me ask you about a good education, an education…the education that you helped your children obtain if obtain is the right word. Is that the same thing as “a liberal education”? You interpret, you define “liberal education” as one that is liberating. But is it a good…is it necessarily a “good” education? Have you no set standard of what a “good” education is in the 1980s?

Cremin: A “good” education in the 1980s is an education that is liberating. It’s an education that puts a person increasingly in touch with the questions of quality, the questions of excellence, the questions of competence, in different domains of life, and enables the person to make judgments of his or her own behavior values, attitudes, knowledge in terms of those standards. And I think those standards are different in different communities, for different youngsters and it doesn’t mean that there are no cosmopolitan standards, but I think that…well as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz says, “There is local knowledge” and I think there is not some single canon that everybody needs to know that defines a “good” education. I think a liberal education is a process by which a person continually grows in knowledge, in judgment, in sensibility. And those roads to growth are quite different.

Heffner: But growth to what? When one is grown?

Cremin: Growth, as John Dewey might say, leading to more growth. It’s a continuing process of better judgment, higher quality of aesthetic standards of more knowledge. There was an example in the New York Times today. Roger Starr has a little column on the Editorial Page in which he talks about the unity of liberal and vocational education at an institution here in New York City, the Fashion Institute of Technology. Here are young people who come in interested in careers in fashion. And what Mr. Starr was indicating is the excellence and adeptness with which the faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology begins with the youngsters’ interests and builds on those interests to lead them into a variety of fields which are not only related to fashion, but which go out to questions of design, questions of aesthetic standards, questions of the role of fashion in the larger society. In other words, they lead out from the youngsters’ interests into what you and I and others would consider the stuff of a liberal education.

Heffner: Alright. Now, now suppose we were to turn that back and let me ask you. You said a moment ago you wouldn’t deny that there are cosmopolitan standards.

Cremin: That’s right.

Heffner: Universal standards?

Cremin: Cosmopolitan standards. I do not believe there are universal standards. I mean there are standards that go beyond the local.

Heffner: Okay. There are standards that go beyond the local.

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: What are they? How do you identify them? And how do you achieve them for student here, there and everywhere? The students who fit into this American mystique about providing education of everyone?

Cremin: I think I define them in continuing conversation with others. And, the reason I say that and don’t say, “standard “A”, “standard “B”, “standard “C”, is that those standards are constantly changing. People, for example, talk about the Great Books. They talk about The Canon. As you know, that Canon was defined largely in the 1920s, the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. As people, particularly in the universities, though not solely in the universities, began to say, “What do we have in common? What do we need to have in common as knowledge is being enlarged in every field”. And they defined a series of curricular and they were useful for that time. But I believe there could have been ten or fifteen or twenty curricular that would have served just as well. In the same way, I have a notion, for example, that a cosmopolitan standard of language in the English language implies the writing of a good, accessible, correct English. But, as you know, the dictionaries themselves, disagree fundamentally on the nature of a good, accessible, correct English. With some dictionaries defining it rather narrowly and other dictionaries saying “usage” defines it. And they’re willing to try to build new words, new phrases and new uses that I might consider vulgar, into the standards for a good, correct, accessible English.

Heffner: But when you say, “into the standards”, do you find it inappropriate to say that some standards are higher and some standards are lower? Do you find yourself unwilling to make judgments about those standards?

Cremin: I’m willing to make judgments, and I make judgments all the time or else I think I would be an inadequate teacher. I simply think that my judgments are not the only judgments. I don’t think they’re local to New York or local to Teachers college, Columbia University. But I’m well aware that others within New York and within Columbia University and within the United States, have different standards. Mr. Bennett, the Secretary of Education, published a book about a liberal education, a report on the colleges and universities in which he said, “This is a liberal education” and listed a number of books that constituted his canon. I would have different books and a different notion of a liberal education. Mine would look much more like a variety of opportunities that extended from what the youngsters at Fashion Institute of Technology are getting, when they’re getting a successful education to what the youngsters in Columbia college study when they study contemporary civilization and the humanities courses, which Columbia College defines as a liberal education. If both institutions can set those youngsters to reaching for knowledge, to trying to define better standards in the various domains of their lives, to having values that are more humane and more compatible with a larger social altruism, I’m happy with either of those definitions of liberal education.

Heffner: Of course, the criticism is that neither one really sets the standards for contemporary American education and that in general, whether you accept or reject them, this is what I want to discover from you. In general the criticism is that the level of education is…may I say, lower, because it doesn’t contain success at the Fashion Institute level or at the Columbia College level. Now, I need to know…I do personally need to know, Larry, I wonder what you think about…without attacking, defending anything, what you picture is of the generality of education in America today. At the public school level, at the high school level, at the college level.

Cremin: My picture of education can be given several ways. If we look at the test scores that people so often look at, the charge is made that the test scores are going down. The charge was made in the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education that Mr. Bennett’s predecessor appointed and that reported in 1983, that this generation is the first generation in history that will have an education poorer than its parents’ generation. That’s simply not true. On the international tests, our youngsters in the upper thirty, forty percent of the population are doing as well as those youngsters in any other country of the world, while the United States is reaching to educate more of a…of all of the population, in its secondary schools and college than any other country in the world. A second, the scores in mathematics, in reading and so on, particularly at the elementary and junior high school level, have been going up over the past seven, eight, nine years. The secondary school curriculum became scattered and therefore youngsters were having more options and when they didn’t study the several basic subjects, the scores in those subjects went down. But all of the scores are tending to rise today. They’re not rising because of the tightening of standards since 1983. They’re rising because of a greater interest on the part of the public in education, because more money is being poured into the school systems, because teachers are being better paid, because there’s more public concern, because adults care…when adults care children tend to do better, children tend to rise to the expectation of the adults. So if you look at the youngsters anywhere, and the generality of our youngsters have more opportunity that youngsters…I would say, if you include the early years of college, anywhere in the world. The Japanese have a higher percentage of graduates from secondary school, but if you look on to the college, we are educating, formally, in schools a higher proportion of our population in any country in the world.

Heffner: Larry, how do we then explain this continuing attack on American education on the level of achievement of the American school?

Cremin: I think that…well, there’s a wonderful article that appeared in Education Week magazine a few weeks ago by a journalist named Lynn Olson in which she looked at the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, and she looked at the versions of the report that were rejected, as well as the version that was published. And it’s very clear that hat report could have taken many forms, and that several of the scientists on the Commission eventually were persuasive and it was their version that became the final version. And that was a version which had a diagnosis, namely that the scores were falling, and that schools were in crisis. It had a remedy, and that is that we needed to have a basic curriculum of five or six subjects taught everywhere to all youngsters in secondary school. And then it had a solution and that was, this had to happen without much Federal money, but with many parental concerns, much parental participation, and high parental expectations. I think the diagnosis was wrong. I think the remedy was wrong, and I think the mode of achieving the remedy was wrong.

Heffner: But I’m still puzzled as to why. You say, if I heard you correctly, “a group of scientists”. Now you and I in our generation, greatly admire scientists. I don’t understand this reference.

Cremin: The reference is simply that American education in the sixties and seventies made great strides toward achieving true universality in the secondary school years. The greatest need in the late seventies and early eighties was to do a better job, not with the top fifteen or twenty percent, but with the bottom thirty or forty percent, who were dropping out of school in large numbers, who were not getting as good an education as they should have been getting, and had I had my druthers at that time, I would have crafted a report which said, “We need to renew our effort to make the opportunity for a worthy secondary education truly universal in the United States”. The need was not for a narrow curriculum, but for many avenues to a liberating education. And the need was for much more money for research, much more money for development, and much, much more money to attract the very best teachers we can attract to that system.

Heffner: Well, when I quoted you from the 1974 New York Times saying, “We tend to forget that the idea of popular education, that everyone should be educated, is only about a hundred years old”, I then said, “Some ideas fail and some succeed”. I wonder whether what these critics have seen as failure is inevitable, given that ideal. And you want to hold on to that idea, and they are really saying, “That ideal, itself, can’t, won’t, at least hasn’t worked”.

Cremin: No. I think the ideal is condemned to failure if you accept their narrow definition of education. But ultimately the achievement that the society in its education is not measured solely by tests, it’s measured by the quality of life in the achievement of that society. In the arts, the sciences, the professions, in the way in which people live, in their values, in the way they behave in the world. There can be a great deal of philosophical argument about the United States today. But, if we look at some of the narrower judgments, the number of Nobel Prizes, number of Balzan Prizes, our achievement in the arts, our achievement in medicine, our achievement in the sciences, I don’t think our education system has been a failure. It recruits widely (laughter)…it gives people an opportunity…

Heffner: But you are…you are primary among those who would say, “Let us look at how we live, our standards, our values”. And in that area, in that larger area, are you as satisfied?

Cremin: I’ve been profoundly disappointed, as I know you have… (laughter)…from a recent address you gave at a college graduation. I’ve been profoundly disappointed. One of the efforts in my history is to show that we’re not just educated by the schools. We’re educated by our churches, we’re educated by our families, we’re educated by television, we’re profoundly educated by television. We’re educated by many, many, many institutions. And given the tremendous power of television, much of what television teaches conflicts with the values of the schools. Much of what the everyday behavior of American business with its inordinate concern with consolidation and buy-outs, and what-have-you, much of the concern simply to make money at the expense of other values, this is taught in the behavior of the people. This is taught in the lives of the people, this is celebrated on television. And much of what we would like our schools to do clashes with that education. And one of the problems of education in a modern, metropolitan society is what I call a cacophony of education. Young people, and indeed adults, are subject to many kinds of teaching, and mis-teaching and I think in many instances the teaching of television, the teaching of the examples in the heroes we celebrate has been more powerful than the teaching of the teachers in the schools and colleges.

Heffner: But, of course, one must then say that the schools themselves now, feed these other influences, make use of them, see them as part of the educative process, as you do. And almost glorify them, almost say, “This is fine. This is where we belong now”.

Cremin: I think that’s too often true. I think the teachers in the schools, and the teachers in the college are frequently “washed” by the same mis-education, from television, from other agencies, as are the youngsters. The ancient Greeks, of course, hoped that a liberal education would enable people to see the mis-teaching which came in the community and argue against it, set youngsters to thinking about it. I wish our schools could do a great deal more of that. But I believe, to go back to Margaret Mead, that they will do a great deal more about it, if they teach contemporary times, as well as the classic canon. And I don’t think the classic canon is the only way into it.

Heffner: But contemporary times…it seems to me are so, if I may use the word “contaminated” by, “tainted” by, painted by, molded by, the very things that you object to. How can they? How can they adapt to a contemporary world whose values you take exception to?

Cremin: That is one of the most fundamental questions of public education in the United States. Charles Beard, the historian, once suggested in an aphorism that the great anomaly of a democratic society is that it must support schools and colleges which must then be left free to criticize that society. And the question has been since the onset of popular education, whether it would be left free to criticize the very values of the society that supports it. And the American people have a mixed record on this. In some sense they’ve supported the schools well, and in some sense they’ve left them free. In other senses because they invest their hopes and aspirations in the schools, so often through interest groups and in other ways, they’ve tried to get their hands on the schools.

Heffner: We’ve got to talk about that further, so if you will as you promised before you might, sit still, we’ll go one. We have to bring this program to an end, Dr. Cremin, and then do another one. Okay?

Cremin: Thank you, Dick. Indeed.

Heffner: Thank you. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, too. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another 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 Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.