Lawrence A. Cremin

Teacher in America, Part II

VTR Date: May 21, 1988

Guest: Cremin, Lawrence A.


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

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of a two part series on what – other than peace – may be the most important theme in contemporary American life. Permit me to introduce it precisely as I did the first. I said then: 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 Americans’ attitudes towards, assumptions about, and harsh criticisms of education – as on e 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 than 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 that 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, as last time, 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. Larry, I had to get that in…for the sake of domesticity.

Cremin: (Laughter)

Heffner: Look, we…we spoke last time, at some length, about a variety of themes in American education. One that you suggested, and I think we ought to come back to it because you’ve spent so much time in your concerns about it, has to do with the variety of inputs…

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: …that we call American education. You started to talk about television. Why does it loom so large in your estimation as an educative factor in American life?

Cremin: Well, if for no other reason that television is watched by children and adults for many hours each week. We’re told that he television set is on and being looked at by someone seven hours a day in the average American home. The other things that’s very important for a historian is television is essentially a new educative experience on the American scene. It becomes popular in the period after World War II, over the last thirty, thirty-five years. Television is also watched in the United States in the home. And it has changed, it has influenced relationships between parents and children, and we often think that the youngsters look directly at television and that nothing intervenes. But a number of studies we have indicates that the kind of situation in which television is watched, the way in which the parents see television very much influences what children learn from television and how it’s received. But there are many other influences: churches, synagogues are extremely influential in the education of many children. Of the first and foremost educator in the lives of most individuals is the family. We tend to think of education as synonymous with schooling. And one of the reasons I think it’s very important to have a larger sense is so that we can be aware of the many influences that bear on a youngster growing up and so, when we make policy we make it with a sense of the full complexity of education and not thinking that somehow if we change the seventh grade, this, this and this will follow, without being aware of the enormous variety of influences.

Heffner: Of course, there are those who say, “If we focus or unfocus on quite so many inputs in our lives, we never really deal with American education”. If we deal with the church, if we deal with the synagogue, if we deal with television, if we deal with print media, if we deal with all of these various influences around our children, then we never really have to focus on the glories and the drawbacks of the American school.

Cremin: Well, of course, I think that an awareness of the complexity of education is not necessarily incompatible with focus. (Laughter) I deeply believe that the school and the college are among our most important institutions for exercising a public affect on education. But too often when we make policy, too often when we think about education, we think of the school isolated from these other circumstances and therefore we invest too much of our hopes in schooling as a kind of universal remedy for all of our political and social problems. And thereby condemn ourselves to terrible disappointment when the school can’t do all that we hope it will do.

Heffner: Was it Marshall McLuhan who said that “every school child knows that going to class interrupts his education”?

Cremin: Well, Marshall McLuhan was one who, more than most of his time, called attention to the enormous effects of television and, indeed, he became so enamored of his discussion of the effects of television that he so downgraded other institutions that, I think, he gave in his writings an imbalanced picture. But there’s no doubt that the effects of schooling, the effects of familial education are very much influenced and very much mediated, if one can use that word, by the effects of television.

Heffner: You’re…you’re kind when you say “mediated” because that can mean the influence isn’t all that great while there are those who say the influence of the beady red eye that I’m looking at over there, is decisive. Where do you fall down in that argument?

Cremin: I wish we knew more about the influence of television. And I wish we knew it with greater confidence. For example, I’ve been very interested in the experiments of Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes at the Hebrew University on the way in which the same…the same film of “Dallas”, the television serial is viewed in Israel by recent migrants from the USSR, by native born Sabras, by recent migrants from Morocco, and by Israeli Arabs. And they can look at the same scenes from “Dallas”, but they interpret them quite differently, and the interpretation comes because these come in the context of being brought up in a particular culture, with a particular ethnicity, in particular families and communities, so that the same television program is seen and perceived differently by different people.

Heffner: In all your years of teaching teachers, and as a historian, have you ever objected to the notion of licensing those who teach our children?

Cremin: I believe that state has a right to license teachers. But as you know, there are many teachers who teach our children who are not licensed. The teachers of independent schools are not licensed, the teacher of our religious schools, our Hebrew schools, our parish schools are not licensed. Public school teachers are licensed.

Heffner: And they make up the bulk of the teachers…

Cremin: They make up the bulk.

Heffner: …in this country.

Cremin: Yes, they do.

Heffner: Would that lead you to think that perhaps those other educators, the people who sit in front of and behind television cameras should, in a similar way, be trained, be licensed, be responsible to the public authorities of the public they teach?

Cremin: Well, there’s an interesting political problem in education, and that is, once you become aware of the many institutions that educate, you have to be…you have to make up your mind as to whether it’s a good thing that there is frequently conflict, what we might say “noise”, disagreement among them as to what they teach. If you have all of them perfectly compatible, perfectly complimentary, all following the same line, you get a totalitarian society. And I would object to the private institutions, the public institutions all being licensed and controlled by the same governmental agency. That would mean you’d have to license mothers and fathers to have children. (Laughter)

Heffner: Well, let’s…let’s understand that there are those who, throughout history have almost said that.

Cremin: I agree. Plato’s Republic deals with those, as you know.

Heffner: Alright. Now, quite seriously, I come back to…oh, having been terribly aware how, in the metropolitan experience, this third volume of American Education, being terribly much aware of the emphasis that you place upon the non-formal educative influences, beyond the family.

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: The television screen. The library…all of the experiences that we have…I’m quite serious in raising the question as to the responsibility for teaching us well or good, however you would say it, and what responsibility you would assign to these informal teachers. I mean again, if McLuhan was right, then going to class interrupts every kid’s education. Now what do we do about these informal educators or would you have us do anything whatsoever?

Cremin: Well I think we do two things. First, I think the quality of education and the values taught by education, as the ancients taught us, are inevitably related to the political values of the society. And I think that the American people have not debated well enough the values they want themselves to have and they want their children to have. I think the determination of what the many institutions that educate do, must be made within a large political dialogue and debate that goes on continuously about what American aspirations ought to be, and therefore what we ought to teach our children. Now on the particulars, there’s a wonderful book by a legal philosopher who was for a time at Columbia, now teaches at Yale, named Bruce A. Ackerman, called Social Justice in the Liberal State in which he says, “Parents have the initial rights in education. And, indeed, they have a right to have their children attend early schooling where the values of the school are essentially commensurate with, and very much like, the values of the family. “But there comes a time”, says Professor Ackerman, “when the liberal state owes its young an education which moves them beyond the vision of the family, which gives them insight to ways of thinking and into ways of living that go beyond what the family has taught”. And that is a social responsibility and it’s one that falls heavily on the school and it’s why Americans have invested so much…so many of their resources and so many of their hopes in school.

Heffner: But now you say, as McLuhan said, that there is another school that as powerful, let’s not compare…powerful, too, is this other school, the media. Now how do we meet our responsibility in terms of its teaching our children? We’re beyond the family now.

Cremin: I believe much of this responsibility, and many of our hopes for the development of that kind of responsibility was invested in the development of public television in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. And, indeed, a good deal of public money goes into public television. There’s a great debate today as to whether public television is carrying out its mission of providing a high standard. Of whether it is, as some have called public television, is truly our national forum, our national theatre, and so on. I think it does it better than many of its critics who say it’s no longer worthwhile, charge its doing, but I don’t think it’s doing as well as it might in providing a high standard of public responsibility and public education with respect to what television does.

Heffner: You know, let me switch for a moment. Talking about teachers and teaching…I wondered how do we account for that Shavian attitude, best expressed by the old saw, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”, to which others have added, “Those who can’t teach, teach teachers”. How do we set that bit of nastiness in our national scene today?

Cremin: Well, there’s an aphorism that’s frequently quoted by historians which says that “Americans have professed great care and concern for their children. But they have never been willing to pay what it takes to give those children a first class education”. And teachers in our society from the time of the 1830s, 40, and 50s have been largely women. They have been largely underpaid, and there has been a subtle attitude of disdain for school teachers. They are frequently portrayed in caricature. It’s been what the sociologists call a “segmented profession” in which poorly paid teachers teach but the administrators tend to be males and so on. And I believe that some of the most altruistic, some of the finest people in our society have, indeed, become teachers at all levels. I have been in any number of elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities in which people have given their lives to teaching, very much as they’ve given their lives in other professions, to religion, to professions that are not well-paid. And, indeed, not only can they teach, they can do in what this society claims it values, namely nurturing children and in liberating their minds.

Heffner: Well, now recently, and we sit here in mid-1988, recently there have been statistics that indicate that once again there is a willingness, an eagerness, for young people to go into teaching.

Cremin: Indeed. Indeed, there’s a reaction against some of what I believe were the emphasis on money, money-making to the exclusion of all else. There’s a reaction against that on the part of young people and we are getting, at Teachers College, I know the same thing is happening at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, at some of the state universities, wonderful young people are coming into teaching now. They’re having a sense that this is a good way to spend their lives, but quite beyond that, in a number of experimental programs, adults who have been successful engineers, successful business people, are now saying, “I’ve done that. But I want to do something that’s more altruistic, something that gives me greater satisfaction. I’d like to work with the young”. And in a number of programs these people are going back to schools of education, getting their requisite training and they will be spending five, ten, fifteen years teaching.

Heffner: So it requires a level of altruism to teach in America.

Cremin: I believe so. Indeed. It’s not the way when you’re going to…it’s not the way you’re going to make a great fortune. It’s not the way you’re going to win large monetary rewards, but there are other rewards that those who go into teaching find that are as satisfying, if not more satisfying than large monetary awards. But that is not an excuse for not paying decent salaries to people who teach. And in many cities today, other public servants, people in the Department of Sanitation, other public servants are paid more than teachers, and we cannot attract even the altruistic people we need to the profession, unless those salaries are raised, Dick.

Heffner: You see, I wondered, reading these statistics of a shift toward teaching whether that was a function of increased salaries. Whether, indeed, we had gone over that hump.

Cremin: I think it is a function of increased salaries. And, indeed, I’ve criticized the National Report of the Commission on Excellence, but it has lead a number of states and localities to raise the salaries in the hope of attracting better teachers. The other thing is, of course, that for many years we’ve had a glut of school teachers. We’re increasingly facing shortages now of school teachers. Young people are responding to the sense of these shortages, and I think we’re going to have a galloping teacher shortage in the next three, four, five years, and it’s going to be a very attractive field for young people to go into.

Heffner: Larry, do you think that teachers are born, not made? Simplistic question, but I’m so interested to know your response.

Cremin: I think some teachers are born, not made. But a society that wants to have universal education cannot depend solely on teachers who are born. It must train teachers. It must prepare teachers. And I do think we know a great deal that we can systematically communicate to young people who want to become teachers, who will enable them to teach, the extraordinarily variegated people that come to an American school and an American college. I mean in the city of Los Angeles there are some forty, fifty languages spoken by recent immigrant children in the Los Angeles schools. In a city like Detroit, in a city like Cleveland, there’ll be ten, fifteen, twenty languages spoken in the schools. These languages are surrogates for tremendous variations in up-bringing, in styles of relating to people. A good teacher in an American classroom now needs tremendous skill in teaching different sorts of children to rise to their maximum capabilities.

Heffner: Are we providing the kind of education of educators?

Cremin: Not as well as we should. We simply don’t know enough, there’s…

Heffner: What do you mean “we don’t know enough”?

Cremin: A recent report of the General Accounting Office that came out of Washington looking simply at Federal dollars spent on education, and on education research indicates that in the last seven or eight years the expenditures for education in constant dollars of the Federal government have gone up thirty-seven, thirty-eight percent. The expenditures on educational research in the last fifteen, sixteen years, by the Federal government in constant dollars have gone down eight-seven percent. No business would run its operation that way. And it’s foolish for us to try to do the job of universal education, without a tremendous amount of research and development beyond what we’ve ever had of how to teach the enormous variety of young people who are in our schools and colleges today.

Heffner: That other focus of teaching, the family. You mention the family…

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: …the other program we did, you mention the family…

Cremin: Yes.

Heffner: …to begin here. What is your estimation of the success of our efforts to integrate the family back into the educational structure? That’s where it all began.

Cremin: Yes. Yes, yes. Well, the American family is changing, fundamentally. It’s changing in its structure. There are many more single parent families. There are many more single parent families embedded in different sorts of kin patterns. We can no longer assume the two parent family with tow children, one of either sex. There are many more dual career families, families in which both mother and father work at careers. There is a different relationship between the family and the school, occasioned by the fact that millions of immigrants come to the United States each year, been a tremendous immigration in the 1970s and 1980s. The school can no longer assume a particular pattern of behavior on the part of children. It can no longer expect that the family has prepared all children the same way. Teachers must be prepared to deal with a much greater variety of children. This is one of the reasons that there have been many proposals for day care; there have been many proposals to lower the age of schooling to four. There have been many proposals to put day care in the hands of school teachers. There’s a variety of proposals before the American people today because families cannot be depended upon to give the same kind of education that they were able to give fifty years ago, seventy-five years ago, or a hundred years ago.

Heffner: But what will be the impact upon family relationships if we make that assumption educationally? If we make the assumption that in a sense the schools must provide something that they can no longer take for granted? What would be the impact of that attitude upon, I’m not going to use a buzzword, the sanctity of the family, but upon the way the family works in this country?

Cremin: Well, the family is changing and therefore, I think its role in education and its role vis-à-vis churches, synagogues, schools will change. I think the clue, the secret to a success in this is we must create a kind of schooling and a kind of public education that families can buy into. I don’t think we can determine it from someplace else and impose it on families. Families won’t accept that. And we must build a relationship with the families of the children that are coming to school, so that the families trust the school, so they see the school as an enhancement of what they, themselves, are able to provide. One of the most successful school Superintendents of the last fifteen, twenty years is a man named Alonzo Crim, who for years has been Superintendent of Schools in the Atlanta Public School System. He did a number of things there that have been anathema in public education in the last twenty, thirty years. He brought the families into the school. He brought the Pastors into the school. He told the Pastors of the churches, “You can’t proselytize here, but we want you to come into the school to bespeak the significance of schooling to the children”. And there was a compliment between what the school was teaching and what the parents and what the churches wanted for the schools that simply enhanced the effort of the schools, with a result, not surprisingly, that the scores on the tests in Atlanta went up. The achievement of the children went up. You got reinforcement, but the families “bought in”. Nothing was imposed on them.

Heffner: Now I gather you mention this particular superintendent in Atlanta because that is not the pattern of our activity in much of the rest of the country.

Cremin: No, it is not. The pattern for much too long has been a sense that the professionalism of teachers implies that parents ought to kind of stop at the door. The churches, of course, belong no where in the school, because that’s religion and we have the separation of church and state. And the teacher, as the professionals, must have sole control. I don’t believe that kind of attitude on the part of teachers can persist, and, indeed, I think most teachers don’t have that kind of attitude today. I think there’s much more of a willingness to collaborate with parents and other institutions in building the best kind of education possible.

Heffner: Does this mean, essentially, instead of taking over, or attempting to take over the role of the family, it means educating the family to do what it once did and needs to do again.

Cremin: That’s part of it. I think another part of it is that schools need to listen more carefully to what families are doing and what they would have the school do and there must be a greater pattern of collaboration which will lead not to the same curriculum in every locality, but to variations in curricula in locality. Sarah Lightfoot, a professor up at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written a book called The Good High School and in that book she shows how good high schools can take many different forms depending on the community there embedded in, on the clienteles that attend them, on the parents involved, the kind of teacher and so on. Professor Lightfoot is an anthropologist and she has special capability of understanding using the techniques of ethnography, the social patterns that hold a school together, whatever its curriculum happens to be.

Heffner: In the thirty, forty seconds we have left, I know so well that you’re an optimist, Larry Cremin…

Cremin: I am.

Heffner: …and you always have been. Will numbers permit you to continue to be so optimistic? The sheer weight of numbers in American education?

Cremin: I believe the numbers will, if the society cares enough. If the society cares enough, has high expectations, and is willing to put its resources where its expectations are, I have no doubt but that we can continue the very special American achievement in the filed of popular education.

Heffner: I like that as a way to end our program. Larry Cremin, think you so much for joining me again today.

Cremin: Thank you, Dick.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme, today’s guest, 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.