The Clare Spark Blog

August 3, 2011

Jobs program for education reformers, or, the New Prometheus

Lawrence A. Cremin

It is a terrific shock to move away from a close reading of The Federalist (with its nod to popular sovereignty and the age of Reason in the service of human material betterment) to anything written by such education historians as Diane Ravitch or her distinguished colleague Lawrence A. Cremin (1925-1990). Here is how Professor Cremin ended his Inglis and Burton Lectures at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, March 1989:

[Cremin, Popular Education and its Discontents, p.123-25:] “More than ever before in our history, we need systematic, dependable knowledge about teaching and learning in school and non-school contexts, concerning elementary and advanced subject matter, and with respect to the extraordinary range of racial, religious, and ethnic groups that constitute the American people. We need basic research, applied research, and policy research from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives; we need to know much more than we now know about how to put the results of that research into the hands of practitioners during their initial training and throughout their careers; and we need to learn how to draw practitioners far more closely into the conduct of that research than we have in the past. In short, we can no longer proceed on the time-honored assumption that some youngsters will inevitably fail in school and that some adults will inevitably remain illiterate and ignorant.* Yet we face the stark fact that while the Department of Defense has a research budget that represents some 12% of its total budget, the Department of Education has a research budget that represents just under 2% of its total budget. Until this situation is changed markedly, it is sheer nonsense to talk about excellence in American education. Ultimately, I believe the sponsorship of educational research on a large-scale and enduring basis must become a prime responsibility of the federal government.

In the end, we must place our education programs on a sufficiently solid basis of tested knowledge so that educational opportunity for all people becomes a genuine opportunity to master the knowledge and skills and to learn the values, attitudes, and sensibilities that will enable them to live happily and productively in the modern world. What is at stake is our vision of the kinds of human beings we would hope Americans to be in the last years of the twentieth and the first years of the twenty-first centuries, and of the kinds of education that will help bring these human beings into existence. John Dewey liked to define the aim of education as growth, and when he was asked growth toward what, he liked to reply, growth leading to more growth. That was his way of saying that education is subordinate to no end beyond itself, that the aim of education is not merely to make parents, or citizens [!], or workers, or indeed to surpass the Russians or the Japanese, but ultimately to make human beings who will live life to the fullest, who will continue to add to the quality and meaning of their experience and to their ability to direct that experience, and who will participate actively with their fellow human beings in the building of a good society. To create such an education will be no small task in the years ahead, but there is no more important political contribution to be made to the health and vitality of the American democracy and of the world community of which the United States is part.” [end Cremin lecture]

[My comments:] Mind you, both Cremin and Ravitch continually complain that Americans have millennial expectations of their public schools, expecting them to compensate for problems not of their making, such as poverty, unequal housing, and racism:  he left that part out of his (millennial) concluding remarks. Note too how completely Cremin has discarded American Exceptionalism as understood in the debates over ratifying the Constitution, with their emphasis on a citizenry prepared to rationally deliberate upon the great questions facing the uniquely constituted republic. But in Cremin’s dream, we are to be both part of a “world community” and members of a racial, religious, or ethnic group—diverse in our groupiness, and yet pursuing happiness and meaning in our particular, if unspecified, individual ways. “Research” conducted with diverse methods and perspectives, yet mystically harmonized by the Department of Education-approved pioneers, can light the way to the great, enduring fulfillment.

For a more recent statement advancing the same agenda, see http://toped.svefoundation.org/2011/08/01/ravitch-darling-hammond-why-we-protest/.

*This is a very odd statement coming from Cremin, as the notion of universal education had been promoted for centuries. Both he and Ravitch were heavily influenced by Robert M. Hutchins, an originator of socially responsible capitalism (see chapter 9 of Hunting Captain Ahab or this excerpt on the website: https://clarespark.com/2010/06/19/committee-for-economic-development-and-its-sociologists/), and who was in turn inspired by Comenius (1592-1670) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Amos_Comenius), the influential advocate of the universal education that would ‘perfect human nature.’ In Hutchins’s The Learning Society (1968), he defines the purpose of education in terms that Cremin and Ravitch would understand: “…education leads to understanding; it has no more ‘practical’ aim. It does not have as its object the ‘production’ of Christians, democrats, Communists, workers, citizens, Frenchmen, or businessmen. It is interested in the development of human beings through the development of their minds. Its aim is not manpower, but manhood.” (vii). And yet, further on, Hutchins suggests that the experiment with universal education in the Soviet Union should be applied to “Bantus of Africa or even among the Negroes of of Harlem or Mississippi.” Moreover, he has hopes for the Communist Chinese experiment. (14) [end, Hutchins excerpts] This is confusing, because Hutchins has in mind a liberal education that will free the mind of everyone from a modernity that is one-sidedly technical and obsessed with engineering, science, and  economics. He writes like a 1960s radical (he actually quotes Jacques Ellul, and echoes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man), as a New Leftist or even a New Age mystic. Hence, the new Prometheans are the education reformers who free mankind from slavery to technique/technics! Imagine that. When you return the secret of fire to the gods, what have you got left in your new freedom? Certainly not the Enlightenment that inspired The Federalist.

It is but a short step from Hutchins’ spiritualized, defanged modernity to the ethical state favored by Italian Fascists and their progressive sympathizers in the U.S. Richard Crossman was correct in his Plato Today to propose that Platonic philosopher kings would be at home in the totalitarian societies of the 1930s.

August 24, 2009

“‘The People’ is an Ass” (or a “Herd”?)

A Piranesi “prison”

Prior blogs have touched upon the lineage of so-called multiculturalism, a reactionary ideological offensive that confused individuals with groups and suppressed economic explanations for conflict and change in favor of cultural anthropological ones. As a manifestation of German Romanticism, it was an aesthetic theory buttressing a political structure: an irrationalist völkisch “aristo-democracy” (Herder). The German Romantics and their popularizers in England and America, men like Carlyle and Emerson, waved their supple poetic individuality, unique, yet imperceptibly diffused into race and nation and time itself as Schlegel had advised.

The aristo-democrats were the blooming correctives to the dessicating “mechanical” rationalism and universalism that had undergirded popular sovereignty for the seventeenth-century political theorist of constitutional democracy, John Locke. In the eighteenth century, Piranesi would visualize this Lockean world in a series of engravings, his nightmarish urban spaces/prisons. Lord Byron counterattacked with Lockean Prometheans, images of indomitable humanity: fatherless, yet kind, ameliorative and intellectually fortified. In the later nineteenth century, Piranesi’s desolate, gigantic scenes of torture would reappear in James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, the City ruled by numeracy and literacy personified in Melencolia, the Queen patterned after both Dürer’s famous image of writer’s block, and George Eliot, Thomson’s contemporary, the realist novelist, author of Felix Holt, Radical. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, and look for the passages on James Thomson.)

I have mentioned just a few instances of cultural conflict over accountability: the culture wars are fought over you and me, non-experts in an advanced, complex, and hierarchical, yet “democratic” industrialized society. Confident in the capacity of ordinary people to test their betters, Locke, like ourselves, was up against centuries of conservative antidemocratic propaganda on behalf of a tribal or feudal order where either Nature or arbitrary authority were taken for granted as immovable. Not surprisingly, social obligations (contracts) were vertical, links in the Great Chain of Being, not horizontal agreements between equals, each party theoretically free to walk away from a bad deal. Locke’s antagonistic contemporary, the proto-Tory Robert Filmer (d. 1653) summarized centuries of antidemocratic wisdom in his Patriarcha:

[Filmer:] “I know not how to give a better character of the people than can be gathered from such authors as have lived among or near to popular states. Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Sallust have set them out in their colours. I will borrow some of their sentences.

‘There is nothing more uncertain than the people: their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests: there is neither truth nor judgment in them: they are not led by wisdom to judge of anything, but by violence and rashness, nor put they any difference between things true and false. After the matter of cattle they follow the herd that goes before: with envious eyes they behold the felicity of others: they have a custom always to favor the worst and weakest: they are most prone to suspicions, and use to condemn men for guilty upon every false suggestion. They are apt to believe all news, especially if it be sorrowful, and, like Fame, they make it more in the believing: when there is no author, they fear those evils which they themselves have feigned: they are most desirous of new stirs and changes, and are enemies to quiet and rest. Whatsoever is giddy or headstrong, they account manly and courageous, but whatever is modest or provident seems sluggish: each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good: they look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person. It is the nature of them: they must either serve basely or domineer proudly, for they know no mean.’ Thus do their own friends paint to the life this beast of many heads. Let me give you the cypher of their form of government. As it is begot by sedition, so it is nourished by arms: it can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home. The only means to preserve it is to have some powerful enemy near, who may serve instead of a king to govern it, that so, that they have not a King over them, for the common danger of an enemy keeps them in better unity than the laws they make themselves.” [end Filmer quote]

The foil to all this irrationality is of course the reformed queen/king; the paragon of moderation has renounced absolutist, arbitrary rule for a limited, constitutional monarchy: one that protects the body politic from combative and divisive “special interests.” Unlike the Cool Head with the Warm Heart, Filmer’s “people” are the locus of selfish individualism; the people are incapable of solidarity without an external enemy; the ever-befuddled people lack the self-control to separate inner voices and impulses from the outer world; the people have no self-respect: they may be servile or, given a measure of authority, they will whip their charges to extract obedience; i.e., the barbaric, headlong people have neither the taste nor the capacity for gentleness or politeness. Let them have outlets for their characteristic sadism and masochism, as Geoffrey Gorer proposed in 1934; ‘tis better than the trap of romantic love. After the second world war Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism popularized the notion of protofascist “mob society”–both cynical and gullible–in terms that echoed Filmer. Similarly, Todd Gitlin has claimed that the mounting Right-wing critique of the new curricula is best understood as a frenzied hunt for new scapegoats after the Cold War was won in 1989; Gitlin asserts that the presence of the Other provides the only source of “national identity.”

Return now to the seventeenth century. Responding to the autocratic Filmer, John Locke adumbrated his concept of legitimate authority. In The Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke argued that monarchs were not beyond criticism, nor were the people so unbalanced that they could not assess their own interests and the performance of their protectors:

[Locke:] “The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should always be exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in their use of power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation, of the properties of their people?
     Nor let anyone say that mischief can arise from hence as often as it shall please a busy head or turbulent spirit to desire the alteration of the government. It is true such men may stir whenever they please, but it will be only to their own just ruin and perdition. For till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part of the people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir. The example of particular injustice or oppression of here and there an unfortunate man moves them not. But if they universally have a persuasion grounded upon manifest evidence that designs are carrying on against their liberties, and the general course and tendency of things cannot but give them strong suspicions of the evil intentions of their governors, who is to be blamed for it? Who can help it if they, who might avoid it, bring themselves into this suspicion? Are the people to be blamed if they have the sense of rational creatures, and can think of things no otherwise than as they find and feel them? And is it not rather their fault who put things in such a posture that they would not have them thought as they are? I grant that the pride, ambition, and turbulency of private men have sometimes caused great disorders in commonwealths, and factions have been fatal to states and kingdoms. But whether the mischief hath oftener begun in the people’s wantonness, and a desire to cast off the lawful authority of their rulers, or in the rulers’ insolence and endeavours to get and exercise an arbitrary power over their people, whether oppression or disobedience gave the first rise to the disorder, I leave it to impartial history to determine. This I am sure, whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the formulation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, he is guilty of the greatest crime I think a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country; and he who does it is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly.” [end Locke quote]

Yes, there are demagogues, but they would have no credibility were it not for the excesses of the rulers. Taken with his statements on natural law, it is clear that Locke is not protecting private property as unlimited personal aggrandizement, but the confiscation of lower-class property and labor by tyrannical rulers–a crucial distinction for those who view Locke as an image of Filmer’s people: the “possessive individualist” par excellence. The radical liberal ideal of one set of rules for rich and poor alike and the assumption of rationalism upon which the rule of law depended was a radical innovation; it remains an advanced position and belongs in the democratic tradition, notwithstanding efforts to brand Locke solely as a hypocrite and supporter of slavery.

Tories and Whigs crucially differed on the educational potential of “the people.” If Nature’s God was a democrat for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century progressive bourgeois, organic conservatives reclaimed Nature for the aristocracy. In antebellum America, Filmer’s good fathers were models for socially responsible slaveholders contrasting their benevolent paternalism with the cruelty of northern laissez-faire capitalism and class struggle. Indeed, the distinguished historian of the South, C.Vann Woodward, a participant in the Martha’s Vineyard conference on “Racism and Education” (excerpted in my blog on Pacifica, Part One) revived the southern apologist for slavery George Fitzhugh to lobby for organic conservatism as antidote to today’s mass society. Filmer’s image of “the people” would be indistinguishable from “the unconscious” in the social psychology espoused by many in the twentieth-century Progressive movement–conservative reformers responding to the rapid growth of industrialism and class warfare that Northern victory in the Civil War facilitated. Mass “irrationality” remains the argument for the eternal rule of philosopher-kings operating “in the public interest” in bureaucratic collectivist societies. While Lockean ideas of the common good have been co-opted, Filmer’s theory shades upper-class secret machinations from the blazing eyes of the lower orders. The unresolved debate between Filmer and Locke frames the work of the Yankee Doodle Society; our models of human capacity determine our politics as we face “the mischief…grown general” on our endangered planet.

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