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

*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:, and who was in turn inspired by Comenius (1592-1670) (, 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.


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