U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Not Educational History?

This post should be considered as both an original thread and as my response to the question posed earlier regarding the most important secondary works in U.S. intellectual history.

It is a given that most U.S. intellectual historians, in order to find work, sell themselves as something different, typically as cultural historians. I posit that we as U.S. intellectual historians might also consider educational history as an important sub-discipline through which to do intellectual history. There are both professional and historiographical justifications for such a move.

Professionally, this move is grounded in a realism born of survival instincts. In other words, it will increase the likelihood of us getting jobs. Education is growing faster as a major than anything else, save perhaps nursing (or the healthcare fields more generally). I realize most of us likely oppose this general shift in higher education – an increasing emphasis on the professions and trades – as being at one with the crude logic of market utilitarianism. I know I oppose it. But, as colleges of education grow, so too will the need for educational historians. Why not do the work we love – researching and teaching U.S. intellectual history – in an institutional setting that offers job security? I am lucky enough to have a tenure-track job in a history department. But I owe such providence to my willingness to work with teachers-in-training. History education courses dominate my teaching responsibilities. But, in essence, I teach intellectual history and historiography – snuck in the back door of a “methods” course. And I love it!

Historiographically, there is a strong rationale for intellectual historians doing educational history. There was a time when educational history was treated as mainstream intellectual history by some of the discipline’s more venerable historians. I’ll briefly focus on the work of Richard Hofstadter and Lawrence Cremin.

Tim cited Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” as being an important secondary work in U.S. intellectual historiography. I agree – but would argue that it’s also a seminal work in educational history. The last two chapters of the book are dedicated to progressive education and its great theorist, John Dewey, who didn’t distinguish between educational and political philosophy. In the words of David Brown in his book “Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography,” Hofstadter “hoped to establish a new historiography, to present the educational past as indispensable to the progress of American freedoms…” Hofstadter believed that “some of the greatest struggles for liberty were carried off in the relative obscurity of quiet New England colleges or among the nation’s major universities. Nor was this ancient history. Now that modernity had aroused the enemies of intellect, the battle was rejoined.” When he first started to delve into educational historiography, in Brown’s words, “Hofstadter wrote Merle Curti that he was struck by how much there was to be learned about intellectual life in America by studying its schools.” Brown argues that his work on educational ideas “led directly to The Age of Reform and its more ambitious offspring Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” (p. 79)

Lawrence Cremin is mostly remembered as an educational historian as opposed to an intellectual historian. However, I would argue that in the current scholarly context, Cremin’s work would find more affinity with intellectual historians, especially since most recent educational historiography has much more of an institutional focus (much to its detriment). His monster tome “American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980” (the third in a three-part chronological series) reads to me much more like intellectual history – and good intellectual history to boot. (In fact, I would add it to the list of important secondary works in U.S. intellectual history.) In the preface, Cremin writes that he takes the history of ideas seriously “not as disembodied notions or as mere rationalizations of existential reality, but rather as moving forces that operate within a social context, that compete for attention, and that profoundly affect what people believe is possible and desirable in the realm of education.” (p. x)

I would argue that if we, like Cremin, are interested in the power and contexts of ideas, we must take the history of schooling seriously. It is in the schools where modern Americans have learned how to think, so to speak. We can learn a great deal about epistemology by studying educational history. Let me offer an example by way of an argument I make in my soon-to-be-published book “Education and the Cold War” – an extension of an argument made by Edward Purcell, Jr. in his incredibly important 1973 book “The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value” (leaving this book off any list of important secondary works is a case of unintended negligence):

In my book I examine the ways in which the twentieth century crisis of epistemology entered the arena of education. In the late 1930s, as the specter of global war approached reality, intellectual debates such as the one that surrounded pragmatism and progressive education took on added meaning. Democracy was thought to be on the brink of extinction in the face of the totalitarian threat represented by Nazi Germany. A sense of doom pervaded U.S. intellectual life and contributed to an intellectual crisis that was as confounding as it was shrill. The crisis took on heightened perplexity when theorists increasingly debated one another across analytical terrains, blurring the unstable boundaries that had traditionally guarded seemingly separate intellectual spheres. Because theorists wondered if democracy could survive the tumult of their times, they attempted to reformulate democratic theory by increasingly framing political ideology and epistemology as correlatives. In other words, intellectuals conflated their theories on the ways in which people organized their thinking on political matters (ideology) with their conceptions about the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge (epistemology).

As Purcell has shown, before World War II, American social thinkers fell into two deeply divided camps: scientific naturalists, including John Dewey and other pragmatists, who emphasized experimentation and empirical study; and philosophic rationalists such as University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, who prioritized models of absolute truth. According to Purcell, a “neo-Aristotelian revival” produced an invigorated movement of philosophers who believed “human reason could discover certain immutable metaphysical principles that explained the true nature of reality.” In opposition to such an epistemological position, the scientific naturalists, in rejecting the notion that any a priori truths existed, argued that “metaphysics was merely a cover for human ignorance and superstition.” (p. 3)

In this anxious climate, both sides of the prewar theoretical bifurcation framed their epistemological positions as the appropriate correlatives of political democracy. Furthermore, they argued their opponents were in cahoots with totalitarianism. In other words, naturalists argued that the rigid rationalist framework was consistent with political absolutism in its hostility to intellectual change, flexibility, and relativity. In contrast, rationalists contended that the naturalist refusal to prioritize certain principles as universally true or intrinsically superior helped breed a cultural relativism that paved the way for political forms of nihilism, including fascism.

By the beginning of the Cold War, this crisis was seemingly resolved in what Purcell termed the “relativist theory of democracy,” a stripped-down version of Dewey’s pragmatism in which democracy was made normative to America. The relativist theory of democracy blended what its practitioners believed were the best elements of naturalism, especially a faith in the methodologies of the empirical social sciences, with a co-opted version of rationalism, particularly a Platonic or metaphysical belief that American democracy was an end in itself. Although the relativist theorists of democracy considered themselves pragmatists in their attention to means, pragmatism as an identifiable philosophical radicalism, personified by Dewey in its aggressive and reform-oriented form, faded from view. Rather than critique democracy as it existed, relativist theorists assumed that American society was the democratic ideal. The status quo became an end in itself as intellectuals focused their labors on political stability.

But despite the fact that the relativist theory of democracy seemingly represented a consensus in the realm of political ideology, it never resolved deep-seated epistemological rifts. If epistemology and political ideology were indeed intertwined, an implicit assumption made by most postwar intellectuals, the relativist theory of democracy won broad acceptance in U.S. political culture because of its adherence to a naturalist epistemology. It was seen as an ethical alternative to “totalitarianism,” a concept that encompassed monolithic enemies old and new – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – because it was epistemologically opposed to totalitarianism. As the Nazis and Soviets represented epistemological and political absolutism, the United States came to signify epistemological and political democracy, defined by the traits of flexibility, pluralism, and diversity. Thus, democratic relativists committed their intellectual energies to preserving the American status quo. Brought to its logical conclusion, the relativist theory of democracy became a philosophical rationale for Cold War liberalism.

Even if there was a political resolution in the form of the relativist theory of democracy, the epistemological differences that divided the American mind before the war were never resolved. The arguments made by partisans of the 1930s battles with regards to their opponents’ epistemological relation to Nazism were also made in the Cold War context. For example, rationalists and traditionalist conservatives maintained that epistemological relativism left the back door open to Soviet totalitarianism. They argued that, because people inherently believed in truth, they would, in a state of confusion, seek out the communist grand narrative as an alternative to their own intellectual society’s failures to offer them a non-relativist worldview. However, due to the fact that the Cold War captured epistemological naturalism and made it acceptable to the American elites who funded social scientific research, rationalists sought new venues to voice their displeasure with naturalism and relativism. The Cold War rationalists, and other counter-progressives, especially conservatives, formed their arguments in the context of the educational shouting matches of the 1940s and 1950s.

In the world of U.S. education, a progressive movement called the “life adjustment movement” was the pedagogical counterpart to the relativist theory of democracy. The life adjustment educators assumed that U.S. society was ideal and thus focused almost entirely on means rather than ends. The radically reformist ideas of progressive educators or pedagogical reconstructionists of the 1930s, termed the “frontier thinkers,” who wanted to use the schools as a means to a social democratic ends, were ditched by World War II in favor of educational stability, efficiency, and child-centered gimmickry. But unlike the relativist theory of democracy, the pedagogy of life adjustment never resulted in a political ideological resolution. Rather, this movement sparked the flames of discontent in the realms of both epistemology and political ideology.

The crisis in democratic educational theory was never settled. Instead, it was displaced in the form of the sustained critique of progressive education. A broad counter-progressive critique emerged as a modified rationalist response to an educational relativism that was deemed too “soft.” A nation involved in a global struggle against communism needed to be intellectually “hard,” hard being the equivalent of manly, non-relativist intellectual life. This counter-progressive critique should be thought of in the context of a continued crisis of democratic theory. Liberal and conservative intellectuals had both epistemological and political problems with progressive education, deemed too “soft” – politically and epistemologically – for the global struggle against communism. This conflict over the epistemological and political roots of progressive education is central to my book.

In conclusion (sorry for the lengthiness of this post!), I would argue that educational history should be more central to U.S. intellectual history than other national intellectual historiographies because education has often served a common American religion of sorts. Americans often express their political aspirations in educational terms.



5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ll comment on the substance of Andrew’s post in the next few days. For now, however, I want our graduate student readers to know about a conference on the philosophy of education later this year, hosted by other graduate students, at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I’ve never been to “GSCOPE,” but the topic of their Oct. 2007 conference is absolutely related to Andrew’s post. Here’s an excerpt from GSCOPE’s CFP:

    “Could we speak of philosophizing not only who we are but also where we are? Inspired by SFU’s architectural periodization, we would like to offer the image of multiversity (in contrast to ‘university’) as an entry point for our [CFP]. . . . What are the aims and purposes of education in a world challenged by notions of postmodernity while the necessities of living, and of living and working in schools in particular are still largely directed by modernity? Where do we situate the emerging selves of those engaged in the educational endeavor in the varying architectures of schooling? We invite you to philosophize on the interconnected themes of place, time, knowledge, self, and culture.”

    As intellectual historians, we should not of course shy away from thinking about philosophy and its effects on history. Intellectual historians bring a unique perspective to this subject, and – dare I say it – a potentially more rigorous analytical skill set than historians from other subfields. – TL

  2. Andrew (& Others),

    Great post! This is a nice kick-off to our attempts to add original content and thinking to the site.

    I loved the notion from Hofstadter’s letter to Curti on “how much there was to be learned about intellectual life in America by studying its schools.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact it makes me regret that I overlooked histories of education in forming my list. I’ve profited a great deal from Cremin’s trilogy, as well as Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University.

    Still, are education schools a viable home for intellectual historians? I’m not so sure. Most schools that put out searches for historians of education also require concurrent teacher certification, for high school at least.

    Thanks for the book preview. Your project buttresses, or at least resembles, arguments I made in my dissertation about Mortimer Adler. The title of my diss. says it all: “Making a Democratic Culture: The Great Books Idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and Twentieth-Century America.” Adler also fits, as a historical figure, because he was a philosopher and an educational theorist.

    With that, I disagree with the characterization of Robert M. Hutchins. He had his weaknesses, but he was less a “truth monger” than his opponents, as well as other historians today, would allow us to believe. Hutchins was a disciple of Adler in philosophy (if not ~always~ in educational philosophy), and from the 1930s to the 1950s Adler espoused a “dialectical” theory of truth and philosophy. Adler admired “truth” as it was sought by Aquinas and Aristotle in private, but for much of his public endeavors he (and Hutchins) believed that students need to be exposed to competing theories of truth. The best representation of this, to Hutchins and Adler, were the great books. They saw the great books not as a monolithic purveyor of certain and sure Western truths (hence Marx and Nietzsche’s inclusion), but rather as a vessel of powerful, diverse competing truths that happened to arise in the context of the West. To them the great books represented, in a microcosm, the competition for truth faced by citizens in a democracy.

    I know this goes against the present-day, pithy statements learned about educational “perennialists,” but it is nevertheless true. And I won’t deny that Adler and Hutchins were fans of metaphysics. But they saw that “branch” of philosophy as the one unifier of all branches, not necessarily as a direct means for forming one’s educational philosophy.

    I’ll have to read up on Purcell to say more about that portion of your post, but it gave me food for thought. I also appreciated the oblique reference to Robert Bellah’s work in your final paragraph. Bellah will make it into my diss.-as-book manuscript.

    All the best – TL

  3. Thanks for your response to my post Tim. I actually somewhat agree with two of your comments.

    First, I don’t think schools of education are necessarily a good place for us as intellectual historians to work, for the reason you stated – they require teacher certification (which, by the way, I have, since I taught high school in a past life) – and for a whole host of other reasons, not the least of which is that schools of education don’t always value a liberal, discipline-specific approach. But I think the sub-discipline of educational history will grow, and if we can get jobs and make inroads without compromising our scholarly integrity (not easy), maybe it’s an option. That being said, I’m VERY happy to have a job in a history department. Thus, contemplating working in a college of education is easier for me to do for an anonymous group of other scholars than for myself.

    Second, I agree that my brief caricature of Hutchins is a little misleading. I go against this reading of him as a “perennialist” in a chapter that deals with Hutchins extensively. In fact, I include Hutchins with Hofstadter and Arthur Bestor as a group of liberal counter-progressives that defy easy category. But the Hutchins of the 1930s and the Hutchins-as-compared-to John Dewey was much closer to being absolute in his epistemology.

    I look forward to reading your work on Adler.


  4. I’ve got nothing to add to the disputes about Hutchins’s true intellectual nature, but can say that I personally know two historians who are working in education schools right now.

  5. Andrew et. al.

    In reality, we all probably either already do or will soon have to choose a sub-field within US Intellectual in which we primarily work. Unless we’re working at a near meta-historical level for US Intellectual History, the volume of sources and the structures of our training force us into a sub-field.

    Education is certainly an under-mined one. Religion, the sub-field I’m in, certainly can’t be said to be under-mined, but it does offer opportunities for intellectual historians. Because many universities and colleges are or were at one time in the recent past church-affiliated, they have a vested interest in the history of ideas, especially those schools/church traditions which come at religion from an especially intellectual angle (Calvin College springs to mind).

    Your admonition about viewing education as a ripe field for examination by intellectual historians meshes well with Tim’s note in his review of Greene’s artilce that the subject matter for intellectual historians must not be confined to “super-intellectuals” (my term). As Greene said, (using Tim’s quotation), “it makes little difference [in the practice of intellectual history] whether [your subject] is a ‘great thinker’ or just a country parson grinding out a sermon.” (Tim Lacy, “John C. Greene’s ‘Objectives and Methods in Intellectual History”: A 50-Year Retrospective Review and Comment”, USIH)

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