U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Educational/Intellectual Query

This query was sent to me by Thomas Hagedorn. Below that is my reply and also a response from Tim Lacy.

Thomas wrote:

I was excited to learn about the new blog that you participate in and even more thrilled to read your recent lengthy post about the job opportunities for intellectual historians in schools of education.

I hope that you can help me with a fairly narrow inquiry that I have.

First, some background for you. I am not well-versed in intellectual history and that is probably a charitable description. Second, I am a self-trained historian, with only one brief semester of graduate school.

Third, I am close to completion of a 120,000 word history of the common school movement. This work is narrative, nonfiction American History. It is written as a popular or trade history, that also speaks to and addresses scholars interested in the origins of the American public schools and the common school movement. I am now doing research on the last part of the book and am reviewing once again other historians’ work, including textbooks. I am particularly interested in what grad students in ed schools are being taught about this period.

I am quite puzzled about the treatment of educational philosophy from the end of the revolutionary era, up to the Civil War. For example, in History of Education in America, by Pulliam and Van Patten (2007), they describe six educational philosophies Perennialism, Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Reconstructionism, and Protest Philosophies on pages 35-61. Many other textbooks and other monographs seem to use the “Enlightenment” in a very sloppy way, without consideration for some of the distinctions made by Henry May (Enlightenment in America). Skeptical enlightenment figures like Rousseau, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine are put center stage.

Yet my research shows that a very strong role in the common school movement was played by Calvinists, trained at Yale or Princeton or one of the many Calvinist colleges established in the West in this period (Illinois College in Jacksonville would be a good example). These folks were steeped in Scottish Common Sense Realism (SCSR). Yet, I find little or no mention of Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, John Witherspoon, Timothy Dwight (Yale), Nathaniel William Taylor, Dugald Stewart (Virginia) and Samuel Stanhope Smith (Princeton) in the work of others. It has been two years since I did this line of research, so I need to dust it off a bit, but I think Cremin is about the only ed historian who touched on this.

In a “taxonomy” of philosophies, would SCSR fall under Realism? My guess would be “no” because I can’t imagine these orthodox Calvinists sitting in the same intellectual pew with Bertrand Russell.

If you accept my premise that these Calvinists played a dominant role in the common school movement (I have amassed lots of basic biographical evidence, from many states), where then is the treatment of their philosophy – SCSR – in most of the monographs and textbooks? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question, to further explain my real question above.)

I hope you can help in some way.

Tom Hagedorn

Andrew Hartman wrote:

Dear Tom:

Thanks for your positive response to our new blog and thanks also for your query. Tim Lacy, one of our co-editors, is also interested in the intersections of intellectual and educational history. In fact, I would venture to say he might be able to help you more than me because I’m afraid this terrain is a little out of my element — I focus on the twentieth century.

I think you’re probably on the right track when you argue that the common schools were not rooted in the Enlightenment thought of Rousseau, et. all. As I’m sure you know, Rousseau was influential amongst American transcendentalists, but his educational thought never really had much influence on school policy. The child-centered movement was huge in the Progressive Era, but except for a few exceptions (G. Stanley Hall) it wasn’t rooted in a pastoral vision of childhood a la Rousseau. The leaders of the Free School Movement in the 1960s were all readers of Emile, but they barely made a mark in the world of education except as a sort of novelty.

If graduate students aren’t reading about the influence of Scottish Realism it’s probably due to a larger problem in educational historiography. At least until the mid-twentieth century, educational historians were rarely more than boosters. They were liberals or progressives (depending on the decade) and they wrote about their fellow liberals or progressives from earlier times. And when this style of historical writing went out of fashion, it was replaced by a tradition rooted in US social history, which was tied up in Marxism and critical theory. These historians critiqued the liberal tradition (both history and historiography) for its attempts to create docile subjects for the corporate order. I’m partial to this style of analysis, but can see that it might be problematic that these historians, like their liberal forebears, never questioned whether or not the original schoolmasters were themselves Rousseau-style liberals. Maybe they were conservatives — if this is how one might classify SCSR? I can’t really speak to how influential SCSR was. I know Horace Mann is commonly assumed to be perhaps the most influential of the early reformers. And he had sort of a “common sense” approach — and was typically blind to the ways in which what was sensible to him and people of his class (anti-factionalism, for example) was not necessarily sensible to others.

Tim Lacy wrote:

On your SCSR question, if you couldn’t find your answers in Cremin I or II, I would go to the following: Bruce Kuklick’s ‘The History of Philosophy in America.’ It covers both the philosophy and the period (1780-1860) about which you’re concerned. I do recall SCSR having a connection with Calvinism. However, there is another kind of realism, distinct from SCSR, that arose around 1910-1920. Adherents included Arthur Lovejoy, George Santayana, etc. This later group reacted to Idealism, which itself was a partial reaction to SCSR.

As for Pulliam and Van Patten, well, they’re concerned with educating teachers broadly, not the whole of the history of the philosophy of education. It’s a fine book, but I wouldn’t use it for “the” answers if you’re writing an authoritative account.


2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You might want to look at Merle Curti, Human Nature in American Thought, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980. He discusses the influence of SCSR on pre-Civil War U.S. intellectual history at some length.

  2. On the role of the Presbyterian church in education, look at Lewis Sherrill, _Presbyterian Parochial Schools, 1846-1870_ (Yale, 1932). It is not a work of intellectual history, but it does lay out the debate in a satisfactory manner. The core of the debate was whether education was the duty of the parent (acting through the church) or the state. In broad strokes, northern Presbyterians argued for parochial schools run by churches, southern Presbyterians for the state. This debate involved all the major Presbyterian theologians, including those most known as proponents of SCSR (such as Charles Hodge, who favored parochial schools, and R. J. Breckinridge, a theologian as well as the State Superintendent of Education in Kentucky).

    For Common Sense Realism in the 19th c., historians of religion have done the best work. Look at Theodore Dwight Bozeman, _Protestants in an Age of Science (University of North Carolina, 1977) and Mark Noll, “Common Sense Traditions and American Evangelical Thought” American Quarterly 37 (1985): 216-238. The reaction against SCSR can be found in Romantics such as Horace Bushnell, whose _Christian Nurture_ had a profound effect on religious education that probably spilled over into public schools as well.

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