U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable on Hartman’s Education and the Cold War (Part II): A Review by Joe Petrulionis

Guidance for the Perplexed

Many people will not appreciate this book. Any candid review should help such readers save their precious money and more scarce reading time. With this initial caveat, I condition my strong recommendation in favor of this scholarly analysis of a timely and politically charged topic. But if you believe the expenditure of public funds in support of free and secular education to be an inappropriate role for a government; if you think the only proper places to learn to read, calculate, and write are in the church basement or at your own breakfast table, then you should avoid this book. With all due respect, it does not weigh in to your squabble, but presumes public education to be both beneficial and appropriate.

Andrew Hartman, these days Assistant Professor of History at Illinois State University and formerly a public school teacher, interweaves and sustains several complex arguments, the most central of which emerges from a causal analysis of the theoretical developments in the public school curriculum. As one might expect, this analysis includes a detailed description of the socio-political context for successive curricular policies. But it also paints a convincing, if more subtle, portrait of the opposite, the impact of the curriculum on the national political paradigm. Surprisingly, the resulting conclusions are not so stark as to place either educational curriculum or political concerns into dependable correspondences. Parallel to this historical analysis runs another more philosophical argument about the relative or absolute nature of truth, or at least the way various participants in this venerable debate have been invoked to excuse periodic interventions conducted in both the name of “the child” and for the good of “the nation.”

Hartman accomplishes these ambitious goals by focusing on the Cold War Era, but he recaptures the threads of the narratives where they begin, even when the search may require a visit to Cotton Mather or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This is not a simple story to tell but the tenacious reader will be well compensated.

The book is organized according to developments in the American public school curriculum; therefore it casts only a shadow of chronological order. Since policies and practices of public education rarely moved in uniformity in all regions of the United States and at all levels of government, Education and the Cold War succeeds in achieving coherence by beginning and finishing one story–usually–before undertaking the next. Not diversions, and certainly not pauses for analysis, these individual pieces of the mosaic are each engaging narratives in themselves. Reconsidered here are important episodes from the careers of educators and administrators, of course progressives like William Heard Kilpatrick and George Counts, but also others, like William Torrey Harris, who resisted the early gains of “child centered” innovations.

A recognized risk in the way historians are often trained arises from a simplifying effect of synthetic bibliography. Scholars can be inclined to condense and abbreviate contributions of complex intellectuals into brief outlines and summaries. When subsequent scholars rely on a predecessor’s capsule, the subject becomes a caricature in a process likened to exponential simplification. Hartman does not accept the untested judgments of earlier scholars, even from the giants of his field. At Hartman’s keyboard, John Dewey regains the complexity of a philosopher and an administrator, fully invested yet never able to unilaterally dictate the meaning and practice of “progressive education.” Likewise, Theodore Brameld recovers from hasty and lingering classifications, and emerges an internationalist-pragmatist, boldly considering class antagonism in his theorizing, even when applied to the great historical exception. Too often, the broad spectrum of populist thinking has been sorted into rather arbitrary compost heaps: Marxism and Liberalism. Any attempt to do the same with this book would be sloppy scholarship.

Much new ground is cleared here and fallow fields have been productively re-plowed. This book will appear on graduate school reading lists for scholars preparing in education history, curricular theory, American philosophy, and the history of the cold war. I hope that some clever press will entreat the author to conduct a similar analysis of the next generation, an explanation of how the Cold War era’s rejection of the label “progressive education” morphed into a subsequent crisis, code named, “No Child Left Behind.”