Progressivism, Postmodernism and Republicanism: The Relevance of James Conant to Educational Theory Today

Progressivism, Postmodernism and Republicanism:

The Relevance of James Conant to Educational Theory Today

Burton Weltman

Recovering a long lost era in Republicanism

I am writing this preface during the spring of 2016 in the midst of the Presidential primary election season.  In the context of the Republican Party’s policies and politics of the last eight years, and especially during this primary election cycle, James Conant was a Republican of a sort it is almost impossible to imagine today.  He was a hawk on foreign policy, a Cold Warrior during the 1950’s and 1960’s, which is similar to most of the current crop of Republican Presidential candidates.  But he was a social democrat on domestic policy, taking positions not unlike those of the socialist Democratic Presidential candidate today, and a world away from those of the present day Republican Party.  The gist of this essay is that Conant has a lot to teach self-styled progressives about education, and that progressive educators should acknowledge Conant as one of their own.  But a subordinate thesis is that Conant has a lot to teach Republicans about making humane public policy and behaving in a sane and sensible way.

Recovering James Conant

James Conant was one of the most prominent scientists, political figures and educational leaders of mid-twentieth century America.[i]  A life-long Republican who was seriously considered for the 1952 presidential nomination, Conant was also a precursor of postmodernism, an avowed social democrat, and a professed progressive educator.  A self-proclaimed member of the Power Elite that ostensibly ran the country, he was at the same time a devotee of John Dewey, exclaiming in a parody of Voltaire’s comment about God that “if John Dewey hadn’t existed, he would have had to be invented.”  A traditionalist in science, politics and education at the start of his career, Conant evolved into a self-styled radical for whom “conservative” was a dirty word and who combined liberalism and Republicanism in ways that might seem oxymoronic today.[ii]

Conant was an innovative thinker in science and education who has for too long been a lost figure in progressive educational theory.  Highly regarded by many progressives during the 1950’s and 1960’s for his defense of comprehensive high schools,[iii] Conant’s reputation among progressives has fared poorly since.[iv]  Educationally, Conant is generally portrayed as an elitist who proposed tracking students according to the needs of the military-industrial complex.[v]  Politically, he is derided as either a one-time liberal turned conservative or a life-long conservative who sometimes pretended to liberalism.  Intellectually, he is discounted as an arch-empiricist whose statistical studies of high schools during the 1950’s and 1960’s have little theoretical value.  Conant, who died in 1978, is at this point almost routinely classified as a “conservative” who promoted “traditional schooling” based on disciplinary curricula and social control methods.[vi]

The thesis of this article is that Conant’s ideas have been widely misconstrued by critics who have focused on his later works written in the midst of the Cold War during the 1950’s and 1960’s, and who have failed to place those books in the context of his earlier works from the 1930’s and 1940’s.  Conant’s is a story about the interaction of politics, ambition and theory.  It is in part an all-too-common tale of progressive theory warped by conservative political pressures and personal ambitions.  It is also, however, an example of the importance of theory and the staying power of progressive educational theory.  It is my contention that in the midst of all his personal and political peregrinations, Conant’s core educational theories remained progressive.  The purpose of this article is to examine Conant’s educational theories in the context of his life and times with the goal of demonstrating their importance for educators today.

Conant and His Critics

Conant’s progressive critics have generally focused three charges against him which they think demonstrate his anti-progressive and anti-democratic tendencies.  First, they say, Conant was a petty-bureaucrat who sought to consolidate small community-based schools into centralized schools that reduce students and teachers to mere cogs in a giant machine.  Second, he was an elitist who promoted stratified schools that ignore slower students in favor of the faster.  Third, he was a Cold Warrior who favored repressing dissenters and subordinating schools to the military-industrial complex.  Conant’s response to these critics was to plead guilty to their premises – he was a bureaucrat, elitist and Cold Warrior – but to deny their conclusion that he was anti-progressive and anti-democratic.

With respect to school consolidation, Conant argued that community-based schools too often fostered racism and ethnic exclusion, and that small schools did not provide enough ethnic or intellectual diversity.  In his best known educational work, The American High School Today,[vii] published in 1959, Conant called for eliminating almost half of the nation’s high schools as part of what he considered a progressive defense of comprehensive high schools as the cornerstone of a democratic educational system.  Writing in reply to Admiral Hyman Rickover’s highly publicized call for the establishment of separate high schools for high-achieving students as a necessary means to fight the Cold War,[viii] Conant vehemently rejected Rickover’s proposal as undemocratic and unnecessary to achieve educational excellence.[ix]

Responding to Rickover’s attack on the intellectual deficiencies and administrative inefficiencies of the public schools, Conant contended that centralized schools would be more efficient and more likely to have diverse student bodies.  In turn, larger schools would be better able to offer more advanced courses for advanced students but would also be able to offer a greater variety of courses to meet the needs of a diverse student population.  Contrary to Rickover and other conservative critics of comprehensive high schools, Conant rejected any form of tracking students into separate programs according to ability or achievement and any ability grouping in general education classes.  Ability grouping was acceptable to Conant only in the most advanced and specialized courses and this would be achieved largely through self-selection by students for these courses.[x]

With respect to the charge of elitism, Conant contended that democracy required well-educated leaders, and that American schools were not providing enough leadership education.  Conant defined democracy as “government by and for the people” but not of the people,[xi] and believed in what could be called plebiscitary democracy or democracy from the top-down rather than the bottom-up.[xii]  Conant’s ideal was a society in which the best and brightest people propelled themselves to the fore and then pulled the masses along.  He rejected the idea of what today would be called participatory democracy in which leaders are ostensibly pushed to the fore and pushed along by the people.[xiii]  At the same time, he believed that democracy required well educated followers who could check and balance, support but also critique, their leaders.[xiv]  As a result, he advocated not only advanced programs of specialized education for those who would become the scientific and political leaders of the country, but also rigorous programs of general education in which all students would participate together, hoping thereby to establish a common understanding and basis for communication between the elite and the masses.

With respect to the Cold War, Conant argued that public service was the foundation of democracy and the goal of progressive education, and that in times of national crisis, it is necessary for people to support their leaders even if they do not entirely agree with their policies.  Conant had doubts about the Cold War from its inception, but suppressed his doubts to support America’s leaders against what they defined as the menace of Communism.  In so doing, Conant admittedly subordinated some of his progressive ideas to Cold War imperatives.  But he did not abandon them and believed that in supporting some repressive aspects of the anti-Communist crusade, he was preventing it from becoming worse and was saving a place for progressive values.

The premises that led Conant to support centralized schools, elitist programs and Cold War repressions are very different from the more egalitarian, participatory democratic premises of most present-day progressives, including the author of this article.  It is my contention, however, that Conant’s primary concerns – with promoting ways that individuals and institutions can transcend and transform themselves – do not depend on these premises.  In turn, Conant’s core theories – models of science as social studies in a pluralistic universe, politics as social democracy in a multicultural world, and education as social problem-solving in a diverse community – remain relevant to theorists today.

Social Studies and Postmodern Science

Conant was a peripatetic polymorph who took on many different roles, and enjoyed a career that moved successfully from science to administration to politics to educational policy.[xv]  He was an openly ambitious person who sought power and status as a means of doing good for himself and for the world.  Born in 1893 to a middle class family in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Conant attended Roxbury Latin School and Harvard University, gaining a B.A. in 1913 and a Ph.D. in 1916.  He then worked as a chemistry professor at Harvard, becoming President of the University in 1933 and serving in that capacity until 1953.  From 1941 to 1946, Conant was also Chair of the National Defense Research Committee and overall coordinator of the effort to produce an A-bomb.  He continued as an advisor on atomic weapons until 1953.  From 1953 to 1957, he was first the U.S. High Commissioner and then Ambassador to Germany.  From 1957 until his death in 1978, he worked primarily on educational research and writing.

Conant was first and foremost a scientist and continued working on science even as he did other things.  During the 1910’s and 1920’s, he was a laboratory chemist doing pure research.  In the 1930’s, he turned to the history and theory of science.  During the 1940’s, he worked in applied science, mainly on building the first A-bombs and other nuclear weapons projects.  Finally, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he returned to the history and theory of science.  During his career, Conant’s theories of science evolved from the positivist philosophy that characterized most of his colleagues to what could be described as a post-modern relativism.  Conant described the evolution of his philosophy as “a mixture of William James’ Pragmatism and the Logical Empiricism of the Vienna Circle with at least two jiggers of skepticism thrown in.”[xvi]  Becoming less sure about science as he became more powerful as a scientist, Conant eventually came to the conclusion that scientific theories were influenced by social circumstances as much as empirical evidence.  And he argued that studying social science was almost as important to understanding physical science as studying physical science itself.[xvii]  The development of Conant’s scientific ideas greatly influenced his educational theories.

Conant’s scientific interests began in his childhood home.  His parents were devotees of the eighteenth century scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.[xviii]  Swedenborg argued that matter and mind are two sides of the same spiritual coin.  He sought to extend the physical theories of Newton and the psychological theories of Locke, and to solve the spirit/body problem posed by Descartes, through what was essentially a pantheistic explanation of the universe.  Although ostensibly a Christian, Swedenborg claimed that different cultures have different ways of explaining the universe and each may be valid in its own way.  Rather than demanding doctrinal purity or ritual uniformity, God, according to Swedenborg, wanted humankind to cooperate in socially useful work.[xix] Although Conant eventually joined the Unitarian Church, his interdisciplinary approach to science, trying to consolidate the various physical sciences and combine the physical and social sciences, and his pluralistic and social democratic approach to society were similar to Swedenborg’s views.

Conant’s interest in science was given direction by his high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Black.  Conant greatly appreciated the teacher’s hands-on methods and personal concern for students, and Mr. Black often served as an example of a good teacher in Conant’s later educational writings.  At Harvard, Conant pursued a double undergraduate major and did a dual doctoral thesis in physical chemistry and organic chemistry, considered an innovative combination at that time.  Mentored by Theodore Richards, who was one of the most prominent chemists of the day and whose daughter Conant later married, Conant was initiated into the American scientific elite at Harvard.[xx]

Upon earning his doctorate, Conant was encouraged by Richards to work in what was then considered an area of vital national interest: developing poison gas.  Making his first essay into weapons of mass killing, Conant worked initially with colleagues on some private research and then spent World War I working for the Army.  He was highly praised for his work and was well regarded within high-level military circles.[xxi]

After the War, Conant returned to Harvard and during the 1920’s undertook “pioneering efforts to apply the techniques of physical chemistry to the study of organic reactions.”[xxii]  In 1933, he published a textbook, The Chemistry of Organic Compounds, which became the “standard work in the field” during the 1930’s and 1940’s.[xxiii]  He was frequently consulted by major corporate and government officials and thereby gained entre to the industrial and political elites of the day.

Conant left his laboratory in 1933 to become President of Harvard and turned to working in science on a more theoretical level.  Influenced by his contact as President with scholars from the humanities and social sciences, Conant began to develop a humanistic approach to science, taking what was then the radical step of using case histories in teaching physical science courses.  Conant was worried during the 1930’s about what he saw as the debasement of science by ideologically driven scientists, and particularly the environmental genetics being promoted by the Soviet scientist Lysenko and the racist genetics of the Nazis.  He was also concerned that ignorance of how science and scientists actually work left ordinary people open to the pseudo-scientific charlatanism of ideologues such as Lysenko and the Nazis.  Conant hoped that a historical approach to science, one that examined the relationship between social and scientific developments, would help both budding scientists and the general public to appreciate the nature of science and the need for enlightened scientific leadership.[xxiv]

Conant’s work on scientific theory was cut short by the start of World War II and his work on the A-bomb.  It was a project Conant undertook with typical thoroughness but also characteristic ambivalence.  Fearing that nuclear weapons would lead to a nuclear holocaust, Conant fervently prayed until the moment the first A-bomb was successfully tested that it would not work.[xxv]  At the end of World War II, Conant hoped that he could atone for the A-bomb by working on peaceful uses of science and atomic energy.  But with the advent of the Cold War, he was asked to advise the government on building newer and better atomic weapons.  Although he answered what he saw as the call of duty, the nature of the work affected his thinking.  He could no longer accept the positivists’ beliefs in the inevitability of progress through science and science as progress, or in the neutrality of scientists.[xxvi]

Continuing his work on the history of science, Conant developed innovative ideas that anticipated and coincided with the theories of Thomas Kuhn, who worked with Conant as a graduate student at Harvard during the 1940’s and whose work became a foundation of much postmodern theory.  Postmodernism has been described as a revolt against the positivists’ doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, that facts speak for themselves and that the more facts you have the better your conclusions.[xxvii]  Like Kuhn later, Conant claimed that science develops through paradigm shifts rather than incremental changes and that these shifts result mostly from cultural changes rather than new evidence.  New evidence, Conant contended, leads merely to the amendment of old theories.  New theories result from new questions, questions that reflect changes in social structure, problems and philosophies.  In Conant’s view, scientists are “revolutionists” who arise out of the prevailing culture, transcend it, and then pull the culture up with them.  Scientific revolutions, in turn, require a high level of popular education so that the public can intelligently support the work of creative scientists.[xxviii]

In his historical case studies, Conant contrasted the social and intellectual circumstances under which scientists worked before a new scientific discovery and after, focusing particularly on the questions they asked.  Based on his method, the successful overthrow of Aristotle’s theory of motion (that things will stop moving unless force is continuously exerted on them) by Newton’s theory (that things will continue moving forever unless a force is exerted to stop them) could, for example, be explained in part as a result of differing social circumstances: Aristotle lived in a traditional society in which stasis was the norm and the primary question was how anything changed; Newton lived in a dynamic society in which change was the rule and the primary question was how anything stayed the same.  Ancient and modern scientists asked different questions and got different answers, but both were useful to the societies in which they were conceived.  Taking this argument even further, Conant contended that people no longer believe in Homer’s myths because Greek gods are not useful in answering present-day questions, not because the myths are untrue.  Conant claimed that there is no reason to think that Zeus and the other gods did not in some sense actually exist for the people for whom Homer’s myths were useful answers to important questions.[xxix]

Rejecting the idea of a universal science which is good for all people at all times, Conant tended toward what might be called a soft postmodernism grounded in relativism rather than nihilism.[xxx]  Picking up on William James’ notions of an open universe and the effects of theory on reality,[xxxi] he promoted a vision of scientists transcending their cultures and transforming the world thereby.  At the same time, continuing his debate with Lysenko, Conant insisted there is a vital difference between partisanship and objectivity – that while scientists cannot be neutral, they can be objective and need not be mere propagandists.  Scientists can and must fairly consider all of the relevant evidence and pertinent points of view on a subject.  They can and must consider opponents’ arguments in ways that the opponents would recognize, and not merely set up straw men to knock down.  In sum, while there may be more than one right answer to any important question, there are also wrong answers, answers that do not fit the evidence or meet opponents’ arguments.  While there may be no final Truth, scientists must cooperatively strive for the broadest working consensus on what may be right and what is wrong under the prevailing circumstances.[xxxii]  In a pluralistic universe, Conant concluded, the goal of science is not certainty but contingency, not merely answers to questions but also new questions to answer so that the quest for a better life can continue.[xxxiii]

Conant’s iconoclasm extended to rejecting the prevailing notion that the physical sciences were radically different from and inherently superior to the social sciences.  Conant indicated that they were essentially the same and that there were only two main differences between them.  The first difference lay in the range of choices that their subjects enjoy.  Physical scientists study things that have relatively little variation or choice as to what they will do.  An electron might, for example, at any given moment act like a particle or a wave, or go through one hole or another in a screen, so that the individual electron’s behavior cannot be predicted.  But electrons have relatively few options, so that their behavior is for the most part a matter of simple probabilities that can be accurately predicted in the aggregate.  Humans are not so simple and neither their individual nor group behavior is easily predictable.  The choices that humans can make and the variations in their behavior are enormous, making social science more complex but also more important to study than physical science.[xxxiv]

The second difference between the physical and social sciences lay in the role of politics in their workings.  While physical science is fraught with political issues, social science deals with political issues per se.  As a consequence, social scientists have historically been less willing and able than physical scientists to agree upon common frameworks for research and development, and to work cooperatively within those frameworks.  In turn, while clear-cut paradigm shifts have occurred in the physical sciences, so that it is possible, for example, to say that the Copernican view of the universe has replaced the Ptolemaic view, such shifts have not been as clear cut or conclusive in the social sciences.  This greater degree of cooperation among physical scientists – their willingness to work together and to accept each other’s findings and conclusions – is a major reason for the greater success and public acceptance of the physical sciences.  It is something that the social sciences need to develop and that schools could help foster with a more pro-social, social problem-centered curriculum.[xxxv]

Conant’s concerns about the interplay of the social and physical sciences, and the relationship between scientists and the general public, were not merely academic matters for him.  Although he was himself a member of the scientific policy elite, he worried about the tendency of scientists to become “exalted and isolated” to the detriment of democracy and their own best judgments.[xxxvi]  In the wake of the astonishing development of the A-bomb, Conant warned that science was being glorified as magic and scientists as demigods.  He fretted that lay people could not understand the scientific issues of the atomic age and that decisions involving science would by default be made by scientists alone.  Conant worried that unchecked power and popular adulation could corrupt science and scientists.  These concerns are reflected in his curricular proposals for a program of general education that connects scientists and laypeople.[xxxvii]

Conant’s concerns were exacerbated during the Cold War by the unparalleled secrecy imposed by the government on scientists who in any way worked in areas that might have some military application.[xxxviii]  The troublesome consequences were exemplified in Conant’s own flip-flopping positions on the H-bomb.  Conant initially opposed the production of an H-bomb on the moral grounds that it was a genocidal weapon.  He also initially supported his friend Robert Oppenheimer when Oppenheimer spoke out publicly against the H-bomb.  But Conant backed off when Edward Teller and other H-bomb proponents accused Oppenheimer of being a national security risk and effectively destroyed Oppenheimer’s career.[xxxix]  Conant refused to make public either his concerns about the H-bomb or his support for Oppenheimer, seemingly for fear of jeopardizing his own standing within the inner circles of power.

Conant has been accused of hypocrisy and cowardice for these actions,[xl] but I think the roots of his contradictions are more subtle.  On the one hand, Conant was genuinely concerned for the security of the United States if the Soviets forged ahead in the development of nuclear weapons.  On the other hand, he was fearful of what might happen to the world if nuclear militants such as Edward Teller ran things unchecked.  Given what had happened to Oppenheimer when he dared to speak publicly about nuclear policy, Conant decided that the best thing he could do for humankind was to stay silent and stay part of the Power Elite, hoping thereby to exert some salutary influence on American policy.  The exigencies of the Cold War plus his own top-down view of society arguably led him to choose power over principle in these matters.  A prime architect of atomic weapons, Conant could, nonetheless, sincerely yearn for the simpler world of his youth and exclaim: “I do not like the atomic age or any of its consequences.”[xli]

Social Democracy, Republicanism and the Cold War

Conant’s youth was spent in Massachusetts at the turn of the twentieth century, living in a region and household in which the Civil War was still a current event, Republicanism was synonymous with patriotism and progress, and Democrats were considered traitors and reactionaries.  To the young Conant, Republicans stood for enlightenment and industry, Democrats for racism and feudalism.[xlii]

For most of his career, Conant portrayed politics in fairly simple terms: liberals were the good guys and conservatives were not.  Conant rejected what he saw as the conservative ideal of a laissez-faire economy in which every person must fend for him/herself and government exists to protect private property.  He supported, instead, the liberal idea of a regulated economy in which government guarantees each person a decent job and standard of living.  Conant also decried what he saw as the conservative ideal of a traditional culture enforced through censorship to ensure that each generation follows blindly and blandly in the footsteps of the last.  He supported, instead, the liberal idea of a laissez-faire culture in which each generation develops its own way of life and the government encourages diversity and creativity.[xliii]

Citing Jefferson as his mentor, Conant combined meritocratic views of leadership with social democratic views of public policy.  Politics, Conant claimed, is social science in action, a process in which officials experiment with hypotheses as to what will best serve the public interest and the people register their support and dissent at the polls.  Democracy is a form of permanent revolution in which enlightened leaders with the support of educated followers continually transcend the status quo and continuously move the country toward a more creative and cooperative society.[xliv]

In the early stages of his career, Conant found a relatively comfortable home for these political views within a Republican Party that harbored such liberals as Robert La Follette, Sr., Robert LaFollette, Jr. and Henry Wallace, Sr.  As time passed, liberals were more likely to be found in the Democratic Party, but Conant stayed a Republican.  He seemed more comfortable with the Republican constituency of business people and others who identified with the upper classes than with the Democrats’ primary constituency of small farmers, workers and those who identified with the lower classes.[xlv]  He sought to fight on behalf of the masses, but wanted to work primarily with his own kind within the elite.[xlvi]  As the Republican Party became more conservative, Conant tried to guide the party to the left while fighting the increasing power of the Right.[xlvii]

As a young man, Conant believed that Weimar Germany might provide a model for American development.  Supported by scientific and educational systems that were the best and most meritocratic in the world, German institutions during the 1920’s were governed by social democrats and led by a technocratic elite.[xlviii]  The rise of the Nazis in Germany was a great shock to Conant.  He reluctantly conceded that science and education do not guarantee political rationality, and concluded that fascism underscored the need for a pro-social democratic education for both the elite leaders and the masses in a liberal society.[xlix]

Conant’s revulsion toward the Nazis led him to buck the prevailing isolationism within the Republican Party during the late 1930’s, and he became a fervent advocate of military preparedness and militant action against fascism.[l]  With the coming of World War II, Conant supported the most vigorous prosecution of the war by any means available, even to the point of suppressing civil liberties at home and using weapons of mass killing abroad.  His view of Nazism as fundamentally evil led him to conclude that in times of war, liberal measures must be suspended: “All war is immoral” and, therefore, all is fair in war.[li]  He later applied this same doctrine to the Cold War.  At the same time, Conant saw the social cooperation required for prosecuting World War II as an opportunity to advance social democracy[lii] and he called for an upsurge of radicalism in the United States.[liii]

As World War II ended, Conant believed that conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union could be avoided.  While he thought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would inevitably compete, he believed the Soviets wanted to win ideologically and economically, not militarily.  Once again bucking mainstream opinion within the Republican Party, Conant proposed sharing A-bomb secrets with the Russians to forestall a nuclear arms race,[liv] and as late as 1948, he was still forcefully arguing that “there is little or no analogy between the Nazi menace and the Soviet challenge.”[lv]  Conant similarly argued that the challenge of domestic Communism should be met through intellectual competition, rather than repression.  In Conant’s view, Communists were wrong but not evil, their methods misguided but their goals relatively benign.  Conant warned that “reactionaries” will try to use anti-Communism “as an excuse” to attack liberals.  Citing the attacks on Alger Hiss as an example of this tactic, Conant initially came out strongly in Hiss’ defense when Hiss was accused of being a Communist spy.[lvi]

But by the end of 1948, Conant was taking a very different stance.  Under intense pressure from his colleagues within the foreign policy elite, and under the pressure of events such as the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin Blockade, Conant joined the Cold War and anti-Communist crusades with the fervor of a convert.  Seemingly concerned with protecting his status as a member of the Power Elite, he acted like someone who felt the need to prove his loyalty.  Rewriting his own history, Conant retrospectively claimed that he was “one of the first of the Cold War warriors” when in fact he did not join their ranks until late 1948.[lvii]  He also retroactively chastised those who had in 1948 “still clung to the belief in cooperation” with the Soviets, when he had done so himself.[lviii]  In any case, Conant now portrayed Communism as a fundamental evil and significant threat.[lix]

Abandoning his previous analysis, Conant fell into line with the prevailing Cold War analogy between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  While he still did not think the Soviets posed any immediate military threat, neither, he said, had Nazi Germany in the early 1930’s.  Conant concluded that it was the failure of the West to challenge the fascists militarily when they were weak during the 1930’s that had emboldened and enabled them to start World War II.  Elected officials in the West, faced with strong pacifist sentiments amongst the public, had lacked the will to undertake a military buildup, thereby encouraging the fascists.  Similarly, Conant believed, it was necessary to challenge the Soviets militarily before they could move toward conquest.  Toward that end, Conant founded in 1950 the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization of political, business and educational leaders, for the purpose of propagandizing the public and lobbying Congress in favor of a peacetime draft, an expanded nuclear arsenal, and a large-scale military buildup.  Abandoning objectivity as well as neutrality on this issue, Conant joined with other Cold Warriors in deliberately exaggerating the immediate threat from the Soviet Union.  He rationalized this deception on the grounds that scare tactics were necessary to build public support for a show of military force that would forestall the Soviets and prevent another world war in the long run.[lx]

Conant also fell into line on the prevailing opinion of domestic Communism.  In the wake of Alger Hiss’ perjury conviction and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s assault on Communist sympathizers, Conant took a strong anti-Communist stance.  Contradicting his previous statements that attacking Communists would open the door to attacks on liberalism, he rationalized his cooperation with McCarthy and other anti-Communists as a means of protecting liberals from attack.  Despite his previous opposition to loyalty oaths as a violation of free speech, Conant became a firm supporter of loyalty oaths.  And, contrary to his previous support of academic freedom for all political opinions, Conant campaigned for a ban on Communist teachers in the public schools.  While privately dismissing any threat from domestic Communism, he publicly contended that Communists had abdicated their intellectual freedom in becoming mouthpieces for the Communist Party and agents of the Soviet Union, and therefore had no place in a free marketplace of ideas.[lxi]

The Cold War strained Conant’s liberal commitments more than any other crisis in his life.  He seemed at times during the 1950’s and 1960’s to abdicate his own judgment in favor of automatically rejecting anything Communists might support or might be construed as pro-Communist.  While Conant predictably liked Ike but not Goldwater or Nixon, he was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War after most liberals, including many Republicans, turned against it.  Publicly condemning the anti-war movement and New Left as traitorous, Conant in effect practiced McCarthyism beyond the McCarthy era.[lxii]  Privately, however, he criticized the war and voted for the anti-war presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. [lxiii]

Conant has been condemned as a hypocrite and coward for his political actions.  From issues of anti-Semitism and free speech for radicals at Harvard during the 1930’s to McCarthyism and the Cold War during the 1950’s to student radicalism and the Vietnam War in the 1970’s, Conant held private views that were more liberal than his public positions.[lxiv]  But Conant’s problem was neither cowardice nor hypocrisy but social theory.  Conant believed that if you were not a member of the Power Elite, your principles were impotent and irrelevant.  This was a pragmatic judgment from one who contended that liberal values could only be implemented from the top-down.  So, when it came to risking his status within the elite for his principles, Conant generally found a way to rationalize his principles.

Meritocracy, Democracy and Public Education

Consistent with his training as scientist during the early 20th century, Conant began his career as a staunch traditionalist in education, favoring a strictly disciplinary curriculum, teacher-centered teaching methods, and rote learning and testing.  He came to the presidency of Harvard in 1933 with a low opinion of the university’s School of Education as a den of progressive anti-intellectuals.  In Conant’s view, teaching was something any well-educated person could do and he initially hoped to abolish the School but was convinced otherwise because it was a moneymaker for the University.  He decided, instead, to try to reform the School and in the process was converted to progressivism.[lxv]

Conant described progressive education as a system of student-centered pedagogy with teaching methods that focus on students’ interests and activities; social-centered curricula based on interdisciplinary subjects that focus on social problems of concern to students; and practical forms of evaluation, or what today would be called authentic assessment.  Progressivism was a means of encouraging students to transcend their backgrounds, engage in critical and reflective thinking, and transform themselves and their society.  Consistent with his top-down vision of democracy, Conant promoted a top-down version of progressivism.  He projected four main educational goals: (1) a high level of civic education to prepare every student for the rights and duties of a social democracy; (2) a high level of specialized education for those who will be the elite scientists and leaders of tomorrow; (3) a high level of general education to prepare the masses to evaluate the work of their leaders; and (4) a high level of vocational education to prepare non-elite students for gainful and socially useful employment.[lxvi]

Although Conant is best known for his empirical studies of schools from the 1950’s and 1960’s, he claimed four “inventions” from the 1930’s and 1940’s as his primary contributions to the field of education.  These were: initiating the Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree at Harvard in the mid-1930’s; supporting standardized testing in the late 1930’s, which led to the foundation of Educational Testing Service (ETS); organizing the Harvard report on General Education in a Free Society (GEFS) in the mid-1940’s; and participating in the National Education Association report on Education for ALL American Youth (EAAY) in the late 1940’s.[lxvii]  The MAT, GEFS and EEAY represent progressive innovations that have not yet had the impact for which Conant hoped.  ETS is an innovation that Conant thought would be progressive, later concluded was not, and has had a far greater impact than he desired.

The MAT was for Conant a model of progressive teacher education.  Jointly developed and administered by academic and education professors, it divided prospective teachers’ coursework evenly between academic subjects and pedagogy.  Working on the MAT brought Conant a new respect for teaching as an art that needed to be taught by professional educators.[lxviii]

ETS was for Conant a vehicle for establishing what he thought would be progressive means of assessment.[lxix]  Standardized testing appealed to Conant’s democratic, meritocratic and scientific orientations.  Testing, he claimed, is democratic because it is the same for all.  It is meritocratic because it aims at identifying the best students.  And, it is scientific because it is quantifiable and ostensibly objective.  Conant hoped that standardized testing would undermine the advantages that wealth and cultural background give to students from upper class families, and would open the doors of higher education and higher social position to middle and lower class students.  He also hoped that standardized testing would encourage progressive methods of teaching.  Conant’s support for testing rested, however, on two assumptions that he later questioned: that standardized aptitude tests measure some sort of generalized intelligence common to everyone, and that standardized achievement tests measure genuine knowledge of a subject.[lxx]

By the 1950’s, Conant had concluded that there is no such thing as a singular intelligence or a singular measure of intelligence, but that people are endowed with what today would be called multiple intelligences, and there is no universal way to measure these aptitudes.  He also seemed to conclude that achievement tests are self-defeating and self-invalidating, seeming to presage present-day concerns about standardized testing.  To be valid, an achievement test must be based on a random sample of knowledge from a generalized subject.  Standardized testing, however, leads schools to teach to the test, narrowing their curricula to the questions that are most likely to be asked on the test.  The results are that students no longer get the benefit of a general education and standardized tests no longer measure the general education they were intended to evaluate.  Students end up merely learning how to take the test and the test merely measures that ability.  While continuing to support testing as an adjunct method of evaluation, Conant became a proponent of what would today be called authentic assessment – observing students perform real world activities – as the best measure of aptitude and achievement.[lxxi]

GEFS and EAAY were essays in social democratic curricula.[lxxii]  Although GEFS was produced by an elite corps of professors and EAAY was produced largely by a group of schoolteachers, Conant claimed that the core recommendations of the two reports were essentially similar.[lxxiii]  Both proposed that schools focus on “life education” rather than merely the academic disciplines.  Both proposed that schools develop diversified curricula to meet the needs of diverse students and diversified extra-curricular activities to encourage students toward progressive social change.  And both proposed that the primary goal of education be “cultural literacy,” defining that goal in pluralistic and pragmatic rather than mono-cultural and absolutist terms.[lxxiv]  Cultural literacy is the understanding of different cultures through comparing and contrasting each with the others, transcending your own culture, and working with others toward common social goals.[lxxv]

GEFS argued that schools should help students transcend their everyday experiences and environments, deal with a diverse and changing world, and transform themselves and their society.  The report recommended a curriculum based on the “five fingers of education:” Language Arts, or transcending oneself through communication; Fine Arts, or self-transcendence through self-expression; Mathematics and Science, or transcending common sense through scientific methods; Social Studies, or transcending the here and now through history, geography and the social sciences; and the Vocations, or “putting into practice the bookish theory of the classroom.”[lxxvi]  While rejecting any standardized national curriculum, the report recommended a common core curriculum for students within each school so that every student “should be able to talk with his fellows…above the level of casual conversation” and students will be better able to organize themselves for social action.[lxxvii]

EEAY proposed to supplement the traditional academic curriculum with courses that start with everyday problems and then proceed to more complex intellectual issues, serving as an introduction and inducement to academic work by adapting the academic disciplines to everyday life.  Under EEAY, all students would take a “common learnings core” consisting of cultural education dealing with issues of family life, health, consumerism, and leisure, and citizenship education dealing with social problems, human rights and civic responsibilities.  All students would participate in community service to develop pro-social attitudes, vocational work to explore career choices, and political campaigns to “develop competence in political action.”  EEAY rejected educational tracking and ability grouping of students, proposing, instead, that students be placed in heterogeneous classes in which they would work on individual and group projects that reflect their varying interests and abilities.[lxxviii]

EEAY was intended as a proposal for continuous educational reform.  Calling for a “grass roots approach to improving programs in local schools,” the report proposed an ongoing series of community-school surveys of parents, teachers, students and community members that would help determine how schools operated and what should be included in the school curriculum.[lxxix]   The surveys asked adults what they thought they needed to know to be successful as adults, and asked children what they thought they needed to know to be successful as children.  This procedure was used with success in many school districts during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  It was a method of creating what today could be considered an authentic curriculum.[lxxx]

From the mid 1940’s through the early 1950’s, Conant vigorously campaigned in support of the proposals in GEFS and EAAY.  With his friend Dwight Eisenhower as a member of the EEAY board that Conant chaired,[lxxxi] Conant argued that education must focus on “the study of the economic, political, and social problems of the day” and promote the principles of liberal democracy.  To develop a social democracy, Conant insisted, you must have a social democratic educational system.[lxxxii]

With the advent of the Cold War and the McCarthy era in the early 1950’s, progressive educators came under withering attack as part of an overall assault on liberals and liberalism,[lxxxiii] and progressive education was maligned as an anti-intellectual and even subversive scourge on American education.[lxxxiv]  During this period, Conant never went back on his support for GEFS and EAAY and repeatedly cited them as curricular models.  But, under the pressure of the Cold War, he subordinated these proposals to arguments that the first priority of American schools must be “the education of their gifted students,” those who will become the scientists and leaders needed to defeat the Soviets.[lxxxv]

It was in this context that Conant produced his three best known reports on education, The American High School Today in 1959, Slums and Suburbs in 1961, and The Education of American Teachers in 1963.  They are empirical studies of social problems affecting schools – inadequate staffing and curricula in small schools, poverty and racial segregation in inner city schools, and inadequately educated teachers – in which Conant ties social policy recommendations to the progressive educational theories of GEFS and EAAY.  While the reports are distinctly elitist in tone, they emphatically reject the even more elitist proposals that were popular at that time.

In The American High School Today, Conant was concerned that Americans, particularly those in the middle and upper classes, suffered from delusions of self-sufficiency, unable to see the connections between themselves and other people, especially the less affluent.  As a result, Americans are often unable to see why they should support social institutions that benefit others, especially at expense to themselves.  Conant thought that heterogeneous classes and general education courses in comprehensive high schools would help remedy this problem.[lxxxvi]  He naively underestimated the invidious effects of social class and academic competition on school life, and overestimated the democratizing effects of heterogeneous homerooms and general education classes.  While school consolidation was widely undertaken during the 1960’s and 1970’s, few of the newly consolidated schools promoted the pluralism or adhered to the restrictions on ability grouping that Conant proposed. [lxxxvii]

In Slums and Suburbs, Conant rejected the idea that black schoolchildren were genetically inferior to whites in intelligence and called for expanded jobs programs, better social service programs, and greater spending on inner city schools.[lxxxviii]  In The Education of American Teachers, Conant repeated arguments he had previously made in favor of the MAT program, proposing that prospective teachers take a relatively equal number of courses in pedagogy and academic subjects, and insisting that in order to obtain permanent certification, teachers should demonstrate their knowledge of the social and cultural backgrounds of the students in their schools. [lxxxix]

While the tone of Conant’s educational writings changed during the Cold War, the substance did not.  As a top-down democrat, he consistently throughout his career placed greater emphasis than would participatory democrats on the education of higher achieving students, and this emphasis was even greater during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  But Conant continued during this period to promote progressive principles of interdisciplinary and problem-solving curricula, student-centered teaching methods, pluralistic schools and heterogeneous classrooms, and greater equality in both educational opportunities and outcomes.

Conant’s Educational Legacy

Although Conant was widely considered to be successful at almost everything he did, he did not agree.  Commenting in 1977, a year before his death, on trends in politics and education, Conant complained that “Everything I’ve worked for has been rejected.”[xc]  He had good cause to lament.

Politically, liberal Republicans were a dying breed by the late 1970’s[xci] and Conant was having second thoughts about the Cold War.[xcii]   By his own standards, many of Conant’s actions during the Cold War were not exemplary.  He frequently said one thing privately while publicly doing the opposite, and orchestrated a massive campaign of deception in order to gain popular support for the government’s Cold War policies.  His behavior seems even more reprehensible to those, like the author of this article, who are old enough to have lived through the Cold War and who viewed it as Conant initially did in the 1940’s: that the Soviet Union did not pose a military threat sufficient to warrant an all-out arms race and the militarization of American foreign policy; and that domestic Communists were a relatively benign group – sometimes helpful in the labor and civil rights movements, sometimes harmful, mainly to themselves, in their blind support for the Soviet Union.  To those who see the breakup of the Soviet empire and the historical revelations of the last ten years as further confirmation of this view, the Cold War was a terrible mistake, a mistake for which Conant bears significant responsibility as I think he began to see toward the end of his life.  In education, Conant was not doing much better.  Shopping mall high schools, racial segregation, standardized testing, traditional curricula and mechanical teaching methods – all of which he had opposed – were the norm in the late 1970’s, as they still are today.

In evaluating Conant’s failure to achieve his goals, or even sometimes to practice what he preached, I think that the major flaw in his theories and practices was his elitist concept of leadership.  Conant’s belief that social transformation comes from the top down, and his determination to stay within the policy elite at almost all costs, forced him into all sorts of theoretical and practical contradictions.  Conant expected from his Power Elite the sort of long-term thinking and pro-social consciousness that may have been realistic to expect from the Bob LaFollettes and Henry Wallaces of his youth, but were not very evident by the 1970’s and have not been since.  Conant’s peers let him down, but so did his premises.  Because there is strong reason to believe, and I would argue strongly, that the sorts of progressive educational and social reforms Conant wanted can only be achieved from the bottom up.[xciii]

I conclude, nonetheless, that Conant’s ideas can be purged of their elitist undertones and still resonate with progressive theorists today.  Among other things, General Education for a Free Society and Education for All American Youth remain two of the most interesting and promising proposals of the last hundred years.  Moreover, Conant faced during the 1940’s and 1950’s the same sorts of questions about school choice, privatization, tracking, standardized curricula and standardized testing that educators are facing today.  At a time when standardized curricula and testing have become the rage, and technology and quantification have become the standards for all knowledge, having opinions to the contrary from someone like Conant – a founder of ETS, world-renowned scientist, and Republican stalwart – constitutes important support for those who would buck the current trends.

Finally, Conant represents a time, not so long ago, when progressive reform was at least on the left bank of the mainstream, and a broad coalition of educators rallied around a common program of reform, even if from somewhat different perspectives – top-down for those like Conant, bottom-up for others.  A reconsideration of James Conant recovers a time when “radical” was even for many Republicans an ideal, “liberal” a term of praise, “conservative” a dirty word, and social democracy the goal of education.  This should be considered a valuable legacy for educational theorists today.

[i] Gordon Swanson, “The Hall of Shame,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol.74, 10 (June 1993): 797.

[ii] James Conant, The Child, the Parent and the State (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959), 94; James Conant, Scientific Principles and Moral Conduct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 37; James Conant, My Several Lives: Memoirs of a Social Inventor (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 536; James Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993), 9, 13, 120, 512.

[iii] Daniel Tanner, Secondary Curriculum (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1971), 17.

[iv] Diane Ravitch, The Revisionists Revisited: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1978); Walter Feinberg, Harvey Kantor, Michael Katz & Paul Violas, Revisionists Respond to Ravitch (Washington, DC: National Academy of Education, 1980).

[v] For example, see Edgar Gumbert & Joel Spring, The Superschool & the Superstate: American Education in the Twentieth Century, 1918-1970 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1974), 40, 78-79, 137-139; David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 276; Walter Feinberg, Reason and Rhetoric: The Intellectual Foundations of 20th Century Liberal Educational Policy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1975), 153-155; Paul Westmeyer, A History of American Higher Education (Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas, 1985), 102; Joel Spring, The American High School, 1642-1985 (New York: Longman, 1986), 287; Clarence Karier, The Individual, Society and Education (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 255; Swanson, “The Hall of Shame,” 797-798; Peter Hlebowitx & Kip Tellez, American Education: Purpose and Promise (Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1997), 257; Dean Webb, Arlene Metha & Forbes Jordon, Foundation of American Education (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2000), 220; but, to the contrary, some recent appreciations of Conant are: Fred Hechinger, “School for Teenagers: A Historic Dilemma,” Teachers College Record, 94, 3 (Spring 1993): 522-539; Jurgen Herbst, The Once and Future School: Three Hundred and Fifty Years of Secondary Education (New York: Routledge, 1996), 181; John Brubacher & Willis Rudy, Higher Education in Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Press, 1997), 424-426.

[vi] Larry Cuban, “Managing the Dilemmas of High School Reform,” Curriculum Inquiry, 30, 1 (Winter 2000): 106.

[vii] James Conant, The American High School Today (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959).

[viii] Hyman Rickover, Education and Freedom (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1959).

[ix] Conant, American High School Today, 37, 63.  He later raised his proposed minimum school population to 750 students in James Conant, The Comprehensive High School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), 2.

[x] Conant, American High School Today, 20, 37, 46, 48, 63.

[xi] Conant, Education in a Divided World, 234.

[xii] See Benjamin Barber, A Passion for Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 95-110; Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

[xiii] Barber, Strong Democracy, XIV; Barber, A Passion for Democracy, 6, 10.

[xiv] James Conant, Slums and Suburbs (New York: McGraw Hill, 1961), 109.

[xv] Paul Bartlett, “James Bryant Conant,” Biographical Memoirs (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1983), 107.

[xvi] Quoted at Hershberg, James B. Conant, 578.

[xvii] James Conant, Two Modes of Thought: My Encounters with Science and Education (New York: Trident Press, 1964), 13-14.

[xviii] Conant, My Several Lives, 10; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 13.

[xix] Gregory Baker, Religion and Science: From Swedenborg to Chaotic Dynamics (New York: Solomon Press, 1992), 13-14, 21-25; Inge Jonsson, Emanuel Swedenborg (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971), 14, 40, 72, 79.

[xx] Conant, My Several Lives, 15, 19; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 27.

[xxi] Conant, My Several Lives, 44; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 38-39, 48-49.

[xxii]  Martin Saltzman, “James Bryant Conant and the Development of Physical Organic Chemistry.” Journal of Chemical Education, 49, 6 (June 1972): 411; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 55-56.

[xxiii] Harry Passow, American Secondary Education: The Conant Influence (Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Administrators, 1977), 3; George Kistiakowsky, “James B. Conant, 1893-1978,” Nature, 273, 5665 (June 29, 1978): 793.

[xxiv] James Conant, Germany and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 26-27; Conant, My Several Lives, 140-145, 373.

[xxv] James Conant, On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach (Hew Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1947), XII; Conant, My Several Lives, 236, 242, 272, 274, 298; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 157, 170, 325.

[xxvi] James Conant, Anglo-American Relations in the Atomic Age (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), 17-18; James Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 12-16.

[xxvii] Stefan Morawski, The Trouble with Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1996),

2; Stanley Grenz, A Primer on PostModernism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans

Publishing Co.), 7, 34, 40-46.

[xxviii] Conant, On Understanding Science, 25, 36, 91; Conant, Science and Common Sense, VIII; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 410, 860-footnote 84; Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), IX.

[xxix] Conant, On Understanding Science, 11-12; Conant, Science and Common Sense, 8, 10, 15, 25-26; Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 19, 22, 23, 54, 58, 62; Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 13, 14,15-17, 18, 83; Conant, Scientific Principles and Moral Conduct, 15-16, 25; Philip Kitcher, “A Plea for Science Studies,” in A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, ed. Noretta Koertge (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 34, 36; Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 2-4, 12.

[xxx]  S. Morawski, The Trouble with Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1996), 2; Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), XXXIX; P. Feyerabend, Against Method (New York: Verso, 1988), 189.

[xxxi] William James, “The Will to Believe,” in Essays on Faith and Morals, ed. R.B. Perry  (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962), 32-62.

[xxxii] Conant, On Understanding Science, 30; Conant, Science and Common Sense, 10, 17, 30-31; Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 82, 88; Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 33; Conant, Scientific Principles and Moral Conduct, 38.

[xxxiii] James Conant, Science and Common Sense (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1951), 25-26; Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 54, 62; James Conant, Scientific Principles and Moral Conduct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 8, 29.

[xxxiv] Conant, Anglo-American Relations in the Atomic Age, 32, 37-38; Conant, Scientific Principles and Moral Conduct, 34-35; John Gribbin, Almost Everyone’s Guide to Science (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2000), 45-47.

[xxxv] Conant, On Understanding Science, 22; Conant, Science and Common Sense, 38-39; Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 82-83; Garvin McCain & Erwin Segal, The Game of Science (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Pub. 1969), 80.

[xxxvi] Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 66-67.

[xxxvii] Conant, On Understanding Science, l1; Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 66-67.

[xxxviii] Conant, Anglo-American Relations in the Atomic Age, 17-18, 23; Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 12-13, 16, 30.

[xxxix] Hershberg, James B. Conant, 466, 474, 482.

[xl] Hershberg, James B. Conant, 82, 93, 325, 404.

[xli] Conant, Modern Science and Modern Man, 6.

[xlii] Conant, My Several Lives, 11; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 14.

[xliii] James Conant, Education in a Divided World: The Function of Public Schools in Our Unique Society  (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948), 30-31, 172-173, 178.

[xliv] James Conant, “Wanted: American Radicals,” The Atlantic Monthly, 171, 5 (May 1943) 43; Conant, Education in a Divided World, 4-7; James Conant, Germany and Freedom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 67-69.

[xlv] Conant, “Wanted: American Radicals;” D.W. Brogan, Politics in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1960), 37-54; Clinton Rossiter, Parties and Politics in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960), pp.107-151; Joyner, The Republican Dilemma; Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans.

[xlvi]  Conant, The Child, the Parent and the State, 102.

[xlvii] Conrad Joyner, The Republican Dilemma: Conservatism or Progressivism (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1963); Nicol Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans: From 1952 to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[xlviii]  Conant, My Several Lives, 41, 68-69, 71; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 38, 42, 61.

[xlix]  Conant, Germany and Freedom, p.4.

[l] Conant, My Several Lives, 212, 308, 320-322.

[li] Conant, My Several Lives, 49; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 120.

[lii] Conant, My Several Lives, 364, 374-381.

[liii] Conant, “Wanted: American Radicals;” James Conant, General Education in a Free Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945), 34.  Conant claimed for himself a somewhat larger role in GEFS than some historians have described for him.  For purposes of this article, the exact extent of Conant’s role in producing the report is not as important as the fact that he continuously thereafter supported the recommendations of the report.  Hershberg, James B. Conant, 236.

[liv] Conant, My Several Lives, 300.

[lv] Conant, Education in a Divided World, 21, 24, 218.

[lvi]  Conant, Education in a Divided World, 172-173; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 435.

[lvii]  Quoted at Hershberg, James B. Conant, 322.

[lviii] Conant, The Child, the Parent and the State, 33.

[lix]  Hersherg, James B. Conant, 360, 462.

[lx]  Conant, 1970, My Several Lives, 506, 509, 512; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 384, 390, 493, 498, 521, 674.

[lxi]  Conant, My Several Lives, 456; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 431, 435.

[lxii]  Conant, My Several Lives, 640-642; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 746, 751.

[lxiii] Hershberg, James B. Conant, 752.

[lxiv]  Hershberg, James B. Conant, 82, 89, 93, 276, 404.

[lxv] Conant, My Several Lives, 137, 189.

[lxvi]  James Conant, “Education for a Classless Society,” The Atlantic Monthly, 165, 5 (May 1940): 596.

[lxvii] Conant, My Several Lives, XV-XVI.

[lxviii] James Conant, The Education of American Teachers (New York: McGraw Hill, 1963),1-2; Conant, My Several Lives, 181, 185.

[lxix] Conant, My Several Lives, 417, 419.

[lxx] Conant, My Several Lives, 417, 424, 432: Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), 3.  Conant claimed for himself a bigger role in the founding of Educational Testing Services than described by Lemann in his seminal book.  For purposes of this article, the exact extent of Conant’s role is not as important as the fact that Conant initially supported standardized testing and then questioned it, citing what he considered to be progressive educational principles in both cases.

[lxxi]  Conant, The American High School Today, 62; Conant, My Several Lives, 419; Robert Hampel, “The American High School Today: James Bryant Conant’s Reservations and Reconsiderations,” Phi Delta Kappan (May 1983): 608-609; Lemann, The Big Test, 38, 78-79, 228..

[lxxii] James Conant, “American Remakes the University,” The Atlantic Monthly, 177, 5 (May 1946): 41-45; Patricia Graham (New York: Teachers College Press, 1967), 136.

[lxxiii] Conant, General Education in a Free Society; Educational Policies Commission, Education for ALL American Youth (Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1944); Paul Elicker, Planning for American Youth (Washington, DC: National Association of Secondary School Principles, 1951); Conant, Education in a Divided World, VII.  While some historians have characterized General Education in a Free Society as a conservative defense of the traditional academic disciplines – for example, Paul Westmeyer, A History of American Higher Education (Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas, 1985), 102 – most have described it as a progressive proposal for interdisciplinary and student-centered education – for example, Daniel Tanner & Laurel Tanner, Curriculum Development: Theory into Practice (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 445.

[lxxiv] Conant, General Education in a Free Society, pp.IX, 135; Educational Policies Commission, Education for ALL American Youth, 21, 102, 225-226; Elicker, Planning for American Youth , 19.

[lxxv]  Conant, General Education in a Free Society, 4, 58; Conant, My Several Lives, 366, 368.

[lxxvi]  Conant, General Education in a Free Society, 10, 32, 33, 118, 128, 139, 153, 171.

[lxxvii] Conant, General Education in a Free Society,  33, 77, 114, 171, 192.

[lxxviii] Educational Policies Commission, Education for ALL American Youth, 71-71, 85-87, 234-238, 299; Elicker, Planning for American Youth, 8-9, 19; Harold Hand, “The World Our Pupils Face,” Science Education, 31, 2 (Summer 1947): 55-60; Harold Hand, “The Case for the Common Learnings Course,” Science Education, 32, 1 (Spring 1948): 5-11.

[lxxix] Educational Policies Commission, Education for ALL American Youth: A Further Look (Washington DC: National Educational Association, 1952), 88-89, 380.

[lxxx] Harold Hand, “Local Studies Lead to Curriculum Change,” Educational Leadership, 8 (January 1951): 240-243; Harold Hand, “Making the Public School Curriculum Public Property,” Educational Leadership, 10 (January 1953), 261-264.

[lxxxi] Educational Policies Commission, Education for ALL American Youth: A Further Look, V.

[lxxxii] Conant, Education in a Divided World, VII, 100, 106, 110.

[lxxxiii] Cremin, The Transformation of the School, 348-351.

[lxxxiv] Mortimer Smith, And Madly Teach (Chicago, Henry Regenery Co., 1949), 90; Albert Lynd, Quackery in the Public Schools (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1950), 35; Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands (Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press, 1953), 81-100.

[lxxxv] James Conant, The Citadel of Learning (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1956), V, 40, 42; Conant, The Child, the Parent and the State, 16, 34, 48, 76, 94; Conant, Slums and Suburbs, 136, 140; Conant, The Education of American Teachers, 6; James Conant, Shaping Educational Policy (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), 4, 21-24.

[lxxxvi]  James Conant, Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962), 61; Conant, The American High School Today, 7.

[lxxxvii]  Landon Beyer, “The American High School Today: A First Report to American

Citizens,” Educational Studies, 27, 4 (1996-1997): 319-337.

[lxxxviii]  Conant, Slums and Suburbs, 3, 4, 12, 36-37, 39; Hershberg, James B. Conant, 726-727.

[lxxxix] Conant, The Education of American Teachers, 7-8, 15, 71, 113.

[xc] Quoted at Hershberg, James B. Conant, 754.

[xci] Rae, The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans, 155-156.

[xcii] Hershberg, James B. Conant, 752.

[xciii] For example, John Goodlad, Educational Renewal (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,

1994). Goodlad, nonetheless, regards Conant as “one of my mentors” (29).  Also, Barber,

Strong Democracy.

 

 

 

 

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