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.






Struggling to Raise the Norm: Essentialism, Progressivism and the Persistence of Common/Normal Schooling in America

Burton Weltman


This essay is an attempt to clarify present-day debates about educational reform in the United States through painting a broad-stroked picture of how these debates came to be.  As the key to the portrait, I have compressed the educational controversies of the past century into three traditions – common/normal schooling, Essentialism, and Progressivism – that I depict as the main positions in the educational debates of the twentieth century into the twenty-first.  This is a simplified view of the past that will hopefully help to clarify the complexities of the present.

In describing the three traditions, I have knowingly assigned to each category people who might be uncomfortable with some of their classmates.  Important differences between people and programs have inevitably been blurred, but I hope that important connections between them have also been highlighted.  I believe these categories reflect important realities that affect the possibilities for educational reform today.

I write this article as a self-styled Progressive and long-time partisan for Progressive causes but my main argument is that Progressives should unite with Essentialists against what I contend is the prevailing common/normal schooling tradition in American education.  In arguing that Essentialists and Progressives should make common cause against the common/normal schooling tradition, I am not dismissing the significant issues that divide Essentialists from Progressives or that pit many of those I have described as Progressives against each other.  I am merely contending that Progressives and Essentialists have much in common with each other, and have much to gain toward improving education by working together against the common/normal schooling that predominates in our schools.

Henry Adams’ Challenge.

The philosopher George Santayana famously warned that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.  Santayana didn’t promise that studying history would in itself prevent unwanted repetitions, but he thought it would help.  Henry Adams, a contemporary of Santayana, was not so sanguine.  Adams, the great grandson and grandson of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and a celebrated historian, litterateur and leading figure in the power elite of late nineteenth-century America, doubted the ability of most people to learn from history.  In The Education of Henry Adams, a stream-of-ideas autobiography that he wrote in 1905, Adams related his life-long effort to understand historical change in an increasingly dynamic world.

Adams claimed that Western history since the Middle Ages has been governed by a “law of acceleration,” such that people attempting to maintain traditional ways of life only warp past practices while improperly adapting to the present, and end up with the worst aspects of both.  He complained that most people study history to worship the past rather than prepare for the future.  Describing what people later characterized as postmodernism, Adams predicted that social and intellectual change will continue to accelerate during the twentieth century and that concepts with which people of one generation understand the universe will be completely inadequate for the next.

Given this situation, Adams asked, how and what is a teacher to teach?  And what, if anything, does it mean to pursue education?  He concluded that the foolish and the frightened will cling futilely to old ways of thinking and teaching, but the wise will teach themselves and their students to react constructively to the constantly changing world.  Adams challenged educators to rise to the latter but expected they would succumb to the former (Adams 1918/1961, 493, 497-498; Adams 1919/1969, 305-306).

Public education at the turn of the twentieth century generally comported with Adams’ dour expectations.   Following patterns that had been established during the 1840’s in the so-called common schools for elementary students and normal schools for prospective teachers, education was geared primarily toward passing on to the next what was considered the wisdom of the previous generation.  Adhering to what was considered the common sense of education, most schools focused on teaching the 4 R’s – reading, writing, arithmetic and religion, a program designed to acculturate students to the prevailing social system.  In a dynamically changing world, schools were expected to impose social and cultural law and order on students, and the common/normal schooling orthodoxy met these expectations (Butts & Cremin 1953, 545).

There were, however, groups of educators at the turn of the century who eschewed common sense and challenged the common/normal schooling orthodoxy with theories that embraced the dynamics of social and cultural change.  Two of these theories have remained particularly influential to the present day.  The first theory, which came to be known as Essentialism, promotes teaching the modern academic disciplines as a way of plugging students into currents of intellectual change.  Focusing on what students learn, Essentialists are subject matter mavens who want students to become scholars immersed in academic knowledge.

The second theory, Progressivism, focuses on teaching interdisciplinary, problem-solving techniques as a way for students to participate actively in their changing society.  Focusing on how students learn, Progressives are proselytizers for critical thinking who want students to learn how to use knowledge for socially constructive purposes.    Both theories were promoted by their founders as liberal, dynamic alternatives to what they condemned as the conservatism of common/normal schooling methods (Cremin 1961, IX, 328).

Essentialism and Progressivism quickly became the prevailing theories among educational reformers and education professors during the early twentieth century, and most of the most prominent educational innovators over the last one hundred years can be identified with one or the other theory.  Essentialists, for example, include William Bagley, the leading curricularist of the early twentieth century (Kandel 1961, 9-11, 108); Arthur Bestor, whose Educational Wastelands has been called the most influential book on education in mid-century (Cremin 1961, 344); Jerome Bruner, whose theory of “the structures of the disciplines” underlay most movements for curriculum reform during the 1960’s and 1970’s (Jenness 1990, 129); and E.D. Hirsch, whose theories of “cultural literacy” have been highly influential since the 1980’s (Feinberg 1999).

Progressives include John Dewey, perhaps the preeminent educator of modern times (Church & Sedlak 1976, 200); William Kilpatrick, whose “project method” has been almost universally adapted by schools since the 1920’s (Tennenbaum 1951, 88, 108; Church & Sedlak 1976, 379); Benjamin Bloom, whose taxonomy of thinking and methods of “mastery learning” have been widely cited since the 1960’s (Pulliam & Van Patten 1999, 174); and John Goodlad, one of the leading practitioners of school reform and the reform of teacher education over the last half century (Wisniewski 1990).

Educational debate since the early 1900’s has consisted largely of arguments between Essentialists and Progressives in which each side blames the other for the problems of American education and extols its own methods as the solution.  It is a debate that has become almost ritualized in its accusations and responses, with each side blaming the other for the same things and neither side responding to the other’s arguments.  This was highlighted for me in articles by E.D. Hirsch and Walter Feinberg.

In the first article, Hirsch contrasts his proposals for “knowledge-based education,” which is another term for Essentialism, with Progressivism.  Progressivism, in his description, is an elitist system that caters to the best and brightest students at the expense of ordinary students, promotes mindless activity and fragmented learning, and focuses on easy and boring subjects.  Hirsch particularly condemns Kilpatrick’s project method as the epitome of anti-intellectualism.

In contrast, Hirsch describes his own educational program as egalitarian in that it promotes the same curriculum for all students and expects the same results from all students.  He also claims that, given its focus on the academic disciplines, his program is intellectually challenging and coherent.  Hirsch complains that Progressivism dominates American public schools, and blames Progressives for what he sees as the decline of American education since the 1960’s (Hirsch 2002; also, Hirsch 1996).

In the second article, Feinberg, a distinguished, long-time advocate of multicultural education, contrasts his proposals for a reflective thinking pedagogy, which is the core of Progressivism, with Hirsch’s ideas.  In Feinberg’s description, Hirsch is an elitist who caters to the best and brightest students at the expense of ordinary students, promotes mindless memorization of fragmented bits of academic knowledge instead of active learning, and focuses on boring academic abstractions instead of issues of interest and importance to students.  In contrast, Feinberg claims his proposals promote intellectual integrity and democratic citizenship.  Complaining that the methods promoted by Hirsch predominate in American schools, Feinberg blames Essentialists for the problems of American education (Feinberg 1999; also, Feinberg 1998).

Taking the two articles together, Hirsch and Feinberg extol their own positions in almost exactly the same terms, condemn the other’s in almost exactly the same terms, and claim the other’s adherents are running and ruining the American educational system.  Most importantly, neither addresses the common/normal schooling tradition or what I contend is the persistence of common/normal schooling methods in public education.

Studies over the last seventy years have repeatedly indicated that while Essentialists and Progressives dominate the public debate, common schooling methods still predominate in American elementary and secondary schools, and normal schooling methods still prevail in schools of education.  Researchers have estimated that up to ninety percent of teachers today teach ninety percent of their classes in the same way as teachers did in the nineteenth century, and conclude that the reform movements of the twentieth century have at best affected only the periphery of education.

Today, as in the common schools of the 1840’s, most public school curricula are standardized around age-graded textbooks and workbooks, and most classrooms are dominated by teacher-talk, textbook reading, recitation and review, seatwork from worksheets, and tests of recall and basic skills.  And while religion is no longer explicitly promoted, the conformist law and order ethics that underlay religious instruction in nineteenth century schools still prevail (Cuban 1991, 198-200; Sizer 1992, 6; Nelson, Polansky & Carlson 2000, 15).

There have been incremental changes around the edges of education, such as more projects and group work that reflect the influence of Progressivism, and more research assignments that reflect the influence of Essentialism, but these innovations are almost always standardized into routine exercises in basic skills.  Likewise, while there have been dramatic changes in educational technology, from the blackboard, first introduced in the 1840’s, to radios, films, televisions and computers successively introduced during the twentieth century, these technologies have almost always been used in the common school mode to drill facts and basic skills.

In sum, while reform movements have come and gone in almost every decade over the last century, they have generally left only superficial residue, while common school methods still predominate.  The trend in most states over the last fifteen years has been toward even more standardized curricula in the guise of curriculum standards, and more standardized testing and teaching to the test in the guise of academic accountability.  This trend has recently culminated in the federal “No Child Left Behind” act, which attempts to make common school methods the law of the land (Sizer 1992, 210-211; Goodlad 1984, 236, 264; Kliebard 1986, 121; Tyack & Cuban 1995, 7, 9, 121; Sarason 1996; Marshak 2003, 229).

Teacher education also remains basically the same today as in the nineteenth century.  Although the rhetoric of most programs is Essentialist and Progressive, the reality of teacher training is overwhelmingly in normal school methods of lecturing, drilling, standardized curricula and standardized testing.  Programs espousing innovative methods are almost invariably warped by social and political pressures and by the weight of tradition into normal schooling forms.  And few education programs are connected with innovative elementary and secondary schools in which student-teachers can practice creative methods.  As a result, most prospective teachers end up in field placements with common schooling supervisory teachers so that no matter what student-teachers have been taught in their education classes, they are almost invariably socialized into common schooling methods before they graduate (Goodlad 1982, 19; Goodlad 1989, A3; Morrison & Marashall 2003, 292-297).

There have been many efforts to reform teacher education but with little effect.  In what is almost a parody of Santayana’s warning, the same reform proposals come and go every few years, with different names for the same things, and with generally the same outcome that whatever is innovative is trimmed and tamed into a common/normal schooling format.  What is today called performance-based education, for example, used to be called outcome-based education and, before that, competency-based education.  What are today called education school-public school partnerships used to be called public school-education school alliances and, before that, school/university cooperatives.  In almost every generation, old reforms are proposed as radically new ideas, but after a hundred years of tumult, there has been little large-scale or long term change in teacher education (Goodlad 1990, 186-189; Lucas 1997, 84, 89-90).

Although most studies point to the persistence of common/normal schooling methods as the main reason educational reforms fail, Essentialists and Progressives still invariably blame each other.  When Essentialist reforms fail, Essentialists blame it on sabotage by Progressive educators.  When Progressive reforms fail, Progressives blame it on sabotage by Essentialists.  In most cases, however, it is either the successful resistance of the common school orthodoxy or the cooptation of the reforms into a common schooling regimen that has foiled the reformers.  The net result is that American schools have entered the twenty-first century still dominated by nineteenth century methods (Tyack & Cuban 1995, 7).

The purpose of this article is to examine the conflict between Essentialists and Progressives.  Although I am a self-styled Progressive, the article is going to suggest that the differences between Essentialists and Progressives are less significant than their mutual differences with the common/normal schooling methods of education that still predominate in public schools and schools of education.  I will also suggest that the differences between Essentialist educators and common/normal schooling educators are more significant than the differences between Progressives and Essentialists.  The conclusion of the article is that in order for educators finally to respond effectively to Henry Adams’ challenge, and get out from under the doom of Santayana’s prophecy, Essentialists and Progressives must work together to overcome the crippling legacy of common/normal schooling in American education.

Norms of the Normal Schools.

The 1840’s were a major turning point in American education.  Prior to the 1840’s, education was almost entirely private and even public schools required tuition from students.  School attendance was voluntary and generally of brief duration.  Most people worked on farms and it was widely felt that farmers did not require much, if any, formal education.  The industrial revolution changed this situation and common schools were an innovative response to the industrialization, urbanization and immigration of the mid-nineteenth century.

Common schools were free, publicly supported and mandatory, and were intended to provide a common or standardized education for common, ordinary working people.  Their curricula generally focused on the 4 R’s: reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion – Protestant religion.  Their goal was to instill in students, many of whom were the children of Catholic immigrants from peasant backgrounds, the basic skills that would enable them to live peacefully in cities and work productively in factories.  Common schools stressed what were considered the Protestant moral virtues of hard work, obedience, patriotism, temperance, cleanliness and thrift, and were intended to Americanize students into an Anglo-centric mono-culture.

Common schools reflected the innovations of the industrial era and were organized on a factory model, using assembly line teaching methods.  Education before the 1840’s was generally based on the premise that children are inherently wicked and need to be suppressed according to the principle of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  Common schools were based on what was considered the more humane premise that children are inherently neither good nor bad, and should be treated as raw materials to be molded into good citizens as they moved from one grade to another.  Teachers were seen as skilled mechanics, molding children in specified ways as they passed by on the assembly line.  Rote memorization, routine drilling and recall testing were the most common teaching methods (Katz 1971, 28, 33-38; Tyack 1974, 33-35; Church & Sedlak 1976, 98-100).

Normal schools were established in the mid-nineteenth century to train teachers for the growing number of common schools.  Prior to the 1840’s, teaching had been done largely by college-trained tutors for rich children and semi-literate housewives for ordinary children.  The skills and methods of teachers varied widely.  Normal schools were designed to provide standardized training for teachers who would implement the standardized curricula and methods of the common schools, according to what were considered the “scientific rules” of teaching.

The normal school curriculum focused on the 4 R’s taught in the common schools, plus lesson planning and classroom management.  Normal school teaching methods emphasized rote and routine learning.  Breaking with the punitive nature of prior teaching methods, most normal schools advocated systems of reward rather than punishment as the best form of motivation for student achievement.  Most normal schools had their own practice schools in which prospective teachers could practice on students what they learned in class (Mann 1840/1989, 9, 21, 29; Harper 1939, 31-32; Lucas 1997, 4, 25, 30, 62).

Standardization was the watchword of most normal schools and innovative techniques were invariably reshaped into the common mold.  In the 1840’s and 1850’s, for example, many educators became proponents of Johann Pestalozzi’s object method in which teachers attempted to pique students’ natural curiosity by using real-world objects in their teaching (Pestalozzi 1898, 57, 60, 180, 324).  Although Pestalozzi proposed active and creative learning techniques similar to those later proposed by Progressives, Pestalozzi’s method was quickly degraded in most normal schools to a mechanical technique for rote learning.

Similarly, in the late nineteenth century, many normal schools adopted Johann Herbart’s method of teaching through literature.  Herbart wanted teachers to use literature to focus on the “meaning” of things and the “interests” of students in a manner that also presaged Progressivism (Herbart 1911, 16, 31, 72).  But what Herbart proposed as a creative method was soon reduced to a formulaic five steps of teaching – preparation, presentation, association, generalization, and application – that all teachers were expected to mechanically implement for any subject (Harper 1939, 124-136; Church & Sedlak 1976, 104).

Normal schools varied to some extent by region.  Although they developed first in the Northeast, Midwest schools were often the most innovative.  While Northeastern normal schools focused on the mechanics of teaching with the goal that “the teacher be a good technician,” Midwestern schools frequently emphasizedbartHeH

teachers’ subject matter knowledge and, thereby, presaged Essentialism.  Likewise, Northeastern normal schools organized their practice schools on the model of existing common schools, thereby perpetuating the status quo in teaching, but Midwestern normal schools frequently founded laboratory schools in which teachers could experiment with innovative teaching methods as the Progressives later recommended (Harper 1939, 31-32; Levin 1994, 153-154; Lucas 1997, 29-31, 46).  In general, however, creative methods did not fare well or last long in most normal schools, wherein all things were eventually reduced to a lowest common denominator of curriculum and instruction.

College Forms and Academic Norms.

            Normal school standards generally followed common school norms during the nineteenth century.  Since the goal of the common schools was to transmit basic skills and rudimentary knowledge to children, normal schools trained prospective teachers in the rudimentary knowledge and basic skills they were expected to teach their students.  Normal schools generally attempted to educate teachers to one level above the children they would be teaching, that is, lower grade teachers should have an elementary school education, middle grade teachers a high school education, and high school teachers what we today would consider a junior college education.  This practice did not make for a very highly educated teacher corps, and normal schools struggled from their inception for academic respectability in the educational market (Harper 1939, 129; Lucas 1997, 33).

As high schools proliferated in the late nineteenth century and the demand for high school teachers rose, liberal arts colleges began to view teacher education as a potentially lucrative business.  At the same time, as colleges expanded and accepted increasingly more graduates of public high schools, they developed an interest in the quality of the education their prospective students were getting in the public schools.  As a means of both raising money and raising the educational level of high school graduates, colleges began setting up departments of education, sometimes incorporating already existing normal schools into their institutions.

In turn, faced with competition from liberal arts colleges, normal schools began upgrading themselves into teachers colleges.  As a result of these trends, there were very few avowed normal schools left by the 1930’s.  This process of institutional upgrading continued after World War II when teachers colleges began transforming themselves into full-service liberal arts colleges and universities, with the result that there are very few teachers colleges left today (Harper 1939, 113; Church & Sedlak 1976, 227; Lucas 1997, 35-38, 295).

The process of upgrading teacher education programs was neither smooth nor consistent.  There was considerable opposition from academic faculty within liberal arts colleges to the development of teacher education programs.  Academic professors complained that education professors and students of education were inferior and that education courses were sophomoric.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most education professors were themselves graduates of normal schools and did not have even bachelors’ degrees let alone doctorates.  And many prospective elementary school teachers had not graduated high school.  Hiring standards for education professors and entrance standards for education students steadily rose during the twentieth century but objections by academic professors to the quality of the students, professors and instruction in education programs continue to the present day, even in universities that started as normal schools and teachers colleges (Harper 1939, 102; Lucas 1997, 40, 44).

Essentialism and Progressivism began as efforts to reconcile universities’ academic departments and education programs, and thereby upgrade both teacher education and public school teaching.  Both theories derived from the seminar methods that were introduced from Germany into the academic departments of emerging American universities in the late nineteenth century.  American universities developed as institutions devoted to the practical study of modern academic disciplines, especially the physical and social sciences, as opposed to the classical curriculum of ancient languages, ancient history and philosophy that prevailed in most nineteenth century colleges.  Seminar methods encouraged critical thinking and in-depth discussion of academic subjects, as opposed to the lecture method of transmitting information and ideas that prevailed in most traditional colleges.  Essentialism and Progressivism attempted to translate seminar methods into elementary and secondary school teaching (Bestor 1953, 169-170; Westbrook 1991, 107).

Essentialism stems from the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies, chaired by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University.  In a report issued in 1893, the Committee proposed a high school curriculum, and by inference an elementary curriculum and a program of teacher education, that focuses on the modern academic disciplines.  This is generally considered the founding document of Essentialism and the program around which Essentialists have rallied to the present day.  The Committee rejected both the classical curriculum followed by most of the elite private schools of that day and the standardized materials, tests and teaching methods of the common schools and normal schools.  In promoting the social and physical sciences, the report proposed treating teachers and students as scholars who would conduct in-depth analyses of academic problems.

Although almost all public school curricula from the early 1900’s to the present day have followed the basic format recommended in the 1893 report, Essentialists have perennially complained that the content of school curricula has not matched their form, and generally attributed this disparity to the weakness of teacher education programs.  As a remedy, Essentialists have argued that education programs should be controlled by the academic departments of colleges and universities (Sizer 1964, 209, 264-265; Church & Sedlak 1976, 295, 298, 300; Tanner & Tanner 1980, 232-239; Ravitch 1985, 71; Hirsch 1987, 116).

Progressivism is exemplified by the 1918 National Education Association Report entitled “The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education” which called for a social-centered curriculum and a problem-centered methodology for schools.  The report rejected the standardization and mechanization of common/normal school pedagogy in favor of treating teachers as professionals and students as citizens who engage in real-life decision-making activities.  The report proposed that teachers and students be allowed considerable leeway in their curricula and methodologies.  It intended teacher education programs to be jointly developed by academic departments and education schools.  From the 1920’s to the present day, Progressivism has been the professed theory, but not often the practice, of most schools of education (Cremin 1961, 4; Tanner & Tanner 1980, 276-278; Goodlad 1990, 187-189).

Essentialism and Progressivism share many key principles that distinguish them both from common/normal schooling.  Both are based on the premise that basic skills, the primary goal of common/normal schools, are necessary but not sufficient for either teachers or students.  Both contend that teachers can and should teach academic subject matter and higher level thinking skills to children starting in the earliest grades.  Both insist that most students are best taught through creative and critical thinking, rather than through recitation and drill.  And both contend that standardized textbooks, tests, workbooks and other standardized teaching methods should be used only as supplementary tools.  In sum, while common/normal schoolers regard creative activities as at most supplementary to their primary methods of recitation and drill, Essentialists and Progressives promote creative activities and critical thinking as their primary methods, supplemented with recitation and drill when necessary.

Essentialists and Progressives regard teaching as a creative exercise for teachers and students alike, unlike common/normal schoolers who view teaching through the lens of nineteenth century positivism.  In common/normal schooling practice, science is regarded primarily as a set of rules and results rather than an experimental process, and scientific teaching is seen as implementing formulaic methods.  Essentialists and Progressives generally regard teaching as a scientific method itself in which lesson plans are merely hypotheses, tentative proposals to solve pedagogical problems that can be modified as they are implemented.  Teaching is science in the making, not ready-made.

Essentialists and Progressives also insist that it is not enough for teachers to be merely an academic step ahead of their students but that all teachers, and especially lower grade teachers, must be academically well prepared.  The lower the grade level, and the less skilled and knowledgeable the students, the more teachers must know to be able to translate and discuss complex subjects with their fledgling students.  For Essentialists and Progressives, the primary purpose of a college education for teachers is to develop disciplinary and interdisciplinary expertise that will take them and their students beyond basic skills and rudimentary knowledge.  While the two theories differ somewhat in their emphases – Essentialists focusing on knowledge of the separate disciplines and Progressives focusing on interdisciplinary problem-solving – both stress academic learning and promote the integrity and independence of academic departments.  In sum, they would seem to have much in common and a common cause.

Parting of the Ways.

            Part 1: Politics.  Although there were differences between Essentialism and Progressivism from the start, the differences were not so great that a person could not be an adherent of both.  Essentialism was initially the product of college professors from elite universities and was intended for college-bound, middle-class students.  Hence it’s intellectual emphasis on scholarship and the academic disciplines.  Progressivism was largely a product of public school teachers and was initially intended primarily for working class students who would be lucky to graduate high school.  Hence it’s emphasis on problem-solving and practical thinking.  These intellectual differences were not, however, as divisive as they have become.

Charles Eliot, an early founder of what became the Essentialist program, was also the first chairperson of the Progressive Education Association in 1919 (Cremin 1961, 240).  John Dewey, who succeeded Eliot as head of the Progressive Education Association, spoke out forcefully about the importance of teaching the academic disciplines (Dewey 1938, 2, 12-13, 80, 83, 95, 99, 109).  So, what happened?  How can one explain the parting of the ways of these two movements?  I think that in addition to their intellectual differences, a variety of political and institutional factors drove them apart.

Politically, Progressives and Essentialists polarized as they competed for the attention of educators, and both sides succumbed to extremism, exaggeration and alliances based on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.  Extremists in both camps took control of the debate and defined each camp’s view of the other in the most pejorative terms.  This is exemplified in the characterization of Progressivism by E.D. Hirsch as “anti-knowledge” and by Diane Ravitch as “a cult” that appeals to “below-average students” (Hirsch 1996, 3; Ravitch 1983, 79-80).  In turn, Progressives have characterized Essentialism as “an academic utopia” that appeals to professors but denigrates students (Trow 1954, 21).  Each side sets up the other as a straw man and then knocks him down, which may be personally satisfying but resolves little.

Excessive partisanship has sometimes led otherwise reputable scholars to exaggerate and even misrepresent their evidence in order to make political points.  Arthur Bestor, for example, was a meticulous historian whose research methods were considered a model of thoroughness and objectivity (Clark 1950, 282).  In his polemical writings against Progressivism, however, he resorted to personal attacks and unsubstantiated claims which he was forced to admit were erroneous but then justified on the grounds that political debate did not have to meet the same high standards as historical scholarship (Bestor 1955, 438-447).

Similarly, Diane Ravitch, a disciple of Bestor, is a highly regarded historian who was for many years a vehement critic of Progressivism, and whose works are still cited by conservatives in their attacks on Progressives.  (Ravitch 1985, 74, 81).  In her polemical writings, she too seemed to abandon historical objectivity in favor of scoring political points.  For example, in attacks on the “language police” who she claimed were censoring textbooks,  Ravitch railed against present-day Progressives based almost entirely on stale examples of a small group of overzealous feminists and civil rights activists during the 1960’s and 1970’s (Ravitch 2003, 14-16).

Although Progressives have been more sinned against than sinners, they have, nonetheless, been guilty of similar excesses.  Progressives, for example, tried to have articles by Bestor excluded from educational journals during the 1950’s on the spurious grounds that he was anti-education.  And Harold Hand, a noted Progressive education professor at the University of Illinois, tried to stop the University of Illinois Press from publishing one of Bestor’s books on the misbegotten grounds that Bestor was anti-democratic (Brickman 1953, 154; Hand 1954, 27).

Progressives and Essentialists promote their separate myths of a “golden age” of schooling in which the others play the spoiler role of serpents in the garden.  Successive generations of Essentialists, viewing their childhoods through rosy lenses and their middle age through a glass darkly, have complained about the downfall of public schooling since their youth and blamed Progressivism for the calamity.  Mortimer Adler, for example, bemoaned the degraded condition of public schooling in the 1930’s compared to the education he had received during the early 1900’s (Adler 1939/1988, 78).  But then Arthur Bestor complained in the 1950’s about the decline of public schools since what he claimed was their heyday in the 1930’s (Bestor 1955, 140).  And E.D. Hirsch complained in the 1980’s about the decline of the schools since what he saw as their high point in the 1950’s (Hirsch 1987, 1-4).

United only in blaming the decline of public education on Progressivism, each of these Essentialists identified the other’s low point as his high point, and each pointed to a different decade as the date of the alleged Progressive takeover of the schools – Adler the 1920’s and 1930’s, Bestor the 1940’s and 1950’s, and Hirsch the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Although these claims are inconsistent to the point of absurdity, successive generations of Progressives have similarly blamed Essentialists for the all of the ills of the schools (Rugg 1926, 30, 39, 67-68; Burnett 1954, 74; Engle & Ochoa 1988, 107-108).

Essentialists and Progressives also have made political alliances with political conservatives that exacerbated their differences while weakening the integrity of their respective positions.  Historically, most prominent Essentialists have identified themselves as political liberals, including Charles Eliot, William Bagley, Arthur Bestor, Jerome Bruner, E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, and promoted Essentialism as part of their liberal agenda.  During the 1930’s, for example, Bagley advocated teaching the liberal academic disciplines in order to promote liberal social goals, including a cooperative economy and a comprehensive system of social welfare, and to combat the rise of fascism in America (Bagley 1934, 33, 120-122; Bagley 1937, 73).  Bestor, a disciple of Bagley, argued during the 1950’s that teaching the liberal disciplines would help foster social democracy and defeat McCarthyism (Bestor 1952, 4; Bestor 1953 25-39; Bestor 1955a, 18).  Hirsch, a disciple of Bagley and Bestor, has argued since the 1980’s that studying the academic disciplines is the “only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children” and the best way to make America a more liberal and just society (Hirsch 1987, XIII; Hirsch 1996, 16).

These same Essentialists have, however, frequently joined with conservatives in their monomania to defeat Progressivism.  During the 1950’s, Bestor joined with Mortimer Smith, an avowed Social Darwinist and political reactionary, to form the Council on Basic Education, hoping to outflank Progressives through such an alliance (Smith 1949, 90-92; Cremin 1961, 546).  During the 1980’s, Ravitch worked in the Reagan administration and is currently a trustee of the arch-conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  Meanwhile, Hirsch proclaimed that “after six decades of anti-knowledge extremism” from Progressives, he was going to become an extremist himself and join with anybody who would oppose Progressivism in the education wars (Hirsch 1997, 7, 126).

Toward this end, both Hirsch and Ravitch supported the onerous testing provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act.  Under NCLB, elementary students in grades three through eight have been tested every year in reading, math and, eventually, science, with schools penalized unless test scores rise substantially every year.  Although Hirsch and Ravitch generally concede that standardized tests do not reflect the kind of in-depth knowledge that Essentialists desire, and that Essentialism works best with the sort of low-stakes portfolios promoted by Progressives as an alternative to high-stakes tests, they, like their mentor Bestor, support standardized testing seemingly both as a means of measuring and, thereby, promoting students’ academic subject matter knowledge and as a means of thwarting Progressives who oppose standardized tests.

Political conservatives, such as William Bennett and Allen Bloom, took advantage of the Essentialist-Progressive conflict to promote their culture wars against what they claim is “the prevailing liberal orthodoxy” in America by supporting the Essentialist cause.  They hoped to use Essentialism as a vehicle for reinstating the system of elite schools for the few and common schools for the many that prevailed in the nineteenth century, and the Anglo-centered mono-culture that was taught in those schools.  Citing Bagley and Bestor as predecessors and claiming Hirsch and Ravitch as allies, Bennett and Bloom advocated an educational system in which ordinary students will be taught the 3 R’s plus moral education (essentially the 4 R’s of the common schools) while only the best and brightest will pursue academic subjects in depth.

Other conservatives have cited Essentialism as a rationale for privatizing schools and returning to the pre-common school system of the early nineteenth century, or cite Essentialist arguments in favor of greater academic content in the school curriculum as support for proposals for indoctrinating students with politically conservative ideas.  These are very different goals than those proclaimed by Bagley, Bestor, Ravitch and Hirsch (Bennett 1984, 6; Bennett 1991, 1-3; Bloom 1987, 25-43; Rochester 2003, 19, 21, 27).

Progressives have made similar alliances with conservatives, although not as frequently and rarely in recent decades.  While the most prominent Progressives have been politically liberal, from John Dewey to William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, George Counts, Theodore Brameld, Benjamin Bloom and John Goodlad, there have also been self-styled Progressives such as Edward Thorndike, whose support for intelligence testing and standardized achievement testing led him to elitist theories of  society and education that contravene mainstream Progressivism.  Like conservative Essentialists, Thorndike advocated critical thinking for the best and brightest students and social control for ordinary children.  And he developed so-called scientific rules for teaching that were basically a more sophisticated version of the standardized methods promoted in nineteenth century normal schools (Church & Seldak 1976, 334).  Allies such as Thorndike were worse than enemies for Progressives.  In characterizing themselves as Progressives, Thorndike and his followers merely provided ammunition for self-styled liberal Essentialists such as Ravitch and Hirsch. (Ravitch 1983, 56; Ravitch 1985 14).

Progressivism has also often been used by common/normal schoolers as a cover for their anti-intellectual practices, most frequently by citing Progressive “child-centered” methods as an excuse for adopting academically and intellectually empty curricula.  And there has been a tendency among Progressives to defend this sort of incompetence on the grounds that any criticism of schools or school teachers undermines support for public education, a tactic that has left Progressivism open to well-deserved ridicule (Eklund 1954, 350).

Arthur Bestor, for example, liked to tell the story of a junior high school principal who claimed on Progressive grounds that since most people work with their hands, not every child needs to learn how to read and write (Bestor 1953, 54-56).  E.D. Hirsch tells a similar story of a self-styled Progressive elementary school principal who claimed that since most people don’t travel, children don’t need to learn geography (Hirsch 1996, 55).  In recent years, we have heard so-called Progressives who, in the name of holistic learning, won’t teach their students the multiplication tables in math or the structure of words and sentences in reading.  In sum, the tendency of Essentialists to join with political reactionaries and Progressives to defend extremists has significantly exacerbated their differences with each other.

Part 2: Institutions.  The differences between Essentialism and Progressivism have also been exacerbated by institutional factors, especially the pervasiveness of common/normal schooling practices in public schools and schools of education which has warped both Essentialist and Progressive reforms and, thereby, lent support to each side’s criticisms of the other.  Among Progressive reforms, for example, Kilpatrick’s project method, which he intended as a vehicle for creativity among teachers and students, quickly devolved in most public schools into just another standardized routine, codified in textbooks and teaching packages as either a means of drilling students in basic skills or a meaningless activity about which Essentialists such as Hirsch have justifiably complained (Church & Sedlak 1976, 381).

Similarly, Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive skills, which he developed during the 1950’s as a means of promoting critical thinking and creative teaching, was soon reduced in most public schools and schools of education to a standardized lesson-planning format for teachers with nary a critical or creative piece.  While Bloom emphasized that critical thinking in students could only be taught through critical thinking by teachers, schools of education regularly misrepresent recitation and recall as critical thinking, and textbook publishers routinely supplement their textbooks and workbooks with so-called analytical and critical thinking questions that are merely recall by another name (Bloom et al. 1956; Brown 1998, 1, 4, 15; Marshall 2003, 195-196).

Bloom’s program of “mastery learning” suffered the same fate.  Developed during the 1960’s to help teachers in low income school districts who teach large classes of educationally disadvantaged children, mastery learning was designed as a whole-class method of teaching basic skills.  Bloom emphasized that mastery learning is not an educational panacea.  He cautioned that it is not applicable to creative subjects or critical thinking and it is not as effective as either tutoring students individually or teaching them in small groups.

Despite his warnings, Bloom’s proposal was quickly reduced to a seven-step formula by Madeline Hunter, who advertised her program as effective for all subjects and skills.  Reminiscent of the five-step formula to which Herbart’s theories of creative learning were reduced in the late nineteenth century, Hunter’s seven steps have often been adopted as a blueprint by public schools and schools of education and reduced to bullet-points in teaching textbooks and model lesson plans, a blueprint that has little room for creative or critical thinking (Bloom 1976, 5, 21, 41, 105, 200; Hunter 1973, 97; Humter 1977, 100; Hunter 1985, 58; Brandt 1985, 61; Freer & Dawson 1987, 68; Gibbony 1987, 47-48).

In a similar fashion, John Goodlad’s experiments in whole-school reform during the 1970’s, predicated on bottom-up cooperative action by parents, students and teachers, have been misused to justify top-down, state-mandated reforms since the 1990’s, one of the most serious and ominous misuses of an erstwhile Progressive reform (Goodlad 1975, 5, 152, 177, 209; Goodlad, 1997).  In the wake of NCLB, the language of whole-school reform and student/teacher empowerment was co-opted to promote the whole-sale reorganization of schools to raise standardized test scores.  In a book that exemplifies this trend, Eugene Kennedy noted that the most difficult task is to convince skeptical students and teachers that teaching to the test is real learning.  His proposed reforms are common/normal schooling practices in participatory democratic wrappings (Kennedy 2003).

Essentialism has also been deformed by the hegemony of common/normal school practices, and is almost invariably reduced to a list of common facts and basic skills that ostensibly represent the core of the academic disciplines.  This conflict between Essentialist ideals and practices is exemplified by E.D. Hirsch’s writings.  In his best-reasoned theoretical statements, Hirsch has rejected what I have described as common/normal schooling and shares many key positions with Progressives.

He opposes drill and recitation as boring and rigid, and explicitly supports Progressive methods of active learning.  He rejects ethnocentric curricula and explicitly supports multicultural education.  He opposes emphasizing basic skills and rudimentary knowledge, and promotes a combination of skills, academic knowledge and problem-solving.  He promotes the idea of the teacher as a “guide” rather than dictator.  Most significant, the curricular guidebooks that Hirsch has prepared for elementary school teachers incorporate multicultural materials and multiple perspectives, and emphasize creative and critical thinking of sorts that are consistent with Progressive theories and practices (Hirsch 1987, 125; Hirsch 1993; Hirsch 1996, 102, 150, 174).

At the same time, in his polemical statements against Progressivism, Hirsch has essentially caricatured his own ideas, reducing his proposed curricula to arbitrary lists of facts and ideas that he claims everyone needs to be familiar with, even if they do not understand them, and promoting the rote memorization of these lists on the ostensible grounds that children like to memorize things.  Calling for nationally standardized lists and tests, and promoting the NCLB, he would seemingly make common schooling the law of the land.  Hirsch’s is almost a Doctor Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde performance (Hirsch 1987, 14, 30, 131, 141).

What is to be done?

It has frequently been said that education during the twentieth century was a battle between Dewey and Thorndike, and Thorndike won (Levin 1994, 6).  This is another way of saying that despite all the sound and fury of the Essentialists and Progressives, it was common/normal schooling practices that prevailed.  A variety of political and institutional factors have contributed to this outcome.

Politically, it is very hard to displace a long-time hegemonic theory such as common/normal schooling, especially when that hegemony is supported by powerful groups of educators who are satisfied with the status quo – what Arthur Bestor and other critics have called “the interlocking group” of education professors, school teachers and state education officials who set the standards and requirements for public schools and schools of education.  Trying to organize an opposition to these groups is an uphill struggle (Bestor 1953, 101; Ravitch 1985, 94).

Common/normal schooling also has political appeal to conservatives who are afraid of change and to reactionaries who want to go back to the nineteenth century.  Essentialism expects teachers and students to work on the frontiers of knowledge, with cutting edge ideas that will inherently foster change.  Progressivism expects teachers and students to work on solving social problems and making cultural innovations which may also lead to change.  As such, Essentialism and Progressivism seem dangerous to many people – parents, teachers, administrators, politicians – including many who say they are in favor of innovative methods but do not practice what they preach (Goodlad 1984, 236).

Institutionally, it is difficult to overcome the inertia of a longstanding set of practices such as common/normal schooling, which are to many the common sense of education.  To suggest any change is to risk getting the bewildered response “But we’ve always done it that way” or “But everybody does it that way.”  Trying to convince people to adopt alternative methods can seem a Sisyphean task (Sarason 1971, 4, 19).

Common/normal schooling also has the popular appeal of standardization, which is widely seen as the common sense of an industrial society and bureaucratic system.  Standardized curricula, teaching methods and testing seem the safe way to do things, to impose order on a situation that could otherwise be messy.  Standardization also responds to the imperial urge to impose what you see as the one best system on everyone else (Tyack 1974, 4, 197, 238).

But common schooling methods cripple students and teachers, and normal schooling methods warp schools of education and the universities that house them.  Common schooling cripples students because in a society as dynamic as ours, children cannot merely follow in their parents’ footsteps.  The most important skill they need to learn is how to think critically and reflectively about themselves and their world, so that they can creatively and effectively respond to change.  Although studies indicate that students will do as well on standardized tests if you teach them well – according to Essentialist and/or Progressive methods – as if you teach them to the test, most public school and school of education administrators scurry to the common schooling mode in the face of standardized testing requirements (Kohn 2000).

Common schooling cripples teachers by depriving them of the opportunity to make professional choices and by forcing them to use so-called teacher-proof materials and methods, the sorts of things that anyone can use without having to know very much.  The persistence of common schooling reflects a profound disparagement of teachers and their potential to act as professionals, as people capable of making informed decisions of their own.

Common schooling methods also contribute to the chronic problem of teacher drop-out which has plagued school systems since the nineteenth century.  From the 1840’s to the present day, some fifty percent of teachers regularly leave the profession within five years of entering.  Boredom has consistently been cited by ex-teachers as one of the main reasons they left education.  Using the same textbooks and workbooks, teaching the same basic skills in the same ways over and over, without any impetus and little opportunity for intellectual growth, can become very stale after a very few years.  And when teachers get bored, they generally get boring and then their students get bored, and that leads to trouble.  Although Essentialist and Progressive methods require somewhat more intellectual effort from teachers, creative and critical thinking are generally more interesting to teachers and students alike and, as such, less draining.  Using Essentialist and Progressive methods, teachers can spend more time teaching and less time disciplining their students – and less time ruing the day they decided to become teachers (Bagley 1937, 81; Bagley & Alexander 1937, 6; Notebook 2003, 3).

Normal schooling methods turn schools of education and the universities that house them into glorified trade schools churning out low-level technicians instead of educating scholars and professionals.  While Essentialists and Progressives seek to elevate school teachers closer to the status of college professors, normal school practices tend to reduce college professors to the status of elementary school teachers.  To the extent that standardization is the goal of teacher education programs, professors will be subject to petty-bureaucratic controls of their courses and their teaching, and not merely the education professors.

In most universities today, academic departments are expected to offer lower level versions of their courses and programs for prospective school teachers, or to support so-called general education degrees for teachers, which are usually smorgasbords of introductory courses that are neither in-depth in any discipline nor reflectively interdisciplinary, and in which students study a little bit about everything but all too often learn a lot about nothing.  The normal school rationale offered for degrading academic programs in this way is that teachers do not have to know much about anything.  They only need to know a bit more than their students, just enough to follow the directions in the teachers’ manual and stay a chapter ahead in the teachers’ edition of the textbook, the one with the answers in the back.  This is a demeaning program for academic professors as well as teacher educators (Rhodes 1998, 144).

So, where do we go from here?  As a self-styled Progressive, I have for many years regarded Essentialists as at best wrong and more generally wrong-headed.  At the same time, I have sometimes found myself secretly agreeing with some of their statements – academic knowledge is good, academic disciplines are productive ways of organizing knowledge, and knowledge of the disciplines can be useful.  I have usually kept these thoughts to myself but have finally decided that reconciliation between Essentialism and Progressivism is possible and necessary.  I believe that there is good reason and reasonable hope for Essentialists and Progressives to work together to meet Henry Adams’ challenge and finally end the persistence of common/normal schooling in America.


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Celebrating Holidays and Heroes: Rejoicing in the Ideal and Critiquing the Reality – Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas

Burton Weltman

We have just finished in the United States an extended holiday season during which the most prominent public celebrations were Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  So, in the spirit of the Grinch who first stole Christmas and then found its true meaning, this might be a good time to reflect a bit on the meaning of all this celebrating.

Americans share with most other peoples an all-too-human tendency to treat holidays as an opportunity to rejoice in our heroes as though they were ideal people and rejoice in ourselves as adherents of their ideals.  We equate celebration with congratulation.  But this is a one-sided view of holiday celebration that can leave us no better off the day after the holiday than the day before.  And that is a denigration of the event.

Celebration is a word that first came into use in the English language during the fifteenth century.  It referred to religious commemorations of holy days and especially the Sacrament of the Eucharist that is the culmination of the Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.  A Catholic Mass commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It includes readings from the Old and New Testaments and a sermon.  A Catholic is supposed to confess his/her sins and agree to penitence for those sins before the Mass in order to participate in communion with Jesus at the close of the ceremony.  The purpose of a Mass is for people to rejoice in Jesus as their Savior and in their membership in the Church but also to reflect on  the meaning of Christianity and their shortcomings as Christians.  Celebration was, therefore, conceived as an event during which people rejoiced in their ideals but also subjected their ideals and themselves to critical scrutiny.

The purpose of this essay is to apply this definition of celebration to the recent holidays of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  The goal of the essay is to derive some values from these holidays in addition to the good cheer, good meals and gifts that are traditional with them.

Thanksgiving Rediscovered: The Pilgrims’ Progress.

There is a significant difference between the popular image of Thanksgiving and the events that actually occurred in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620-1621.  The conventional story of Thanksgiving tells of Pilgrims escaping from religious and political persecution in England to establish a regime of tolerance and freedom in the New World.  Historians, however, tell a story that is more complex and not as congratulatory as the conventional version that appears in most school textbooks and the mass media.  The Pilgrims were not always the saints they aspired to be.  They were certainly not apostles of tolerance and freedom and were not missionaries for a democratic and multicultural America as they are often portrayed in popular culture.

Contrary to the conventional story, the Pilgrims did not come to America to establish religious freedom.  The Pilgrims were strict English Protestants who opposed many of the practices of the established Anglican Church in England because Anglicanism seemed to them to be too much like the hated Catholic Church.  As a result of their religious non-conformity, the Pilgrims were persecuted by the Anglican Church and English government.  Many of the Pilgrims fled from England to the Netherlands in the early 1600’s to escape the oppression they suffered in England.  But these same Pilgrims then fled from the Netherlands to America in 1620 to escape the religious tolerance and openness of Dutch society.  It seems that the Pilgrim elders were afraid that their children might be induced by the religious and intellectual freedom of Dutch society to stray from the narrow and strict form of Protestant Christianity that the Pilgrims practiced.  As such, the Pilgrims did not come to America to establish a society that promoted religious and cultural tolerance but to establish a regime of religious and cultural intolerance of their own.

In the course of their escape from freedom in the Netherlands, the Pilgrims lied to British authorities about where they were headed.  They were supposed to land in Virginia but religion in Virginia was controlled by the Anglican Church.  So, the Pilgrims essentially hijacked the Mayflower and landed in Massachusetts where they found that most of the natives had recently died from infectious diseases.  Historians know now that this catastrophe was a result of the transmission to America by European fisherman and other visitors of diseases with which the Native Americans had no experience and no immune system defenses, so that most of them died.  But the Pilgrims saw in this holocaust the hand of Divine Providence.

To their delight, the Pilgrims found empty houses in the vicinity of Plymouth Rock.  They found crops growing in untended fields.  They found graves full of useful items that had been buried with their owners.  And they found abandoned land that was ostensibly open for appropriation by themselves.  The Pilgrims survived their first few years in Massachusetts largely on the bounty that was left behind by dead Indians and on the advice of the few remaining natives.  At what is considered the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims expressly gave thanks to God for having killed off the Indians and paved the way for the Pilgrims’ holy settlement.  That was what they were rejoicing about with their feasts.  And it was the surviving Indians who brought most of the food.

This is not a pretty picture of the Pilgrims and some people on the right-wing of the political spectrum claim that this is an unpatriotic portrait.  But that is a false equation of patriotism with willful ignorance and blind obeisance to false gods.  Patriotism is a commitment to making one’s country the best it can be, recognizing its shortcomings, and dealing with its problems openly and honestly.  And that includes recognizing when the country’s founders and heroes are flawed.

A hero is worth celebrating for the ideals he/she represents to us and the challenges he/she presents to us in fulfilling those ideals.  But a hero is also worth celebrating for the ways he/she fell short of those ideals, and is worth studying for the things we can learn from his/her failures to help us do better.  The facts of Thanksgiving do not match the idealization of the Pilgrims to which we are accustomed.  But that does not mean that the ideals we associate with Thanksgiving are not worth celebrating.  The most important reason for celebrating a holiday is to recommit ourselves to fulfilling the ideals which the holiday commemorates.

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the whys and wherefores of whatever good fortune we have experienced over the past year and to share our good fortune with others.  Thanksgiving also represents to us an ideal of religious freedom and intercultural cooperation that remains a challenge for us to fulfill.  The Pilgrims did not entirely live up to these ideals but we can learn from their experience.  The fact that the Pilgrims were flawed makes them worth studying to see whether and how their failures can help us to do better ourselves.

The Pilgrims are also worth celebrating because they exemplify many of the qualities we associate with Thanksgiving.  They exhibited the courage of their convictions in leaving Europe for an unknown land.  And when it turned out that the Mayflower carried as many non-Pilgrims as Pilgrims, the Pilgrims were able to work out a pragmatic compromise in the Mayflower Compact that satisfied the religious and political concerns of all parties.  Over half of the Pilgrims died during their first winter in Massachusetts but the survivors persevered and gave thanks for their survival.  The Pilgrims were also able to work peaceably with the Native Americans.  It was the Puritans who came to Massachusetts later who enforced rigid and repressive religious requirements on the colonists, and who initiated major encroachments on the Indians’ lands and murderous wars with them.

So, there is much to be said in favor of the Pilgrims as precursors of American ideas and ideals.  And there is reason to celebrate Thanksgiving as a day of taking stock of how those ideals have evolved, how our practices have and have not evolved to fit them, and how we can do better.

Revisiting Hanukkah: What to do with the Maccabees?

With Hanukkah there is an even greater difference than with Thanksgiving between the popular version and the historians’ version of the events behind the holiday.  Hanukkah celebrates the war of a Jewish family, the Maccabees, and their followers against the Syrians who controlled Israel during the second century BCE.  Hanukkah is historically a minor Jewish holiday and the Books of the Maccabees, which recount the events that Hanukkah commemorates from the point of view of the Maccabees, are not even part of the Jewish Bible.  Hanukkah has, nonetheless, become a major holiday among modern America Jews.

The popular story of Hanukkah bears very little resemblance to the historical facts.  As the story appears in Sunday school textbooks, the mass media, and the minds of most Jews, Hanukkah is an uplifting tale of heroic Jews fighting for religious freedom and national liberation against an oppressive and intolerant Syrian government.  And in this version of the story, the Jews defeat the Syrians and live happily in freedom thereafter.  This is the story that I learned in my Jewish Sunday school.  The historical reality is quite different.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his empire split into three often warring parts: the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt, the Seleucid Empire based in Syria, and the Antigonid Empire based in Greece.  All three considered themselves Hellenistic societies and were ruled by Greeks and their descendants.  Israel, as a crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe, was a contested territory between the Egyptians and the Syrians.  At the time of the Hanukkah events, which began around 167 BCE, Israel was controlled by Syria.  The Syrians were tolerant and lenient overlords who largely left the Israeli Jews to themselves so long as they paid their annual tribute to the Seleucid king.

It is important to note that only a small minority of Jews lived at this time in Israel and that ever since the conquest of Israel by Babylonia in 586 BCE, the great majority of Jews had lived in communities scattered around the Mediterranean Sea and in the Middle East.  It is also important to note that Israeli Jews and so-called diaspora Jews had different loci for practicing their shared religion. For most of those Jews who lived in Israel, the Temple — a place of animal and vegetable sacrifices to God — was the locus of worship.  For the majority of Jews who lived outside of Israel, synagogues — places of study and prayer — were their locus of worship.

During the second century BCE, Israeli Jews were themselves split into feuding pro-Egyptian and pro-Syrian factions.  Around 170 BCE, the pro-Syrian faction decided to cement the position of Israel within the Syrian Empire and gain some additional political rights and economic benefits for Israel by adopting some Hellenistic mercantile laws and promoting some Hellenistic cultural institutions, such as gymnasiums where scantily clad men and women would exercise.

These moves were mildly opposed by the pro-Egyptian faction but were violently opposed by a group of ultra-orthodox Jews who believed that these Hellenistic ways, and especially the gymnasiums, violated their strict interpretation of Jewish Biblical law.  Led by the Maccabee family, they set out to kill any and all Jews who did not practice the strictly orthodox brand of Judaism that they practiced.  The Hanukkah story thus began as a civil war of the ultra-orthodox Jews of that day against the reform Jews, with the ultra-orthodox conducting a campaign of terrorism and murder against the reformers.  Rather than a struggle for religious and cultural freedom, it was an effort to impose an extremist form of religious and cultural totalitarianism on the Jewish people.

The Syrians, afraid that they might lose Israel to Egypt, stepped in to stop the violence but, as is often the case with imperial interventions, they only made things worse.  As frequently happens when outsiders step into a civil war (see, for example, the American interventions into Iraq and Afghanistan), it is hard for the outsiders to distinguish among foes, friends, and neutrals among the local population, and heavy-handed measures are undertaken that hurt and alienate friends and neutrals.  Frustrated by the situation, the Syrians undertook harsh measures against all Israeli Jews and against Israeli religious practices in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As a result, the Maccabees were able to raise an army and the Hanukah wars dragged on for seven years from 167 to 160 BCE.  Significantly, however, the Maccabees received no support from the majority of Jews who lived outside of Israel and who, apparently, could not identify with religious extremists who opposed not only the Syrians but reform Jews like themselves.

Hanukkah celebrates a victory of the Maccabees in a battle in 165 BCE as a result of which the Temple in Jerusalem was restored for Jewish worship.  But that is not the end of the story.  The Maccabees won many battles but did not win the war.  The Syrians won the war and the surviving rebels had to retreat to the hills from which they periodically conducted terrorist raids on the Israeli population.

The Maccabees lost the war but won the peace, sort of.  In the end, the last remaining rebel leader, Simon Maccabee, made a deal with the winning side in an internal Syrian factional fight.  He was made the ruler of Israel so long as he went along with continued Syrian control and Hellenization of the country, the very things his family and followers had opposed. Simon became the first of the Hasmonean Dynasty of Jewish rulers over Israel, a regime so notoriously corrupt and vicious that they were able to maintain their rule only by repeatedly subjugating Israelis with the help of the Syrian army.

It is ironic and almost paradoxical that Hanukkah has become a major holiday for modern American Jews.  Most Jews today are not orthodox and even the most orthodox Jews today are not anywhere near as orthodox, as devoted to following the letter of the Jewish Bible, as were the Maccabees.  I don’t know, for example, of any Jews today who want to return to the animal and vegetable sacrifices in a Temple of those past days.  And while the fanatics of some religions today believe in stoning to death adulterous women as is prescribed in the Bible, I don’t think that even the most orthodox Jews today believe in that.  The irony is that probably all of the Jews who celebrate Hanukkah today would be considered heretical and unholy by the Maccabees.

This is not a pretty picture of the Maccabees and Hanukkah, and many Jews resist any critique of conventional renditions of Jewish history on the grounds that it is either a cover for anti-Semitism if done by a non-Jew or an instance of “self-hatred” if done by a Jew.  But this is a confusion of critique with criticism and an over sensitivity to what these people see as criticism.  As with patriotism, religious and ethnic loyalty must begin with a commitment to truth and honor. In this context, I cannot think of any way in which one could legitimately celebrate the Maccabees.  They were heroic in fighting their wars but so are the Taliban and Islamic State fighters of today whom the Maccabees most resemble.  One can be heroic without being a hero.

The holiday can perhaps best be celebrated as a warning against the extremism that imperialism can provoke.  It also stands as a warning against outside interference in the internal conflicts of another country which can provoke extremism, as we have seen in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq.   In this way, the holiday can serve as celebration of freedom even if the subjects of the holiday, the Maccabees, are cited as a negative example.

Christmas: What would Jesus do?

Christmas is a different type of story than Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.  With Christmas, there isn’t a contradiction between the popular version and the historians’ version of events but a contradiction between what most Christians believe actually and factually happened and the total absence of historical evidence about what happened or whether anything at all happened. The story of Jesus’ birth, and almost everything else about his life and death, is derived solely from the Gospels which are at best a third or fourth hand retelling of the supposed events.  That Jesus was born in a manger attended by shepherds and by three wise men from afar who were guided by a star is contained only in the Gospels, and they were written generations after the events they report.  There is no supporting historical evidence for the events described in the Gospels.

Christmas is one of the two most important holy days in the Christian calendar, the other being the Good Friday/Easter celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  These two holidays reflect one of the divisions among Christians between those who emphasize Jesus’ life and his role as a teacher appealing to humankind’s better angels, and those who emphasize his death and his role as a martyr dying as result of humankind’s wickedness.  The former look to Jesus as an inspiration to help others, citing his Golden Rule as their credo “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were in their situation.”  The latter look for God’s help in identifying and punishing heretics, infidels and the wicked, those who ostensibly killed Christ and whose sins Christ died for.  “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” is their mantra.

Growing up as a Jew in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in Chicago during the 1950’s, I experienced this latter attitude first hand.  It was still Catholic Church doctrine at that time — it no longer is –that “the Jews” had killed Christ and that Jews’ continuing refusal to accept Jesus as their Savior constituted an ongoing crucifixion.  My Catholic friends would tell me that their priest had told them at Good Friday services that “In every moment that a Jew refuses to accept Jesus as Savior, another nail is hammered into His quivering flesh.”  It was dangerous for a Jewish kid to walk the streets in my neighborhood on Good Friday.  I was once chased by a mob of several hundred boys who were just leaving Good Friday services at their parochial school church as I came by.  I usually stayed indoors on Good Friday.

Although the Gospels provide support for both sides in this debate about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, the Gospels seem to place Jesus within the camp of social idealists in Israel during his life.  Israeli Jews at that time were split into two main groups.  There were the Sadducees, a minority among Israeli Jews consisting mainly of the well-to-do, whose worship centered around sacrifices and rituals at the Temple, and the Pharisees, the majority of Israeli Jews whose religious practice centered around discussing moral questions, taking social action and worshiping at synagogues, much like Jews elsewhere in the world at that time.

Although the Gospels cite Jesus as criticizing Pharisees for being hypocritical and overly legalistic, he was apparently raised as a Pharisee and his teachings reflect those of idealists among the Pharisees, including the Golden Rule.  Jesus’ main criticisms were leveled at Sadducees and the Gospels seem to blame some Sadducees, people connected with the Temple from which Jesus had driven moneylenders, for complaining about Jesus to the Roman authorities and conniving in his execution by the Romans.  Jesus’ teachings as reported in the Gospels were almost entirely focused on social ideals.

Thanks in large part to Charles Dickens and his story A Christmas Carol, the celebration of Christmas over the last couple of hundred years in Europe and America has come to focus on social ideals.  Dickens’ story mirrors in key ways the Gospel story of Jesus’ birth.  The Gospels tell about a family sticking and working together through hard times and about charity from those who are well off to those who are less fortunate.  Joseph and Mary are a poor working class family who have to find lodging in a barn.  There they are helped by some local shepherds and by three rich kings who share their wealth with the poor family.  Out of this comes the baby Jesus who symbolizes hope for a better self and a better world.  A Christmas Carol is also a story of family togetherness and charity towards the less fortunate.  In the story, the Cratchit family struggles economically, but they still make a merry Christmas together.  Scrooge likewise eventually connects with his better angel and with his own family, and finds happiness and hopefully salvation through charity toward the Cratchits and the poor.

These social ideals have largely become the meaning of Christmas for most American and European Christians who are expected to examine their lives in light of the meaning of Christmas.  This emphasis on Jesus as a teacher and social idealist inspired the Social Gospel movement among Christians in Europe and America beginning in the late-nineteenth century.  They coined the question “What would Jesus do?” as a benchmark criteria for people’s actions.  This question resonates with Christians and even many non-Christians to the present day.  Pope Francis has recently even used his Christmas message to criticize the Catholic Church hierarchy for failing to live up to the Christian ideals that the Church is supposed to promote.

For many Christians, the historicity of Jesus’ life, and whether events actually occurred as they are described in the Gospels, seems to make very little difference to their beliefs.  The Christmas story for them is almost entirely a vehicle for Christian ideals.  Unlike the historical reexaminations of the events behind Thanksgiving and Hanukah which have highlighted flaws and failings in the Pilgrims and Maccabees, there has been no historical debunking of Jesus’ ideas and actions.  There has, however, been controversy among Christians as to whether Jesus was perfect in every way.  Some claim that to suggest otherwise is blasphemous.  Others claim that in his human aspect, Jesus had at least potential failings.

They cite the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the Dessert as showing that he was capable of being tempted even though he rejected the temptations.  And they cite his cry of despair while dying on the Cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?,” as showing that he was capable of doubting his faith even though he subsequently reaffirmed it before dying.  They claim that in these incidents Jesus confirms the Christian message that there is no virtue without the possibility of vice so that virtue consists of overcoming vice, and that there is no faith without doubt so that faith consists of overcoming doubt.  Christians, they say, must expect to be tempted and to experience doubt.  There is no sin in that.  The goal is to overcome them.

Celebrating and Learning from History as Choice.

The Pilgrims were not liberals or democrats.  They were not even Americans as we usually define that term.  They were precursors of Americans in the way that the Mycenaeans were the precursors of the Greeks or the Angles and Saxons were precursors of the English.  Likewise, the Maccabees were not freedom fighters and they were not even Jews in the way Judaism has been practiced over the last two thousand years.  They were precursors of that Judaism.  And Jesus was not a Christian.  He was a Jew with a message that became the basis of Christianity and, as such, he can be considered a precursor of Christianity.

These people are worth celebrating for the ideals they represent.  But even more, they are worth studying for the problems they faced, the alternatives they chose from in trying to solve their problems, and the choices they made.  Their choices produced consequences that are contained in our problems, our alternatives, and our choices as we try to fulfill the ideals they represent.  That is why holiday celebration should involve critical reasoning at least as much as emotional rejoicing.  If we wake up the next morning with  a headache, it should be from too much thinking about holiday issues and debating them with our relatives and friends, and not just from too much holiday spirits.