Looking Back to See Ahead

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Educational Thought
Looking Back to See Ahead

In memoriam

Department of
Philosophy and the Social Sciences

Teachers College, Columbia University

George Z. F. Bereday (1920–1983)
George C. Bond (1937–2014)
R. Freeman Butts (1911–2010)
Lawrence A. Cremin (1925–1990)
Martin S. Dworkin (1921–1996)
Maxine Greene (1917–2014)
Philip H. Phenix (1915–2002)
David G. Scanlon (1921–1990)
Sloan R. Wayland (1918–2008)

A Portal for Study
Looking Back to See Ahead

In Construction

Educational Thought is a new effort towards an old purpose. Throughout intellectual history, people have pursued the purpose—to advance educational thought; to understand, as Herder put it, "what humans can and should make of themselves." During the twentieth century, the commitment to advance educational thought became a specialized academic purpose, making a Faustian bargain for a specific role within a well-organized system of instructional action. Much was given up in that bargain and our new effort should work to regain it.

Modern universities formed to prepare highly skilled professionals, who were requisite in making democratic industrial societies work. In them, the faculties of the arts and sciences were responsible for seeking more disinterested knowledge and understanding about the human and natural world, with less regard for its direct instrumental value. Scholarship and research in the arts and sciences would add to the stock of basic knowledge. Its instructional work would sharpen the intellectual skills of future professionals, sorting favored aspirants for advancement into the professional hierarchies.

Owing to practical pressures and historical accidents, the place of education in the arts and sciences became tenuous as the modern university took shape.[1] Some scholars thought the study of education, like the study of politics or economics, would benefit from disinterested inquiry independent of concern for professional preparation, but they did not secure decisive legitimation for that view within the emerging academic organization. They found their academic place, not in faculties of the arts and sciences, but in generalist departments within the professional schools of education. As a result, the interests and activities of professional educators have become dominant in thinking broadly about educational experience.

Following World War II, an effort to strengthen the study of education as a subject to be pursued in the disinterested spirit of the arts and sciences built up. The Harvard Redbook, General Education in a Free Society, and the sustained work at educational reform by Harvard's president, James B. Conant, pointed the way. The Ford Foundation backed a concerted initiative by historians to address the role of eduction, writ very large, in forming American life. Work such as Bernard Bailyn's Education in the Forming of American Society sharply criticized how the so-called foundations of education had been packaged for use in preparing professional educators and laid out a scholarly agenda for exploring how all forms of educative experience had interacted to shape American life and historical character.

For a time, these efforts seemed to enjoy great success, evidenced for instance through developments at Teachers College, Columbia University. In 1962, a young professor in Social and Philosophical Foundations, Lawrence A. Cremin, won the Bancroft Prize for American History for The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. Three years later, Teachers College inaugurated a significant reorganization, reconstituting Social and Philosophical Foundations, which had had a primary mission of orienting prospective teachers and educational administrators to the work of their profession. In its place, the College instituted the Department of Philosophy and the Social Sciences, modeled as a department in the arts and sciences using a spectrum of methods to study all aspects of educational experience. In 1970, Cremin published the first volume of his three volume study, American Education, designed as a comprehensive response to the Ford Foundation's call for the historical elucidation of education as a shaping influence in American life. And when John Fisher stepped down as President of the College in 1974, to no one's surprise, the Trustees appointed Cremin to assume the institution's leadership.

But for practical purposes, 1974 was the apogee of the post-war expansion of American higher education. Enrollments peaked and declined, budgets contracted, and the employment markets of new PhDs severely worsened. These developments greatly weakened the material base for significantly strengthening the study of education as if it were a department in the arts and sciences. Within schools of education, that course seemed to create a privileged elite whose members were not pulling their weight in the bread and butter work of professional preparation. At the same time, intellectual developments complicated the rationale for such reforms, which for a time had been relatively uncontested. From the left, the critique of Cold-War consensus scholarship challenged the revisionist aura, advanced by Bailyn, Cremin, and their followers, with an alternative revisionism, one backed by a much more vocal social movement. And among young specialists in the study of education, the feeling began to spread that despite its acclaim and evident stature, scholarship informed by a comprehensive understanding of education was very difficult, slow to mature, and quite possibly over-ambitious. In a time of contraction, lower horizons came to seem prudent.

Reversals do not come about all at once, however. In 1980, Cremin won a Pulitzer with the second volume of American Education, and Philosophy and the Social Sciences carried on in what was at best a steady state, its problems appearing to be instances in the general constriction affecting the arts and sciences throughout universities. Cremin resigned as College president in 1984 and died prematurely in 1990. From 1984 to 1994, the College's next president did little to strengthen or to disrupt the idea of a department in the professional school for the academic study of education. But then, when Arthur Levine took over in 1994, opposition to Philosophy and the Social Sciences became overt and the College disbanded it in 1999, dispersing its component programs into other departments, explicitly so that each program would be in closer articulation with the particular components of professional preparation that each could best serve. The parts survived, but the whole was gone.

Elsewhere, the experience has been more or less similar, and the likelihood of a change in the material conditions for advanced study seems poor in both schools of education and in the arts and sciences. A low-keyed effort at Columbia ten years ago to start a department of education in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences led nowhere, despite the good offices of dean of GSAS. In major universities, the competition within the status quo for existing funding is far too intense for an significant initiative to succeed unless substantial new endowments were to accompany it. An impasse seems to hold: those who still believe it important to pursue the study of education in the spirit of the arts and sciences must somehow find a way to do so that finesses the institutional realities of the contemporary university.

Educational Thought seeks to finesse the institutional constraints, making full use of open-source tools and emergent action in the cultural commons. Changes in the material conditions of communication and scholarship may be making costly institutional support for disinterested inquiry unnecessary. We are starting educationalthought.org to test that possibility. Doing so does not depend on wise actions by university trustees. It does not require unexpected success in the competition for academic resources. Participants do not need to scour the job market, buck for tenure, or worry whether an anonymous reviewer will get the point. We often commend pursuing knowledge for its own sake, but worldly constraints in academe make it harder and harder to do so, for they do not recognize any value, for its own sake. Well then, let's see what happens if we do without the constraints, outside of the formal organizations of academe.

Like other components of the cultural commons, educationalthought.org gives us that opportunity. Those of us who wish to do so, can work on and through it by choice, without external compulsion or reward, but simply for the satisfaction of advancing our knowledge and understanding of growth and form in human life. In order to do so, we need independent means with which to support our autonomous activity. But if we look around at who does what, why, when, and how, it becomes evident that many persons have such independent means in palpable measure. Autonomous activity luxuriates on the web, and a tangible portion of it might find educational thought to be a worthy object of effort. Retired professionals, who are active in body and mind, constitute a fast growing population in advanced societies. Students in higher education have skills and energies and they have a substantial interest in exploring their interests as a propaedeutic to their professional formation — once the historical rationale for the faculty of the arts and sciences was precisely to provide such an opportunity. And even people in full-time employment have a role in addition to worker, that of leisured consumer, a substantial role. That role will fill with dumbed-down entertainments in the absence of leisured pursuits that have a real cultural basis.[2] Members of these groups and others can choose whether to serve the juggernauts of advertising and consumption or to engage themselves autonomously in the cultural commons. People with means are at hand; let us test whether they have the will that can become the way to a renewal of educational thought. It will not take many to get the effort moving.

  1. Sorting pressures for entry into the teaching professions were low and prospective teachers could enter normal schools directly without undergoing an expensive propaedeutic in the arts and sciences. At the same time, disinterested study of education touched a very broad span of human experience, which made it difficult to organize such study on the tight disciplinary basis that was becoming fashionable in the faculties of the arts and sciences.
  2. Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958).