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A History of Education in American Culture


reviewed by Gordon C. Lee - 1953

coverTitle: A History of Education in American Culture
Author(s): R. Freeman Butts, Lawrence A. Cremin
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: , Pages: , Year:
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In the United States one of the major phenomena of the years since the war has been a succession of vigorous, sometimes violent, attacks upon our system of public education. These attacks have been of two primary sorts. In the first place, there continues what Dr. James B. Conant called the "academic civil war" between the professional educators and the faculties in the liberal arts. In the second place, American public education since the war has increasingly come under fire from organized lay groups, both local and national. It is not in the province of this review to undertake a detailed assessment of the merits of the criticisms put forward by these groups. This reviewer would hold, however, that the chief responsibility for meeting and countering these attacks lies with the teaching profession and particularly with the schools and faculties engaged in the preparation of teachers.


These campaigns of organized criticism lave come about chiefly because of three weaknesses in contemporary programs of teacher education. First, in the preparation of our teachers and school administrators, we have paid lip-service (but too little real attention) to the area of public relations, frequently we have proceeded in such a way as to appear to hold that only the educator had the intelligence to determine educational policy. The public's role under such conditions seemed to be one of mere passive acceptance, of bowing to superior authority. Again, we have tended to divest much of our teacher-education curriculum if those elements which give substance to our policies and meaning to our principles. We have increasingly assumed that a program of teacher education was complete if it stressed simply competence in subjects or skills, understanding of child development, and technical pedagogy. We have given far too little attention to the historical background, the philosophical assumptions, and the sociological context which shape the teaching our teachers will do. Third, schools and departments of education have not, by and large, seen their responsibilities as extending beyond the preparation of teachers and into the business of educating the public about education. Departments of government offer courses designed for the general as well as the special student; so do departments of philosophy, geology, and art. But how often are students who are not prospective teachers to be found studying in the field of education? It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that frictions develop, that misunderstandings and misinterpretations appear and continue.


In their History of Education in American Culture, R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin of Teachers College, Columbia, offer us an approach to professional education which can be a source of great strength in meeting the challenges implicit in such criticisms as these. They come to this authorship pooling a wealth of scholarship and teaching experience in the social, historical, and philosophical foundations of education. Professor Butts' researches into the history of American higher education and the development of the church-state separation principle, and Professor Cremin's uniquely illuminating historical study, The American Common School, served as important precursors for this effective synthesizing presentation.


The book is divided into four convenient chronological periods in American history: colonial, pre-Civil War, post-Civil War, and post-World War I. For each period the material is organized around four foci: a general cultural overview, the major intellectual currents, the dominant interpretations and applications of these philosophies to education, and the actual educational practices—curricular, pedagogical, administrative—which were in use. Throughout, the significance of the data for contemporary educational issues and problems is underscored. Each chapter is concluded with a series of questions intended to broaden and deepen one's insight into these problems; an excellent, up-to-date, extensive bibliography accompanies each chapter; and the whole volume is served by an index.


If the study of the history of education—which after all must include the study of educational philosophy—is to be of real service to prospective teachers and to the general student, it must demonstrate a dynamic relevance to the profession of teaching and to the objectives of liberal education. No book in this field has more fully clarified how this may be achieved than has this work by Butts and Cremin. Examples of this functionalism are legion. Consider the contribution to a liberal education which should flow from an incisive, scholarly examination of such matters as contrasting educational theories, the concept of academic freedom, or the application of the church-state separation principle to American education. This reviewer knows of no general textbook on American educational history which presents such issues as these so clearly, so interestingly, so usefully. Consider the contribution to teacher education, which should be the product of an expert analysis of the development of specific educational practices and materials. Or note the added depth and balance which should enhance the teacher who has some grasp of the historical-philosophical rationale behind his applied psychology. Here, too, the Butts-Cremin volume performs a much-neglected and vitally needed service.


For clarity of style, imaginativeness of design and organization, depth and range of scholarship, and value to the general as well as the professional student, this book must be ranked as a superlative accomplishment. It provides teachers with the insights into pedagogical principles and practises which can come only from historical understanding. It supplies the basic broad background without which any attempt to solve the critical educational problems of our time is foredoomed. As the authors discuss the emergence and development of educational philosophies as an indigenous ingredient of American culture, as they portray the intellectual history of the latter half of the nineteenth century in the United States, or as they so successfully integrate the chronological, the broad cultural, and the contemporary problems approaches to the study of history, they are both plowing new ground and providing fresh perspectives. It does not seem amiss to characterize this work as a major milestone in the study of the foundations of American education


GORDON C. LEE

Pomona College




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 55 Number 2, 1953, p. 101-101
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4833, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 9:34:23 PM

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