Education and the Cult of Efficiency
reviewed by Lawrence A. Cremin - 1963
Professor Callahan advances an intriguing thesis in Education and the Cult of Efficiency, and he does so with verve and persuasion. What is wrong with today's schools, he argues, is not that they are dominated by the ideals of progressivism, but rather that they have fallen into the hands of narrowly trained administrators who preach the gospel of economy under the guise of science. His case is richly documented from the educational literature of the past half-century, and it is a damning case indeed.
The story begins in the years just before World War I. The schools, then as now, were under sharp attack as antiquated, wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective. The industrial engineer, Frederick W. Taylor, had captured the imagination of the business community with his principles of scientific management—especially the time-and-mo-tion study and the standardization of tasks —and had argued further that his principles were universally applicable—to homes, farms, churches, universities, and government agencies. What more appropriate response for the beleaguered educators than to follow
"The tragedy itself was fourfold," he writes, "that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. . . . The whole development produced men who did not understand education or scholarship. Thus they could and did approach education in a business-like, mechanical, organizational way."
In assessing blame for the "tragedy," Professor Callahan is hard on the schoolmen, but he reserves his sharpest barbs for the professors of administration. Superintendents in local districts were, after all, too vulnerable to resist business demands for economy. Tenure for them was at best ephemeral. But the university professors did have a tenure of sorts, and they could have posed real alternatives. While they could not have avoided the business ideology completely, they might have acted as a restraining force. Instead, they kept their ears close to the ground and followed "popular demand," organizing course after course in managerial trivia and pressing to have their courses required of those who would be superintendents.
The results have been prodigious in our time. Thus, Professor Callahan concludes, "The continuous pressure for economy has produced a situation in which many men with inappropriate and inadequate training are leaders in our public schools. Aside from the effect this has had on the quality of work within the schools in the last forty years, their training has left them ill-equipped to understand what needs to be done in education and therefore unable to communicate this to the public. On the other side, the American people, partly because of the inferior education they have received, which makes it difficult for them to understand educational problems, and partly because of their continuing commitment to economy in public endeavors, refuse to allocate enough of their wealth to the education of their children and continue to force their superintendents to spend a disproportionate share of time on accounting and fund-raising."
In large measure, all this is irrefutable; and there is no better evidence than the sorry defensiveness of American schoolmen in the face of public criticism since World War II. Ours has not been an era of great ideas in education; it has been an era of technological improvement and administrative reform. And however much educationists would like to locate the fault in their stars, they had best seek it in themselves. They have cut themselves off from the humanistic traditions that must ultimately provide the bases for their educational judgments, and have remained content to concentrate on the narrowest technical and political concerns. Thus alienated, they have fallen victim to each new changing fashion in pedagogical ideas, grimly acting out Santayana's prophesy that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The need for fundamental reform is crucial, and one can only applaud Professor Callahan's call for a new professional education that emphasizes serious and sustained study of the humanities and social sciences.
Yet granted the sharpness and accuracy of his insights, there are difficulties with Professor Callahan's account that merit consideration. He writes in his preface that he began his study with the intention of exploring "the origin and development of the adoption of business values and practices in educational administration." And he notes further along that he was quite unprepared for the "extent and degree of capitulation" by school administrators to business demands. Moreover, having documented the capitulation, he concludes with the observation that "there were other more powerful forces at work than 'progressive education' in undermining the intellectual atmosphere of the American schools."
Granting for a moment that the intellectual atmosphere of American schools has been undermined, there remains the problem of what Professor Callahan actually means by "progressive education" and how far he has really absolved the progressives of blame. Consider Dewey as a leading example. Professor Callahan takes pains to indicate that Dewey remained steadfast over the years in opposing the managerial approach to education, and he is essentially correct in this judgment. Yet it must also be recalled that Dewey devoted a full third of The School and Society (1899) to the scientific elimination of waste in education, and that he praised the
The point is not that Dewey himself favored a narrow utilitarianism for the schools; nothing could be further from the truth. It is rather that he wrote in such a way as to seem to support those who did. Years later, when he tried to correct the widespread misimpression of his work, the damage had already been done. Indeed, one senses that he himself realized this when, he penned the sardonic phrases of his last published essay on education, the 1952 introduction to Elsie Clapp's The Use of Resources in Education.
My effort, though, is not to quibble about Dewey; it is to suggest that Professor Callahan's attempt to distinguish between the deleterious "business" influence on the schools and the benign "progressive" influence—an attempt that clearly reveals his own progressive propensities—may ultimately be misleading. The progressives were just as interested in developing a science of education as the businessmen were in working out a science of management. Both evidenced the enthusiastic, optimistic, and often childlike faith in science that marked most turn-of-the-century reform programs, and that has since infused every conceivable aspect of American life. Professor Callahan set out to explore the influence of business values on education, but he ended up cataloguing the dismal results of a naive scientism in the schools. That he did so may raise questions with his historical analysis, but it has value nonetheless; for it is well in our age of science triumphant that we recognize the fruits of science misapplied.