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Education and the Cult of Efficiency

reviewed by Lawrence A. Cremin - 1963

coverTitle: Education and the Cult of Efficiency
Author(s): Raymond E. Callahan
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0226091503 , Pages: , Year: 1964
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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

Taylor 's lead and seek to apply scientific management to the classroom? Prodded by men like Paul Hanus of Har­vard, Franklin Bobbitt of Chicago , Ellwood Cubberley of Stanford, and George Strayer of Columbia , school administrators across the country took over Taylorism lock, stock, and barrel. By 1914, Superintendent J. W. Greenwood of Kansas City told a general session of the National Education Association that there were "so many effi­ciency engineers running handcars through the school houses in most large cities that the grade teachers can hardly turn around in their rooms without butting into two or three of them."

Greenwood had reason to be irritated. As the passion for scientific management spread through the schools, superintendents of broad culture and humane learning were being slowly displaced by "experts" ema­nating from the burgeoning graduate facul­ties of pedagogy. The expertise of these new men had little to do with theories and tra­ditions of education; it inhered, rather, in their ability to manage the growing school bureaucracy. They could survey a school system with consummate precision, and they knew the mathematical formulas for computing teacher load; they were less adept, perhaps, at judging the results of their surveys, or at determining what was an appropriate teacher load. In the absence of educational principle, economy ruled. And it is here that Professor Callahan lo­cates the "American tragedy" in education.

"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

Gary , Indiana , schools to the skies in Schools of Tomorrow (1915), whereas Callahan portrays them as quintessential examples of the business mind at work.

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 65 Number 2, 1963, p. 184-186
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 2724, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:58:29 PM

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  • Lawrence Cremin
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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