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The Impossible Dream: Education and the Search for Panaceas

reviewed by Sonia E. Murrow - 2004

coverTitle: The Impossible Dream: Education and the Search for Panaceas
Author(s): Thomas C. Hunt
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820437476, Pages: 301, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com

Since its inception, American schooling has been charged with the immense responsibility of improving the nation’s social, political, and economic life. Referred to by Horace Mann as “the great equalizer” and by Lyndon B. Johnson as “the thing that can answer to all our national problems,” schooling in America is and has been perceived as the great cure-all.


Historians and other scholars have attempted to determine why Americans place such enormous faith in schooling. Labeling schooling in America as a “great crusade,” Diane Ravitch proclaimed, “no other idea has seemed more typically American than the belief that education could cure society’s ills” (Ravitch, 1983: xii).  Hannah Arendt argued that education occupies such an important position in American life because of its role in the continual assimilation of immigrants (Arendt, 1958).  Henry Perkinson maintained that American schooling, from its early beginnings, has been equated with the task of socialization, and thus, serves as a crucial arbitrator of the status quo (Perkinson, 1991). All of these perspectives posit education as essential to the social, political, and economic well-being of the nation.


In The Impossible Dream: Education and the Search for Panaceas, Thomas C. Hunt investigates sixteen “panaceas” in American education, from the early common school movement through the recent school-to-work initiatives of the 1990s.  “Panaceas” in the context of Hunt’s work most often refer to silver bullet reform efforts, usually of modest impact. Included in the panaceas surveyed are the Hampton Model, social efficiency, life adjustment education, the war on poverty, open education, the “age of accountability,” behavioral objectives, and year-round education. As Hunt writes in the preface, “this book is not an attempt to present a comprehensive history of American schooling.  Rather, it presents a number of innovations, the expectations advanced for each, the reasons for which they were advanced, what conflicts arose over the proposed changes, and what resulted from the implementation of the innovation” (Hunt, 2002: xx).  Hunt’s description of the book is accurate.  In most cases, he does what he set out to do, providing for each panacea the positions held by its various supporters and detractors.  Every chapter is filled with the conflict promised in the book’s preface, as Hunt was able to locate sources that reveal the strong, sometimes hyperbolic, reactions for and against a given educational reform initiative.


David Tyack and Larry Cuban describe two interpretations of educational reform, one, as an “institutional Bermuda Triangle” into which fearless change agents sail, and another that is overly trendy, consisting of imprudent designs that swiftly come and go (Tyack and Cuban, 1995: 4). Hunt’s historical treatment of educational reform demonstrates that both interpretations can be true.  Panaceas in education, as Hunt portrays them, are essentially “dreams” that become impossible to realize, leading to little change and disillusionment.  This was the case with, among other efforts, open education, performance contracting, year-round education, and some of the school-to-work initiatives of the 1990s.


One of the books strengths comes from Hunt’s dual training and experience as an historian of education and theologian.  In chapters two and three, “The Bible and Its Reading” and “The ‘American’ Public School,” respectively, Hunt presents a myriad of voices, including those of the Methodist, Unitarian, Presbyterian, and Protestant clergy.  These denominational perspectives contribute to the investigation of the battles over religion and schooling in significant ways. Mourning the ouster of the Bible from the nation’s schools, a Reverend F. S. Stein of Washington Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Milwaukee is quoted: “Our youth must be taught in public schools that the Ten Commandments are as important as the ten digits; that a lie is to be avoided as much as bad grammar…that honesty and purity are as essential as history and physics” (p. 17).


Every chapter of Hunt’s study is filled with rich and wonderful archival material such as this.  Another example resides in the comments by school principal F. R. Willard of the high school in Watertown, Massachusetts as he responded to the Cardinal Principles Report of 1918 (also known as the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education), outlining the new high school: “If democracy is to prevail over bolshevism and all other forms of revolution it must chiefly be by means of a system of education inculcating in the minds of youth the cardinal principles governing various kinds of controls – bodily, mental, social, economic, political, esthetic, and moral” (p. 94). Quotes such as these make Hunt’s book compelling to read.  And there are many of them.


While such colorful statements enliven the stories of each reform initiative, Hunt relies almost exclusively on the opinions and observations of experts, including professors and scholars of education and occasionally school administrators.  For example, views held by W. James Popham (the “licensed midwife to the birth of behavioral objectives”) and Arthur W. Combs (“one of the movement’s most outspoken opponents”) on behavioral objectives initiatives of the late 1960s and early 1970s are portrayed and analyzed alongside the viewpoints of other experts in education. (pp. 175, 177) Hunt’s account of this “panacea” is portrayed exclusively through the eyes of the social scientists who wrote about it in the academy. Apart from a brief reference to the National Council of Teachers of English rejecting behavioral objectives “almost in toto” at their 1970 annual meeting, the voices of those who implemented behavioral objectives firsthand, namely classroom teachers, are virtually absent (p. 185). Moreover, Hunt treats behavioral objectives as something that was tried and then placed in the trash bin of education history.  Browsing current state education department curriculum guides, one sees that behavioral objectives are not only a thing of the past.  Most state curricula require that students “describe,” “analyze,” “classify,” and otherwise engage in “behaviors” that support learning. 


Another strength of the book lies in its format and presentation.  The Impossible Dream is a useful text for students of the history of education in that it is a concise and readable synthesis of the literature of the field. With “panacea” as the over-arching organizational topic, different reform initiatives are placed alongside each other underscoring, among other things that reform efforts in education can result in little change at all.  This of course is one of the important lessons of history in the context of schooling.  Real change is hard to come by, and often reform means short-term change or at least change that is partial, not total or systemic. Unfortunately, in his long list of reform efforts, Hunt leaves out desegregation, disputes over reading instruction, school busing, and debates about multiculturalism and the curriculum.  Including these would have made The Impossible Dream a more well-rounded history text for students of education.


Finally, further analysis of what Tyack and Cuban call the “utopian tradition of social reform through schooling” in the United States could have woven together the many panaceas discussed throughout the book into a valuable cross-chapter synthesis.  Without this, Hunt’s history remains in the confines of the K-12 school reform initiatives he examines. If Tyack and Cuban are correct that such a utopian tradition often diverted attention from more costly, politically controversial, and difficult societal reforms, the link between panaceas in schools and societal reform writ large is an important one for historians of education to illuminate (Tyack and Cuban, 1995: 3).  Hunt’s book informs us about the many noteworthy, and sometimes questionable, school reform efforts made since the mid-nineteenth century.  Exploration of the relationship of education reform to a larger narrative of American social, political, and economic life would be a welcome final chapter to Hunt’s carefully researched and interesting book.



Arendt, H.  (1958).  “The crisis in education,” Partisan Review 25, 493-513.


Perkinson, H. (1991). The imperfect panacea: American faith in education, 1865-1990. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Ravitch, D. (1983).  The troubled crusade: American education, 1945-1980. New York: Basic Books.


Tyack, D. & Cuban, L., (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 311-314
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11197, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:55:18 AM

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About the Author
  • Sonia Murrow
    Long Island University - Brooklyn
    E-mail Author
    SONIA E. MORROW is an assistant professor of Urban Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Long Island University – Brooklyn. Her areas of interest include social foundations, curriculum and pedagogy, social studies education, and urban school reform. Her paper, “Learning from Recurring Debates in Education: Teacher Education Students Explore Historical Case Studies” is forthcoming in Educational Studies. She is currently doing research, with Mary Rose McCarthy, on the presentation of educational history in foundations of education texts over time as a way to understand history’s potential to foster a critical perspective among future teachers.
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