Fast and Curious: A History of Shortcuts in American Education
reviewed by Chris Osmond - March 01, 2019
In graduate school, I had a wonderful seminar on why school reform fails. The breadth of the question led us to explore historical innovations that had little in common other than their interest in transforming our most conservative public institution. But they were distressingly similar in how almost all of them worked from the top down, usually with a tin ear to the actual needs of those targeted by the reform and almost always with mixed results. We learned that even failed reforms never really go away: they just get buried under by the next wave of reforms. Traces of them survive, albeit disconnected from their first gestures. Therefore, performing any critical work on school is an archeological task. Origin stories always matter, but they are often hidden and rarely still associated with their effects.
Robert L. Hampels Fast and Curious put me in the mindset of that class because it also starts with a broad question (How have Americans historically tried to make education both faster and easier?) and deploys it to discover similarities among historical movements that we almost never speak of in the same breath, if we speak of them at all. The resulting text offers fascinating, detailed accounts of how the educational reformers (and hucksters, and Shark Tank-style rainmakers) of the last hundred years have sought to exploit both peoples desire to be transformed through education and their desire to do so faster and easier.
Hampel hews tight to the question in the books first section, which explores shortcuts to success that have sought to sell education to the masses through promises to bestow knowledge (and accompanying status) through faster-than-traditional means. He shares the lively stories of the rise and fall of the correspondence schools of the mid-20th century and digest projects, including the Harvard Classics (the famous Five Foot Shelf) and Cliffs Notes. While these projects were very different from each other (curated selections from primary texts with explanatory interpolations versus strategic summaries), Hampel reveals how they had in common robust marketing efforts. Both initiatives successfully capitalized on the publics anxiety about their educational attainment (and capacity to flaunt it by name and quote-dropping), and became wildly profitable by promising to ameliorate it.
The second section, on historical efforts to speed up educational attainment through clever schemes to execute learning tasks more quickly (i.e., not shortcuts so much as accelerators), starts a little more slowly. Analysis of efforts to shorten the traditional four-year undergraduate experience gets bogged down in the minutiae of Carnegie units and schedule-making. However, the sections on shorthand and speed-reading draw out the reliable marketing appeal of mastering a skill that will give you a putative edge over those who will compete with you in the job market. The history of the simplified spelling movement, championed by Melvil Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt, is also fascinating. We learn that, in 1906, Roosevelt ordered all federal publications to use 300 simplified spellings, leading to lampoon headlines such as Rozevult Aksepts Latest Spelling Words... Here Are Sum of the Wurds Afekted (p. 131). The reader is led to consider the folly of dictating changes from above and expecting untroubled adoption below, and the ways in which reform efforts leave their traces in words like program, catalog, hiccup, and plow while erasing their provenance (p. 132).
The books epilogue misses an opportunity to draw out some of the class anxiety themes that abound in these accounts, opting instead to consider relationships between the history we have just read and contemporary technological and scientific shortcuts (e.g., brain training games, dementia drugs), which seem a little tenuous. The ground Hampel covers could offer specific insights into current challenges that education seeks to address, such as the dramatic increase in first-generation college students and the concomitant questions of why people are seeking out education today. If motivations are as straightforward as the quest for better employment, as they were in the age of the correspondence course, how might reading this history improve our vigilance against exploitation? How does this history similarly illumine the charter school movement or the explosion of online education? I came away wishing Hampel had more thoroughly turned his superb analytic skills to contemporary applications.
Nonetheless, the audacity of the question the book seeks to answer, coupled with the compelling detail Hampel recurs to throughout, make the book an excellent addition to the emerging Five Foot Shelf of critical, readable historical accounts of the educational impulse as it has been monetized and, sometimes, exploited. It joins Dana Goldsteins The Teacher Wars (2015) and Christopher R. Behas The Whole Five Feet (2010) as an excellent 21st century reflection on both how we misunderstand the limits and affordances of education and our constant desire to reconceive and improve it.
Beha, C. R. (2010). The whole five feet: What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Goldstein, D. (2015). The teacher wars: A history of Americas most embattled profession. New York, NY: Anchor Books.