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A Response to Laurel Tanner


by Barry M. Franklin - 1987

The author responds to Laurel Tannerís review of his book Building the American Community. There are three things about Tannerís review that trouble the author: First, Tanner does not really tell potential readers what the book is about; second, she is neither particularly careful nor accurate in her criticisms; and third, she sets a tone for her review that is vindictive.

It is always difficult to come up with something pithy to say in the face of nastiness. Laurel Tanner’s review of my book Building the American Community offers me abundant opportunity to try. There are three things about Tanner’s review that trouble me. First, she does not really tell potential readers what the book is about; second, she is neither particularly careful nor accurate in her criticisms; and third, she sets a tone for her review that is vindictive.


In her review, Tanner devotes virtually all of her attention to the 14 pages of one chapter in which I examine the role that the American sociologist Edward A. Ross played in the development of the idea of social control. She says absolutely nothing about what I say in the remaining 156 pages of the book. While Ross played a role in the story I tell in my book, he is hardly the central character. Far more important is my discussion of George Herbert Mead, Franklin Bobbitt, W. W. Charters, Hollis Caswell, and numerous educators and parents involved in curriculum reform in the city of Minneapolis during the first half of this century. Tanner, however, says nothing about these.


The purpose of my book, Tanner claims, quoting me, “is to show ‘how one group of middle-class intellectuals used the concept of social control to build the curriculum.’ " Actually, I never said that this was the “purpose” of the book. In my introductory chapter, I did say that my concern throughout the volume was less with the conceptual adequacy of the concept of social control than with how individuals used the term to build the school curriculum, a point that is, I think, far different from what Tanner conveys in her review. The true purpose of the book, which I explicitly state at the very beginning, is to examine the efforts of twentieth-century educators “to design a curriculum appropriate for preparing youth for life in an urban, industrial society” (p. xi). The concept of social control plays, I argue, a role in this effort. So too does another concept—that of community—play a role. Tanner, however, chooses to say nothing about this. A potential reader, I fear, will walk away from Tanner’s review without the foggiest idea of the subject matter of my book.


In making her criticisms, Tanner exhibits an almost irresponsible carelessness, which, like her discussion of the contents, obscures the book’s intent and meaning. Early in the review, Tanner identifies me with the revisionist school of educational historians because like them, she claims, I embrace a social-control interpretive framework. In this vein she criticizes me for stating, not unlike a revisionist, that social control is a form of “evil” and not, as she believes, a simple feature of organizational life. This is exactly what I do not do. From the very beginning, I take issue with revisionist historians for their cavalier and inaccurate use of the concept of social control for what they believe to be villainy. I explicitly state that social control is a “constitutive property of social life” (p. 14), the very point she makes. In every single chapter of the book, I continually make the point that twentieth-century American intellectuals used the concept of social control to describe their diverse efforts to reconcile liberal democracy with what they perceived to be the realities of urban industrial life. I really do not know how I could have made this central point any clearer without being accused of redundancy.


Tanner castigates me because she believes that to invoke the doctrine of social control, to explain the motivations of American educators, is in some way to deny their desire to make youth more critical thinkers. As it turns out, I address this very issue in my treatment of George Herbert Mead. It was Mead’s great contribution, I think, to spell out a theory of social control that assumed that people were active participants in social decision making. I make the point that social control was for Mead inextricably linked to individuality and critical thought (pp. 64-66). Because Mead viewed the idea of social control in this way, he provided, I argue, a model of social organization for reconciling liberal democratic values with the realities of urban industrial life. The great failing of the founding theorists of the curriculum field, except perhaps for Hollis Caswell, was that in spelling out their social visions, they were less successful than Mead in achieving this kind of reconciliation.


Tanner also criticizes me for failing to treat John Dewey. The impression she conveys is that I simply left out of my discussion the most important educator of twentieth-century life. What Tanner does not tell her readers is that I offer a rationale in the book for not considering Dewey and treating George Herbert Mead instead. My claim, in brief, is that on matters of social control, Mead is not only clearer than Dewey but more original in his thinking (p. 13). I did not cavalierly leave out Dewey. Rather, I made a conscious decision to feature Mead because he represented, I believe, a better choice for the kind of book I wanted to write.


Tanner makes a major point of what she claims is a distortion of my use of “source materials.” She illustrates her criticism by claiming that I used the correspondence between Ross and Lester Frank Ward to suggest that Ward did not welcome the fact that Ross dedicated his book Social Control to him. What Tanner does not tell her readers, however, is that I really used the quotation in question to talk about a different subject, the originality of Ross’s idea of social control. The question of whether the dedication was welcome is beside the point. For the purpose that I had in mind in quoting this correspondence, it makes no difference whether I cited what I did or the more extended quotation provided by Tanner.


Tanner then goes on to assert that my supposed use of this correspondence is just one example of problems with my “interpretation of source materials that are common throughout” the book. A claim that a historian misuses source materials is a serious charge that should never be made lightly. When levied against this book, it is a particularly serious charge because so much of my argument is based on my reading of manuscripts and other archival material. My problem with Tanner’s charge is that she offers only one putative example of this problem, an example that is simply wrong. She provides no real evidence to support what is a very serious charge not only against this book but against my credibility as a scholar. Tanner’s criticism is careless, and it is factually inaccurate. She claims that I provide a flawed interpretation of Ross’s role as a Progressive. What I leave out, she maintains, is that Ross was a champion of “those at the lower end of the social scale.” In that vein she points out that Ross was fired from his teaching post at Stanford University because he supported “public ownership of transportation” and wrote a pamphlet that Jane Lothrop Stanford, the wife of the university’s founder, the late Leland Stanford, believed was “an affront to her husband’s memory.”


Tanner, however, tells only part of the story. Ross’s advocacy of public ownership of utilities did anger Jane Stanford. But she was also angered by Ross’s opposition to unrestricted Oriental immigration, a policy that was supported by many late nineteenth and early twentieth century capitalists but opposed by numerous intellectuals of the day, including Ross. While Ross’s irreverence and pomposity as a teacher and public speaker may have had more to do with his firing than any particular thing he had to say, Tanner’s failure to mention his nativist sentiments leads her, I think, to a faulty characterization of my treatment of him.


Based on Tanner’s characterization of Progressive education as an effort “to bring about progress,” I am not really sure that she understands the so-called Progressive era in American history. As it turns out, many contemporary historians tend to eschew the term Progressivism or at least qualify their use of this term because it suggests a common purpose to what was in fact a diverse and often contradictory movement. Any reasonable consideration of the vast array of reforms promoted under the rubric of Progressivism, from eugenic sterilization laws and techniques of scientific management to a system of juvenile courts and the public ownership of utilities, would lead one to recognize the complexity of the movement. Ross was a good representative of the movement. His support at one and the same time of the struggle of American labor against the domination of an emerging capitalist class and his opposition to unrestricted immigration, which he often made in language that suggests a nasty and vicious racism on his part, typifies the disparate goals of Progressive era social reform, some of which were directed toward humanitarian reform and moral redemption and others toward class and race domination.


It is true that I was not particularly kind in my treatment of Ross. Although I did note his efforts to support American workers in their conflict with industrial capitalism (p. 25) (a fact that Tanner does not mention), I devote most of my attention to Ross’s opposition to unrestricted immigration and the hereditarian viewpoint that led him to support this policy. I did, however, choose this emphasis consciously. My reason for considering Ross in the book was to show that in comparison with other intellectuals of his day, such as Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead, he was less successful in transcending his rural nineteenth-century background and coming to terms with the realities of twentieth-century urban industrial life. What I say about Ross should be seen in the light of what I say about Cooley and Mead. Since Tanner does not mention my consideration of these other social theorists, her review fails to convey my intent on this score.


Finally, I think, there is a certain passion, almost rage, in her remarks about my book that I fail to understand. Tanner sets this tone at the beginning with her reference to Hitler and David Irving. Her anger continues to build in her treatment of the revisionist historians of education. Then she comes to my book and unleashes the full fury of her wrath. For Tanner, the revisionists and, I suppose, myself by erroneous association are not just wrong in our understanding of things. We are untrustworthy and suspect types who are clearly up to no good.


I must confess that I enjoy a book review that is written with zest and vigor. The task for the author of such a review is to be provocative without being strident and unfair. If one is not up to that task, and I think Tanner obviously is not, the result, as in the case of her remarks about my book, lacks ordinary civility and oversteps the boundaries of good taste.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 1, 1987, p. 142-145
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 557, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:49:47 AM

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