Events That Happen-and "Unhappen"

by Laurel Tanner - 1987

Understanding our history means knowing what the hopeful influences on the curriculum were (in terms of democratic ends) as well as the harmful influences. Students can use this knowledge to distinguish what needs strengthening from what needs to be reckoned with in the present situation. Kliebardís book has clear methodological implications for future work in curriculum history.

 “The facts of history do not change,” observed Morris R. Cohen. “What has happened cannot ‘unhappen.’ “1 At first blush, this idea seems to differ little from plain common sense. Who, the innocent reader may ask, would even try to make events “unhappen,” particularly where the evidence that they did happen is abundant? There are writers whose histories proceed from the desire to shock—to shatter the conventional wisdom. All histories are, of course, influenced by subjective factors; historians, like everyone else, see things from their own perspectives, which determine for them the events that are connected. However, some investigations are controlled more by political prejudices and/or personal motivations than by standards based on research into primary sources. These writers manufacture connections rather than finding them and events that actually happened are ignored because they tell another story. This is not history. History is what actually took place according to the best available evidence.

Some years ago, a number of writers created sensations by contending that certain events did not happen. For example, David Irving argued that there was no evidence that Hitler wished or ordered the extermination of the Jews. Needless to say, the contention won little support, for as Cohen noted, “competent historians do not ordinarily differ where the evidence is sufficient to warrant a definite conclusion.“2

In the field of education, radical revisionists such as Michael Katz, Paul Violas, and Joel Spring created shock waves with their contention that the liberal educators of the past were involved in a deliberate plot to control and subjugate the masses and keep them docile. As Hollis L. Caswell pointed out in an address before the American Educational Research Association in 1979, the radical revisionists tended to ignore the evidence to the contrary. For example, they ignored the leading state curriculum programs that were designed to foster critical thinking and the ability to modify the social order in the search for justice and a better life. In the accounts of many revisionists what actually happened “unhappened.”

Radical revisionism in educational history was analogous to developments in other fields of history. It was one of two major developments in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced research and interpretations of the history of the curriculum field. By the last half of the decade of the 1970s, criticism of the revisionists’ historiography and interpretations provided the evidence that reason suggests: Progressive education was not conservative in intent and outcome. As Diane Ravitch, Rush Welter, R. Freeman Butts, and others pointed out, many of the books on the progressive past that flooded the market were not models of careful research. Sentences were often torn from their settings to convey a completely different meaning than the writer had intended. Critics of radical revisionists’ historiography found depressing evidences of systematic omissions and citations of nonexistent pages. Many critics, however (Caswell is an exception), failed to point out another serious problem with revisionists’ treatment of historical materials: Events that actually happened were ignored. Left out, for example, was that following Lester Ward and John Dewey, liberal educators were profoundly concerned with developing critical thinkers: They wanted to send people into society who could control the environment rather than be controlled by it, who could plan for and bring about a better life. This was the dominant objective of Progressive education—what its name suggests—to bring about progress, but it receives no mention, as if it never happened, in many revisionist accounts.

Barry M. Franklin’s Building the American Community: The School Curriculum and the Search for Social Control is an example of this particular genre: Sentences are removed from their contexts and events unhappen. Franklin’s purpose is to show “how one group of middle-class intellectuals used the concept of social control to build the curriculum” (p. 9). The book does not fulfill the promise. The chapters dealing with research on social control early in the book (particularly the work of Edward Alsworth Ross) are never connected with the curriculum. Nor does it help the reader to turn to the works of the “middle-class intellectuals” (presumably, Franklin means Hollis L. Caswell, who is mentioned frequently, Ralph Tyler, and Hilda Taba). One will search their writings in vain for social control as the basis for the curriculum. Theirs was a different mission, as the historical record (their writings and activities) shows.

Taking his cues from Sol Cohen, Franklin says that earlier radicals were on the wrong track when they accused liberal reformers of deliberate evil (p. 2). Deliberate or not, the outcome, according to this book, was the same, and the book differs little from earlier revisionist tracts. Like Clarence Karier and Walter Feinberg before him, Franklin takes the position that social control is implicitly evil. Never mind that damaging criticism was leveled at Karier and Feinberg by Rush Welter3 for their failure to recognize that “social control is characteristic of any form of organization”; Franklin subscribes to the same faulty conception and misreads the purposes of researchers on social control. Edward Alsworth Ross, the sociologist, is singled out for particularly unfair treatment. Ross’s chief transgression is that he wrote a book called Social Control.4 As a sociologist Ross was concerned with the problem of how order is maintained in a society and the book was based on his research on this problem. Obviously, writing about how instruments of control develop and how they are maintained is not the same thing as advocating the constraint of individual rights and liberties, but Franklin views them as one and the same. The result is an inaccurate picture of Ross’s book.

Ross attacked the exploitation of those at the lower end of the social scale “by a parasitic class in its own interest.“5 Moreover, he was highly critical of school teachers as agents of order and stability. “By their training and affiliations,” he wrote, “they are cut off from those on whom they bind the yoke.” They “want order, any kind of order.“6 As Julius Weinberg, one of Ross’s biographers, notes: “The primary concern of Social Control was to protect the dignity and mobility of the individual,” and, further, “Social Control provided a handbook for Progressive reformers.“7

This is in striking contrast to Franklin’s view of Ross as an unprogressive influence on American education. Furthermore, Ross’s own life and professional career fly in the face of Franklin’s interpretation. In 1900, Ross was dismissed from Stanford University because he lectured to his students on the need for public ownership of transportation (including railroads), and because he wrote a pamphlet called Honest Dollars, which Mrs. Stanford felt was an affront to her husband’s memory (Leland Stanford, who died in 1893, was a founder of the Southern Pacific Railroad).

Ross was Lester Frank Ward’s nephew by marriage, and Ross and Ward were intellectual confidants. Like Ward (or perhaps following Ward), Ross favored a planned society made possible by humankind’s capacity to accelerate its own progress. Ross used Ward’s Dynamic Sociology8 as a textbook for his courses and when Ross was a professor at the University of Wisconsin he arranged a summer teaching position for Ward. Ross named his son Lester Ward Jr. (Ward’s own child had died in infancy), and dedicated Social Control to Ward, as follows: “To my master, Lester F. Ward, pioneer and pathfinder in the study of society, this work is gratefully dedicated.” Their admiration was mutual, as their correspondence over a period of many years indicates.

Using the device of citing out of context, Franklin leads one to believe that the dedication was unwelcome: “In regard to this dedication, Ward wrote to Ross: ‘The idea never entered my head, and if it had it would have been instantly banished. In all candor, aren’t you afraid it was a mistake?’ “9

By reading the citation in its setting, we can see how Franklin has misconstrued the tone of Ward’s letter.

Ward to Ross, Washington, D.C., July 4, 1901:

I have scarcely looked up since I got home last Friday noon and found myself under the load of accumulated work. Only today have I begun to breathe easy. And the first thing to do is to express to you my sense of gratitude and appreciation for the honor you so copiously pour upon me in that dedication! The idea had never entered my head, and if it had it would have been instantly banished. In all candor, aren’t you afraid it was a mistake?

I certainly fear it may injure the sale and vogue of your book. I am not much in favor in certain quarters, and such things tend to class us together and made me a weight around your neck.

I shall soon commence the systematic reading of the whole book.10

Such problems with the interpretation of source materials are common throughout Building the American Community. Another great weakness is the failure to draw on the work of John Dewey. In Democracy and Education, Dewey pointed out that in schools some form of direction is inescapable. He favored control from within (environmental control) rather than externally imposed control and believed that students developed inner control by learning to apply their intelligence to problems. This was the philosophy of experimentalism. One has no difficulty locating references to environmental control in the writings of “middle-class intellectuals”; as Caswell and his associates pointed out: “In so far as the curriculum is concerned, experimentalism has been one of the most influential factors in dictating change in the present century.“11 Since Dewey’s experimentalism proved to he very influential in education, there is a huge substantive gap in this book without him. Such are the consequences when events unhappen.

The second development that influenced historic investigation of the curriculum field was the recognition of a fundamental problem: Reformers in each generation were approaching curriculum problems as if no one had ever thought of them before. Old educational models were periodically reappearing with new names, while the problems that they were intended to solve remained unsolved. The result: an enormous waste of resources. Lawrence A. Cremin noted in the 1970s that boundless energy has been spent in countless classrooms reinventing the pedagogical wheel.

Searching for the reasons for the ahistorical nature of curriculum reform, Arno A. Bellack, Herbert M. Kliebard, and others pointed out that curriculum knowledge does not cross generations, with the consequences that each generation must begin anew. As Kliebard counseled in the late 1960s, curriculum scholars must engage in dialogue with their forebears. Thus the 1960s and 1970s saw a new awareness that curriculum history is an essential part of professional knowledge.

Just as Kliebard’s was an impressive voice calling for the study of curriculum history, so his own response to that need is impressive. The Struggle for the American Curriculum 1893-1958 is well researched and gracefully written, insightful as well as interesting. Causal connections are carefully traced; for example, Lester Ward’s social meliorism is an element that persists through the curriculum efforts of social reformers. (Indeed, it reappears in the 1960s, despite the book’s cutoff date of 1958.) Like Cremin’s work The Transformation of the School,12 Kliebard’s book attempts to cure us (once and for all) of the idea that Progressive education started with the Progressive Education Association. While Cremin argued that Progressive education was simply “the educative side of progressivism,” Kliebard’s interpretation is that four major forces battled for control of the curriculum: the humanists (those who thought that the traditional ways of teaching and traditional subjects were best), the child developmentalists, the social efficiency educators, and the social meliorists. Kliebard writes: “The twentieth century became the arena where these four versions of what knowledge is of most worth and of the central functions of schooling were presented and argued” (p. 29).

The identification of these groups widens our horizon but at the same time presents problems. Dewey, for example, was a child developmentalist and a social reformer (meliorist). Kliebard, like all historians, has constructed a pattern that he reads into the facts with which he is concerned. It is up to us to determine whether the interpretation is appropriate.

Of particular interest is the chapter on the curriculum of the Dewey School. Although other writers have described the curriculum, Kliebard’s concern is with the school’s influence—or lack of it, in his view—on the public school curriculum. This chapter provides insights into why Dewey’s ideas were distorted—including Dewey’s own views on the matter—and illuminates the problem of reform cycles.

Some readers—and I happen to be one of them—will disagree with Kliebard’s conclusion that Dewey’s influence “remained largely confined to the world of ideas rather than the world of practice” (p. 88). Dewey’s influence is seen in the periodic rediscovery of critical thinking. He influenced such innovations as projects in agricultural education, curriculum synthesis, vocational education in a comprehensive setting, the inquiry-discovery method, science laboratories, home economics, industrial arts, field trips. Dewey’s call for a curriculum that was concerned with the real world of everyday life was enormously influential. “He more than any one person is responsible for changing the tone and temper of American education within the past three decades,” wrote William Kilpatrick in 1939.13 The same could be said today. Dewey’s educational reforms hold on. It is the analysis of the conflict between the contenders for the curriculum, not the conclusions, that make this book valuable to those who work in the curriculum field and to other educators as well. For the battle is never lost and never won.

Many years ago, John Herman Randall14 observed that the history of any field involves a unique set of human actors whose ideas and actions are brought to bear on a unique set of materials. In Franklin’s book the leading actor is left out, which makes it impossible to understand the presence of particular concepts in the field of curriculum. In addition, the ideas and actions of other leading educators are misconstrued.

In Kliebard’s book the actors are present and the script is reconstructed from the historical record. The fact that the actors represented conflicting viewpoints led him to approach the history of the field from a perspective of conflicting influences on the curriculum. In my view, the conflicting-forces approach is of great value to students of curriculum development. Understanding our history means knowing what the hopeful influences on the curriculum were (in terms of democratic ends) as well as the harmful influences. Students can use this knowledge to distinguish what needs strengthening from what needs to be reckoned with in the present situation. Kliebard’s book has clear methodological implications for future work in curriculum history.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 1, 1987, p. 133-138 ID Number: 10334, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:23:38 PM

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