National Education Policy and Popular Education: A Reconsideration of Cremin's the Genius of American Education

By Holdzkom, David | Journal of Thought, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

National Education Policy and Popular Education: A Reconsideration of Cremin's the Genius of American Education


Holdzkom, David, Journal of Thought


Lawrence Cremin delivered the Horace Mann lecture in 1965, an interesting moment in the political and social history of the United States. Allow me to set the context for a moment using some significant events from 1964 and 1965. At the University of California at Berkeley, Mario Savio had launched the Free Speech Movement which also reached many other campuses in subsequent years. On August 7, 1964--nineteen years and one day after Hiroshima had been destroyed by the first atomic bomb--the U.S. Congress adopted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the build-up of troops in Viet Nam the following December. And, The Civil Rights Act of 1965 extended political protections to millions of African Americans, following, of course, the activities and tragedies of Freedom Summer. In other words, Cremin's address to the University of Pittsburgh audience was on the cusp of an era that divided the America of Eisenhower and MacCarthy from the America that would witness the shame of Richard Nixon, the dissemination of computer technology, the development of human liberation movements, and the end of the Cold War. Was this the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?

Juxtaposing the era described above with our current context, reading Cremin today, however, finds us in a nation on a not-so-distinct cusp. Arguably our society is driven by intelligentsia diametrically bifurcated by opaque culture wars in which there seems to be more war than culture. It's a scene evincing politicians espousing anti-liberal views of a paradoxically non-Christian Christian right against a left who offers sound-bite after sound-bite about service, justice, and equity, but is immobilized by questions of whose definitions, understandings, or methods should be used. Thus, it seems that our only choices in politics are between an empire building neo-conservative movement and the remnants of the Woody-Allen-left trying to find contentment with Howard Dean screaming on television. Will this era be remembered for the war in Iraq and No Child Left Behind, the grinding poverty that was exposed to public view by Hurricane Katrina, and a Congress unable to address the nation's problems but quite able to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case? If the two eras aren't so different, yet are separated by forty years, is there a genius to the American system of education?

Cremin's lecture was published as The Genius of American Education, a little book (especially when compared to his magnum opus The History of American Education) in which he discusses the growing conflation of the notions of education and schooling, the rise of the school as an institution, of public responsibility to support education and the education profession's need to be independent of public pressure, and the essential linkage between an educated public and democratic institutions. To address these concerns, Cremin divides his book into three sections: The Commitment to Popular Education; Popular Education and Popular Culture; and, The Politics of Popular Education.

A Commitment to Popular Education

In the first section, Cremin is careful to convey an understanding that popular education has not always been, of course, the taken-for-granted experience that we know today. "Jefferson's plan [for universal primary education] was turned down, but one can trace an unbroken line of influence from Jefferson to Horace Mann to John Dewey--and to trace it to Dewey is, like it or not, to trace it to ourselves" (Cremin, 1965, 4). Of course, as Cremin points out, Jefferson's plan only included white children (and not all of those, beyond a certain point), so it was not truly universal in its own time. But, over the course of years the popular expectation has grown up that all children will be educated, preferably at least through high school. Hence the annual angst when schools release information about the drop-out rate.

In the early years of the Republic, as Cremin points out, education was not confined to the school-house. …

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