education education school

American society has long idealized education as the ultimate panacea for every social ill and as the engine of economic progress. Today, however, Americans are abandoning their faith in education. Conservatives, as reflected by the Reagan-Stockman budget and the Proposition 13 movement, are trying to cut back on school spending at all levels; liberals have used court-ordered busing and affirmative-action programs to impose unpopular reforms; radicals are condemning the school system as the hopelessly corrupt integral core of a hopelessly corrupt capitalist system.

Within the educational system, morale has fallen to an all-time low. Teachers battle administrators and school boards through unionization and strikes. Students have reverted to their own counterculture, in which drugs, alcohol, rock music, and sex play a more central role than homework, classwork, or learning. In a time of doubt, confusion, and conflict, historians are called upon to explain how such an educational system developed—what its original purposes and achievements were, and how the schools contribute to, or hinder, the attainment of social goals. In the last decade historians have risen to the challenge; fierce debate has been raging over the role of the school in American history over the last century.

At the deepest level, every participant in the century-long educational debate has agreed that the true function of schooling in America ought to be the development of individual talents and abilities, in order to contribute to the well-being of both the individual and the society. The traits to be released are three: cognitive ability, moral character, and ambition. Ideals of education that perpetuate established castes, or, for that matter, the systematic suppression of formerly powerful classes (like the Chinese gentry), have always been denounced in this country by all parties, though radicals insist that the suppression of potentially radical classes has been the hidden purpose of the educational system.

The orthodox interpretation has taken two forms: a celebration of broad-scale public education as the finest expression of a democratic culture, and an economic measurement of the critical importance of schooling to economic growth and a consumer-oriented society. The left has inverted the same two themes. Broad-scale public schooling serves primarily and deliberately to foster inequality, especially the hegemony of white, middle-class, male America over the downtrodden workers, immigrants, blacks, and women. Education does not promote economic growth, but rather guarantees capitalist social control and prevents an equitable redistribution of wealth, prestige, and power. A second revisionist theme, politically less radical but far more unsettling, maintains that the educational system is a giant self-propelled bureaucracy, disconnected from either capitalists or workers, which serves neither society nor students but primarily the teachers and administrators who enjoy all its benefits.

Is there a conservative alternative beyond those already outlined? I think not. One might argue, in analogy with a European conservatism that advocates the restoration of a traditional elite, or maintenance of powerful traditional institutions (church, gentry, army), that American education has been too democratic, too equalitarian, too subversive of family, patriotism, morality, or elitism. So far as elitism is concerned, such an argument would be hard to sustain. For a century and more, economic, social, and cultural elites have created and maintained educational institutions, especially preparatory schools and private colleges and universities. These were not separate from the educational main stream in philosophy or purpose. On the contrary, they comprised the capstone of the system, the model which the more popular institutions copied, and the standard against which they were judged. The prep schools and colleges resembled European counterparts more in architecture than in purpose. Our conservative elites, in other words, have had ample opportunity to create a countervailing system that would express different, presumably conservative, ideals. They never did so because the elites have shared the ideals that fostered the main system.

Consider the eastern prep schools—Phillips Exeter, St. Paul’s, Groton, Taft, Choate, etc. Their superficial resemblance to English public schools has fostered the belief that they are aristocratic institutions designed to rescue elite youth from the democracy or equalitarianism of the public-school system. Yet, as James MacLachlan explains:

For most of their history, these schools have consciously educated their students to avoid, abjure, and despise most of what are traditionally thought to be aristocratic or upper-class values and styles of life. They have worked instead to prevent the development of aristocratic attitudes. They have tried to inculcate their students with what are usually thought to be classically “middle-class” values: self-restraint, rigid self-control, severe frugality in personal style, and the ability to postpone immediate gratifications for larger future ends.[1]

During the nineteenth century, American colleges, both private and public, devoted themselves to the inculcation of moral character and middle-class virtue. During the twentieth century, the colleges that grew into universities have devoted relatively more attention to the scholarly and scientific work of their faculties; this has reduced faculty or administration control of student behavior. In consequence, students have been able to develop their own youth culture. The athletics, clubs, fraternities, and sororities that emerged have shown no aristocratic pretensions. Conversely, there were only limited efforts to create a politicized student radical movement before the abortive attempts of the 1960s.

The preeminent leaders of elite universities, instead of insulating their institutions from the movements for popular education, took the lead in formulating national policy, especially in regard to high-school curricula. Men like Charles Eliot and James Conant at Harvard, William Rainey Harper and Robert Hutchins at Chicago, Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia, and Clark Kerr at Berkeley were not always successful in their arguments with school superintendents and teachers’ colleges spokesmen. Nevertheless, their position showed that no conservative alternatives to a middle-class, professionalized conception of education existed in this country.

Opposition to public-school politics has caused several non-elite groups to establish alternative school systems. The Catholics reacted against the heavily Protestant moral tone of the public schools and created a very expensive parallel institution. The parochial schools, however, were prone to ethnic particularism. In the early twentieth century the bishops seized control of the parish-based systems in their dioceses, broke the separatist tendencies of Poles and Germans, and gave parochial schools almost exactly the same educational practices and philosophy as the public schools. The only differences were in funding and religious ritual. The moral tone and emphasis on character formation that public educators had once stressed became, in the twentieth century, even more characteristic of Catholic schools. The historian who is looking for a countervailing educational program dedicated to neutralizing the central thrust of the public-school movement and to preservation of a traditional culture will find few examples beyond Amish schools.

Character formation was of central importance to educators in the nineteenth century. The public, private, and parochial schools were all supported on the premise that they would uplift the moral standards of the students and the community as a whole. Conservative commentators on education, troubled because of the abandonment of a moral tone in twentieth-century public schools, thus can celebrate the original purposes of the schools. Schools were democratic since the moral standards had to reach everyone; they were equalitarian since the moral standards were identical for everyone regardless of status or background. Liberal historians have been keenly embarrassed by the new interpretation. They had originally celebrated the democratic and equalitarian tone because they thought it meant the schools were committed to leveling social distinctions. Liberal morality in the twentieth century has been a matter of mental health, personal adjustment, and relativistic standards. The one moral standard liberals would demand of education is the fostering of tolerance, which, it is now clear, was not the purpose of American schools during the nineteenth century.

Revisionist and radical scholars agree that moralism was a dominant theme in the history of American education and that the public-school movement was inherently conservative, but they condemn the movement. They argue that the purpose of the moralism was social control. Specifically, the middle classes used the schools to strip immigrants of their cultural heritage (“Americanization”), and to control the working classes. The high level of social control meant that schools served to unleash the individual potential not of all Americans, but only of the middle-class children. The rest were to be held back.

Michael Katz, the foremost revisionist historian, summarizes the motivation of the nineteenth-century promoters in relation to five social problems that the schools were to solve:

(1) urban crime and poverty; (2) increased cultural heterogeneity; (3) the necessity to train and discipline an urban and industrial workforce; (4) the crisis of youth in the nineteenth-century city; and (5) the anxiety among the middle classes about their adolescent children.[2]

Katz, and virtually all recent revisionists, place grossly disproportionate emphasis on the “urban” environment—i.e., the large cities. Probably three-fourths of the scholarly studies focus on the dozen or so largest cities, while nearly all the rest focus on cities of the next rank. The reasons include the fad of the “new urban history,” sparked by the big-city riots of the 1960s, and the much greater documentation that makes the larger cities easier to study. Yet, the fifty largest cities in 1870 included only 17% of the country’s students; the fifty largest cities in 1910 included 19%: they included 18% in 1970. Thus, throughout the last century, five out of six students lived outside the central city.

Of course, the cities have always been characterized by their ethnicity (37% of all immigrants lived in the fifty largest cities in 1870, and 44% in 1910, while 44% of all blacks lived there in 1970) and by their concentration of industry (32% of factory workers lived in the big cities in 1870, 38% in 1910).[3] A century ago cities were characterized by their rapid growth, corrupt machine politics, concentration of immigrants and factories, and a shocking level of alcoholism, street crime, and squalor. A balance sheet today would subtract the machines, add drug addiction, and substitute welfare for industry.

The big-city schools obviously had to be oriented to a gigantic task of cultural assimilation. In 1910, only 38% of their students were old-stock white; today, only a third are white of any ethnicity. Then, as now, the student body at each school turned over every few months, as families constantly moved back and forth between neighborhoods. The biggest difference is that in 1910 the great majority of students were in elementary school, with few high schools and very few urban senior or junior colleges. Under such circumstances it is doubtful that any scheme propounded by superintendents could actually be put in practice the way the planners intended. As for the presumed nativist bias within the schools, it should be noted that half the public-school teachers in 1910 were daughters or sons of recent immigrants (usually Irish).[4]

Since old-stock white parents, politicians, and educators designed the public-school system for old-stock white students, 88% of whom lived outside the big cities (1910), it simply will not do to deduce their motivations from the policies followed in the atypical cities. Yet, such has been standard technique in recent years. Indeed, one historian has been so enamored of metropolitan sources that he concludes that rural reformers must have been reacting to big-city ills: “The fervor with which reformers pursued the common school ideal in western areas that contained few immigrants, little industry, and few urban places suggests that westerners did perceive some of the problems in their condition that worried eastern conservatives.”[5] Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about popular attitudes toward education a century or more ago. Historians all too often have hypothesized values and concerns, needs and motivations, from their own ideological preconceptions.

Liberal historians of education, a dying breed today, for decades perpetrated the comfortable myth that public schooling emerged from the demands of workingmen, especially those in cities like New York and Philadelphia. One virtue of the revisionists’ work is the conclusive demonstration that the wealthy, and the middle class in general, worked for and built the schools. The urban worker and backwoods subsistence farmer opposed the taxation, the exercise of governmental power, and, above all, the threat to their traditional ways that common schools represented. Until the passage and enforcement of compulsory-education laws late in the century, these folk resisted by simply not sending their children to school. Thus, in the North in 1860, 88% of the children aged 10-14 of wealthy parents attended school, in contrast to only 65% of the poor children. Immigrants, regardless of wealth, and poor native farmers were especially reluctant to send their children off to school, even the very young ones who could only do a little labor for the benefit of the father. (The reformers used compulsory-education laws to eliminate the exploitation of child labor by the parents.)

A consensus is emerging that the middle classes created schools to promulgate middle-class virtues, but there are sharp differences about the reasons. Revisionist historians, clinging to the remnants of liberal faith, favor a status interpretation: The middle class was attempting to protect its way of life from the inrushing hordes of strange new immigrants. Yet, the middle classes were growing rapidly in numbers and power, especially after the new Republican party achieved dominance throughout the North.[6]

Liberal and revisionist historians have not troubled themselves with the themes of individual morality and personal behavior. Social evils have always seemed sufficient both to apportion historical guilt and to explain away individual behavior. Besides, their firm belief in the relativity of values diverts them away from probing into personal moral standards. Conservatives, in contrast, are more aware of universal standards of morality. Yet, conservative historiography has been so focused on intellectual history that the actual behavior of people, whether good or evil, seldom enters the picture. Radicals, carrying forward the liberal outlook, are eager to blast a whole culture as hopelessly immoral, without regard to how anyone actually behaved. Consequently, we know almost nothing about the history of moral behavior in this country, or how the impulse to maintain community standards has shaped society.

The conservative historian must turn to the question of morality to understand the critical importance of moral training in the schools. A revolution in moral standards occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. The evangelical Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, grew very rapidly, thanks to revivals and a concern with liberating the individual from the shackles of fatalism and traditionalism. Their theology was not the old predestinarian Calvinism, but an Arminianism that stressed personal pietism, right behavior, and the duty of all Christians to work for a transformation of personal and community standards of righteousness. These pietists built the common schools and most of the new colleges, and led the reform movements of the day, inveighing against alcoholism and slavery as threats to the full release of human potential. The common schools, supplementing church agencies and reform organizations, would inculcate pietistic virtues and middle-class values in all American children.

The pietistic program was frankly coercive. Children would be transformed whether their parents approved or not; hence the compulsory school laws and the resistance to those laws by traditional groups. The schools inculcated self-discipline, time-consciousness—hence all the bells—future orientation, equalitarianism, a strong commitment to science and rationality, and above all, a sense of the powerful potential for individual advancement once released from the chains of ignorance, custom, and fatalism.

Liberals and revisionists are aghast at the notion of coercive inculcation of alien values. “Moral education was, in fact, a kind of intellectual totalitarianism,” Katz cries. “Relativism was inconceivable.”[7] The last point is true enough. Pietistic reformers a century ago flatly rejected the notion that all kinds of behavior were equally close to God’s will or to the moral standards they proclaimed. Liberals have argued that social deviance (what used to be called sin and crime) arises primarily from flaws in the social system and is largely a matter of labeling: the people in power can announce what is good and bad, and inevitably, the politically powerless are the ones whose behavior gets condemned. Going further, some intrepid revisionists have denied the voluminous evidence and declared that, for example, the Irish immigrants were as well-behaved as anyone else. “The Irish were not intemperate, shiftless and ignorant,” Katz asserts. “To the contrary: the immigrants may have represented a select, especially highly motivated, and unusually literate portion of Irish society.”[8] Katz’s second point does not contradict the first. Most Irish immigrants, and large portions of the native population, were not born or automatically endowed with pietistic or middle-class values and styles of behavior. They had to learn them; in the context of nineteenth-century society, they had to be taught them in public or parochial schools.

It has recently become fashionable to romanticize and even glorify the behavior and morality of traditional folk and to insist upon the superiority of group over individual liberation in far-away cultures.[9] The violation of individual aspirations and human rights in revolutionary twentieth-century societies such as China and Cuba can be justified by radicals on these grounds.

A conservative is predisposed to sympathize with the motivations of the nineteenth-century reformers. They faced a traditional society badly in need of reform. Traditionalist moral behavior was based on authoritarian control of all facets of behavior by powerful males (fathers, priests). Double standards were applied to women, who were held in very low esteem. Individual achievement and personal development were not fostered; children were routinely exploited for the benefit of parents. Inside the family or ethnic group, harsh punishment, including shame and humiliation, kept order; internal codes of conduct were not fostered. Relations with strangers invited sharp dealings, dishonesty, and violence. The Golden Rule was not in evidence. Legal procedures were abused by private parties to hurt their enemies: feuds were commonplace.

To invoke the language of developmental psychology, the traditional ethic existed primarily at the lowest stages of moral development. The pietistic reformers made it their first priority to introduce a sense of guilt, internalized moral standards, and a universalistic ethic. The religious revivals succeeded when they quickened a sense of guilt, of individual responsibility, and of duty to fellow humans. The new ethic can be seen as a higher stage of moral development. It was this higher stage that formed the rationale for creating common schools in the first place. If everyone could be brought to a higher stage of morality, if individualism could break through fatalistic norms, then a truly just society could emerge. Crime and deviance would automatically decline among the people who accepted the new ethic. Absolute standards did exist, but because they arose internally, from a deeper understanding of morality, the society would not be totalitarian.

How effective were the schools in achieving the herculean goal of a moral reformation of society? Indirect evidence suggests considerable success. Studies of delinquency and crime for a century have consistently shown that the more exposure a person has had to education the less likely he or she is to be involved in the deviant behavior patterns the pietists sought to combat.m Disturbing changes are now under way—both in the correlation between deviance and education and, more definitely, in the loss of role for  schools in inculcating moral values. Whatever the case now, in the early and mid-twentieth century the educators had so little deviance to worry about inside the schools that they shifted their emphasis from character building to a more amorphous, relativistic “mental health” perspective. In areas where resistance to education was strongest (recent immigrant centers, the entire South), crime rates always were highest. Survey evidence from the early 1960s shows that ethical standards were fairly uniform across religious groups. Catholic parochial schools and new “Christian academies” have found a needed role in maintaining the historic link between education and morality.

Revolutionary movements of the twentieth century elicit popular rage at the moral failure of the regimes they topple. Rarely do they give equal attention to the moral standards of their own adherents. The social costs of this oversight, after the revolutionaries come to power, provide the horror stories of the century. Despite this terrible experience, there is scant evidence that nascent revolutionaries, or their admirers, ever heed the obvious lessons. It is refreshing, therefore, to discover that the nineteenth-century school reformers began with a goal of uplifting moral standards and were largely successful. Proof that a conservative revolution not only can be carried out, but can actually upgrade the moral tone of society, can only give comfort to the conservative cause.

Radical historians argue, above all, that the common-school system was developed by, and for the benefit of, capitalism.[11] Liberal historians, until they were replaced by revisionists, had argued that the school system was a countervailing force against the evils of capitalism. Revisionists either are silent on the issue or quietly agree with the radicals. The conservative interpretation agrees that there was, indeed, an important link between education and capitalism, but insists that the causation was in the other direction. For conservatives, the common schools were an integral part of a broader social and psychological transformation aimed at the liberation of individual talents; once liberated, these talents operated through the procapitalist legal and economic system to create business enterprises, technological advances, and upward social mobility that characterize American society.

Two main radical trains of thought can be discerned. Radical intellectual historians have attacked leading twentieth-century liberal educators—e.g., John Dewey and Jane Addams—as apologists for capitalism. I shall let liberals defend their own and shall focus on the second train of radical argument, propounded chiefly by economists: rich businessmen built the schools to provide a docile labor force.

Evidence for a direct link between rich businessmen or large corporations and public schools either is lacking or points in the opposite direction. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Marxists and the most influential of the radical spokesmen, assert that in the important early textile city, Lowell, Massachusetts, 85% of the school-board membership was drawn from business and the professions; less than 5 percent were workers.” In fact, the Lowell board membership, 1826-1855, included 4 factory officials, 9 retailers, 9 agents, 8 laborers, 52 clergymen, 37 physicians, 19 lawyers, 5 educators, 5 editors, and 20 men of unknown occupation. Obviously, the learned professions far outnumbered the handful of businessmen on the board. No matter, the radicals argue; the Lowell board and all others faithfully represented the capitalistic interests indirectly. Does this assertion directly contradict the repeated assertions and manifestoes of educators and board members? No matter. It is merely an example of the “discrepancy between the rhetoric and reality of educational reform.” Bowles and Gintis conclude:

The popular objectives, slogans, and perspectives of reform movements have often imparted to the educational system an enduring veneer of egalitarian and humanist ideology, while the highly selective implementation of reforms has tended to preserve the role of schooling in the perpetuation of the economic order.[12]

Debate on these terms quickly turns into a shouting match. The radicals are perfectly sure that capitalism—if not capitalists—controlled education for its own benefit, for they assume that was the case.

Radicals typically identify “capitalism” with large manufacturing corporations. The Lowell Mills, General Motors, and the financial infrastructure that supports corporate enterprise are what they have in mind. Retailers, factories or service companies with fewer than 20 employees, and farm owners are rarely mentioned as capitalists, since that would put too many people in the villain category and divert attention away from today’s corporate giants and multinationals. Radicals are especially enamored of factory workers—historically the focus of their political dreams—to the extent of grossly exaggerating their numbers. A few statistics will put the matter in perspective. In 1910, when the public-school system was well established outside the South, the labor force comprised 36.7 million men and women, of whom 6.3 million worked in factories (another million were managers and white-collar employees in manufacturing). One could add 1.7 million railroad employees and one million miners and still not cover a third of the labor force. No matter how one adds it up, the “capitalist” sector, as the radicals see it, never had the dominance of employment the radicals ascribe to it. Outside large cities and mill towns, the factories had minor importance, actually or potentially. Yet, those were the areas where most of the students actually lived. Studies of Massachusetts, the state most oriented toward manufacturing, reveal a zero correlation between factory employment and school enrollment, town by town.[13]

The radicals assert that in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when industry needed large numbers of hard¬working, punctual, and obedient workers, the schools specialized in producing those qualities. In more recent decades, when the corporate system needed compliant white-collar workers with managerial skills and pleasant personalities, the school responded by training youth in those skills.[14]

The germ of truth in the radical thesis involves the intentions of educators in industrial areas. Although basically dedicated to a moral transformation of society, the educators recognized the need to integrate their institutions into the social order. Horace Mann in the 1840s did tell factory owners that educated youth would make better employees. After 1850, however, and especially after the emergence of the high school in the late nineteenth century, educators almost never linked schooling with unskilled or semi¬skilled labor. Instead they proclaimed that schools would produce the engineers and managers in industry. For example, William Torrey Harris, the leading educational spokesman of the era, explained that individual self-discipline, taught through the schools’ emphasis on punctuality and regularity, would “prepare the generations of men who are to act as the directors of machinery and managers of the business that depends upon it.”[15]

Statistical data that link education and occupation have not yet surfaced for the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century data show convincingly that schooling pulled youth away from factories and other blue-collar jobs. In New York State in 1920, for youth 16 to 18 years old, of those who dropped out of school in fifth grade, 17% held white-collar jobs; of those who left after eighth grade, 45%; of those who graduated from high school, 80 % . During the Great Depression, when an unemployed man would be happy to take a low-prestige job, only 7.5% of the men who had gone beyond elementary school had semiskilled factory jobs. The unskilled and semiskilled jobs created by the expansion of large industry between 1870 and 1920 were filled largely by immigrants who had never been exposed to American schools. By 1935, 60% of men who achieved nine or more years of schooling had entered the white-collar sector.[16]

After 1920, the high schools attempted to expand their scope to include all American youth. They finally achieved this objective in the 1950s. Educators recognized that they faced the problem of attracting to school youth who faced low-skill, low-pay jobs. With federal aid, they developed a full-scale system of vocational education. The purpose, however, was not to provide fodder for the factories. The curriculum successfully prepared youth to enter the ranks of skilled craftsmen—printers, carpenters, machinists.

The radical critique finally boils down to the argument that schools were an integral part of the capitalist society—that is, of American society as a whole. Obviously schools have not been an anti-capitalist force, stimulating the sort of revolutionary ethos that engaged the Russian intelligentsia during the Tsarist era. But the radicals’ assumption of an all-pervasive control of society by big industry and big finance is preposterous when dealing with the origins of the common schools before the Civil War. Even in factory centers like Lowell, the factory superintendents played a marginal role in school affairs, and the owners, living in Boston, played no direct role at all. The radicals are forced to assume, even in Lowell, that the ministers and physicians who controlled school affairs were somehow under the control of financiers, and that the clearly proclaimed goal of transforming personalities and moral behavior was a disguise for their true goal, to produce pliant workers. But identical goals issued from towns in which factories and financial capitalism were absent and in which the great majority of nineteenth-century schools and students resided. The purposes of the schools were not set by corporate interests.

Conservatives argue that universal public education was a precondition for, or at least greatly facilitated, the development of the modern American economic and social structure. We emphasize, however, the value of education in supporting the growth of management, entrepreneurship, and white-collar activity generally. Most blue-collar jobs required very little schooling before the 1940s. The military in World War II, and since, has provided more of the technical education young blue-collar workers receive than the schools have, and the army was, until recently, a much more effective disciplinary experience than the schools. The importance of public schools to the economy, therefore, has been much more significant in the white-collar and managerial sector. Some economists, indeed, have attributed most of this country’s twentieth-century growth to education.

To appreciate the link between education and economic growth, consider what schooling actually does for people. Most obviously, it produces cognitive achievements: students learn to read and write, to cipher, and to solve intellectual problems (e.g., discovery of information, detection of bias, evaluation of differing reports, and interpretation of findings). Students also acquire some appreciation of how complex organizations operate and how society evaluates different behavior patterns. The more successfully the schools educate the students, the more “human capital” they acquire, and the faster the economy can grow.[17]

In the last decade or two, employment has grown much faster in the public than in the private sector. Students seem to recognize that government jobs are easier—and pay as well—for they have sharply cut back the quantity and quality of both high-school and college courses they take. Students learn significantly less today than they did a generation ago. Now that students themselves have considerable freedom in shaping their curriculum, their aversion to the work ethic, reinforced by the educators lack of interest in that ethic, shows up routinely in falling test scores and the meaninglessness of a high-school diploma. The results for economic productivity are negative—and, indeed, the United States is fast losing the productivity lead it once showed over other industrial economies.

Conservative critics of education during the last quarter century have warned that schools are losing sight of their role in creating human capital. The emphasis on “life adjustment” has been a favorite topic. The schools moved in this direction probably because their bureaucratic structure was so isolated from the main stream of scholarship, the economy, and society as a whole. Consequently, schools were not adjusting students to the lives they would actually lead. “I am worried,” Hyman Rickover explained, “about the chances which young people, so poorly equipped to deal with modern life, will have when things become more complex and difficult, as they surely will before very long.[18]

Liberal educators who for decades brushed aside conservative complaints about the schools apparently believed that society itself, not the individual, generates wealth. They downplayed their responsibility to create a stock of human capital among the youth in their charge. The failure of the economy to grow in the 1970s is the penalty we all pay. The radicals who spearheaded the movement to “liberate” students in the last decade or two can hardly be displeased. After all, they were equally critical of the capitalist economy. “The people of the United States do not need a doctor for the moribund capitalist order,” declare Bowles and Gintis, “we need an undertaker.”[19]

Historians of education show little interest in developments after 1920, losing the opportunity to examine the era of real growth of high schools and colleges. Bowles and Gintis do take notice of the expansion of high schools during the 1920s and 1930s. Other radicals have focused on the testing movement that became important at the same time. They argue that high schools were expanded so that working-class youth would flunk out, and, shown their poor grades and low IQ scores, passively accept their own failure to secure good jobs. The privileged middle-class youth would coast along to enjoy the material rewards of society, secure in the knowledge that they deserved them.[20]

Educational psychologists who pioneered in testing were, however, always explicit that they were trying to adapt a previously homogeneous educational program to the particular talents of individual students, regardless of class background. Bowles and Gintis consider this justification fraudulent, for they have used

econometrics to “prove” that IQ is of minor importance in predicting achievement, once family class origins are taken into account.[21] (For the economists Bowles and Gintis, it does not matter what educators believed, said, or did: only the final results as revealed by the social structure explain what really was intended. Radical intellectual historians typically take the opposite tack, relying primarily on carefully selected quotations to prove motivation.) This is not the place to argue fancy statistics. More thorough sociological research, using a far greater variety of data, indicates that IQ does play a major role in determining adult status, even after the effects of family background are controlled. Essentially, the radical emphasis on “privileged” family background as the sole motive force in the American stratification system does not hold up. Many other individual characteristics, such as total schooling, intelligence, personality, and motivation, help out even when family origins are con¬trolled, and they are more important than how wealthy or well educated a parent was.[22]

The radicals do a disservice to educators when they accuse them of rigging the system to “cool out” working-class youth. It is fair to say that the main challenge educators tried to meet in the 1920s and 1930s was how to attract as many poorer youths to high school as possible, and they tried everything to keep them there until graduation. When this goal was achieved in the 1950s, they turned their efforts to expanding public higher education as rapidly as possible so that the new graduates could go on to college. (Radicals now call community colleges the new “cooling out” stations.) It is well to stress that educators sought, and built, comprehensive high schools that would include everyone from the community regardless of class origins. Different tracks were created to accord with individual experience, but these were integrated, in the sense of having a representative mix of students from all social classes.[23] Not until after World War II, with the rapid growth of suburban schools that served a middle-class clientele, did class segregation become a factor in secondary education.

The historian who looks for a system of channeling the lower classes into manual labor, while cooling their ardor for intellectual ambitions, can find it in a most surprising place—surprising and embarrassing for liberals, that is. The New Deal showed little interest in the public-school system. The schools’ orientation toward promoting economic growth and individual ambition did not comport well with the New Deal’s convictions that economic progress was a thing of the past and that a reorganization of power, based on groups rather than individuals, was the new order of the day. Instead of pumping money into the financially strapped school systems, the New Deal built up an independent socialization system for American youth, using the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Youth Administration (NYA), and Works Progress Administration (VVPA). During its lifetime, the CCC enlisted about 300,000 young men annually, about as many as matriculated at college. In its peak year, 1936, the CCC spent $500 million, compared to the $800 million spent by local and state governments for all the public high schools in the country. The NYA did provide aid to students, but, significantly, half the youths it aided were not in school. By the end of the 1930s the NYA, like the CCC and VVPA, was setting up its own schools. The CCC glorified outdoor labor, physical exercise, and military discipline—the classes it held were at the end of strenuous eight-hour days, and were an intellectual disgrace. Ironically, these alternative educational mechanisms, with their emphasis on morale-building, the joy of hard manual labor, and the superiority of the natural rural environment over the decadent cities, together with the deemphasis of academics, precisely fitted the radical model of what capitalists would do in time of depression to head off popular unrest and not allow the poor to become ambitious for good jobs or middle-class comforts.

What ever happened to the CCC and NYA? The educational establishment was furious with Roosevelt for not aiding its schools or allowing it to influence the new agencies. It in fact demanded control, and when Roosevelt refused it joined with conservatives in Congress to kill both agencies.

The revisionists find one pattern in educational history that aligns them with the conservatives against both the liberals and far left: public education is controlled by a giant bureaucracy whose primary function is its own growth and which has successfully disconnected itself from control by society at large or responsiveness to its needs. Revisionist historians have demonstrated that the process began a century ago.[24] The techniques included putting full control of educational policy and practices in the hands of self-proclaimed “professional educators” (superintendents and their allies in teachers’ colleges), installing an elaborate bureaucratic hierarchy, and exploiting the popular demand for economic growth, social progress, and individual advancement to provide continuously increasing levels of funding. In 1929, education consumed 3% of the Gross National Product; today it consumes about 8 % . One point the revisionists neglect to mention is the growing power of teachers’ unions, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO) and the much larger and now quite militant National Education Association. More tax money for schools means more cash for teachers, whose salaries comprise 56% of total school budgets.

Conservatives have long lamented the failure of professional educators to cooperate with scholars and scientists. But until the last decade, conservatives accepted the value of schools and voted regularly to increase their funding. Disillusionment has now set in, as evidenced by grass-roots negative votes on bonding issues (an average of 73% approved in 1957-1967, but only 48% in 1968-1976), and the “Proposition 13” fever that swept most of the country in 1978-79. Conservatives are calling for accountability in measured outputs of schooling. Teachers and educators generally resist the trend but so far have been overwhelmed by conservative pressure on state legislators. With teachers’ unions emerging as the most powerful single lobby and electoral pressure group in most states, we can expect further fireworks.

In a broader political context, the problem of bureaucratic unresponsiveness has emerged as the most effective conservative issue of our time. True, conservatives have bitterly complained about bureaucracy, administrative rule making, and the slippage of the democratic process since the New Deal. The amazing decline in popular support for government in recent years shows the argument is finally taking hold.

Public opinion has, however, become hostile to all big entities, public or private. The antipathy to corporations, especially oil and the multinationals, threatens a new wave of regulation. Conservatives argue that bureaucratization in the public sector is inherently different from managerial growth in corporations, for the latter is tied closely to profit-making. Companies therefore have a clear goal that can be used to set clear priorities and standards for nearly every subunit. Thanks to the rapid growth of graduate business schools, the skilled manpower now exists for the private sector to manage large enterprises efficiently. Government agencies, however, begin with such vague purposes that evaluation of specific performance by particular units is especially difficult. In recent years conservative administrators have attempted to meet this challenge by instituting strict budgetary controls, cost/benefit analysis, systematic evaluation of outcomes, and other businesslike managerial practices in the public sector. These practices work well when specific objectives can be identified, as in police protection or garbage removal. When outputs are vague (e.g., the State Department), or, as in the schools, when entrenched administrators and teachers resist and counterattack politically, the success is problematic. Thus, the suggestion that educational bureaucracies are insidious because they resemble, or were historically inspired by, corporate management, is incorrect and dangerously misleading.

Critics of educational bureaucracy, both left and right, are troubled by the rise of automatic certification. Conservatives complain that diplomas no longer reflect actual levels of achievement. Liberals are upset that formalities are used as a device to screen out the poor or the disadvantaged. Specifically, critics of business charge that employers are really using the schools to select for them the personality types that will prove most congenial around the workplace. “College would be a horrendously expensive employment agency,” Gary Becker notes.[25] Detailed efforts to prove that employers really care most about personality, especially middle-class types, reveal instead that, whatever the level of employee, companies are primarily interested in potential productivity.

Conservative historians have something to learn from the revisionist and even radical critiques. The revisionist interpretation of the emergence of bureaucracies suggests that professional educators fostered public faith in the efficacy of schooling while eliminating popular control of educational policy. School boards focused on financing the growing system, and PTAs were fostered to mobilize votes and generalized support. Actual control of policy was exercised exclusively by professional “experts” in the superintendents’ offices, the supporting state educational agencies, and the teachers’ colleges. By the middle of the twentieth century, college professors not on the faculties of teachers’ colleges had been frozen out; their complaints, as typified by Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands (1953), were ignored. Only by creating a sense of national emergency in the wake of Soviet space triumphs in the late 1950s did scientists and engineers succeed in forcing intellectually respectable curricular innovations into the high schools. Sadly, humanistic scholars ignored the opportunity to revitalize the study of history and literature. The lesson is that the educational bureaucracy can be moved only by strong, national, outside pressures. The creation in 1979 of a Department of Education with cabinet status, over weak conservative resistance, represents a successful effort by the bureaucrats to solidify their position against future pressures.

The radical attack should remind conservatives that the schools are indeed a reflection of society. Conservative critiques of the failure of recent educational practices need to be bolstered by historical examination of the social roles schools once played, and of the causes and effects of the new malaise. Economic historians, working with the human-capital concept, have already made significant contributions, but intellectual, political, and, especially, social historians have yet to grapple with the changes in educational policy, practices, and outcomes during the last fifty years. By linking the problems of education to broader questions about social change, historians can make a significant contribution to the present ideological controversies over the proper direction of American society.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Jarries McLachlan, American Boarding Schools: A Historical Study (New York, 1970), pp. 11-12.

2. Michael B. Katz, “The Origins of Public Education; A Reassessment,” History of Education Quarterly, XVI (1976), 392.

3. Census data were calculated From Francis A. Walker, Compendium of the Ninth Census [1870] (Washington, 1872), pp. 454, 460-82, 596, 597, 618-24; Abstract of the Thirteenth Census [1910] (Washington, 1913), pp. 92, 227, 231, 451; Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1974 (Washington, 1975), pp. 23-52, 868-908,

4. Abstract Reports of the Immigration Commission (Washington, 1911), II, 55. In 1970, 25 percent of big-city school teachers were black. Reynolds Farley and Alma F. Taeuber, “Racial Segregation in the Public Schools,” American Journal of Sociology, LXXIX (1974), 892.

5. Robert L. Church, Education in the United States: An Interpretive History (New York, 1976). p. 76.

6. Church, Education, pp. 62-81, summarizes the revisionist interpretation. On the dominance of the middle class, see Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict, 1888-1896 (Chicago. 1971), ch. 7, and Edward Pessen, Jacksonian America (Homewood, 1978).

7. Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (Boston, 1968), p. 130.

8. Katz, “Origins,” p. 394. Compare Andrew Greeley, That Most Distressful Nation: The Taming of the American Irish (Chicago. 1972). For hard evidence, see Eric H. Monkkonen, The Dangerous Class: Crime and Poverty in Columbus, Ohio, 1860-1885 (Cambridge, 1975), p. 85 and passim. See also Harvey J. Graff, “Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century: A New Look at the Criminal.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, VII (1977). 477-91.

9. See Harvard Educational Review, LI (February, 1981), a special issue on the Third World.

10. On the correlation of crime and lack of education, see Marvin Wolfgang, Robert Figlio, and Thorsten Sellin, Delinquency as a Birth Cohort (Chicago, 1972), pp. 275-79; Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, Delinquency and Opportunity (Glencoe, 1960); Albert K. Cohen, Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang (Glencoe, 1951); and Travis Hirsehi and Michael Hindelang, “Intelligence and Delinquency: A Revisionist Review,” American Sociological Review, XLII (1977), 571-87. Historical evidence is summarized in Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City (New York, 1979), pp. 235-67. On the movement away from character building to mental health, see Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. eds., Preventing Crime (New York, 1936).

11. William A. Proefriedt, “Socialist Criticisms of Education in the United States: Problems and Possibilities,” Harvard Educational Review, L (1980). 467-80; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reforms and the Contradictions of Economic Life (New York, 1976); Roger Dale et. al.. eds., Schooling and Capitalism: A Sociological Reader (London, 1976); Martin Carnoy, Education as Cultural Imperialism (New York, 1974); Alexander Field, “Educational Reform and Manufacturing Development in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts,” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1974; David Cohen and Bella Rosenberg, “Functions and Fantasies: Understanding Schools in Capitalist America,” History of Education Quarterly, XVII (1977), 113-38; Joseph Featherstone, David Hogan, and Mark Stern, “Commentaries,” ibid., pp. 139-58.

12. Bowles and Gintis, Schooling, p. 152.

13. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, 1975), pp. 138-45. Field, “Educational Reform,” p. 326; Carl F. Kaestle and Marts Vinovskis, Education and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (New York, 1980).

14. Bowles and Gintis, Schooling. For a detailed refutation regarding recent decades, see Michael R. Olneck and David B. Bills, “What Makes Sammy Run? An Empirical Assessment of the Bowles-Gintis Correspondence Theory,” American Journal of Education. LXXXIX (1980), 27-61.

15. William Torrey Harris, “Moral Education in the Common Schools” (1888), quoted in Sol Cohen, ed., Education in the United States: A Documentary History (New York, 1974), III, 1911.

16. Cited in Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Mobility (New York, 1927), p. 180;
Social Security Board, Statistics of Family Composition, 1934-36 (Washington, 1943), XI, 588-89.

17. Robert Dreehen, On What Is Learned In School (Reading, Mass. 1968). The neo¬classical (conservative) economists who pioneered the human-capital concept use historical evidence extensively. See Gary Becker, Human Capital (New York, 2nd ed., 1975); Theodore W. Schulz, Investment in Human Capital (New York, 1971); Milton Friedman and Simon Kuznets, Income from Independent Professional Practice (New York, 1945); Albert Fishlow, “Levels of Nineteenth-Century American Investment in Education,” Journal of Economic History, XXVI (1966), 418-36; Mary Jean Bowman and C. Arnold Anderson, “Education and Economic Modernization in Historical Perspective,” in Lawrence Stone, ed., Schooling and Society (Baltimore, 1976), pp. 3-19; and, for a fine overview, Howard R. Bowen, Investment in Learning: The Individual and Social Value of American Higher Education (San Francisco, 1977).

18. Hyman G. Rickover, Education and Freedom (New York, 1959), p. 24. For other conservative critiques, see Mortimer Smith, A Citizen’s Manual for Public Schools (Boston, 1959); Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat From Learning (Urbana, 1953); James D. Koerner, The Miseducation of American Teachers (Baltimore, 1964); and Bernard Bell, Crisis in Education (New York, 1949). See Joel Spring, The Sorting Machine: National Educational Policy, since 1945 (New York, 1976), ch. 1. Grass-roots conservative efforts are discussed in Robert Vetterli, Storming the Citadel: The Fundamental Revolution against Progressive Education (Costa Mesa, Calif., 1976).

19. Bowles and Gintis, Schooling, p. 288.

20. Clarence J. Karier, “Testing for Order and Control in the Corporate Liberal State,” Educational Theory, XXII (1972), 159-80, reprinted in Karier, et. al., Roots of Crisis, pp. 108-37; Judy Jolley Mohraz, The Separate Problem: Case Studies of Black Education in the North, 1900-1930 (Westport, 1979).

21. Bowles and Gintis, Schooling, pp. 120,142; cf. Olneck and Bills, “What Makes Sammy Run?”

22. Christopher Jencks, et al., Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America (New York, 1979), p. 219; Paul J. Taubman, “Schooling, Ability, Nonpecuniary Rewards, Socioeconomic Background, and the Lifetime Distribution of Earnings,” in F. Thomas Juster, ed., The Distribution of Economic Well-Being (New York, 1977), pp. 432-35; David L. Featherman and Robert M. Hauser, Opportunity and Change (New York, 1978), p. 258; Hauser and Featherman, The Proms of Stratification: Trends and Analyses (New York, 1977), p. 300; Otis Dudley Duncan et al., Socioeconomic Background and Achievement (New York, 1972), p. 202.

23. In big-city high schools in 1930, 36% of the upper-middle-class youth, and 54% of the working-class youth, were enrolled in commercial curricula—hardly evidence that these vocational tracks were primarily designed to channel the working-clam youth to worse jobs than the middle class. The index of segregation between the upper-middle-class and lower-blue-collar-origin youths across six major tracks was a low +.23. Grayson N. Kefauver et al., The Secondary-School Population (Washington, 1933) (U. S. Office of Education Bulletin, 1932, No. 17), p.51. Richard A. Rehberg and Evelyn R. Rosenthal, Class and Merit in the American High School: An Assessment of the Revisionist and Meritocratic Arguments (New York, 1978), convincingly refutes the revisionist argument today.

24. Michael Katz, Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America (New York, 1975); Jacob Michaelson, “Revision, Bureaucracy, and School Reform: A Critique of Katz,” School Review, LXXXV (1977), 229-46; E. G. West, “The Political Economy of American School Legislation,” Journal of Law and Economics, X (1967), 101-28.

25. Becker, Human Capital, p. 8; see also Bowen, Investment in Learning, p. 175.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email