American Education: The Metropolitan Experience 1876-1980, by Lawrence A. Cremin. New York: Harper & Row. 781 pp. $35. LAWRENCE A. CREMIN has labored for 23 years on a trilogy of the history of American education. The first volume examined education during the colonial period; the second, which received the Pulitzer Prize in history, brought the story from the American Revolution to the Centennial. This volume surveys the evolution of American education from Reconstruction to Reagan's first presidential election.
Completion of this trilogy is an impressive accomplishment. Cremin's command of such a wide range of scholarship may be unequaled among historians of education. Strangely, however, the trilogy may stand as a school of thought unto itself.
Early in the 1960s, Cremin and a handful of other prominent historians revived an ancient idea: that education involves more than the influence of schools. Through its numerous agencies society itself helps educate young and old, in unpredictable ways, with sometimes contradictory results.
At the time, most writing on the history of American education was celebratory and oriented to the study of schools. Cremin was properly critical. After all, public schools in the modern sense never existed in colonial America; homes, churches, and work exerted far more influence on children's lives.
Cremin and other scholars, therefore, advocated the study of all the ways in which people learn and are educated. This daunting assignment conformed well with the trend toward writing social history that emerged in the late 1960s.
How have ordinary Americans made the transition from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood? Asking that question helped energize the study of America's educational history. A field preoccupied with schools was transformed.
Over the past two decades, a minority of scholars have profited enormously from this change. Some historians now regularly publish articles and books that assess life's informal means of education and socialization for adulthood: from being breast-fed to reading comic books to watching old movies and MTV. But the most influential professional scholarship in the area remains directed toward understanding schools.
Indeed, the mainstream of scholarship in the history of education has been dominated by a group of social historians and educators who in the '60s began to ask tough questions about the origins and characteristics of modern schools, particularly urban schools.
How and why did schools increase their influence over youth during the past two centuries, and with what consequences? The celebratory tone of much previous scholarship, which saw schools as a positive force for democracy and opportunity, was stripped away to lay bare the origins of poverty, racism, and social distress in the American metropolis.
Critical studies of American schooling soon proliferated, veering away from Cremin's direction. Schools were depicted as part of America's larger problem, not a panacea. Cremin has voraciously consumed this eclectic mass of critical scholarship without fundamental effect on his writing.
Cremin continues to play down the role of the school vis-`a-vis other educational forces. The approach is superb for studying the colonial period, somewhat less satisfying thereafter. the school grew in influence by leaps and bounds over the past century, yet it appears in this final volume of the trilogy in snips and slices. Families, religious communities, and multiple forms of mass communication emerge as the foremost educators of modern America.
A broad definition of education protects a historian from the charge of parochialism but nevertheless creates other thorny problems. To focus on schools once made historians of education appear narrow. But to identify, understand, and assess the multiple agencies of education and socialization over broad periods of time is almost impossible. If everything educates, how does one set limits on one's research?
That burden characterizes much of ``American Education.'' By focusing on the metropolis in the development of American education since the Gilded Age, Cremin creates a thematic substructure that cannot carry the full weight of life's multiple sources of learning.
In many ways this volume is an excellent cultural and intellectual history of America over the past century. It examines the many deliberate ways in which people of all ages have changed their lives, or had them changed: through religious conversions, newspapers, magazines, settlement houses, government programs, Chautaquas, libraries, or museums.
For Cremin, the rise of the metropolis often helped democratize and popularize learning and culture through the encouragement of these many means of communication. A trip to the local museum or library opened new vistas for the curious and ambitious.
For the student of American culture there is attention to virtually everything that might have influenced change. The school receives secondary treatment, with the acknowledgment that its role grew more complex, politicized, and significant over time.
More intellectual than social history, ``American History'' offers deft portraits of many individuals who participated in the widest forms of education. Dwight L. Moody and William Jennings Bryan come to life to re-create the world of values undermined by modernism. Many intellectuals and college professors - far removed from public school classrooms but widely published and presumably influential - join the stage to highlight the diversity and complexity of American educational thought.
Several pages are devoted to Margaret Mead (among a legion of Columbia University professors). Maria Montessori appears in one fleeting reference.
The metropolis surely generated many of the agencies of education of the modern world. But seeing the past from the vantage point of the city in general and New York in particular creates a gulf between intellectual history and social reality.
Similarly, the elite views of the Country Life Commission, which called for the wholesale reform of rural schools at the turn of the century, stand without rebuttal. Rural people themselves saw their one-room schools quite differently than did the cosmopolitan experts who condemned their schools and mostly saw the people as country hicks needing improvement.
An expansive definition of education makes it difficult to exclude people or agencies or movements of the past century.
In the end, what can future interpreters of the American educational past learn from this trilogy?
Surely Cremin has demonstrated that schools should never be the sole concern of historians of education. Schools have always shared the burden and responsibilities of education and socialization with a host of institutions and informal processes.
At the same time, this view of education seems better suited to understanding human development in the distant than in the more recent past. Cremin himself acknowledges that schools in the 20th century continued to grow in social, economic, and political significance. Yet he concludes that despite their imperfections, American schools have helped ``to advance opportunity in significant ways for a significant proportion of the population, redistributing life chances and providing an important measure of intergenerational mobility.''
Cremin has kept his distance from the critical school of social historians that emerged in the late '60s. These scholars have studied urban schools in depth and often found them wanting; he has emphasized the role of other sources of education and learning, yet restates an earlier belief that schools generally promote opportunity.
Ironically, a book that tries very diligently not to be about schools in the end reaffirms their centrality in modern America.
William J. Reese is associate professor of education and American studies at Indiana University at Bloomington.