Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School

Reviewed by Samuel Day

Andrew Hartman, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

The purpose of this book is to chronicle an intellectual history of American education, showing how educational and political trends in the 1930s and 1940s shaped education in the 1950s, with some historical analysis of the period beyond. The work offers a rich blend of documentary evidence and philosophical reflection.

The author places particular emphasis upon “progressive education” in the later life of John Dewey and afterward through the 1950s. He traces a little-discussed period in American educational history, that between the Progressive Era (1900-1925), and the progressive educational experiments of the 1960s. Here Hartman wishes to show that there’s something important to be studied about the history in between.

In the first chapter, progressive education is placed amidst the “child-centered” ideal of education, derived from Rousseau’s Emile, which started from the idea that children are inherently good and that one simply needs to “leave children alone to develop according to the reputed goodness of their own, natural, instinctual selves.” The opposing philosophy, Hartman argues, is one of an educational essentialism, which imagines a set of perfect educational principles to which every student must be exposed. But this dichotomy of American educational principles does not translate into a “left-right” dichotomy of educational politics. The progressive educators were not always leftists, nor were the idealists always rightists. This is one of Hartman’s major themes, exemplified in his book through the progressive essentialism of Robert Hutchins and the conservative pragmatism of the “life adjustment movement.”

Hartman’s treatment begins with John Dewey (chapter 1), who was “radical to a forgotten degree” (25) for his endorsement of economic democracy. Dewey’s educational legacy is that of “child-centered” education, which starts with children’s wants and needs. Deweyan education is also hard-headed, in its focus upon an education that is “relevant” to social outcomes. Yet the progressive education movement which Dewey made famous was recruited toward the goals of the political status quo. Hartman integrates Deweyan pragmatism into the history of capitalism, by associating it with “the corporate reconstruction of capitalism in the United States” (13). The reader is left asking: is Deweyan education radical, or is it just another adaptation to corporate life in the modern era?

This theme forms a subtext for Hartman’s lengthy recountings of 20th-century intellectual history. During the Great Depression there were a number of prominent socialist progressive educators; Hartman, however, suggests that progressive education had become co-opted after World War II, in the form of the “life adjustment movement.” This was a conscious effort, spearheaded by the US Office of Education, to promote conformism in education:

In short, Dewey’s dictum was reversed: rather than adjusting society to the child, in the hopes of creating a socialist society, the child was to be mentally adjusted to the decidedly un-socialist society already in existence. (55)

Thus American “pragmatism” can go bad, and endorse a craven conformism. As Hartman points out later, “life adjustment education did more than serve the industrial order; it was also instrumental to the military industrial order.” (63) Progressive educators thus came to view students as “cogs to be integrated into the machines of human organization.” (65) Those who were college material were trained for college; the others had to choose lower “niches” in life. This sort of pragmatism, as one can see, ignores the extent to which schooling might constitute a productive, meaningful struggle for success, in favor of an early adjudication.

Hartman also points to the ways in which “a gender-specific curriculum was consistent with the life adjustment prioritization of family and consumer education.” In short, life adjustment education was sexist; it taught girls “kitchen physics,” in which girls learned “how to keep coffee warm for their future husbands” (69). We can, then, feel fortunate that those throughout history who struggled for women’s liberation were not pragmatists of this sort.

Generally, this book offers a series of in-depth biographical sketches of the major educational authors of the period it covers, with special emphasis upon the 1950s, situating each author against the political struggles over how educators should educate. It offers a broad spectrum of opinions, from that of conservatives Russell Kirk and Max Rafferty to anarchists such as Paul Goodman and radicals-turned-conservatives such as George Counts and Sidney Hook. In a series of overviews, Hartman covers both the right and the left wings of the spectrum of educational politics, and both opponents and proponents of educational pragmatism.

Those who wish to be inspired by historical visions of a better world, though, may want to skip to Hartman’s chapter on Theodore Brameld, a leftist professor and philosopher of education who stuck to a Deweyan, socialist, anti-war educational practice throughout the 1950s in spite of all the criticism he received for doing so. In his chapter on Brameld, Hartman reveals his real enthusiasm for intellectual history. Brameld comes off as a fair, open-minded leftist who was not part of the “Communist camp” but who developed education as a tool for social transformation nevertheless. Hartman suggests here that Brameld is a “forgotten” philosopher of education and that America has missed the opportunities it would have had if it had paid attention to him.

At the end of the book, Hartman covers the first years of school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the subsequent Sputnik launching and National Defense Education Act. This last chapter contains a short summary of the philosophy and activism of Paul Goodman, one of the most prominent early critics of schooling for capitalist discipline. In his account, Hartman alternates discussion of then-current events with retellings of the acts of important personages.

In his conclusion, Hartman reflects that education was “not the pure instrument of the ruling class, it was a stake in a very bitter and continuous struggle” (199). This goes against the wisdom that regards education as a facilitating device for class rule, the wisdom of Althusser and of Bowles & Gintis. Generally, however, Hartman assesses the progressive education movement in the 1950s as a failure because it “became beholden to the false consciousness of the Cold War ideological struggle” (201). Thus Hartman argues that the progressive education movement lost the struggle to impart its values to American schools.

Yet, with economic and political conditions being what they were in the ‘50s, it’s hard to see how educational politics could have had a radically different form from the one it took. Certainly the “historic bloc” that one sees in neo-Gramscian theory had sworn its allegiance to Cold War liberalism from the end of World War II until as late as the 1970s. It’s hard to see how another historic bloc (or another form of hegemony) could have taken its place. One wonders whether progressive education even had a chance in that historical time.

Hartman’s judgment upon education in the ‘50s, that it existed in a grim and reactionary intellectual climate, is of a piece with the extensive coverage he grants to “forgotten” intellectuals such as Brameld. For Hartman wants to point to sources of hope within progressive education, as conceived in a radically anti-capitalist sense, beyond just giving us a recounting of who the important figures were and what their politics got them. The main source of hope in Hartman’s book extends from Dewey to Brameld. He says of Dewey:

For Dewey, the transformation of the curriculum in ways that accounted for the child was philosophically necessary because such a curriculum would frame a relevant system of education grounded in everyday existence. (12)

For curriculum to be child-centered, however, and not just “in ways that accounted for the child,” it would have to be much more than “relevant.” It would have to place children first, and put them in charge of their futures, rather than merely granting them their choice of capitalist disciplines upon graduation. Brameld’s educational utopia fills in the gaps in Dewey’s philosophy by offering it a concrete agenda. One can see this in the curriculum for Brameld’s “Design for America” project in Floodwood, Minnesota, in which the students analyzed various political and economic systems, in order to understand which one (among the many) they would want. The subjects of this educational experiment chose democratic socialism.

Review by Samuel Day Fassbinder Claremont, California