Popular Educational Classics

A Reader

by Joseph L. DeVitis (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook X, 422 Pages


The last half century has created deep tensions in how we analyze educational and social change. Educators, policymakers, and concerned citizens have had to cope with competing belief systems in evaluating and acting upon school policies and practices. This illuminating book untangles many of the roots of those persistent debates that have divided the nation for so long. It offers readers a critical opportunity to reflect on our continuing ideological struggles by examining popular books that have made a difference in educational discourse.
The editor has specifically selected key books on social and educational controversies that speak to wide audiences. They frame contextual issues that so-called «school reformers» have often neglected – much to the detriment of any real educational progress. Ultimately, this text is meant to stir our consciences, to disorder our certainties, and to compel us to treat education and culture with both reason and passion. It is highly relevant for courses in social foundations of education, school reform, educational policy studies, philosophy of education, history of education, politics of education, curriculum studies, and teacher education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One: The 1960s
  • Chapter One: Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (1960)
  • Chapter Two: Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools (1962)
  • Chapter Three: Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education (1962) and The Community of Scholars (1964)
  • Chapter Four: Herbert Kohl, 36 Children (1967)
  • Chapter Five: Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1969)
  • Chapter Six: Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)
  • Part Two: The 1970s
  • Chapter Seven: Charles E. Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (1970)
  • Chapter Eight: Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)
  • Chapter Nine: Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study (1975)
  • Chapter Ten: Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (1976)
  • Chapter Eleven: Michael W. Apple, Ideology and Curriculum (1979)
  • Part Three: The 1980s
  • Chapter Twelve: Mortimer J. Adler, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982)
  • Chapter Thirteen: Ernest L. Boyer, High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America (1983)
  • Chapter Fourteen: John Goodlad, A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future (1984)
  • Chapter Fifteen: Theodore R. Sizer, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (1984)
  • Chapter Sixteen: Jeannie Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985)
  • Chapter Seventeen: E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (1987)
  • Chapter Eighteen: Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom (1988)
  • Chapter Nineteen: Peter McLaren, Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education (1988)
  • Part Four: The 1990s
  • Chapter Twenty: John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990)
  • Chapter Twenty-One: Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991)
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: Michelle Fine, Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School (1991)
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education (1992)
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: Jane Roland Martin, The Schoolhome: Rethinking Schools for Changing Families (1992)
  • Chapter Twenty-Five: Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (1994)
  • Chapter Twenty-Six: Lisa Delpit, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (1995)
  • Chapter Twenty-Seven: David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools (1995)
  • Chapter Twenty-Eight: David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform (1995)
  • Chapter Twenty-Nine: Jean Anyon, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (1997)
  • Chapter Thirty: Alfie Kohn, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (1999)
  • Part Five: The 2000s
  • Chapter Thirty-One: C.A. Bowers, Educating for Eco-Justice and Community (2001)
  • Chapter Thirty-Two: John Ogbu, Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement (2003)
  • Chapter Thirty-Three: Richard Rothstein, Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004)
  • Chapter Thirty-Four: Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (2010)
  • Chapter Thirty-Five: Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (2010)
  • Chapter Thirty-Six: David F. Labaree, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling (2010)
  • Chapter Thirty-Seven: Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010) and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013)
  • Chapter Thirty-Eight: Yong Zhao, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students (2012)
  • Chapter Thirty-Nine: David L. Kirp, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools (2013)
  • Contributors

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Joseph L. DeVitis

Popular Educational Classics: A Reader attempts to show how the last half century of school and society has dramatized deep tensions in how we analyze education and social change as students, teachers, administrators, scholars, policymakers, and concerned citizens. Competing belief systems have done battle with each other during the era covered in the text. One camp frames schooling within severe social constraints that need to be overcome—an ideology attuned to socially and politically progressive movements. The other, more conservative, perspective proposes educational policies and practices that move schools in a far different direction—one largely devoid of connection to wider social structures. That profound ideological struggle continues to this day. It is my hope that this book will be helpful in untangling the roots of the persistent debates that have divided the nation for so long. Moreover, my ultimate wish is to provide more clarity—and reflective action—on crucial public problems that have necessitated those heated conflicts. If we can make greater strides toward solving the “crisis in the classroom”—in fuller reality, the crisis in society—we will have better served our children and created a more humane community.

Some Stipulations and Caveats

This introduction will not discuss all 40 texts in the compendium. To do so would require a companion volume in itself, and my contributors have done exceptional work that I cannot improve upon. Instead, I will attempt to whet readers’ appetites for what I would characterize as a kind of liberal education in contemporary educational studies. Nor will there be any images of ancient Greek or Roman columns. I use the words “popular” and “classic” loosely and in tandem to signify books that have been emblematic and memorable in educational circles from the 1960s to the ← 1 | 2 → present. It is no coincidence that the period chosen parallels my own journey as an educational theorist and practitioner. Indeed, I have assigned almost all of the books chosen for this volume in my college classes from 1969 to 2013. I have chosen them because they treat crucial questions in school and society in language and substance accessible not only to scholars but also to a wider public. I am less interested in undertaking an academic exercise than I am in motivating larger groups to seek educational change. Thus the book goes beyond rarefied jargon toward a more complete universe of discourse, policy, and practice. In a word, we need to augment our roles as public intellectuals who share knowledge and wisdom with a larger readership while foregoing any attempts to mystify, as if we were High Priests. To have a public, we must speak to its urgent interests by developing more generalizing vocabularies. Thus, for this compendium, I have purposely privileged books written by public intellectuals.

Similarly, I have largely excluded specific studies that speak in more specialist idioms and narratives or are solely rooted in earlier time periods. Many of the books chosen are indeed scholarly; all of them appeal to an extensive public rather than a small coterie of academic audiences. I want readers to feel the actual pulse and press of conflict in the particular decades represented in this book. Thus I have included only those works that deal, in whole or part, with the years under discussion. They are talked-about books that are read for what they offer for reform today and tomorrow, in and out of the classroom. In other words, they are socially and educationally relevant.

If we want to alter conditions in public schools and society, we will need to converse and act in more public terms. Armchair philosophizing will not be sufficient. A more concerted effort will be required to counter persistent posturing among politicians, policymakers, government officials, and even some school leaders who exert power over education. We should work with teachers to foster fuller control of their wider social, political, and economic destinies, including more substantial responsibility for participating in tough and tender dialogue and action on the contentious problems they face each and every day. I sincerely hope that the books in this text will aid in the struggle to actualize democratic schooling and a more democratic society. Granted, this will be extremely difficult in a culture of money, greed, power, and intensively lobbied laws and policies. The “haves” have been unwilling to give up even bird-like shares of what they hold, a sorry circumstance that leads seamlessly to the next section.

The books surveyed in this collection draw upon significant issues related to several interwoven themes: the critical impact of politics on education, the actual possibility of harm in schooling, and the search for meaning in education. Of course, none of those subjects can really be evaluated separately. This introduction recognizes that false dichotomy. I compose such a rhetorical structure to focus readers’ attention on key propositions that run throughout the book, whether distinctly articulated or implied.

Education Is Political

Readers will find that this text is strewn with outright and veiled political premises and assumptions. In some 40 years of teaching teachers, I have often been surprised after repeating the words, “Education is political.” That claim tends to draw some raised eyebrows, especially among undergraduates. It is a truism that is not always taken as a rule of the profession, especially among beginning teachers. Indeed, it is congruent with Dan C. Lortie’s findings in Schoolteacher: A Sociological Inquiry (1975) that teachers have traditionally tended to be ← 2 | 3 → conservative culturally and politically. That circumstance was particularly the case during my years as a professor in the South. However, the National Education Association (NEA) has been credited with helping Jimmy Carter win the presidency in 1976 (the first time the NEA endorsed a national campaign). Carter came through on his promise to establish the federal Department of Education and appointed Ernest L. Boyer, who is discussed in this book, as the Commissioner of Education in 1977. Since then, both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the NEA have continued to be active in national, state, and local politics during decades of waning unionization.

It is wise to take care in analyzing political language about education and to be wary of sloganeering. Words such as “excellence,” “rigor,” “world class,” “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” and the like are typically used to persuade when they more realistically proffer empty bromides and public relations offenses. Naturally, both rightist and leftist recommendations seek to win us over. No matter what one’s political viewpoints, education is too important to be left to undiscerning policymaking—a fact of life that, if ignored, has usually been harmful and sometimes ruinous.

Some strange stirrings occur when analyzing the politics of education. Throughout the period covered in this book, there has been a persisting struggle between the right and the left to draw rhetorical blood while zigzagging toward school reform. At times I have been compelled to admit that the right has spoken more directly and clearly to public audiences. (The political left could learn from the lucid speech of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.) Meanwhile, the academic left has spoken too often in obtuse, esoteric forms and tones while ironically urging an awakening of the public through liberationist means. Less clouded communication would seem to offer a good start. Here is an admittedly extreme scholarly example of the opposite in one sentence:

A politics presuming the ontological indifference of all minority social identities as defining oppressed or dominated groups, a politics in which differences are sublimated in the constitution of a minority identity…can recover the differences between social identities only on the basis of common and therefore commensurable experiences of marginalization, which experiences in turn yield a political practice that consists largely of affirming the identities specific to those experiences. (Guillory, 1993, p. 12)

As we take a breath, we realize that the elephant in the schoolhouse has long been evident: education cannot really be transformed until our society has the courage and will to face poverty head-on. Ray Bradbury (1997), who knew how to separate social reality from science fiction, perhaps put it best: “Poverty made a sound like a wet cough in the shadows of the room” (p. 82). The right does not admit noticing the elephant’s walk, and the left does not appear to be adept at riding the animal more vigorously with wider publics. With any luck, maybe even Democrats will begin to mention “the poor,” and not just the middle class. Rather than skirting around the edges and often using public schools as scapegoats, we would gain more traction by attacking structural economic problems endemic to American society. Some of the writers in this book offer glimmers of hope in that they recognize poverty as the basic issue to be tackled. One need look no further than the career of Diane Ravitch (2000, 2010, 2013) to see that major reversals can occur. She spent several decades as a conservative critic of public schools but is now a vocal opponent of right-wing apostles who bash teachers, extol massive testing, and neglect the social, economic, and political condition of the poor: ← 3 | 4 →

The fact is that poverty does matter. No matter what standardized test you look at, the results portray the influence of socioeconomic status on test scores. Despite outliers, the kids with the most advantages are at the top, the kids with the fewest advantages are at the bottom. This is true of international tests, state tests, federal tests, the ACT, the SAT. Standardized tests are the means by which privilege is distributed. The outcomes are predictable. (Ravitch, 2014, p. 1)

In recent years, Ravitch has shed the thin cloak of such conservative concepts as “choice,” “vouchers,” “markets,” “deregulation,” and “privatization.” These are some of the same notions adopted by neoliberals who champion an individualistic culture that calls for cutbacks in basic human services and largely disavow communitarian concerns (Lipman, 2007). They prize an essentially corporate approach to public schooling; the public good seems to have escaped their attention. Conversely, Ravitch grants that she has studied the evidence anew and discarded many of her past allegiances. She would now doubtless concur with this characterization of a nation steeped in a present-day version of social Darwinism and a blame-the-victim mentality: “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers” (Taibbi, 2014, pp. 12–13).

For further examination of the consequences of politics in education, see additional books analyzed in this volume by the following: Raymond E. Callahan, Dan C. Lortie, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Michael W. Apple, Henry A. Giroux, Peter McLaren, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle, Jean Anyon, John Ogbu, David Tyack and Larry Cuban, Richard Rothstein, Linda Darling-Hammond, David F. Labaree, and David L. Kirp.

Schools and Society Can Be Harmful

Yes, schooling can indeed be injurious to mind, body, and soul. That theme is at least as old as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762), in which he proclaimed that human beings, by nature, are good but become corrupted by society. One of the foremost proponents of anti-schooling has been Ivan Illich, whose Deschooling Society (1971/2000) is reviewed in this collection. He argues that institutional structures—most assuredly including schools—bear the baggage of “hell paved with good intentions” in human lives. School personnel, Illich claims, transmit an oppressive culture of certainties, social expectations, myths of “progress,” and false hope to students (especially those in depressed circumstances). Furthermore, compulsory schooling compels them (particularly those in the middle class and above) to accept societal adjustment to ever-growing patterns of consumption. In Illich’s view, schooling tames our freer spirit, calcifying our “habits of the heart.”

Other writers, such as Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991), have grittily described the noxious conditions in which many urban school districts are forced to struggle and cope. They are often left behind to deal with decaying walls, raw sewage, poisonous drinking water, and the like. Their students are packed like sardines into ramshackle structures, and teachers are hard to find because of gross underfunding. The per capita funding for these districts, as compared to their more affluent suburban neighbors, should make us cringe about the inequalities between rich and poor in the world’s richest nation:

We are children only once; and after those years are gone, there is no second chance to make amends. In this respect, the consequences of unequal education have a terrible finality…. The ← 4 | 5 → winners in this race feel meritorious. Since they also are, in large part, those who govern the discussion of this issue, they are not disposed to cast a cloud upon the means of their ascent. (Kozol, 1991, p. 217)

(It should be noted that Kozol’s narrative is a prime example of how the themes in this book are often interrelated. His work is, of course, highly influenced by the effects of social reproduction and the politics of education in sustaining inequality.)

More recently, Kenneth Teitelbaum (2013) has hammered home a similar message:

Maybe we would be better off spending less money on improving standards and accountability and more on the underlying conditions that adversely affect learning, including the fact that one in five children in this country come from families in poverty, an increase of 40 percent in the last decade. Some of these children are literally traumatized by the stresses they face and yet are expected to learn the same curriculum and pass the same state exams as children from wealthy families. (Teitelbaum, 2013, p. 2)

In fact, a 2015 report by the Children’s Defense Fund (Giannarelli, Lippold, Minton, & Wheaton) shows that our society has not mustered the political will to rightfully be called a caring nation: if the United States authorized an extra 2% of its budget to raise employment, produce viable jobs, and provide for children’s vital needs, it would reduce child poverty by 60%. If such fervent and rational critiques are taken seriously, decent men and women—especially politicians, policymakers, and educators among them—should be ashamed and enraged. Yet the elephant still sits at the classroom door, and it has not moved since Kozol wrote his challenging book. It has actually become more elephantine.

The theme of “schooling can be harmful” is also discussed in other books in this text by Paul Goodman, Herbert Kohl, Jeannie Oakes, Michelle Fine, Lisa Delpit, and Alfie Kohn.

Education Should Be Meaningful

A number of the authors in this volume speak to the quest for meaning through education. The philosopher Nel Noddings (1992) applies moral education to actualize “attitudes and skills required to sustain caring relations and the desire to do so” among students and teachers in The Challenge to Care in Schools: An Alternative Approach to Education (1992). She incorporates concerns for humane pedagogical dispositions, classroom environment, and careful curriculum planning. Teachers should motivate through dialogue, modeling, and “confirmation” (affirming pupils’ distinctive strengths) and ask them overarching questions about themselves and the world around them:

Who am I? What sort of person should I be? What is my place in the universe? How should I treat other human beings?… How shall I make a living? What do I owe nonhuman animals? Are there objects I should cherish? What does it mean to be a parent, friend, or citizen in today’s world? (Noddings, 1992, pp. xxiii–xxiv)

And no one combines critical pedagogy and existential yearning for meaning more exquisitely than Maxine Greene in The Dialectic of Freedom (1988). Her notion of freedom is “the capacity to surpass the given and look at things as if they could be” (p. 3). She does recognize that freedom is not easily won; oppressive cultural and social walls block fuller human ← 5 | 6 → fulfillment in all ages. Yet Greene beseeches teachers to provoke students to the point that they “reach beyond themselves, to wonder, to imagine, to pose their own questions” in an often senseless world (p. 14). Citing, among others, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John-Paul Sartre, and John Dewey throughout her masterful work, she pushes each of us to believe that meaning can be created in our individual lives and in concert with other human beings. With needed persistence, Greene prods us “to break with the ‘cotton wool’ of habit, of mere routine…to seek alternative ways of being, to look for openings…to discover new possibilities” (p. 2).

Other authors of books in this anthology offer diverse perspectives on the creation of meaning in education: Jerome S. Bruner, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Charles E. Silberman, John I. Goodlad, Mortimer J. Adler, Ernest L. Boyer, Theodore R. Sizer, E.D. Hirsch, Jane Roland Martin, Gloria Ladson-Billings, C.A. Bowers, and Yong Zhao.

In closing, it is my profound hope that readers will find either new or renewed ways of viewing schools and society through deep reflection on all these books. They are meant to stir our consciences, to disorder our certainties, and to force us to treat education and culture with both reason and passion. None of our authors or contributors writes from canned scripts or required rubrics. Each does write so that education and its world can still be sustained—and made better—throughout and beyond our current struggles.


Bradbury, R. (1997). The golden apples of the sun. New York: Morrow.

Giannarelli, L., Lippold, K., Minton, S., & Wheaton, L. (2015). Reducing child poverty in the United States: Costs and impacts of policies proposed by the Children’s Defense Fund. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Greene, M. (1988). The dialectic of freedom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Guillory, J. (1993). Cultural capital: The problem of literary canon formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Illich, I. (2000). Deschooling society. London: Marion Boyars. (Original work published 1971).

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Harper Perennial.

Lipman, P. (2007). No child left behind: Globalization, privatization, and the politics of inequality. In E.W. Ross & R. Gibson (Eds.), Neoliberalism and education reform. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Lortie, D.C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left behind: A century of battles over school reform. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York: Vintage.

Ravitch, D. (2014, March 2). Poverty matters. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://www.dianeravitch.net/2014/03/02/poverty

Rousseau, J.J. (1979). Emile: Or on education (A. Bloom, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1762).

Taibbi, M. (2014). The divide: American injustice in the age of the wealth gap. New York: Speigel & Grau.

Teitelbaum, K. (2010, April 10). Poverty, children, and schooling. Wilmington [NC] Star News. Retrieved from http://starnewsonlline.com/articles/20130410/ARTICLES/130419976

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The 1960s

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Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (1960)

Timothy Glander

Jerome Bruner’s classic 1960 text, The Process of Education, pivots on the now well-known aphorism: “…any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”1 Simple, elegant, profound: as a hypothesis it would remain largely untestable empirically. (Just what, exactly, would intellectual honesty mean here?) Nevertheless, as commonsense understanding, or perhaps as wishful thinking, the axiom resonated with readers in the early 1960s who felt the full brunt of the social alienation and intellectual fragmentation of the age and longed to find some structural coherence and unity between the learner and the world.

An early reviewer gushed about Bruner’s book: “There are some rare and wondrous occasions in reading when one has a tremendous sense of the presence of power, the feeling that there is some very special significance in the pages. The book that calls forth such a response is not always a great or near perfect work, but in it something has been said in such a way that for you, some views of the world will never quite be the same.”2 Even the always critical, and usually prescient, Paul Goodman could not subdue his enthusiasm for the book: “In my opinion it will be a classic, comparable for its philosophical centrality and humane concreteness to some of the essays of Dewey.”3 Goodman went on to identify that Bruner’s main goal was “to develop not test-passers and technicians, but discovers and inventors,” and he accurately noted that Bruner did so by laying “stress on heuristic principles, on the encouragement of intuition, on adaptation to the child’s developing world, on the importance of initiative, fantasy, and practical experience of the subject matter.” For Goodman, Bruner’s book embodied the best part of the humanist tradition, and whether he “knew it or not,” Bruner was “breathing the spirit of Mary Boole, (Alfred North) Whitehead, and classical progressive education.”4

Goodman was right. The Process of Education made a compelling argument, yet for all its profound insight, it offered little that was strikingly new or novel in thinking about education. The ← 9 | 10 → book restates questions that have perennially framed educational theory and responds with proposals that are highly reflective of the constellation of progressive educational ideas that we associate with John Dewey from earlier in the twentieth century.5 Like Dewey, Bruner placed primacy on the role of the child as engaged in a meaningful encounter with the world. In so doing, he offered a perspective on teaching and learning that was sharply at odds with the prevailing didactic and conformist style of most American schooling then and now. Written in a highly engaging manner, and cast as an expression of a new cognitive science, the book quickly caught fire for Harvard University Press, selling 83,000 copies in its first edition and launching a major school reform movement, the effects of which still linger with us.6

Strangely, however, Bruner did not reference Dewey and progressive education at all in his text, nor did he express any understanding of how his proposal fit within the context of educational history.7 His approach was largely ahistorical, and the upshot was that he and his collaborators were presenting something new and fresh and potentially revolutionary. While this may have been in part a consequence of Bruner’s ignorance of educational history (a deficit he acknowledged in later years), a more probable explanation is that any demonstrable congruence with Dewey and progressive education would have been a difficult sell from a public relations standpoint.8 The Progressive Education Association had been dissolved by 1955, and in 1961 Lawrence Cremin published his widely read postmortem on progressive education, The Transformation of the School.9 What had been labeled and caricatured as “progressive education,” including John Dewey’s work in particular, came to be viewed in the 1950s as the source for much that was wrong with American education by an increasingly vocal group of mostly right-wing critics. Any direct or indirect association of his ideas to John Dewey would not have been in Bruner’s political or professional interests—nor, for that matter, would it help to advance the larger political agenda of those who funded Bruner’s work. Thus, one way to read The Process of Education is as an advocacy for the continuation of some of the best of Dewey’s progressive educational ideas, but one safely shielded from the image of the bogeyman that Dewey and progressive education had come to possess.10

Yet another way to read the book is as a carefully crafted proposal for further educational research funding from the nexus of military institutions, national security agencies, and corporate foundations dominant during the Cold War. By one count, Bruner makes no fewer than thirty-one appeals to support further specific research questions generated in his text. Again, it is not surprising that, in making his case for further funding, Bruner would distance himself from Dewey, whose social and economic views were regarded as quite radical by 1950s standards. Moreover, Dewey’s democratic ethos was seen as subversive and dangerous to the Cold War ideologues who, through the distribution of research monies, set the social science research agendas of the time.

If the strength of The Process of Education can be found in its unacknowledged fidelity to some of Dewey’s key progressive educational ideas, the book’s shortcomings can be found in its failure to consider and extend other key aspects of Dewey’s educational philosophy. I am referring here primarily to Dewey’s emphasis on the critical examination of educational aims and social purposes, as well as his democratic orientation, which emphasizes the teacher’s creative role in “psychologizing” the curriculum. The top-down approach of Bruner’s book abjures these Deweyan themes and is weaker as a result. This chapter will further consider Bruner’s book and explore some of the reasons for, and some of the consequences of, these omissions. ← 10 | 11 →


The Process of Education was the outgrowth of the now-famous conference at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in September 1959. There gathered, wrote Bruner, “some thirty-five scientists, scholars, and educators to discuss how education in science might be improved in our primary and secondary schools.”11 The participants reflected a largely homogeneous group, as most of them were drawn from large U.S. research universities, and most reflected training in mathematics, the physical sciences, and psychology, although two historians and a classicist also joined the group. Bӓrbel Inhelder, Jean Piaget’s collaborator from the University of Geneva, was the lone woman in the group and represented its only international perspective. Bruner served as chair of the conference and prepared the chairman’s report, which was published as The Process of Education.


X, 422
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
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2016 (April)
Reader General information Education Overview Debate
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 432 pp.

Biographical notes

Joseph L. DeVitis (Volume editor)

Joseph L. DeVitis is a past president of the American Educational Studies Association (AESA), the Council of Learned Societies in Education, and the Society of Professors of Education. Two of his books have received Choice awards from the American Library Association and three have earned AESA Critics’ Choice awards as outstanding books of the year.


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