Popular Educational Classics

A Reader

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

Table Of Content

  • 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.

There should be no doubt, however, that the educational ideas expressed in the text were essentially Bruner’s. While all the participants were encouraged to provide critique and comment on the draft report, Bruner wrote in his preface that he made “no effort…to reach a consensus of the Conference as a whole.”12 Several participants were apparently offended by what they regarded as Bruner’s autocratic approach. “I had thought, incorrectly,” wrote one participant, “that The Process of Education was a report of work done collectively by a group of people thinking collectively…. But now I read Dr. Bruner’s book five years later, I see how much of the pattern was really his own.” Another participant was even more dismayed: “It seems to me that Dr. Bruner ignored the opinions of almost everyone at the conference…. [H]e gave us the ‘back of his hand’ by emasculating what we had worked so hard to draft.”13

Despite these objections to the final narrative, it is clear that the work emerged most distinctively from the Cold War context of the time and that the Woods Hole participants shared deeply held beliefs about the national security value of their work. The participants were responding to what they envisioned “to be a long term crisis in national security,” itself a consequence of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) manpower studies that imagined the United States to be falling behind the Soviet Union in the creation of scientists and engineers with expertise in weapons development. The conference was funded by interconnected foundations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Rand Corporation, the United States Air Force, and others, which were primarily motivated by war-related values.

Many of the conference participants, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist and conference organizer Jerrold Zacharias, had cut their teeth doing such work during World War II and had made their professional careers engaged in highly classified research for the national security apparatus during the Cold War. What emerged from the Woods Hole Conference, argues historian Ronald W. Evans, “was a manufactured consensus, paid for by stakeholders with an interest in education conducted on behalf of national security. It was a direct outgrowth of the cold war, and of persistent attacks on progressive education. As such, it represented the United States of America, or at least a significant selection of its national intellectual leadership, in concerted action against progressive education.”14

The Process of Education should also be seen as an early iteration of the enduring national obsession with the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. It represented a manifestation of “Big Science,” a model for scientific inquiry that grew out of large-scale, war-related projects developed during World War II.15 And it advanced an ← 11 | 12 → ideological orientation to science that emphasized an accumulative and centralizing view of knowledge in the hands of experts, driven by the values of efficiency and control. The military culture in which the work was embedded was decidedly undemocratic, and the abounding Cold War fears and surveillance forced constraint and conformity on the activity of science that, by its very nature, requires openness and independence.

Social and educational research during this period was treated with suspicion, seen as “unscientific,” or both. Many social and educational researchers attempted to ape the approach of the dominant physical sciences in an effort to secure funding from the interlocking national security agencies and corporate foundations.16 By mid-century most social and educational research had gravitated toward a narrow scientism that relied on quantitative analysis and rejected normative, interpretive, and critical perspectives. Had Bruner’s book simply echoed this prevalent scientism, it would have drawn little attention, would have done little to solidify and advance the enduring national mantra for the STEM disciplines, and would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, bolstered by the cadre of physicists and mathematicians who participated in the conference, whose scientific stature tacitly legitimated the conference proceedings and whose Cold War credentials provided appropriate cover, Bruner was free to craft a provocative narrative that engaged the imagination of the general reader even as it stayed within the undemocratic boundaries of the Cold War culture.

It is important to note here that Bruner mastered this kind of sleight of hand through his own war-related work before, during, and after World War II. Bruner was—to use the most accurate descriptor—a propagandist. He was among those social scientists in the first half of the twentieth century whose scholarly interests in understanding opinion management dovetailed with the interests of a corporate-military state seeking to fund and apply such understanding to shaping the opinions of an emerging mass society.17 Even before the outbreak of World War II, Bruner was involved in propaganda-related work, writing his dissertation at Harvard on “A Psychological Analysis of International Radio Broadcasts of Belligerent Nations” and working at state-sponsored foreign-broadcast monitoring services, first at Princeton in 1940 and then in Washington, D.C., in 1941.18 By 1942 Bruner had shifted his attention to a study of domestic opinions through the Office of Facts and Figures, the organizational precursor to the Office of War Information. Working for the U.S. wartime propaganda agency, he wrote his first book, The Mandate from the People, on domestic wartime public opinion.19 From there he continued to engage in propaganda-related work for the Psychological Warfare Division of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (PWD-SHAEF) in England and France during the war. In the postwar period Bruner remained a highly sought-after expert on propaganda matters, participating in such programs of Cold War opinion management as the highly classified Project Troy study and the CIA’s Center for International Studies (CENIS) at MIT, among other related activities in the 1950s.20 While the full story of Bruner’s propaganda work with these and other agencies has yet to be told, it is clear that such work occupied much of his focus throughout at least the 1940s and 1950s; and this experience would have—at the very least—shaped his thinking about the need for opinion management as a necessary ingredient of educational policy formation and implementation. As he sat down with the Woods Hole Conference notes to write his first book on educational theory, crafting a message that would positively resonate with key segments of American public opinion would have likely been foremost on his mind. ← 12 | 13 →


And what a carefully crafted and marvelous message The Process of Education would turn out to be. Only 92 pages in length, Bruner’s book consists of an introduction and five thematic chapters, reflecting many Deweyan progressive educational ideas, while still subtly advancing Cold War educational aims: The Importance of Structure, Readiness for Learning, Intuitive and Analytic Thinking, Motives for Learning, and Aids to Teaching. In “Chapter 1 – Introduction” and “Chapter 2 – The Importance of Structure,” Bruner insightfully explores the important role of understanding the underlying structure and fundamental principles of disciplinary knowledge. All subject matter possesses a coherent and identifiable structure, according to Bruner. This structure can, and should, make up the centerpiece of the curriculum and the primary focus of instruction. The teaching of specific skills and topics should be regarded as secondary and subordinate to the teaching of this underlying structure. Such an understanding of underlying structure makes it easier for students to relate what is learned to other learning experiences. “Grasping the structure of a subject is understanding it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully,” according to Bruner. “To learn structure, in short, is to learn how things are related.”21 Without such an understanding, Bruner argues, knowledge is inefficient to convey and difficult to remember. Finally, and most importantly, understanding the inherent structure of a discipline makes the learning meaningful, generates intellectual excitement, and compels further learning. In a passage that sounds almost as if it were lifted directly from John Dewey, Bruner writes: “The best way to create interest in a subject is to render it worth knowing, which means to make the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which the learning has occurred.”22

In “Chapter 3 – Readiness for Learning,” Bruner considers this inherent structure in relation to the Piagetian stages of cognitive development. He argues for the readiness of elementary school-aged children to access this structural knowledge in ways that are in keeping with their developmental stage, and makes the case for the now-famous “spiral curriculum.” His primary focus is on learning in the so-called concrete operations stage, roughly the beginning school-age years of about five or six, until the child passes into the formal operations stage between ten and fourteen years of age. Bruner suggests that giving children access to structural knowledge during the concrete operations stage will facilitate future learning and make it occur more efficiently and more deeply during later stages of cognitive development. He contends that during the concrete operations stage children are able to use symbolic representations of reality in the service of solving problems, and they are able to understand structural relationships provided that they are exposed to them in ways that are commensurate with their way of seeing the world. Again sounding much like Dewey, Bruner writes: “What is most important for teaching basic concepts is that the child be helped to pass progressively from concrete thinking to the utilization of more conceptually adequate modes of thought. But it is futile to attempt this by presenting formal explanations based on a logic that is distant from the child’s manner of thinking and sterile in its implications for him. Much teaching in mathematics is of this sort. The child learns not to understand mathematical order, but rather to apply certain devices, or recipes, without understanding their significance and connectedness. They are not translated into his way of thinking.”23 When learning is presented in such a sterile and distant way, teachers tend to compel learning through either extrinsic rewards or punishments. Both miss the ← 13 | 14 → point for Bruner, as they did for Dewey, and they do not provide the conditions conducive to further independent learning. Rather, the intrinsic rewards of “interest and curiosity and the lure of discovery” must be summoned through an ongoing engagement of the child with an authentic and meaningful problem. “One of the least discussed ways of carrying a student through a hard unit of material is to challenge him with a chance to exercise his full powers, so that he may discover the pleasure of full and effective functioning,” writes Bruner. “Good teachers know the power of this lure. Students should know what it feels like to be completely absorbed in a problem. They seldom experience this feeling in school.”24

In “Chapter 4 – Intuitive and Analytical Thinking,” Bruner makes perhaps his most original and timely contribution. When our schools emphasize intellectual achievement, it is typically analytical thinking, which is prized and rewarded. This is understandable, according to Bruner, because the use of analytical approaches leads to much success in problem solving. Moreover, the successful application of an algorithm can be evaluated directly and, more or less, easily. Nevertheless, the primary emphasis on analytical thinking has led to a formalism that devalues intuitive thinking, which, Bruner argues, is a necessary component of all serious inquiry in the various disciplines. Mathematicians, physicists, and biologists have especially recognized the centrality of intuitive thinking to their work, seeing it variously as the ability to make good guesses or of having the capacity to suddenly and inexplicably reach a solution to a perplexing problem. Analytical and intuitive thinking must be seen as complementary, and our schools should value both and provide experiences that encourage the development of both.

Bruner admits to not being exactly sure what constitutes intuitive thinking. And he makes multiple calls for further research into identifying the nature of intuitive thinking as well as research into determining the necessary conditions for its growth and maintenance. He holds, however, that having an understanding of structural knowledge provides fertile ground for productive intuitive thinking, enabling students to draw connections among phenomena previously thought to be unrelated. Students must also be encouraged to develop a strong self-confidence, warranted by their structural knowledge, in order to approach their intuitive inquiry with confidence. For Bruner, however, there is also the sense of the primacy of intuitive experience, that it must somehow be cultivated as an antecedent to, and in anticipation of, further curricular learning. Echoing Dewey’s synthesis of child-centered perspective and curriculum-centered perspective, Bruner concludes that “it may be of first importance to establish an intuitive understanding of materials before we expose our students to more traditional and formal methods of deduction and proof.”25

In “Chapter 5 – Motives for Learning,” Bruner considers with great sensitivity some of the psychological and social circumstances that compel and thwart intrinsic rewards for learning, and provides some suggestions on ways to soften the impact of the competitiveness associated with our meritocracy. In the final chapter, “Aids to Teaching,” he offers some tentative thoughts on how these observations might assist classroom teachers. Here he makes some broad-stroke policy recommendations as well about the teaching profession, some of which are fairly well worn (e.g., raising the status of the teaching profession, better teacher recruitment and training, etc.). But some of his recommendations (for instance, those having to do with the teacher as a “communicator, model and identification figure”) are quite rich and remain worthy of further consideration today. The teacher is generally cast in a positive light throughout the text, although it is clear that, for Bruner, the teacher is to play only a minor role in determining what to teach. Curriculum is best left in the hands of the subject-matter experts, and the ← 14 | 15 → teacher’s job is largely to translate expert knowledge into developmentally appropriate learning experiences.

Throughout the text Bruner repeatedly attempts to qualify statements and perspectives about which he might reasonably anticipate sharp disagreement. Despite his primary focus on the physical sciences and mathematics, he bends over backward to be inclusive of the humanities—sometimes to the point of silliness. His insistence on the application of his structural orientation to understanding the humanities evinces little understanding of these disciplines, as, for instance, when he argues that “if a student is led further to understand that there are a relatively limited number of human plights about which novels are written, he understands literature the better for it.”26

Bruner nevertheless recognizes that the national obsession with the STEM disciplines has the potential to marginalize teaching and learning in the humanities, an observation that seems oddly prescient given our circumstances today: “We can ill afford an alienated group of literacy intellectuals who feel that advances in science, which they may fail to understand out of a sense of being shunned by the system of rewards for technical and scientific achievement, betoken the destruction of traditional culture. It is certainly plain that at the very least there will have to be energy devoted to improving curricula and teaching in the humanities and social sciences comparable to what is now being devoted to science and mathematics.”27 Despite being surrounded by colleagues at the Woods Hole Conference who were enthusiastic about new teaching technologies—including some colleagues who would likely stand to profit from their widespread adoption—Bruner struck a contrarian position. He offered a pointed rebuff to those technophiles who believed machines should simply replace teachers, and he worried instead about the passivity and intellectual lethargy these new media seem to engender in students as it turned them into spectators. Again, more research on this and related topics is needed, he assured the reader. His narrative throughout the text is marked by a degree of equanimity that would be disarming to anyone who might be predisposed to a critical perspective on the dominant Cold War aims of American education at that time.


The publication of The Process of Education made Bruner a star. It was quickly translated into nineteen languages and distributed widely over areas of American influence. By 1961 Bruner was invited to join the Education Panel of President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee and participated with others in making recommendations on the direction of American educational policy.28 The popularity of Bruner’s book implicitly demonstrated the enduring value, efficacy, and viability of some key Deweyan progressive educational ideas. Indeed, one might say that it was precisely in repackaging these ideas that Bruner was able to tap into a deeply and widely held belief among American educators (if not also among the general population) in the importance of attending first and foremost to the child as meaningfully engaged with the world. In the Cold War battle for the hearts and minds of people at home and abroad, this was a key belief to underscore.

And yet The Process of Education carefully avoided attending to some other central Deweyan progressive ideas, potentially more transformative, having to do with the empowerment of teachers and the democratization of educational and social goals. Dewey explicitly rejected the view of the teacher as someone who simply translated and reduced expert knowledge to ← 15 | 16 → the child’s developmental level. Instead he argued for a view that distinguished the teacher’s knowledge of the subject matter from that of the subject-matter expert, and he elevated this teacher knowledge to a much more profound and intellectually demanding and complex level. For Dewey, in “psychologizing the curriculum,” the teacher “is concerned with the subject-matter of the science as representing a given stage and phase of the development of experience. His problem is that of inducing a vital and personal experiencing. Hence, what concerns him, as a teacher, is the ways in which that subject may become part of experience: what there is in the child’s present that is usable with reference to it; how such elements are to be used; how his own knowledge of the subject-matter may assist in interpreting the child’s needs and doings and determine the medium in which the child should be placed in order that his growth may be properly directed. He is concerned, not with the subject matter as such, but with the subject matter as a related factor in a total and growing experience.”29

Unlike Bruner, who was content to see the teacher as a mere conduit for the expert knowledge developed far away from the classroom, Dewey placed the onus on the teacher to continuously create and recreate curricula and method in responding to the needs of the learning child. In our own time, as we witness the further marginalization and disempowerment of teachers, it is important to remember what has been lost as Bruner’s view of the teacher came to overshadow and replace Dewey’s.

Perhaps even more troublesome is Bruner’s complete abandonment of Dewey’s emphasis on the need to continuously refine and articulate the social purposes for schooling. For Dewey, schools represented the primary means by which a democratic “society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction it wishes to move.”30 For Dewey, the foundational questions about the purpose of education can never be separated from the practical questions of educational process, pedagogical method, or curricular content. Bruner, however, was either oblivious to, or silent on, this critical Deweyan point. So while in the book’s opening paragraph Bruner acknowledges an increasing tendency among Americans to engage the question of “What shall we teach and to what end?” his analysis avoids posing this question seriously. He defers instead to the undemocratic educational aims of the Cold War interests for which he worked: the efficient preparation of scientists and engineers for a nation at war and that would presumably remain at war for many years to come.

Today we have done little to modify this shallow purpose for schooling. We continue to orient our educational institutions around an obsessive focus on the STEM disciplines and to otherwise provide narrow forms of standardized vocational training. This has had a destructive impact on our culture and has damaged our ability to act as a democratic society.31 Again, we would do well to look past Bruner to Dewey in order to recover more humane, democratic, and hopeful educational purposes.

As a major cultural artifact of the Cold War, The Process of Education provides important clues to understanding the educational and social worlds we have inherited. Written at a time of increased awareness of the need to manage public opinion as a means of policy implementation, the book appropriated some effective and widely supported Deweyan progressive educational ideas and carried them into the second half of the twentieth century. In doing so, Bruner helped to keep part of the progressive educational tradition alive during a time of its significant retrenchment. On the other hand, Bruner’s book may also have helped to further entrench some of the undemocratic educational practices and policies of the Cold War with ← 16 | 17 → which we remain saddled. For this primary reason the book, and the cultural context from which it came, deserves our continued careful and critical study.


1 Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (1960; repr, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 33.

2 Frank G. Jennings, “A Friend of the Learning Child,” Saturday Review, October 16, 1960, 94.

3 Paul Goodman, “Enlightened Teaching for the Young,” The New York Herald Tribune, December 23, 1960, 28.

4 Ibid.

5 See especially John Dewey’s 1902 essay “The Child and the Curriculum,” in The Essential Dewey, Volume 1: Pragmatism, Education and Democracy, ed. Larry A. Hickman and Thomas Alexander (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998). Others have also recognized the parallels between Dewey’s ideas and The Process of Education. See, for instance, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, The School Book: For People Who Want to Know What All the Hollering Is About (New York: Delacorte Press, 1973) and, more recently, David Olson, Jerome Bruner: The Cognitive Revolution in Educational Theory (New York: Continuum, 2007).

6 Elizabeth Knoll, “The Process of Education, 1960,” Harvard University Press Blog, March 4, 2013. http://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2013/03/the-process-of-education-jerome-bruner-1960.html#more (accessed August 18, 2015).

7 Bruner did acknowledge in the book’s preface that “many of the ideas that emerged at the Conference and after have long and honorable lineages in the history of educational thought.” Nevertheless, Bruner does not provide any citations or references that would recognize and acknowledge these lineages. See Bruner, The Process of Education, xxv.

8 Jerome Bruner, In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 178.

9 Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961).

10 A year after the publication of The Process of Education, one finds Bruner actually repeating some of the negative caricatures of Dewey and Progressive Education in the essay “After John Dewey, What?,” which appeared in Saturday Review (Suppl., June 17, 1961) and was republished in his On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962).

11 Bruner, The Process of Education, xvii.

12 Ibid., xxii.

13 As quoted in John L. Rudolph, “From World War to Woods Hole: The Use of Wartime Research Models for Curriculum Reform,” Teachers College Record 104, no. 2 (March 2002): 232.

14 Ronald W. Evans, The Hope for American School Reform: The Cold War Pursuit of Inquiry Learning in Social Studies (New York: Palgrave, 2011), 73.

15 For an insightful analysis of this model, see John L. Rudolph, Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science (New York: Palgrave, 2002).

16 For a helpful discussion of the manifestation of this scientism, see Mark Solovey’s Shaky Foundations: The Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus in Cold War America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013).

17 For an analysis of the term “propaganda,” as well as the confluence of these interests at mid-century, see Timothy Glander, Origins of Mass Communications Research During the American Cold War: Educational Effects and Contemporary Implications (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000).

18 Bruner recounts some of this experience in his 1983 autobiography, In Search of Mind, 38–39.

19 Jerome S. Bruner, Mandate from the People (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1944).

20 For an analysis of Project Troy, see Allan A. Needle, “Project Troy and the Cold War Annexation of the Social Sciences,” in Universities and Empire: Money and Politics in the Social Sciences During the Cold War, ed. Christopher Simpson (New York: The New Press, 1998), 3–38. For an analysis of CENIS, see Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research & Psychological Warfare, 1945–1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

21 Bruner, The Process of Education, 7.

22 Ibid., 31.

23 Ibid., 38–39. One might compare Bruner’s position here to Dewey’s in his 1902 essay “The Child and the Curriculum”: “There is a sense in which it is impossible to value too highly the formal and symbolic. The genuine form, the real symbol, serve as methods in the holding and discovery of truth. They are tools by which the individual pushes out most surely and widely into unexplored areas. They are means by which he brings to bear whatever of reality he has succeeded in gaining in past searchings. But this happens only when the symbol really symbolizes—when it stands for and sums up in shorthand actual experiences which the individual has already gone through. A symbol which is induced from without, which has not been led up to in preliminary activities, is, as we say, a bare or mere symbol; it is dead and barren. Now, any fact, whether of arithmetic, or geography, or grammar, which is not led up to and into out of something which has previously occupied a significant position in the child’s life for its own sake, is forced into this position. It is not a reality, but just the sign of a reality which might be experienced if certain conditions were fulfilled. But the abrupt presentation of the fact as something known by others, and requiring only to be studied and learned by the child, rules out such conditions of fulfillment. It condemns the fact to be a hieroglyph: it would mean something if one only had the key. The clue being lacking, it remains an idle curiosity, to fret and obstruct the mind, a dead weight to burden it.” From: The Essential Dewey, Volume 1: Pragmatism, Education and Democracy, 243. ← 17 | 18 →

24 Bruner, The Process of Education, 50.

25 Ibid., 59.

26 Ibid., 24.

27 Ibid., 79.

28 Bruner recalls the book’s reception and the changes it brought to his life in his In Search of Mind, 184–187.

29 John Dewey, “The Child and the Curriculum,” in The Essential Dewey, Volume 1: Pragmatism, Education and Democracy, 242–243.

30 John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed,” in The Essential Dewey, Volume 1: Pragmatism, Education and Democracy, 234. Originally published in 1897.

31 For an excellent elaboration of this point, see Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

← 18 | 19 →



Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces That Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools (1962)

Gary K. Clabaugh


Here, in brief, is why Education and the Cult of Efficiency is a classic: it remains embedded in memory long after it has been read; it can be reread with a sense of discovery; it explains the present by describing the past; and it adds a vital perspective to public schooling’s historic narrative.1

Focus on Efficiency

Broadly speaking, today’s school reformers misuse and overemphasize high-stakes testing, are preoccupied with narrow vocational objectives, proceed as if privatization is necessarily superior, bully teachers instead of eliciting their cooperation, and fault public education for the inevitable academic consequences of festering social and economic injustices. Many wonder how such a misbegotten agenda ever became so dominant.2 Callahan describes its beginnings.

Education and the Cult of Efficiency focuses on that critical period (1900–1930) when the general social and economic climate pushed public schooling into a long-lasting embrace of what Callahan labels “the cult of efficiency.”

Until Congress sharply restricted immigration in the mid-1920s, an unprecedented flood of foreigners poured into the United States. Combined with the simultaneous mass movement of millions from farm to city, this influx ballooned urban school enrollment and created unprecedented funding challenges. Between 1906 and 1917, for example, the School District of Philadelphia was forced to build 44 new elementary and 6 new high schools.3 That’s 50 new schools in just 11 years. ← 19 | 20 →

Temple, Town Meeting, and Factory

What people wanted from these schools varied from person to person. But we can make sense of their expectations if we recast complex priorities in terms of three ideal types. Every school incorporates all three of these types to a greater or lesser degree, although one is typically dominant.

The most time-honored ideal type is the school as temple. Its origin can be traced back some 6,000 years to the very first schools. Here the focus is on tradition, values, and proper behavior. The United States Military Academy at West Point is an excellent example of a temple-dominant school.

The school as temple contrasts sharply with the ideal type—the town meeting. Here the focus is on accommodating individual differences through civility, bargaining, and compromise. Quaker (Society of Friends) schools typically exemplify town meeting–dominant education.

The most modern ideal type originated in the 1900–1930 time period that Callahan describes. It is the school as factory. Here the dominant concern is efficiency and productivity. This focus was the consequence of the explosive growth of urban school populations just described, along with prevailing inflation at the time. This combination generated intense funding pressure—so intense, in fact, that school administrators could hardly avoid industrial-style management. Efficiency—defined as low per-pupil cost—became their top priority, and the school as factory was born.4

Largely absent from these factory-dominant schools were concerns about tradition, pride of work, personal happiness, life fulfillment, depth of character, abiding values, group membership, and “proper” behavior—all manifestations of the now largely ignored school as temple.

Similarly absent was a focus on democratic decision-making, individual differences, concern for others, civility, and willingness to compromise, all key elements of the school as town meeting and of a functioning democracy.

The first public schools, usually one-room affairs, were a combination of temple and town meeting. But with the explosive growth of urban public schooling, these priorities were largely left to elite private schools. Ordinary people’s children now ended up in factory-dominant schools.5

Despite some waxing and waning, the school as factory remained dominant throughout the twentieth century. And today’s reformers are insuring its continued dominance thus far this century. Like their early twentieth-century predecessors, for instance, they still proceed with a top-down style of management that imperiously disregards teacher knowledge and experience. And they waste educators’ irreplaceable time and energy on over-emphasized (and badly misused) high-stakes, quality-control testing that foolishly applies a single proficiency standard to all and sundry.

As a matter of fact, taken together, their contemporary school as factory “reforms” exceed anything that the early twentieth-century cult of efficiency evangelists imagined. They impose things like vouchers; the contracting out of ancillary and auxiliary school services; privatized school district management; and privately operated, publicly financed charter schools— including for-profit corporate chains. Worse, they offer big bags of federal money to states and/or school districts that join in this celebration of the school as factory with greatest—often bogus—enthusiasm. ← 20 | 21 →

The New Breed

In the Callahan era, business-style school management fit the spirit of the time. President Coolidge famously captured that spirit with this statement: “The chief business of the American people is business.”6 Callahan emphasizes that the public school’s unique organization, support, and voter control made it especially susceptible to this zeitgeist. Meanwhile, however, elite private schooling scoffed at industrialization.

In this era, “experts” began preaching the virtues of “scientific” business methods and practices. They sermonized that modern schools should be run like the most up-to-date industrial corporations, using cost accounting and cost management as their guides.7 They promised that running the schools like a business would, by improving efficiency, solve the public school funding crises.

Most of these scientific management experts were professors who, in addition to advising industry, wrote influential school administration texts, acted as consultants to major city school systems, and trained industrial-style school administrators in newly minted departments of educational administration.8

Business-oriented school boards, elected by cost-conscious voters, eagerly hired these new industrial-style managers. The expectation was that they would put the school district in the black by focusing on per-pupil costs. Callahan explains that if budget restrictions meant, say, offering only one foreign language, these business-trained managers were expected to choose the cheapest per-pupil option.

Callahan unambiguously disapproves of business methods and industrial values for school management. He charges that it debases schooling, and he offers plentiful evidence that these allegedly superior management methods were often based on scientifically primitive studies of heavy industry—the production of pig iron being one example.

Callahan charges that this new breed of “scientific” managers was uneducated and unscholarly. No liberal arts were included in their training, and they were rarely required to study things like educational philosophy, teaching methodology, or child development. Hence, says Callahan, school leaders trained in this manner were not equipped to ask the basic questions in education. Moreover, they had no real understanding of what being educated actually meant. Worse still, they no longer identified with educators, but with business executives.9

Callahan notes further that America’s habitual anti-intellectualism legitimized their ignorance. Their supposedly pragmatic style of leadership often appealed to the businessmen who increasingly dominated local boards of education. But this contempt for mere book learning badly damaged public education.10

A Nation at Risk and the Muckrakers

The present wave of school reform was touched off by the Reagan administration’s release of A Nation at Risk. This jeremiad set off a deluge of criticism that has yet to abate. It is now more or less taken for granted by the media that our public schools are substandard and that something must be done.

During the cult-of-efficiency era, something similar happened. The early 1900s saw the rise of investigative journalists and novelists who came to be called muckrakers. Their detailing ← 21 | 22 → of business abuses and government corruption proved both popular and profitable. Soon a formidable cluster of popular journals such as McClure’s, Colliers, and The Saturday Evening Post were shocking the public with lurid revelations.

It wasn’t long before public schooling was added to the muckrakers’ target list. Just as with A Nation at Risk, alarmed readers were repeatedly told that their public schools were horribly managed and that reform was urgently needed. And the remedy that the muckrakers most often recommended was “scientific management.”11

The “Cult of Efficiency”

Callahan details how business values, muckraking journalism, public cost concerns, and the “scientific” management movement combined to form what he calls the “cult of efficiency.” And he explains that public schooling’s susceptibility to pressure, fads, and fancies meant that this cult spread like metastasizing cancer.

One of the more interesting features of Callahan’s book is his detailed description of the cult’s major evangelists. John Franklin Bobbitt, a University of Chicago professor, for instance, was one of the new faith’s most prominent “preachers.” Bobbitt’s lectures and publications brashly reduced public education to industrial proportions, transformed schools into factories, and urged American educators to make efficiency their master. Callahan documents the extremity of Bobbitt’s pro-business bias with numerous quotes and examples, and he demonstrates how Bobbitt’s recommendations were based on his background as an advisor to heavy industry.

In an era without much job security, only a few educators had the gumption to openly reject this new vision. One was Thomas J. McCormick, a high school principal from La Salle, Illinois. He informed the Bobbitt-embracing National Education Association’s Department of Secondary Education that the word “practical” required a much deeper meaning than was being ascribed to it by the scientific management crowd. Then he informed these NEA officials12 that in their “inordinate zeal to ‘practicalize’ and popularize education,” they were forgetting that its purpose was “to make men and women as well as engineers and ‘rope-stretchers.’”13

“Scientific Management,” or the Taylor Method

“Scientific management” played such a key role in the cult of efficiency that Callahan devotes an entire chapter to it. He describes how it first captured national attention in 1910 when the method played a pivotal role in an Interstate Commerce Commission hearing on railroad freight rates. A number of witnesses testified that if the railroads would only adopt scientific management, they could increase wages and still lower costs. One “expert” even testified that scientific management could revolutionize the whole of industry to the same degree, as had the introduction of machinery.

These ICC hearings vaulted scientific management, along with its chief architect, mechanical engineer Frederick W. Taylor, from obscurity to national prominence.14 Taylor was certain that there was one best way to do any job, and scientific investigation could reveal what that was. Apply it, he promised, and costs will fall as productivity soars.

Taylor assured all and sundry that his method could cancel out “the innate laziness of men,” save money, and dramatically improve production.15 The workers’ role was simply to do ← 22 | 23 → exactly as they were told because, according to Taylor, they were incapable of understanding the scientific basis of the procedure.16 Should they refuse to cooperate fully, they should be sacked.17

Taylor’s ideas were soon applied to public schools. Callahan writes: “His ideas were adopted, interpreted and applied chiefly by administrators: and while the greatest impact was upon administration, the administrator, and the professional training programs of administration, the influence extended to all of American education from the elementary schools to the universities.”18

In case the reader is unfamiliar with the contemporary rebirth of Taylor’s system, here is the website teacherbiz’s description of what is going on right now in Camden, New Jersey’s, public schools: “Professional educators with decades of experience are being provided with canned, scripted curricular units that even go so far as to tell teachers what to say and what to write on the board [emphasis in original] in virtually every lesson; these units must be followed to the day, without diversions to accommodate for struggling students, etc.19 Numerous traditional public schools, charter schools, and charter school chains (for example, KIPP, the largest corporate charter school chain in the United States) generally follow such a procedure.20

To any skilled teacher this system is plainly ridiculous. He or she has spent a professional lifetime learning how to properly adjust instruction. But some contemporary reformers, school administrators, and school corporate heads seem to think that scripted lessons are the latest thing.

Scripted lessons do have the “advantage” of encouraging experienced, more expensive, and independent-minded teachers to quit—or, as was the case in New Orleans, simply be fired as charter schools took over. Then underqualified but less expensive and more compliant replacements can be recruited from “alternative” sources, such as Teach for America.21

“Scientific management” was supposedly based on precise measurement—typically, time and motion studies. School managers were to use the resultant data to tell teachers precisely what to do, when to do it, and how long it must take. And underlying this lockstep approach was one of Taylor’s key assumptions: “Most of us remain, through the great part of our lives, in this respect, grown-up children, and do our best only under pressure of a task of comparatively short duration.”22 The goal was to get the absolute most out of the teacher/workers without, as Taylor solicitously puts it, “injuring their health.”23

Taylor also recommended paying efficient workers bonuses. He said his experiments disclosed that people would not work at a higher rate of speed unless they were paid more and assured that the pay increase was permanent.24 Teachers seldom benefitted from this aspect of Taylor’s system.

Other Evangelists

Frank Spaulding, chairman of the newly formed Department of Education at Yale University, was another leading light in the “scientific” management of schools. It was Spaulding, Callahan explains, who introduced “costs per pupils,” “investment per pupil,” and references to students as “products” of the “school plant.”25 Spaulding stated flatly that what is to be taught must ultimately be determined not on educational, but financial grounds.26

While Spaulding’s influence was growing, other advocates of “scientific” management also came to prominence. One was Franklin Bobbitt, as mentioned above. Callahan recounts that ← 23 | 24 → Bobbitt regarded teachers as mere “workers” (“more mechanics than philosophers,” as Bobbitt disdainfully put it). He also asserted that they require a top-down style of management and detailed instruction in the methods to be employed. Regarding overall goals, Bobbitt recommended that a clear-cut set of exact standards be supplied by the business and industrial world—as a public service.27

One might think that Spaulding, Bobbitt, and company outdid all contemporary reformers in transforming public schools into factories. But neither they nor any other early twentieth- century reformers ever advocated anything like replacing traditional schools with privately managed, publicly financed charter schools—many of them operated by for-profit corporate chains.

High-Stakes Tests and Teacher Ratings

Like today’s reformers, cult-of-efficiency advocates depended heavily on high-stakes tests. And Callahan reports that many educators thought this unwise, though most voiced no opposition—perhaps because their jobs were at stake. Once in a while, though, one would speak out. Here is what William E. Maxwell, the school superintendent of New York City, had to say:

When I read that…after shedding lakes of ink and using up untold reams of paper and consuming the time of un-numbered teachers in administering and scoring the Courtis standard tests in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, the learned director reached the conclusion that “29% of the pupils in the eighth grade could exchange places with a like number of students in the fourth grade,” I am inclined to exclaim: “My dear sir, what do you expect? That all the children in a grade would show equal ability in adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing? Any teacher of experience could have told you that they would not. You should have known it yourself. One flash of Horace Mann’s insight would be worth a thousand miles of your statistics.”28

Current efforts to reform public schooling also are dependent on high-stakes testing.29 Outcomes are widely disseminated to pressure educators…and it works. A suburban Philadelphia newspaper, for example, features the following headline: “Board Addresses Decrease in Test Scores.” And the first line of the story reads: “A number of lower scores on standardized tests left officials in the Wissahickon School District with a lot of explaining to do.”30

This kind of press is a key reason why more and more educators give short shrift to everything that isn’t tested. They are so intimidated that they just teach to the test. Others, finding it impossible to legitimately raise scores to the demanded level, resort to cheating. But despite these difficulties, it is a rare school administrator who has the guts to question this priority.

Teacher Accountability

Early twentieth-century reformers also set out to hold teachers accountable. In 1913 the American School Board Journal reported that urban administrators were “almost without exception” working out “elaborate plans for rating the work of instructors.”31 Sometimes these evaluations included all school personnel, even the janitor.32

One particularly disturbing element of some rating schemes was crediting the teacher with the percentage of children promoted. Higher promotion rates resulted in substantial dollar ← 24 | 25 → savings.33 This encouraged teachers to pass students regardless. Cost accounting, notes Callahan, superseded instruction.

Callahan also reports that the difficulty of including relevant social, economic, and educational factors in the ratings caused many teachers to ultimately be assessed on general impressions.34 And it seems unlikely that those developing these ratings considered that classrooms were often vastly overcrowded, and that underpaid and overworked teachers were not only expected to successfully instruct, but to comfort the afflicted; inspire the defeated; rein in bullies; correct disruptive behavior; observe the children for signs of abuse and/or neglect; instill a love of learning, patriotism, good citizenship, sportsmanship, and fair play; check heads for lice; teach students manners; cope with kids (and parents) who spoke little or no English; and do all of this with nothing more than some chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, and a few books.35

The Timid, Docile Teacher

Callahan reports that many administrators doubted they could rate teachers fairly. But most rated them anyway. He attributes this to self-defense.36 Teachers also regarded these ratings as odious and unfair. Yet they meekly, if resentfully, accepted them. Callahan remarks that “the teacher had been, and was expected to be, timid.”37

He attributes this timidity to teacher powerlessness and vulnerability. Most worked without tenure and could easily be fired.38 He adds, however, that the teachers of this era generally were timid, unassertive individuals to begin with. In fact, he quotes John Dewey on this: “In the main the most docile of the young are the ones who become teachers when they are adults. Consequently they still listen docilely to the voice of authority.”39

Both Callahan and Dewey fail to recognize that this docility might have been largely attributable to the fact that the teaching force was overwhelmingly female in a male-dominated world.40

School Quality Surveys

“Scientific management” also featured school-quality surveys similar in intent to the ratings required by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. The “experts” conducting these surveys typically were professors from the newly established and rapidly expanding university-based programs in educational administration. Focusing on price and product and uncritically embracing business-style management, they provoked prestigious opposition.

John Dewey, for instance, strongly opposed the application of business procedures and industrial values to schooling. He recognized the power and place of genuine science in education, but he repeatedly criticized as oversimplified and unscientific the supposedly “scientific” management then being conducted.41

Dewey wryly observed that most of the “scientific” initiatives in the works at that time were really the same old education masquerading as science. He also stated that while testing can be valuable, it was being put to exactly the wrong purposes. Instead of being used to gain a better understanding of children, it was being misused to classify and standardize them.42 Dewey’s concerns, along with those of other prestigious critics, were largely ignored. ← 25 | 26 →

The Platoon School

Callahan also describes the birth, growth, and incomplete decline of the platoon school. It was, in essence, a pedagogical assembly line, splitting students into platoons that moved from one specialist teacher to another according to a rigid schedule. One platoon might be studying arithmetic with that specialist teacher; another might be working on art or physical education with these specialist teachers; still another might be completing a science assignment in the back of an English classroom while a basic grammar lesson was going on.

The core idea was to make maximum use of the “school plant” and its facilities. Even six-year-olds had six or seven teachers a day—sometimes more. In this system dollar values largely replaced educational values in decision making. Callahan describes, for instance, how the retention of children in a grade was balanced by making an equal number of double promotions. But the essential problem with it was, and is, that students are human beings, not industrial products.

The platoon school is still around. Secondary schools with their tight schedules, specialist teachers, and lockstep schedules are direct descendants. But until it began to fall out of favor around 1930, the platoon system also was widely used in elementary schools.43

Climate of the Times in Which the Work Was Written

Callahan began working on this book in 1957. The Cold War was intense. The Soviet Union had just launched the first-ever human-made satellite. This kindled broad fears that the United States had fallen behind the Soviets in both science and education. Congress subsequently approved, and President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, the most comprehensive education legislation in the nation’s history. It increased federal spending on education fivefold.44

While Callahan continued his research and writing, ever-increasing numbers of U.S. advisors were being sent to South Vietnam. African Americans conducted a historic sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Berlin Wall was erected. The Soviet Union launched the first man into space. A U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba failed. And the Food and Drug Administration approved “the Pill.”

In 1962—the year Callahan’s work was actually published—the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of mutual annihilation. U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew ever more intense. James Meredith, an African American, was admitted to the racially segregated University of Mississippi (but only because he was protected by a court order and truckloads of steel-helmeted U.S. Marshals). And Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring warned of an impending worldwide environmental catastrophe.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Callahan’s Book

Callahan details a historic period in which three major developments were occurring simultaneously: industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. The interplay among these forces makes any causal analysis complex. Fortunately, Callahan’s specific concern—the ← 26 | 27 → transformation of public schooling to an essentially industrial model—is relatively limited in scope, as are his causal claims. Anything more ambitious would have required multiple volumes. So he gets a “pass” on this one.

The most salient strength of Education and the Cult of Efficiency is its contemporary relevance. Time and again one can see connections with what is happening today.

Another strength is the care and industry that went into its writing. Clearly it was painstakingly researched and carefully written.

A weakness is Callahan’s failure to grant full consideration to the need for efficiency. He doesn’t ignore that need, but at times he underplays it. Public schooling is very expensive. In the school year 2012–2013, for instance, it cost U.S. taxpayers $632 billion. But, as Callahan emphasizes, we must not allow too intense a focus on efficiency to distort—even destroy—schooling’s ultimate purposes.

A greater weakness is Callahan’s failure to consider how a predominantly female teaching force influenced the events he describes. During the period 1900 to 1930, female teachers outnumbered men by about 5 to 1. This dominance, combined with the sexism of the age, surely encouraged the condescending and dismissive view of teachers that Callahan emphasizes.

By 1930, when Callahan’s book closes, the number of male public school teachers began inching upward. By 1986 males in teaching reached a peak of 31%—nearly double that of 1930. During Reagan’s presidency, however, the percentage of male teachers began a steady decline to the present low of 23.7%.45

Do today’s reformers shrug off teacher knowledge because the teaching force is still overwhelmingly female? Would they pay more attention if it were 76.3% male? Perhaps.

Significance and Influence When Written and Its Relevance Today

Education and the Cult of Efficiency attracted considerable attention when it was first published. There were numerous reviews, and they were generally favorable. The Clearing House’s review, for instance, stated: “This volume should provide both layman and educator with knowledge which may be helpful in directing the future of American education.”46

But the book did have detractors. One was the sociologist David Street who, in the American Journal of Sociology, wrote:

Educators pressing for an enlarged professional mandate over the affairs of the public schools keep stumbling over the hard fact that…their claims to a monopoly of expert knowledge are weak. Thus, while it is clear that the intrusions into the schools made by businessmen, veterans’ groups, and other outside interests have often been detrimental to American education. It is also apparent that educators have had little in the way of a solid defense against these intrusions.47

Street seems to think that veteran teachers possess little or no hard-won knowledge. But an experienced educator knows a great deal more about teaching than the typical sociologist, school board member, businessman, politician, or school reform–minded billionaire. Why, then, don’t would-be school reformers work cooperatively with veteran teachers? Would expert accountants, veterinarians, lawyers, or physicians be similarly ignored? ← 27 | 28 →

Street also comments:

[T]he author’s line of argument itself reflects to some extent the weakness of the education profession’s ideological position. He is certain that the efficiency-seekers were wrong, but his reply is only the oblique one that quality should be more important. The analysis and the educational philosophy underlying it do not seem to come to terms with the realities that education is involved in the local political process, that resources are never what the educator “needs,” that the superintendent must act as mediator between values of education and economy, and that he must use whatever managerial knowledge he can find. There can be no utopian concern for quality alone.48

Of course public school policy is political, and there can be no utopian concern for quality alone. And Callahan clearly knows that. But school funding too often falls flagrantly short of what is needed. For instance, teachers—particularly those in revenue-starved big-city or rural schools—are often so short on vital supplies that they pay for them out of their own pockets. This was certainly going on at the time in question, yet Street fails to acknowledge anything of the sort. Plus, one wonders if he would be so sanguine about compromised educational quality if a child he loved were being short-changed.

It certainly is true, as Street asserts, that the superintendent is caught in the middle and must use whatever knowledge is at hand. But Callahan clearly agrees with that. What he condemns are administrators who, for the sake of their careers, throw youngsters under the cost-cutting bus.

William Cartwright of Duke University wrote a more thoughtful critique. He praises Callahan’s effort, but only as a “useful caricature.” He writes that the book is not really “a study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. It is a study of only one of those forces. And even that study is incomplete. It does not give adequate recognition to the fact that school superintendents are required to be business administrators.”49

Cartwright offers fair criticism. Callahan’s subtitle is too ambitious. And perhaps his account is something of a caricature, but one that artfully captures the essence of the age.


Early on we noted that Callahan’s style is polemical. Perhaps this quote from Education and the Cult of Efficiency explains what set him on edge:

In the end, the American people got what they deserved for forcing their educators to spend their time on accounting rather than on the education of children. Until every child has part of his work in small classes or seminars with fine teachers who have a reasonable teaching load, we will not have given the American high school, or democracy for that matter, a fair trial. To do this, America will need to break with its traditional practice, strengthened so much in the age of efficiency, of asking how our schools can be operated most economically and begin asking instead what steps need to be taken to provide an excellent education for our children. We must face the fact there is no cheap, easy way to educate a man; and (without) that a free society cannot endure.50 ← 28 | 29 →

At its conclusion Callahan offers this hope for his book:

[I hope it] will provide both laymen and educators with knowledge which may be helpful in directing the future of American education…. Beyond this, it is hoped that the American people will see that the introduction into education of concepts and practices from fields such as business and industry can be a serious error. Efficiency and economy—important as they are—must be considered in the light of the quality of education being provided. Equally important is the inefficiency and false economy of forcing educators to devote their time and energy to cost accounting.51

At the moment Callahan’s hopes seem misbegotten. In many financially distressed districts, cost accounting still reigns; only now it is joined by the overuse, misuse, and abuse of standardized testing and the most intense expressions of the school as factory yet devised.

Should would-be reformers actually want to improve public education, not just rearrange things to suit their own selfish purposes, they must first address those core issues that destroy academic achievement at its very roots. Things like grossly unequal school funding, the 2.7 million American children with an incarcerated parent,52 the steady erosion of the middle class, and the concentrated poverty that is failed schooling’s prime breeding ground.53


1 Rush Welter, Popular Education and Democratic Thought in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962); Vernon Mallinson, review of Education and the Cult of Efficiency by Raymond E. Callahan, British Journal of Educational Studies, 12, no. 1 (November 1963), 87–88.

2 Private schools have generally escaped the standardized testing requirements. For instance, in Pennsylvania they are exempt from the recently imposed Keystone tests that public school students must pass to qualify for a diploma.

3 Peter Williams, Philadelphia: The World War I Years (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2013), 27.

4 Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 14–15.

5 Cost concerns mean that diocesan-controlled Roman Catholic schools typically were and are factories, too. Wealthier Catholics, however, can send their children to non-diocesan Roman Catholic academies that adopt the school as temple model.

6 Often misquoted as “The business of America is business.” Actually, in January 1925, Coolidge told the Society of American Newspaper Editors: “The chief business of the American people is business.” See http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2010/01/business-of-america-is-business.html for the full story.

7 Callahan, 158–161.

8 The formal training of school administrators was just getting under way.

9 Callahan, 247.

10 Ibid.

11 Callahan, 245.

12 At this time school administrators, not classroom teachers, dominated the NEA.

13 Quoted in Callahan, 11.

14 Callahan, 19–22.

15 Callahan, 27.

16 Callahan quotes Taylor at length on this. See Callahan, 27.

17 Quoted in Callahan, 32.

18 Callahan, 41.

19 Predictable reform tactics in Camden, Part 2: Layoffs and Scripted Lessons. teacherbiz. https://teacherbiz.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/predictable-reform-tactics-in-camden-part-2-layoffs-and-scripted-lessons/

20 Schools Matter: Full Interview with Former Charter Teacher. http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2014/01/full-interview-with-former-charter.html

21 The Great Charter School Tryout: Are New Orleans Schools a Model for the Nation or a Cautionary Tale? http://newwf.org/the-great-charter-tryout-are-new-orleans-schools-a-model-for-the-nation-or-a-cautionary-tale/

22 Taylor, quoted in Callahan, 29. ← 29 | 30 →

23 Taylor, quoted in Callahan, 31.

24 Callahan, 31.

25 Callahan, 70.

26 Callahan, 73.

27 Callahan, 83.

28 Maxwell, quoted in Callahan, 122.

29 This contemporary development had its origin in the 1980s with the publication of A Nation at Risk (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

30 Eric Devlin, “Board Addresses Decrease in Test Scores,” The Ambler Gazette, December 14, 2014, 1.

31 Callahan, 104.

32 Callahan, 108.

33 Callahan, 169.

34 Callahan, 105.

35 Some time ago I came across a form of this list on the web but cannot relocate it.

36 Callahan, 111.

37 Callahan, 66.

38 Callahan, 111.

39 Quoted in Callahan, 121.

40 Vintee Sawhney, The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960’s. The CWLU History Website GrrlSmarts. http://www.uic.edu/orgs/cwluherstory/_notes/GrrlSmarts/sawhney.html

41 Callahan, 124–125.

42 Idem.

43 Callahan, 145.

44 Thomas D. Snyder, ed., 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (Washington, DC: Center for Education Statistics, 1993), 34.

45 Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011. http://www.edweek.org/media/pot2011final-blog.pdf

46 Howard F. Bolden, review of Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan. The Clearing House, 37, no. 7 (March 1963), 441–442.

47 David Street, review of Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan. American Journal of Sociology, 69, no. 6 (May 1964), 673–674.

48 Idem.

49 William H. Cartwright, review of Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan. Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 49, no. 4 (March 1963), 722–723.

50 Callahan, 120.

51 Callahan, 263.

52 Katie Riley, Sesame Street Reaches Out to 2.7 Million American Children with an Incarcerated Parent. Factank: New in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, June 21, 2013. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/21/sesame-street-reaches-out-to-2-7-million-american-children-with-an-incarcerated-parent/

53 See, for example, Hope Yen, “4 in 5 in USA Face Near-Poverty, No Work.” USA Today, July 28, 2013. http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/07/28/americans-poverty-no-work/2594203/

← 30 | 31 →



Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education (1962) and The Community of Scholars (1964)

David Hursh

Paul Goodman, New York Jewish intellectual, married bisexual father of three children, essayist, anarchist, and Aristotelian scholar, was one of the most influential writers of the 1960s. Regrettably, he is now largely forgotten. But for many of us who entered adulthood in the 1960s and sensed something amiss in society, Goodman gave us a vision and a voice. He relentlessly criticized schools and society for promoting docility and conformity and called for a society in which people engaged in learning to improve their own lives and the world around them. I read Compulsory Mis-education (1962), The Community of Scholars (1964), and their companion, Growing Up Absurd (1960), a few years after they were published, and shortly after beginning my undergraduate studies in 1966. It has been almost 50 years since I read them. A recent film on Goodman’s life is appropriately titled Paul Goodman Changed My Life (2008). In re-reading these two books, it is clear to me that Goodman’s ideas still resonate with me today.

The Context of This Character

Goodman, born in New York City in 1911, lived at various times as a classic New York intellectual sought after by the media for his critique of society, and at other times as an outcast marginalized for that same critique. Similarly, those who knew him, such as Susan Sontag; Grace Paley (1959, 1985); Vera Williams (1981, 1984), author of wonderful children’s books; Michael Rossman (1971, 1972), activist in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; Allen Graubard (1972), whose 1960s critiques of the free school movement from a Deweyan perspective are still the best introduction to Dewey and George Dennison, author of The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School ← 31 | 32 → (1972), all longed to be around and in conversation with Goodman while at the same time grappling with his verbal aggressiveness and his swings between self-importance and whining.

Not surprisingly, given that his father left the family just after Goodman’s birth, never to be heard from again, and Goodman’s concern with youth, he was (most of the time) a devoted father. Unfortunately, to his great sadness, his only son, Matthew, died in a mountain climbing accident in 1967. Goodman’s writing and health declined after the incident, and he died in 1972.

Existentialism, Education, and Schools

The impetus for Goodman’s critique of school and society resides in his concern that we as a society fail to provide people in general and adolescents in particular with a way to make sense of the world. Goodman’s views reflected the 1960s interest in existential philosophy and personal meaning (particularly Albert Camus [1946, 1951] and John Paul Sartre [1969], in the poetry of The Beats,1 and in Salinger’s (1951) The Catcher in the Rye, with Holden Caulfield’s distain for phonies. Like his colleague Edgar Friedenberg, who wrote The Vanishing Adolescent (1959), Goodman felt that schools hindered the process by which adolescents came to define themselves as people. Friedenberg wrote that

growth is seriously blocked by anything that keeps youngsters from responding specifically to one another. Our cultural insistence on generalized patterns of response that ignore the significance of subtle but vital human differences is one of the things that most seriously impedes adolescence. (p. 64)

Goodman had little good to say about formal elementary and secondary education, describing schools as controlling and breaking students’ spirits. He stated that schools are engaged in “progressive regimentation and brainwashing” (1962, p. 10) and that “mental illness is caused by powerlessness” brought on by institutions such as schools (p. 12). Goodman concluded that because students had little or nothing say about what they learned and lacked opportunities to connect their learning with larger issues, their motivation was undermined. Students had to adjust to the schools rather than schools adjusting to them. School, he contended, “reduces the young to ciphers, and the teachers to a martinet” (p. 56). In the end, school provided not merely a poor education, but mis-education.

In response, Goodman argued not for merely reforming schools but reconstructing education and society. He claimed that we needed to envision how education could occur in many places and times. Since much of what schools taught focused on disseminating content—much of which would be soon forgotten or was simply wrong—we should aim to teach children how to ask questions and solve problems. He wrote that we need to ask “Education how? Where? For what? And under whose administration?”

Goodman agreed with Dewey’s educational goals and argued for a progressive approach. But he thought Dewey too optimistic in that Dewey believed that schools could demonstrate how democracy could work. “In fact,” wrote Goodman, “our schools reflect our society closely, except that they emphasize many of its worst features, as well as having the characteristic defects of academic institutions of all times and places” (p. 24). ← 32 | 33 →


Goodman’s concerns for and insights about adolescents formed the basis of his personal and political efforts. For Goodman, post–World War II America utterly failed to provide adolescents with existential meaning. In fact, for adolescents, as reflected in the title of his best-known book (1960), growing up was indeed absurd. He argued that society caused many of our difficulties with adolescents. He noted that schools offered adolescents few “worthwhile experiences” (1962). Further, he deplored the postwar culture of production and consumption that “dried up the spontaneous imagination of ends and the capacity to invent ingenious expedients” that “disintegrated communities” and “destroyed human scale” (p. 10). Such a view made it difficult to offer proposals to change schools and society, and proposing alternatives thus became increasingly difficult: “The structures and folkways of our society are absurd, but [most people feel] they can no longer be changed. Any hint of changing them disturbs our resignation and rouses anxiety” (p. 6). He added:

It is in schools and from the mass media, rather than at home or from their friends, that the mass of our citizens in all classes learn that life is inevitably routine, depersonalized, venally graded; that it is best to toe the mark and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, open sexuality, free spirit. Trained in the schools, they go on to the same quality of jobs, culture, politics. This is education, mis-education, socializing to the national norms and regimenting to the national “needs.” (p. 23)

Elsewhere he stated that “our schools have become petty-bourgeois, bureaucratic, time-serving, Gradgrind-practical, timid, and nouveau riche climbing. In the upper grades and college, they often exude a cynicism that belongs to rotten aristocrats” (p. 22). He clearly had little hope that schools could become places that supplied a meaningful education.

Goodman’s concern with adolescence and his reluctance to blame adolescents for their problems reflect the thinking of another social critic of his time, C. Wright Mills (1959), who described doing sociology as embracing the sociological imagination: the process through which we examine the larger structural forces that affect our lives and make sense of our experience as not idiosyncratic but societal. It is the way in which we come to understand our personal troubles as public issues.

It is clear that Goodman uses writing and speaking to sort out how he makes sense of the world. Reading Goodman as a late teenager, I began to connect my “personal troubles” with “social structures” to ask questions about the structure of society, where society stands in human history, and who holds power in society. I began to raise questions about my high school and university education, feeling that I was expected to only memorize curricular content. But I could not expect the university to assist me in sorting out the important issues we faced then and continue to face now regarding environmental sustainability, American imperialism in Asia, and racial, gender, and economic inequality. I began to think about how to change society and schools to support people in making sense of the world around them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my first research project examined adolescents involved in the drug culture. My chapter “The Crucible of Adolescence” in Jaffee and Clark’s Worlds Apart: Young People and Drug Programs (1974) examined how society, often through the commercial media, used scare tactics rather than more objective information to persuade adolescents not ← 33 | 34 → to use illicit drugs. However, my interviews revealed that youth felt that the tactics misrepresented the dangers and only increased their mistrust of social services, authorities, and the police. Instead, adolescents needed to be taken seriously as they attempted to sort out their experiences.

Education Alternatives: Education Beyond Schools

As described above, Goodman (1962) had largely given up on formal education. He wrote that schools needed to teach students how to analyze and change the world, but they were instead primarily interested in “guaranteeing the right character” (p. 21). It is in schools, he wrote, that

our citizens learn that life is inevitably routine, depersonalized, venally graded; that it is best to toe the mark and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, open sexuality, free spirit. Trained in the school, they go on to the same quality of jobs, culture, politics. This is education, mis-education, socializing to the national norms and regimenting to the national “needs.” (p. 23)

Goodman echoed Dewey’s (1915) criticism that education focused on the needs of business and provided narrow job training in the vocational track and a narrow academic focus in the college prep track (Weltman, 2000). Goodman (1964) criticized the New York Commissioner of Education at the time for stating that “The educational role is, by and large, to provide—at public and parents’ expense—apprentice-training for corporations, government, and the teaching professions itself. And also to train the young to handle constructively their problems of adjustment to authority” (p. 18). Goodman (1960) detested the idea that education should be preparation for the needs of corporations and government, for fitting “people wherever they are needed in the production system” (p. 4).

Goodman was not optimistic that schools could be reformed to provide a meaningful education. They were too bureaucratic and believed too much in standards and standardization. In The Community of Scholars (1964), he proposed numerous reforms, most emphasizing, like his friend Ivan Illich (1971), de-schooling society. He often described himself as an anarchist, writing: “This book is a little treatise on anarchist theory” (1964, p. 162) and that “the most useful arrangement is free-association and federation rather than top down management and administration” (p. 163).

For Goodman, learning required that children and adults trust and get to know one another and that they build on one another’s interests. This required reorganizing the education system, including closing down large schools and creating storefront and freedom schools.

The best example of Goodman’s ideal of what schools should be like is Dennison’s First Street School, described in The Lives of Children (1972). Goodman advocated that schools’ enrollment be no more than 25 students, with one certified teacher and other adults from the community. The First Street School had 23 children, all low-income, Black, White, and Puerto Rican.

Goodman also advocated that elementary and secondary education be broadened to include the whole community, an idea taken up by some public schools, including the School Without Walls in Rochester, New York, and the Parkway School in Philadelphia. He encouraged ← 34 | 35 → university faculty and students to secede from a university to establish their own learning communities, meeting informally and charging only enough tuition to pay the faculty.

Alternative Education Structures

De-schooling and other alternatives were taken up in the 1960s as universities and educational foundations began to experiment with other structures. In 1968 the Ford Foundation funded an experimental program at the University of California, Davis, where 45 college students lived together for a summer in a fraternity house, planned and prepared communal meals (because no one else offered, I was in charge of planning meals and purchasing food), and had conversations and informal classes with faculty from UC Davis and the University of California, Berkeley. I was selected to participate based on my having organized, as an undergraduate, conferences on educational reform. The 45 students had numerous opportunities to learn from one another and the faculty. Two members of the faculty influenced me profoundly: Sim Van der Ryn (2005, 2007) and Michael Rossman (1971, 1972).

Van der Ryn, who is now emeritus professor of architecture at UC Berkeley, introduced me to rethinking the relationship between built structures and sustainability. He pioneered sustainable design, founding in the 1970s the Farallones Institute in Petaluma, California, to develop “ecologically integrated living design.” He also taught us “pressure point design,” which is a useful technique for building temporary dormitory and classroom furniture.

Michael Rossman was active in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964), critiqued the authoritarian and mindless nature of U.S. society, and, as I learned from the film Paul Goodman Changed My Life, was Paul Goodman’s friend. I admired Rossman’s critical, accessible writing and hoped that someday I might write him. The politics of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which protested UC Berkeley’s regulations banning political speech on campus, is chronicled in his book The Wedding Within the War (1971). His central critique of education is published in On Learning and Social Change (1972).

That summer experience epitomizes Goodman’s notion of teachers and students coming together, raising questions, and seeking answers without formal grading or assessments, motivated only by their desire to learn from one another.

After the summer ended I returned to Manhattan, Kansas, the home of Kansas State University, to become the assistant director of the alternative university initially named University for Man and then later simply UFM. UFM reflected Goodman’s anarchic vision in that it offered hundreds of free classes every semester on any topic that anyone could teach and anyone could take. We trusted that those who offered to teach would do what they said and that the “students” who enrolled did so because they cared about learning. We had only a few instances when this was not so.

Among the semester-long courses were “Black-White Relations,” “The World in the Year 2000” (at the time it seemed so far away), and my course, “Existential Philosophy,” which I taught twice. Among the readings for the course was Maxine Greene’s first book, Existential Encounters for Teachers (1967). She begins the book by noting that “to teach in the American school today is to undertake a profoundly human as well as professional responsibility” ← 35 | 36 → (p. 3).

UFM, which was initially funded in the 1960s by Kansas State University, is now funded through a variety of sources, including nominal fees charged to students. Teachers still are not paid, and students receive no grades.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Goodman focused on adolescents and schools in part because he perceived how we chose to educate children as key to how we understand the nature of freedom and the relationship between the individual and society. Like Dewey, Goodman felt that the crucial philosophical questions about knowledge and society were played out in schools. Dewey valued working out the practical aspects of pedagogy because it made real his more abstract philosophical questions. Dewey (1894), in a rare instance of philosophical and personal clarity, wrote to Alice, his wife: “I think I’m in a fair way to become an educational crank. I sometimes think I will drop teaching philosophy directly, and teach it via pedagogy.”

Dewey’s and Goodman’s notions about education convinced me that I should become an “educational crank.” In High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning (2008), I describe my decision to become an elementary teacher in 1972:

Like Dewey, I realized that it is in education that the perennial social and philosophical questions regarding how we are to live in the world are put into practice. It is in teaching that we can raise questions about which knowledge is most worth knowing and how we learn. We can investigate how to organize social institutes so as to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for democratic citizenship. (p. 28)

I taught elementary and middle school for 8 years, first in an alternative private school in Omaha, Nebraska, and then in a school I started in Manhattan, Kansas. In both schools I was guided by Goodman’s commitment that schools should be places that emphasize the development of meaningful relations and the creation of knowledge, as well as Dewey’s notions of how schools might be structured.

While Goodman valued Dewey, he agreed more with A.S. Neill, the founder and director of Summerhill, because Neill never required students to go to class. This should not be surprising, given that it was the compulsory nature of schooling that, in his view, caused the most damage. Because students had to be there, he felt, educators did not have to connect to the student but merely deliver content.

Goodman’s Impact

In the film of Goodman’s life, he is referred to as “the most influential person you’ve never heard of.” Few remember what he wrote, and when he is remembered he is often dismissed as a critic who offered no solutions. But as I have tried to describe here, while he didn’t specify solutions—he was too much an anarchist for that—he suggested how we might think about things and what we might do.

He was a moralist who sought a society that reflected his Jeffersonian ideals of a radical, educative community. Martin Luther King, Jr., citing Goodman, concurred that society was “spiritually empty.” And, like Goodman, King connected his moral goals to his goals for ← 36 | 37 → society. King stated that in 1967 we suffered not from, as Goodman described, “spiritual emptiness that is terrifying[,] but spiritual evil…. [Y]oung men of America are dying, fighting and killing in Asian jungles in a war whose purposes are so ambiguous that a whole nation is seized with dissent” (Lee, 2011).

Goodman focused much of his writing on adolescence because he felt it was in that crucible that we worked out who we are and our relationship to one another and society. He also argued against restricting learning to formal educational institutions such as schools and, indeed, because schools were compulsory, argued that schools were places least likely to contribute to genuine learning. Instead, he contributed to the literature on de-schooling and other alternative approaches. Goodman imagined reconstructing society to support people in questioning one another and society.

Goodman was cantankerous, contradictory, and someone people both wanted to be around and to avoid. From all accounts he was not always easy to get along with. (See Susan Sontag’s [1972] comments upon learning of Goodman’s death.) But his writing challenges our basic assumptions about schools, society, and ourselves, and pushes us to consider other possibilities.

I realize that this review is about Goodman and not me, but Goodman understood the political as the personal (and vice versa), so it would be important not to leave his work “out there” but to incorporate his ideas into our own lives. His was a voice that encouraged the reader and listener to take risks in engaging in both serious intellectual work and political action. Finally, writing this review has revealed how Paul Goodman’s work changed my life.


1 For example, Allen Ginsberg’s line in Howl (1956): “I saw the best minds of my generation…who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.”


Camus, A. (1946). The stranger. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Camus, A. (1951). The rebel. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Dennison, G. (1972). The lives of children: The story of the First Street School. New York: Random House.

Dewey, J. (1894, August 25–26). John Dewey to Alice Chipman Dewey and children. Letter. John Dewey Papers, Special Collections, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University.

Dewey, J. (1915, May 5). Untitled. The New Republic, p. 42.

Friedenberg, E. (1959). The vanishing adolescent. New York: Dell.

Ginsberg, A. (1956). Howl and other poems. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Goodman, P. (1960). Growing up absurd. New York: Vintage.

Goodman, P. (1962). Compulsory mis-education. New York: Vintage.

Goodman, P. (1964). The community of scholars. New York: Vintage.

Graubard, A. (1972). Free the children: Radical school reform and the free school movement. New York: Pantheon.

Greene, M. (1967). Existential encounters for teachers. New York: Random House.

Hursh, D. (1974). The crucible of adolescence. In D.T. Jaffee & T. Clark (Eds.), Worlds apart: Young people and drug programs (pp. 20–45). New York: Vintage.

Hursh, D. (2008). High-stakes testing and the decline of teaching and learning: The real crisis in education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row.

Lee, J. (Producer & Director). (2011). Paul Goodman changed my life. Motion Picture. New York: Zeitgeist Films.

Mills. C.W. (1959). The sociological imagination. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Neill, A.S. (1960). Summerhill: A radical approach to childrearing. New York: Pocket Books. ← 37 | 38 →

Paley, G. (1959). The little disturbances of man. New York: Doubleday.

Paley, G. (1985). Later the same day. New York: HarperCollins.

Rossman, M. (1971). The wedding within the war. New York: Doubleday.

Rossman, M. (1972). On learning and social change. New York: Random House.

Salinger, J.D. (1951). The catcher in the rye. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Sartre, J.P. (1969). Nausea. San Francisco, CA: New Directions.

Sontag, S. (1972, September 21). On Paul Goodman. New York Review of Books. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1972/sep/21/on-paul-goodman/

Van der Ryn, S. (2005). Design for life: The architecture of Sim Van der Ryn. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Van der Ryn, S., & Cowan, S. (2007). Ecological design. Washington, DC: The Island Press.

Weltman, B. (2000). Revisiting Paul Goodman: Anarcho-syndicalism as the American way of life. Educational Theory, 50(2), 179–199.

Williams, V. (1981). Three days on a river in a red canoe. New York: Mulberry Books.

Williams, V. (1984). A chair for my mother. New York: Greenwillow Books.

← 38 | 39 →



Herbert Kohl, 36 Children (1967)

Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon

Born in 1937, Herbert Kohl began a 6-year teaching assignment in Harlem in 1962, just 2 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required public schools in the United States to desegregate or risk losing their federal funding. He wrote about that teaching experience in 36 Children (1967). Growing up in a Jewish family in the Bronx and attending the Bronx High School of Science, Kohl’s childhood dream was to become a teacher, and he was sorely disappointed when he learned, after enrolling at Harvard, that the university did not offer teaching degrees. (He detailed that disappointment in a later publication, Growing Minds [1984)].) Kohl graduated from Harvard in 1958 with a philosophy and mathematics degree, attended University College, Oxford on a Henry Fellowship (1958–1959), and studied philosophy at Columbia University on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (1959–1960). However, he never gave up his dream to become a teacher, and in 1961 he enrolled in Teachers College, Columbia University, to earn his K–8 teaching credential. He has been teaching and writing ever since (“Herbert Kohl,” 2014).


In Growing Minds and other publications, Kohl tells us that, while seeking a teaching credential at Teachers College, Columbia University, he was removed from his student teaching assignment because he stood up for three students he had been tutoring when a substitute teacher disrespected those students. He was also removed from his next teaching assignment for asking too many questions and giving honest, critical feedback on the school’s reading program (or lack thereof) when invited to do so at the end of the school year. 36 Children is the story of his “third time is a charm” ← 39 | 40 → chance to teach “regular children” in a public school system that assigned him to teach in Harlem as punishment for his previous indiscretions.

36 Children is not a scholarly book. It is written as a novel/journal and is mainly an account of Kohl’s first full year of teaching in Harlem, although some attention is also paid to the second year and to his later efforts to stay in touch with the students from the first year’s class. The book not only contains Kohl’s writing, but also a number of contributions from his students.

36 Children is written as a firsthand report from the classroom of an “inner city” school, as such schools were called then. (Today we would call Kohl’s school an “urban” school.) At the time of Kohl’s writing, it was also referred to as a “ghetto” school, as the entire student body was African American. (“Negro” was the term used then, before the Civil Rights Movement and the affirmation of “Black” as a term.) It is important to understand the context of the times in which Kohl wrote 36 Children, for it can be used in teacher education programs today not only for its lessons about “qualities of a good teacher,” but also for its rich description of a particular time in the history of education in the United States. As such it can help today’s teachers and those of tomorrow to understand where we have made significant progress and where we have not.

Climate of the Times

I was born in 1953, one year before the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) that the provision of separate public schools for Black and White students was unconstitutional. The case was argued in 1952, reargued in 1953, and decided in 1954, officially overturning the Plessy v Ferguson (1896) ruling that allowed state-sponsored, segregated schools. However, Brown did not spell out specifically when desegregation had to take place, so in 1955 the Supreme Court considered arguments by schools requesting relief concerning the task of desegregation. Brown II is the court’s decision to delegate the task of carrying out school desegregation to district courts “with all deliberate speed.” In many parts of the United States, particularly the deep South, this ambiguous language was used to delay and avoid desegregation, with school districts using such tactics as closing down school systems, using state money to finance segregated “private” schools, or admitting only a few “token” Black students, leaving most enrolled in underfunded, unequal Black schools. It should be noted that while Black schools were inferior in terms of physical conditions and lack of resources (such as science labs, current textbooks, or even enough textbooks), more recent research has confirmed that there were many talented teachers working in Black schools who lost their jobs with desegregation (Fultz, 1995; Morris & Morris, 2000; Walker, 1996).

At the time Kohl wrote 36 Children, Harlem was a segregated New York City community. Its residents experienced issues associated with discrimination in a racist society, including poverty, high crime rates, high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and families struggling to stay together and care for their children and elders. There were no White children in Kohl’s classroom, nor were there any Latino/a, Native American, or Asian American students. The classroom was entirely African American. In today’s world, Herbert Kohl and others such as Jonathan Kozol (another 1958 Harvard graduate who became a teacher in Boston during the 1960s), have brought to our attention the fact that public schools in the United States, as a result of White flight to the suburbs and the proliferation of private schools, have re-segregated ← 40 | 41 → and are currently more segregated in many urban areas than they were prior to Brown. The promise of desegregated, equally resourced schools with a diverse, highly qualified, professional corps of teachers and administrators capable of insuring that all children in America receive a high-quality education has yet to be fulfilled in America’s public school systems (Kozol, 1991, 2005).

Although Kohl does not mention it in 36 Children, at the time of his teaching in Harlem the United States was involved in the post–World War II Cold War between the allies who had fought together against Germany, Italy, and Japan. Historians do not all agree on the dates of the Cold War, but the range is generally stated to be roughly 1947 to 1991. The Cold War began in earnest with the occupation of Berlin by the allies and Russia’s refusal to leave the eastern sector of the city and, indeed, the eastern segment of a partitioned Germany after World War II. It is called the “Cold War” because there were no actual battles between the Western Bloc (the United States and its NATO allies) and the Eastern Bloc (the U.S.S.R. and the Warsaw Pact nations), but there was a significant build up of militaries during this period, along with a sizable expenditure of federal funds on military equipment and development. There were also regional wars that took place during the Cold War, with both sides providing military support: the Korean War (1950–1953), the Vietnam War (1955–1975), and Russia’s war with Afghanistan (fought from 1979 to the mid-1980s). Most historians mark the end of the Cold War as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a barrier that was built to separate East Berlin from West Berlin.

For military families like mine, the Cold War was a time of tension, fear, and the buildup of the U.S. war machine. For the children in Kohl’s classroom, the Cold War was more distant in their lives, unless they had friends and family members serving in the military. But for poor communities in the United States, the impact of the Cold War was felt in other areas as well, for Congress had chosen to fund the building of a nuclear arsenal and collateral wartime weapons over the funding of our public school system.

What led the nation into the social unrest of the 1960s was the Civil Rights Movement and its concomitant efforts not only to desegregate public school systems, but also to protest segregation in all public arenas, including restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and sporting events. While Kohl does not discuss the feminist movement in 36 Children, Judy Kohl, whom he married during the period covered in the book, is an excellent example of what women were doing in the 1960s to address social injustice in the United States. Judy was very important to Kohl’s ability to sustain himself through this period. He credits her as a person he could talk to about the stresses he was experiencing in teaching. Judy worked in education as well—as a special education teacher with a tremendous amount of patience, as Kohl later tells us (Growing Minds, 1984). Her presence in the 36 children’s lives is a warm, caring one, and they grow very fond of her, just as their teacher grows very fond of her. In fact, when Judy and Herbert Kohl married during the school year, the children in the classroom, with help from their families, threw them a surprise party. Judy wrote books with her husband, and with him co edited Myles Horton’s autobiographical The Long Haul (published in 1990, the year Horton passed away), about Highlander, an adult learning center in Tennessee. Highlander was founded by Myles Horton in 1932 and still exists. It offers activist adults a place to learn how to lead social justice movements to eradicate of oppressive conditions in their communities (Adams & Horton, 1975; A. Horton, 1989; M. Horton, 1990; Horton & Freire, 1990). The Long Haul received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1991. ← 41 | 42 →

Main Themes

In 36 Children Kohl tells us that he spent the summer of 1962 preparing to teach a fifth-grade class, only to find out the first week of school that he will be teaching 6–1, the highest-level sixth-grade class, at PS XXX. He has 20 girls and 16 boys in his class, all of whose names and ages are given at the beginning of the book. As he begins to know who these 11- and 12-year-old children are, we are introduced to them as well. Kohl learns how to be a good teacher during the year, and he passes these lessons on to his readers. For me, reading 36 Children in the 1980s served as a wonderful affirmation of lessons I was learning on my own as an elementary teacher at Montessori schools in the artist communities of the Poconos (Pennsylvania) and Santa Barbara (California), and the Catholic community of the San Luis Rey mission area in Oceanside (California). Kohl is a good storyteller, and I still remember some of his stories many years later. I used to share the lessons he offers in 36 Children in my undergraduate teacher education courses, and I still share them in my graduate education classes. There is a timeless quality to what he experienced in the school year 1962–1963.

Kohl gives an honest description of his lack of preparation, his fears, and his exhaustion as he tries to engage 36 children who are already tired of school. Anyone who has been a teacher can relate to those fears and to the exhaustion felt at the end of each day. Who are the students I will be working with, how well will they get along with each other, and am I ready for them? Do I know the curriculum inside out, and am I prepared to present it in multiple ways? Will I be able to interest the students in the curriculum I am required to teach? Kohl tells us: “I was afraid that if one child got out of my control the whole class would quickly follow, and I would be overwhelmed by chaos” (p. 30). That is a fear shared by virtually all beginning teachers. The children in his class taught him to let go of “ranting and carping” at them, to not take everything they said so seriously, and to allow them the space to occasionally “blow off some steam.” Children have bad days, just like adults, and children living in poverty often have to deal with adult-type stress in their lives (parents who lose their jobs, electricity that is turned off because of missed payments, landlords who evict their families for not paying the rent on time, parents who don’t come home or come home drunk and start taking their frustrations out on their children, single-parent homes, and so on).

One of Kohl’s first lessons is that he needs to get to know his students. He decides he needs to do this on his own terms, so he does not read their student “record cards” that tell him about their pasts. He wants them to have the chance to start with a clean slate and to tell him who they are now. That is a good way to allow children a chance to reinvent themselves each school year and to avoid the labels of “lazy” or “defiant.” However, for children with special needs that previous teachers and care-providers have worked hard to identify, not being able to pass on that vital information to the child’s next teacher is a handicap.

When the children in Kohl’s sixth-grade class show no interest in the lessons he tries to teach, he decides he needs to find out what they are interested in learning more about. He begins by listening to his students and learning to be a good observer. He gives them 10-minute breaks between lessons, and he listens to what they talk about. He begins to supplement the curriculum with books he brings in that speak to their interests. After listening to them discuss their neighborhoods and realizing that he doesn’t know what their home situations are like, he seeks to get to know them by giving them homework assignments such as “draw where you ← 42 | 43 → live,” “draw what your home looks like.” He realizes he has never experienced what they live with daily.

Kohl learns to share with the students who he is, too. He shares with them his interest in Greek mythology and the roots of words, and he watches the class become “word hungry.” He says he “overwhelmed them with books” but didn’t require them to write reports or read a set number of pages (p. 40). He lets them discover what they like to read and watches as some devour all the books he brings in, while others hardly read at all. The children introduce him to books he hasn’t read as well, such as the Nancy Drew books (which were my favorites at their age, too). Kohl brings in chess and checkers for the students to learn to play and watches who is drawn to them. Eventually he begins to invite them to his home, something that today is considered risky and dangerous for a teacher, as the children and teacher are both vulnerable to charges of harm. I risked having my own students and their friends came to our home to play, as I was one of three elementary teachers in our only elementary class in one school, and I was the head teacher in the only upper elementary class in two other schools.

Kohl also tells stories about taking the children on field trips, including an overnight trip to Cambridge to see Harvard University, to the Upper West Side to see Columbia University and Teachers College, and to attractions like the Metropolitan Museum. He shared with them places he loves. My co-teachers and I took our students on annual camping trips in California and on museum trips to New York City and Philadelphia from the Poconos. Parents were always invited to join us, as were the parents of Kohl’s students. Like Kohl, I learned a lot about my students by being with them in other settings, and we all learned that children who may be struggling with reading or math skills can be excellent swimmers and tent builders, for example. Again, Kohl confirmed for me something I found so valuable: get to know your students outside of the classroom. What you learn about them will surprise you!

Kohl starts out the school year with not enough books or supplies but, with the children’s help, slowly discovers closets full of science material. The children bring in their own records to share with him and show him where the record player is stored at the school, as “they knew the exact distribution of all the hidden and hoarded supplies in the school,” and that begins a daily pattern of sharing the latest records at the end of the morning or afternoon (p. 43). In order to get his hands on the school’s science equipment, Kohl volunteers to take care of it for the school. He tells us how he learned that it was “useless to fight with the administration over their irresponsibility” (p. 42). He had learned from his previous teaching experiences that fighting with the administration got him fired or transferred. Since he wanted to stay with his 6–1 class, he “learned to keep quiet, keep the door of my classroom shut, and make believe the class and I functioned in a vacuum, that the school around us didn’t exist” (p. 42). He learned to pick his battles and to make compromises when necessary. He was surprised to find out that the children understood very well the concept of adults having to make compromises, since their parents had to do this on a daily basis. Kohl feared that admitting his limits would hurt his relationships with his students, but instead it strengthened them.

The children in Kohl’s class begin writing and sharing their stories with him and each other. Some write sporadically, others continually. Kohl shares many of their stories with us in 36 Children. I also used writing as an important part of the curriculum in my elementary classroom, mainly journaling, and I still use journaling in my university classes. Like Kohl, I have learned much about my students and their daily lives through their writing. ← 43 | 44 →

Kohl learned to find something his students could be expert at, and to allow them to share their expertise with other students. Positioning students as teachers helps them find ways to shine. Kohl learned to trust that his students do want to learn, just maybe not the deadly dull curriculum he was required to teach them. The Montessori method taught me this important lesson, too, as in a Montessori classroom students are allowed to choose their own work (Montessori, 1912). Even those students who came to me hating school after having had bad experiences elsewhere stopped resisting learning once they understood that they could choose to do nothing as long as they were not distracting other students.

Kohl learned that all students need to feel included in the classroom community, and that it is important to draw students in and help them make friends. I found that I could not look forward to teaching children for 3 years in our multiage class unless I found ways to befriend them and help them develop friendships with others as well. I still rely on this lesson today, even in graduate-level classes, where I continue to seek to establish caring learning communities (Thayer-Bacon, 2008, 2013; Thayer-Bacon & Bacon, 1998).

Kohl also learned that it was important to get to know his students’ families and to position himself as an ally seeking to advocate for the students—and, by extension, their families. I remember his stories of sneaking food into hospital rooms for family members who were sick and could not eat the hospital food being served to them, and stories of eating meals at families’ homes (Growing Minds, 1984). I also had several children with serious family problems that came to light only after I had gained their trust, which can take more than a year. I found it so much healthier to start from a place of assuming parents love their children and want the best for them, just as I, a single parent, wanted the best for my three children. Just as Kohl started each school year offering his students a “clean slate,” it is important to offer parents a “clean slate,” too. Teacher and parents then are positioned as a team working together to help their children thrive.

Kohl describes in 36 Children the heartaches he experiences—even heartbreaks, as he watches his students in that first class move on to other teachers and other schools and struggle. He also tells us about the children who did not make it through the year because of family relocations and of being difficult to control (specifically, a student named John).

The next year I had a class of Johns, and seeing how easily they responded to adult confidence and trust, I have always regretted my lack of effort with John. Yet I have to admit that I did not have the necessary confidence as a teacher and as a human being the year I taught the thirty-six children. It took the thirty-six children to give me that. (pp. 178–179)

Every teacher carries within her or him feelings of regret that they didn’t try hard enough or find the right approach for particular children with whom they have worked. Every teacher thinks back on times they wish they had had more energy, patience, knowledge, or time to help a child in need.

Kohl taught me that it is okay to take breaks from teaching in order to avoid burnout. For me, this meant living on a teacher’s 9-month salary for 12 months so that I could have the summers off and spend them playing with my children. I still follow this practice today, and I give myself summer sabbaticals. The year after he teaches the 36 children in 6–1, Kohl is given a class in a new school in Harlem, 6–7, “the bottom.” He tells us he was a much better listener, and the children seemed to talk more. Together they redesign the curriculum, and ← 44 | 45 → the children win over his focus and efforts. But Kohl begins to experience the heartbreak of “watching the other teachers, being abused by the administration, seeing the children fail and nobody care” (p. 188). The 36 children Kohl first taught begin to visit and hint to him “of their failure and despair” (p. 189). He begins to feel as though he set the children up for subsequent disappointment and bitterness: “they all came back discouraged and demoralized” (p. 190). After the second year of teaching, Kohl takes a year off and goes to Europe, where he is able to live on royalty earnings from his writing. This break helps him to stay in teaching. He shares with us letters he received from students in 36 Children, giving him updates on their lives. He learns to pace himself and find other avenues for helping the children, such as starting summer reading programs and alternative schools. Kohl leaves Harlem after 6 years to teach in Berkeley, California. He ends 36 Children this way:

Without hope and without cynicism, I try to make myself available to my pupils. I believe neither that they will succeed nor that they will fail. I know they will fight, falter, and rise again and again, and that if I have the strength I will be there to rejoice and cry with them, and to add my little weight to easing the burden of being alive in the United States today. (p. 224)

Strengths and Weaknesses

Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children represents one teacher’s desire to help improve the quality of education for targeted, minority children in America’s school systems. As a White teacher and a graduate of some of America’s most prestigious universities, he accepted the challenge of teaching in an all-Black, low-income school, with the desire to challenge his own—as well as others’—racist beliefs about Black children, as well as classist beliefs about poor children. Kohl strongly believed that all children deserve a chance to receive a good education. When we read 36 Children today, it is shocking to learn of the level of neglect, abuse, and teacher bias the children encountered in America’s public schools in 1962. We can praise Kohl for his courage and desire to advocate for children whom others were woefully mistreating and/or neglecting, but we can also hold him accountable for his lack of an in-depth critique of the social systems that caused his students’ community so much stress, and his subtle acceptance of deficit theories that justified racist policies.

At times Kohl positions the students and their families as tragic victims, and he leans toward sentimentality—with himself, the caring White teacher, coming to their rescue as their ally. His story is one of heroic teachers and their unintended roles in perpetuating racism; he does not offer a sociological or political analysis of the school systems and the policies they must address. In today’s world, the ally role can be a dangerous position that opens a teacher to much criticism if he or she is positioned as a shepherd or savior (Rancière, 1991, 2006). Today we find that educational policies place blame on our teachers working in public schools, while the teachers feel powerless, defeated, overwhelmed, and exhausted by their individual efforts (Villa & Buese, 2007). Teachers today are leaving their jobs in droves because our current efforts to standardize the curriculum and evaluate teachers through students’ test scores are punishing the Herbert Kohls of the United States—that is, the teachers willing to work with children in serious need and to tap into their backgrounds and interests to engage them in their learning, instead of following a scripted curriculum. ← 45 | 46 →

Significance and Influence, Then and Now

Herbert Kohl is credited with being a strong voice for progressive alternative education, founding the Open Schools Movement (in the 1960s)—open classrooms in particular—and with writing over 30 books (”Hebert Kohl,” 2014). Writing a firsthand report from the classroom in an inner-city school has become something of a new literary genre, thanks to Kohl’s influence. Other books cut from the same cloth are Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Teacher (1963), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967), Peter McLaren’s Cries from the Corridor (1980), and Samuel Freedman’s Small Victories (1991), the story of Jessica Siegel’s year as a high school English teacher on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Kohl’s writing significantly influenced many other famous educators such as John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Ivan Illich, Peter McLaren, and Neil Postman, to name a few. In the 1980s he worked with his wife, Judith Kohl (who has worked with him on many collaborative projects), to help Myles Horton put together his autobiography, as noted earlier in this chapter.

Kohl inspired a generation of us, many of whom were students in public schools during the years of desegregation in the 1960s when he began teaching, to embrace a career in education and consider teaching the noblest profession there is. He inspired us to get out of our comfort zones and work to help all children receive a quality education. For Kohl, this is a social justice issue, and a pedagogical imperative.


36 Children is still relevant today, as I have sought to demonstrate through the lessons about what it means to be a good teacher that Kohl describes for us. Since the publication of 36 Children, the United States has desegregated and resegregated schools in our urban spaces, due to “White flight” to the suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s, and then White flight to charter schools and private schools beginning in the 1980s. It is a good description of “how things were” prior to the Civil Rights Act and an important measuring stick to mark our progress and to show where there is still plenty of work to do.


Adams, F., & Horton, M. (1975). Unearthing seeds of fire: The idea of Highlander. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair.

Ashton-Warner, S. (1963). Teacher. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Freedman, S.G. (1991). Small victories. New York: Harper Perennial.

Fultz, M. (1995, Spring). Teacher training and African-American education in the South, 1900–1940. Journal of Negro Education, 64(2), 196–214.

Herbert Kohl (educator). (2014, November 21). Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Kohl_(educator)

Horton, A.I. (1989). The Highlander Folk School: A history of its major programs, 1932–1961. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, Inc. (Original work published 1971.)

Horton, M. (1990). The long haul: An autobiography (H. & J. Kohl, Eds.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We make the road by walking (B. Bell, J. Gaventa, & J. Peters, Eds.). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Kohl, H. (1967). 36 children. New York: New American Library.

Kohl, H. (1984). Growing minds: On becoming a teacher. New York: Harper & Row.

Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers.

Kozol, J. (2005). The shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers. ← 46 | 47 →

McLaren, P. (1980). Cries from the corridor. Toronto, Canada: Methuen.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori method. New York: Random House.

Morris, V.G., & Morris, C.L. (2000). Creating caring and nurturing educational environments for African American children. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.

Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster (K. Ross, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, J. (2006). Hatred of democracy (S. Corcoran, Trans.). London & New York: Verso.

Thayer-Bacon, B. (2008). Beyond liberal democracy in schools: The power of pluralism. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thayer-Bacon, B. (2013). Democracies always in the making: Historical and current philosophical issues for education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Thayer-Bacon, B., & Bacon, C. (1998). Philosophy applied to education: Nurturing a democratic community in the classroom. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 36 Children. (2014, November 21). Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/36_Children

Valli, L., & Buese, D. (2007, September). The changing roles of teachers in an era of high-stakes accountability. American Educational Research Journal, 44(3), 519–558.

Walker, V.S. (1996). Their highest potential: An African American school community in the segregated South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ← 47 | 48 →

← 48 | 49 →



Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1969)

Roberto H. Bahruth and Donaldo Macedo

I consider the fundamental theme of our epoch to be that of domination—which implies its opposite, the theme of liberation, as the objective to be achieved. It is this tormenting theme which gives our epoch the anthropological character mentioned earlier. In order to achieve humanization, which presupposes the elimination of dehumanizing oppression, it is absolutely necessary to surmount the limit-situations in which people are reduced to things. (Freire, 2000, p. 103)

As the quotation above illustrates, Paulo Freire is timelier today than when Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in 1970, given the draconian inequalities created by neoliberalism, the cruel manufactured wars worldwide, and the savage human misery that is dehumanizing both its perpetrators and its victims. While violence, dire poverty, and a dehumanizing ruling class are significantly more pernicious today due to both the weakening of nation-states and a sophisticated world-wide surveillance apparatus made possible through technology, new forms of hegemons increasingly replicate historical elements that provided the context in which the Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written.

Paulo Freire was born in 1921 in Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil, into a middle-class family that had lost its economic and class position during the Depression years of the 1930s. Because of its modest economic means, Freire’s family moved to Morro de Saúde, a very poor town on the outskirts of Recife, where he occasionally experienced hunger and witnessed the almost-permanent hunger of others on a daily basis. As Freire recounted:

It was a real and concrete hunger that had no specific date of departure. Even though it never reached the rigor of the hunger experienced by some people I know, it was not the hunger experienced by those who undergo a tonsil operation or are dieting. On the contrary, our hunger was of ← 49 | 50 → the type that arrives unannounced and unauthorized, making itself at home without an end in sight. (Freire, 1996, p. 63)

It was this painful experience of hunger that fueled a constant rebelliousness that made Freire actively participate as a maker of history for most of his life, and leave behind a legacy of unquestionable value to humanity at his death on May 2, 1997. Following this untimely loss of Freire as our teacher-scholar, a plethora of eulogies appeared from around the world as a testimony to the importance of his life’s work. Pedagogy of the Oppressed represents the coherence of his seminal understanding of what it means to implement a humanizing pedagogy for educators and learners working together through dialogical encounters.


When Paulo Freire went to work with peasants to teach them literacy, he did not bring with him a deficit orientation, a toolbox of “save the peasants from themselves” techniques, or the myths of superiority of the dominant culture. He knew the peasants were the holders of knowledge not legitimized by the ruling class. Rather than starting with the written word, he began with a dialogical praxis to reveal to the peasants the intelligence they used daily as a means of survival. Once the myths of inferiority were surmounted through these conversations, the internalized oppression of the peasants began to break down, and a major obstacle was removed from the work. Then, using organic vocabulary and generative themes from the everyday lives of the peasants, he began to teach them how to encode their worlds with the written word. Out of this praxis Pedagogy of the Oppressed was born, generated by Freire’s work with his students—mostly peasants who, due to unjust policies of a quasi-oligarch society, were denied access to literacy. By literacy, he meant not only the reading of the word, but also the reading of the world.

It is important not to underestimate his scholarship before his arrival that enabled Freire to implement this pedagogy, as well as the ongoing reflection upon the collaborations in word-world exchanges informing his continued and deepening understanding of his cultural work—what Frei Betto (1997) called “praxis, theory, praxis.” Finally, in writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the ultimate use of literacy was put into service by Freire, the scholar, to solidify his ideas and to write upon the world. It is evident that his work has reached around the globe and has contributed to revolutionary changes in educational settings prompted by teachers who care enough about their vocation to study it thoughtfully. It would be easy to fall into a tone of eulogizing Paulo Freire; but in many ways, through the corpus of his work, he lives on through the lives of those he touched personally, and those who were only touched by his words. One need only Google his name to see the enormous scope of attention world scholars continue to pay to his work.

To transform sterile, contrived basal texts into profound discussions of the relationships between word and world represents the alchemy of theory and praxis (Betto, 1997). The vocation of teaching requires caring, not coddling, as Freire so clearly points out, and scholarship is an expression of that caring (Bahruth, 2005). Revolution is an act that requires great love of humanity and of all life. Pedagogy of the Oppressed presents theoretical foundations of a revolutionary, transformative praxis to humanize education. ← 50 | 51 →

Historical Context for Freire

To understand oppression and to get to its roots, it is essential to understand, for example, patriarchy. Women have historically been treated as objects (Lerner, 1986; Minnich, 1990; Fehr, 1993), even ridiculed for being emotional. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire provides an analysis of the human conditions of oppressor and oppressed and outlines ways in which humanity never achieves its full potential. He also delineates a pedagogical response to oppression, demonstrating through his work, as well as cultural work done elsewhere, how educators and the oppressed can work together to take agency into their own hands. What Freire names here—the culture of silence, false generosity, generative words, the dialogical and anti-dialogical, banking, internalized oppression, conscientization—makes visible and helps to develop a consciousness for the oppressed to refuse to be treated as objects of history and power as they move into their roles as historical subjects. The ultimate means of the pedagogy of the oppressed is humanization by working with the exploited masses through literacy projects whereby the word becomes a means of liberation. However, it is important to point out that Freire’s legacy should not be reduced only to his contributions to the development of a revolutionary literacy. Freire used literacy as a tool that would enable the oppressed to achieve a higher, critical awareness of their condition, to understand that the dire poverty to which they had been relegated was not destiny but part and parcel of a social construction that could be deconstructed and, in the process, unveil both the ideology and its mechanisms designed for the production and reproduction of human misery. That is, Freire used literacy not as an end in itself but as a means to conscientization, which is an emancipatory pedagogical process designed to teach students through critical literacies (reading the word and the world). It is a pedagogy meant to help them to negotiate the world in a thoughtful way that exposes and engages the relations between the oppressor and the oppressed. Its central educational objective is to awaken in the oppressed to knowledge, creativity, and constant critical reflexive capacities necessary to demystify and understand the power relations responsible for their marginalization and, through this recognition, begin a project of liberation.

Its commitment to critical reflection and transformative action makes conscientization central, for example, to action research and liberation pedagogy, as they both require that the researcher and the liberation pedagogue perform the critical questioning inherent to conscientization. This is done to ensure that due consideration is given to important social, economic, and cultural contributors to social justice in designing the research and the critical pedagogical space that lead to liberation and emancipation (Hostetler, 2005). Freire’s use and development of conscientization articulates the history of conscientization and the principles that undergird this process as a liberating pedagogy. It functions as an antidote to the detrimental pedagogies of what Freire termed “banking education” and emphasizes the vital role conscientization plays in both critical reflection and action. In other words, conscientization becomes, in Freire’s pedagogy, the soul of praxis. While this seminal work is critical, the continuation of his scholarship provides witness to his own “unfinishedness” (Freire, 1998b), as he used literacy to expand his ideas while continuing to hone his pedagogical arguments. In essence, Paulo Freire was a humanist who learned as he taught, reflected upon his encounters, and grew pedagogically over the course of his life’s work.

In Letters to Cristina (1996), Freire provides an autobiographical account of his own conscientization and the purpose of his struggles to contest exploitation as he elaborated upon ← 51 | 52 → the different contexts of his work around the world due to exile, and his gravitation to countries where the promise of democratization was taking place. Chile in the early 1970s is one example. While writing these letters, he makes new meanings of old memories—one of the dangerous effects of literacy that motivates the oppressor to withhold it from the oppressed. (One need only recall that it was once illegal to teach slaves to read in the United States.)

One memory specific to language is related to Freire’s adventures with the poorer children of his neighborhood. They would crawl under fences to take mangos from other people’s gardens. The other boys were called thieves, but he was called a mischievous boy. He related this to social class, since his father wore a necktie every day, even after moving to the poorer neighborhood when he lost his job. We see this linguistic gerrymandering throughout history. One government has an administration while another has a regime. In Israel, Jewish people are “massacred” by suicide bombers, while Palestinians who are shot by the IDF “find death along the road to Bethlehem.” Macedo (1994) discusses these “negatively charged” words (migrants as opposed to settlers), and Johnson and Lakoff (1980) make it clear that we never mix metaphors across social classes or political lines. This naming is one of the acts of power readily seen in government terms such as “Hispanic,” a generic term for a diverse population of Spanish speakers and their descendants. Naming also includes euphemisms to hide the truth and to whitewash (pun intended) state-sponsored crimes against humanity, for example, “ethnic cleansing” as a reframing of genocide. Pedagogy of the Oppressed opposes banking (where learners are empty vessels treated as objects) and endorses dialogical engagement with learners, where this naming is called into question as a tool of oppression. Language becomes a tool of renaming, and therefore liberation, as learners develop a language of criticity and assert their roles as agents of history.

Through his travels, Freire came into contact and communion with other great scholars joined in the work of revolutionary pedagogy. Pérez Cruz (2009) elaborates on several fruitful encounters with Raul Ferrer, the Cuban scholar and architect of the renowned Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961 (Murphy, 2012). He makes clear the conversations and collaborations between these two pedagogues and the connections between the Cuban project and Freire’s work in Brazil. Pérez Cruz connects Freire to José Martí, Amilcar Cabral, and Ché (as Freire cited in his work). Freire’s work took him to Africa, Nicaragua, Cuba, and other politically volatile terrains of engagement, and he gained knowledge from each of these contexts.

The historical context for Pedagogy of the Oppressed worldwide is one of anti-colonialism in the Third World, civil rights in the United States, with accompanying anti-war efforts and feminist consciousness, and anti-imperialism as witnessed by the Cuban experiment. His work is surrounded and influenced by progressive publications such as Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1971), and Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976). Freire went on to co author a book with Myles Horton (1990) of Highlander School, attended by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., just two short weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, thereby launching a popular movement for civil rights and changing the course of history. Paulo Freire worked in a climate of social upheaval, and more than once his literacy projects were uprooted by coup d’états where harsh fascism replaced popular and progressive governments.

How deep are Freire’s pedagogical roots? Gil Antón (2003) asserts that we do not need students (estudiantes); we need estudiosos (studious people). Rhetoric abounds about lifelong learners, but the prescriptive fascism of corporate schooling, including high-stakes testing and ← 52 | 53 → textbook publishers, prevents most students from developing scholarly dispositions. What distinguishes Freire from other “educationalists” is what he referred to as “una pedagogía inquieta” (a restless pedagogy), never content with a lesson and always looking for deeper layers of meaning and method. Freire was a scholar who concerned himself not just with the mechanics of reading, but also with the sociopolitical contexts of his day and the history of prior scholars’ attempts and ruminations upon their pedagogies. He made clear the connections between education and social injustice. He understood the complex dialectical relationships between reading the word and the world in ways necessary to transform dehumanizing conditions for oppressor and oppressed. As Carlos Fuentes (1992) so eloquently stated, “If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we shall not recognize it in ourselves.”

Given this scholarly disposition, it is safe to assume that Paulo Freire read far and wide across the geopolitical/historical spectrum. He must have known that Tolstoy set up his own school to teach the children of his peasant laborers. Closer to home, he knew about the pedagogical work of Simón Rodriguez, José Martí, and José Mariátegui. He referenced scholars such as Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, and Kosík, and was deeply influenced by their work. It’s clear he studied the Frankfurt School scholars and was influenced by European schools of thought. The Cubans make the connection—while recognizing the genius of Freire’s work—that some of the roots of his methodology came from their revolutionary literacy project of which he was aware through his exchanges with Raul Ferrer in Cuba, as well as the work of Cuban educators in Africa (Pérez, 2004; Pérez-Cruz, 2009). He knew the work of John Dewey and Maxine Greene in America, especially their discussion of aesthetic education and anesthetic schooling, the latter being synonymous with Freire’s concept of banking.

Relevance of Freire Today

Freire’s work has had a tremendous impact upon teachers and the children in their care around the world. Testimonies abound of his transformative influence over teachers (see Chávez Chávez, 1997; Hayes, Bahruth, & Kessler, 1998) when classrooms designated as doomed became sites of dramatic successes in literacy and learning.

The pedagogy of the oppressed is suggesting a deeper understanding of the dialectical relationships between subject and object realities. This is why compensatory programs to “save” the oppressed and the national organizations designed to work in their favor were easily co-opted into the status quo. This lack of understanding—perhaps it is naïve to think this is born out of misunderstanding by the powerbrokers—led to numerous compromises over the years that ended up doing the exact opposite of what seemed to be intended, and the status quo gained financial control over the movement through federal programs. Over the course of 4 decades, we watched federal programs dwindle away from bilingual education, the usurping of OBEMLA into an English-language impetus, and eventually even the disappearance of funds altogether. TESOL as an organization played an instrumental role in undermining the stronger elements of NABE by competing for funding. Eventually, even the funding available to TESOL was removed, and it now depends upon membership, for-profit conferences, and the support of publishing companies (Goodman, 1989) that represent the “literacy and poverty pimps” (Macedo, 1994, 2001) who build empires that do anything but promote progressive pedagogy. The continued commodification and privatization of education itself is a force instrumental in undermining the Jeffersonian vision of an educated citizenry. Hedges (2009) ← 53 | 54 → denounces the mechanisms of an “empire of illusion” that work deliberately to lead the masses toward the abyss. According to Herman and Chomsky (1988):

The bewildered herd is a problem. We’ve got to prevent their roar and trampling. We’ve got to distract them. They should be watching the Superbowl or sitcoms or violent movies. Every once in a while you call on them to chant meaningless slogans like “Support our troops.” You’ve got to keep them pretty scared, because unless they’re properly scared and frightened of all kinds of devils that are going to destroy them from outside or inside or somewhere, they may start to think, which is very dangerous, because they’re not competent to think. Therefore it’s important to distract them and marginalize them. (p. 27)

In the context of higher education, numerous scholars condemn trends in funding and grants and the emergence of the corporate university, which is often awarded major financial support for conducting research that has direct military and industrial benefits (Schmidt, 2000; Aronowitz, 2000; Giroux, 2007). Even the eager rush to fund STEM programs demonstrates a shrinking away from the humanities (Villaverde, 2000), where alternative discourse might have been a part of the development of consciousness through the voices of poets, novelists, artists, and so on.

Managed populations respond to the ringing of bells and other conditioned prompts and produce predictable, desired behaviors. Lawtoo (2013) argues that behavior is contrived through subtle hypnotic processes that become a “mimetic unconscious,” governing and limiting our human potential. Leaders, on the other hand, are wise enough to work with the people and not apart from them. As a result, their struggle resonates with the populations they work with in solidarity and produces a collective, generative, transformative praxis. It explains why Cesar Chávez and Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully motivated people to act with resolve for the collective good and commitment to a humanizing ideal.

Institutions announce lofty ideals in their mission statements but work in ways to ensure that those ideals will never be accomplished. This is one reason why Freire’s eloquent notion of word-world (“palabramundo”) holds so much power and meaning. It provides a barometer to critically examine the dialectical relationships between the flowery discourse of these proclamations and the realities that either work toward ideals or prevent their emergence. Some basic examples from the framers of our Constitution demonstrate dialectical relationships as they expose the dissonance. For example, “general welfare” is not separate from “domestic tranquility,” as these two work dynamically in the social and economic contexts of reality.

The usefulness of Freire’s arguments remains timeless and timely because, as a society becomes more and more an administered population through distractions, ineffective educational policies (again the euphemistic No Child Left Behind comes to mind), the media, technology, and other mechanisms of oppression become normalized, invisible, and immobilizing. Through acceptance of “the way things are,” a form of subtle fatalism results as people are swept away at the speed of the microchip, resigning themselves to the treadmill of consumerism as objects of history. Agency requires consciousness and a commitment to the “greater good.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed pivots upon the shift from anti-dialogical to dialogical engagements to problematize hegemony and its accompanying myths, and uses literacy to move beyond dehumanizing practices into fuller human relationships for the oppressor and the ← 54 | 55 → oppressed. It is always a praxis of working with and learning from students in every encounter. According to Freire:

It is as self-contradictory for true humanists to use the banking method as it would be for rightists to engage in problem-posing education. (The latter are always consistent—they never use a problem posing pedagogy. (1970, p. 85)

It is also a pedagogy of the oppressor, as Freire points out, in that the heavy lifting of the democratic struggle will have to come from the oppressed, even though the oppressor stands to gain from the humanizing effects of conscientization. The dialectical relationship between the dehumanization of the oppressed and the dehumanization of the oppressor as a consequence becomes clear.

With access to education by more and more students who were previously denied and left out, the corporatization of higher education, through the persistence of banking as a mechanism to deny dialogue—despite all of the research on learning that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of lectures and power point delivery systems—has as one of its purposes to neuter the wider scope of knowledge and human conditions available through the influx of diversity.

Conferences continue to be arranged in formats that make dialogical engagements all but impossible, except in the cafés and bars after the presentations. Freire’s pedagogical innovation promoting critical encounters, his shift from authoritarian to authority, and his practice of patient impatience as he helps learners to move from natural curiosity into an epistemological curiosity (Freire, 1998a) all demonstrate a recognition and celebration of learners as subjects, whereas traditional schooling only treats them as objects. This is the necrophilia he decries when he states: “From the first, the act of conquest, which reduces persons to the status of things, is necrophilic” (p. 119).

With the increasing diversity of university populations, nothing is harvested from the wide variety of experiential richness learners bring with them, because the knowledge is predetermined, static, superimposed, and centered upon a bias in favor of the ruling class. We all have blind spots, and it is through dialectical encounters that we discover the many lenses through which the world can be understood from lived experiences different from our own. It is the contemplation and compilation of the collective meaning-making where learning is most fruitful and useful toward the education of learned individuals. With the increasing corporatization of education, the humanities are under siege precisely because of their potential to contribute to the “well-rounded” individual. As Pearl S. Buck observed:

Meanwhile, I like very much to be in the company of the learned, deservedly or not. They are truly learned men and therefore without conceit or bombast. They are simple in manner, kind and mildly humorous, and they are careful not to wound one another. This is because they are civilized as learning alone can civilize the human being. (1954, p. 388)

In place of the humanities, we see the emphasis and financial support going to STEM projects that do little to question the delivery systems within institutions. If they did, funding would dry up quickly. Notice how foreign-language programs are continuously funded despite the dreadful plague of resigned monolingualism they produce. Conversely, bilingual education programs are targeted for defunding precisely when they demonstrate effectiveness. ← 55 | 56 →

Perhaps the most blind are the “normalized intellectuals” (Honneth, 2009) who have been colonized into the system without questioning the internal “logic” of institutions of higher learning. They are well versed in the rhetoric of elitist myths denounced by Freire as mechanisms to justify the superiority of one group and the inferiority of another. Lawtoo (2013) warns of the dulling effects: “To accede to power via education corresponds to a submission to the hegemonic order which produces a passive, empty subject.” Those who do question, who make a serious effort to transcend the “stupidification” (Macedo, 1994) of their own schooling in order to promote a more humanistic praxis through their teaching, often find themselves relegated to the “internal abroad.” They may as well be speaking a foreign language, not only because the shift represents such a dramatic departure from banking, but also because those who have been normalized are enjoying the support of the institution and have settled into a cozy arrangement with anti-dialogical lecturing. Gabbard’s analysis in Silencing Ivan Illich (1993) demonstrates how normalized academicians censor alternative discourse. The dominant, quantitative orientation clings to the myth of objectivity, and a practice of what Freire described as scientism rather than science. Yet, as Macedo points out:

Although many educators, particularly those who blindly embrace a positivistic mode of inquiry, would outright deny the role of ideology in their work, nonetheless, they ideologically attempt to prevent the development of any counterdiscourse within their institution. (2001, p. xii)

It is undeniable that practicing critical pedagogy is a tremendous amount of work, but it is also significantly more rewarding and satisfying than conforming to the status quo. Once students have the opportunity to participate in a critical pedagogical space, they bemoan going to other classes based upon banking. Experiences in genuine learning through dialogical encounters whet the appetite for more and augment the frustrations of the anti-dialogical coursework they must endure to earn a degree. It is clear that students are hungry to know once they discover the illusion of learning they were conditioned to prior to dialogical encounters. Not all students embrace these opportunities, because the rules have changed and they prefer a system they can game to a system where they have to think. Chomsky and Macedo (2000) claim this disposition is the result of schooling as “the social construction of not seeing.” Schmidt (2000) correctly describes what is at stake: “We do not lose our identity by confronting the system, we lose it by conforming to it.” As Dykstra asserts:

If there is a key to reinventing our educational system, it lies in what our teachers believe about the nature of knowing. Without a reexamination and change in beliefs about the nature of knowing, there will be no substantial change in the enterprise of education. (1996, p. 202)

Freire is prophetic in addressing the development of technology with a warning that it can be a tool of freedom as long as its uses promote humanization. Ellul (1965) warns us that the exact opposite is occurring and that neoliberalism is not about the globalization of capitalism, but of “technique,” which he explains as the shift whereby humans are conditioned to be at the service of machines, rather than machines being at the service of humanity. (A comprehensive review of this dilemma is provided by Beatham, 2000, 2008.) ← 56 | 57 →


The reductionists, pedants of piecemeal, got it right if the goal is to reproduce hegemony through a system of reading instruction that appears logical yet serves the purpose of withholding literacy from would-be learners. Fragmentation is a mechanism of oppression, and behaviorism is the scientism of manipulation. Freire and Macedo (1998) refer to the “false dichotomies” that separate thinking and feeling, word and world, reading and writing, teacher and learner, theory and practice, which lead to anti-dialogical practices. Integration is the pedagogical response to such theories and systems, and Freire’s “word world” (1983) is the most eloquent representation of literacy, since it expresses so much so simply.

It is undeniable that the world we live in is in crisis—morally, economically, socially, environmentally, and attitudinally. We are living in an age of narcissism, nihilism, fatalism, and distraction. As Postman (1986) notes, we are “amusing ourselves to death” (Giroux, 2001; Hedges, 2009; Jackson, 2008; Barber, 2007). The dominant paradigm of hegemony is behaviorism. It appears in the discourse of schools where labels announce a deficit orientation that justifies the continuation of pedagogical negligence. Since problems are located in the students and their families, the violence (Stuckey, 1991) of the dominant paradigm goes unquestioned and unchallenged. Standardization controls the curriculum and represses teachers who know better. Teacher preparation often reflects a domestication process wherein students are indoctrinated into the faulty logic of oppressive practices. Giroux thus implores critical pedagogues:

Against the encroaching forces of militarization, corporatism, and ideological intolerance, educators have the difficult task of matching their sense of engaged scholarship with a meaningful and critical pedagogy, one that enables students to engage in debate and dialogue about pressing social problems and to believe not only that civic life matters but that they can make a difference in shaping it. (Giroux, 2007, p. 5)

Teaching is not a technique; it is an art anchored in scholarship, and history tells us an artist rejects colonization and demands self-determination.

Never in the history of humanity has a pedagogy offered through Freire’s work been so promising and so vital. As long as oppression exists, Pedagogy of the Oppressed will be relevant. While it is evident what strengths and groundbreaking insights come through the experiences he was able to contemplate and connect with theory, weaknesses are mainly what he addressed through the evolution of his theories in later books. His emerging clarifications and deepening of insights demonstrate his openness to a scholarly path. The core of ideas presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed is sound and well thought out. That this book has resonated continuously around the world in so many languages is evidence of its importance.

Another indication of the precise nature of Freire’s analysis of mechanisms of oppression and pedagogical ways to overcome it is provided by the ways in which his work has been consistently ignored, rejected, and dismissed by oppressors and anti-intellectuals. In the context of the United States, for many years it was claimed that Freire was only relevant in Third World contexts. To this Macedo (1992) comments, “ Have you been to East LA, Camden, or East St. Louis lately?” He points to the work of Jonathan Kozol (2005), elaborated upon in Chapter 18 of this volume. The Third World-ization of the extremely poor in the United States makes Freire’s work most relevant in ghettos and cultures of poverty (Kohl, 1994). White (2003) captures the postmodern dilemma: ← 57 | 58 →

From Adorno’s perspective, the meaning of the Information Economy is the final victory of the organization of “facts” over truth. The brutal consequence of this victory is suffering and death for certain “administered populations” and, at best in the First World, a great diminishment of what it means to be human…. The “end of history” that conservatives have celebrated becomes the end of hope for justice and universal wellbeing. (p. 176)

Paulo Freire has left behind a legacy of hope and ontological clarity for cultural workers who continue to engage in the ceaseless struggle for social justice and humanization. The paradigm shift from well-behaved technicist to a praxis of critical pedagogy has salvaged the vocation of teaching and filled the lives of so many with the joy and satisfaction gained through the celebration of human intelligence. We owe a debt of gratitude to the humble teacher from Pernambuco who took the trouble to care. He used literacy to pen a pedagogical response to oppression through a language of critique infused with a pedagogy of love as taught to him by his second wife, Nita Freire. According to Paulo Freire, it was from her pedagogy of love that he learned that to love again is always possible, since her presence in his life prevented him from losing what characterized Freire and his work most: hope. In his last writings, perhaps as a tribute to Nita, Freire continually returned to the theme of hope, challenging us to embrace it as an essential part of our human condition:

In truth, from the point of view of the human condition, hope is an essential component and not an intruder. It would be a serious contradiction of what we are if, aware of our unfinishedness, we were not disposed to participate in a constant movement of search, which in its very nature is an expression of hope. Hope is a natural, possible, and necessary impetus in the context of our unfinishedness. Hope is an indispensable seasoning in our human, historical experience. History exists only where time is problematized and not simply a given. A future that is inexorable is a denial of history. (Freire, 1998b, p. 69)


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Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969)

Richard Ognibene

It is surprising and disappointing that so much of what has been written about the history and impact of the 1960s fails to include anything about education (Brokaw, 2007; Cavallo, 1999; Gitlin, 1999). It’s an unfortunate omission. An institution whose emerging ideology and practice during that decade was framed by books by Jerome Bruner (1960) and A.S. Neill (1960) at one end and by Carl Rogers (1969) and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1969) at the other was making a contribution to a new emphasis on respect and care for individuals regardless of their academic ability, gender, race, disability, or impoverishment. This chapter will highlight one of those texts, Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, a book whose primary focus addressed teaching and learning processes and alienation issues that affected students across the board. The chapter begins with an examination of educational developments in the prior decades that provide the context for the subversive proposals in Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s book.

The Non-Subversive Background

The goal and practice of progressive education as envisioned by John Dewey was modified almost from the beginning. Two years after the publication of his Democracy and Education (1916), a National Education Association report delineated a list of educational goals that were practical and non-intellectual, a trend that continued until the post−World War II period, culminating in an educational movement known as life adjustment education. For Dewey, the role of the teacher was to develop creative activities that took advantage of student interests nurtured by environments with which they were familiar. These group activities would stimulate natural thought processes that led to the acquisition of traditional subject matter and simultaneously promote the social and ← 61 | 62 → cooperative skills necessary to maintain our democratic civic culture (Dworkin, 1967). In contrast, the primary curricular emphases of life adjustment education were home economics, business education, and common learnings—a course that replaced history and English with one that emphasized participation in community affairs, human relations, and personal problem solving (Broder, 1976; Tanner & Tanner, 1990).

Two factors combined to put an end to life adjustment education, one of which was the emergence of the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, a tension-filled development that was intensified by the Soviets’ successful test of an atomic bomb in 1949 (Mazuzan, 1994). The other factor was the public attack against life adjustment by prominent critics such as the historian Arthur Bestor and James Bryant Conant, the scientist who was president of Harvard.

Bestor’s books Educational Wastelands (1953) and The Restoration of Learning (1955) severely criticized the “educationists” whose trivial curriculum replaced traditional liberal arts courses. His critique set the stage for educational assessments such as James Conant’s The American High School Today (1959), an influential book that asserted that the high school needed no radical change and affirmed the value of the basic secondary liberal arts and science curriculum for all students. As Conant well knew by the late 1950s, concerted efforts to improve high school math and science had begun shortly after the end of World War II.

After several years of Congressional debate, one American response to threats posed by the Soviet Union was to create a National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950, whose purpose was to fund scientific explorations, award fellowships to graduate and undergraduate students doing research, and raise the standards of science education in public schools (Spring, 2011, pp. 360–362).

To achieve the latter goal, the NSF funded curriculum study groups dominated by college teachers whose task was to create new curricula in math, physics, and biology. Between 1956 and 1975, the NFS provided funding for 43 projects in mathematics and science, money that was used to cover the expenses of the study groups and the new materials they produced and to organize summer teacher-training institutes on college campuses across the country (Gutek, 2000, pp. 191–196). Although this was an impressive effort, by 1970 there was a near consensus that curriculum reform had not taken hold, primarily because teachers had little input in developing the new material (Silberman, 1970). When Postman and Weingartner published Teaching as a Subversive Activity in 1969, it was evident that curriculum reform had not yet been satisfactorily achieved.

Even if the “new” curricula did not last in the actual form in which they were developed, the reasoning behind them remained intact. A summary statement of the intentions of the makers of the new curricula was provided in Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education (1960). As Bruner repeatedly noted, learning was a process of inquiry and discovery. Teachers must find ways to entice students to connect creatively and intuitively with the material at hand. If the students were successful, those lessons would be learned deeply and serve as the basis for more advanced study when students are at the right age and stage of psychological development. Bruner was the most influential spokesperson of the new education in the 1960s. Teaching as a Subversive Activity also promoted the inquiry method without reservation. Nevertheless, Postman and Weingartner had an insurmountable disagreement with Bruner: ← 62 | 63 →

[He] has done much to answer the question “How do people come to know?,” but, curiously, he has not addressed himself to the question “What’s worth knowing?,” at least from the point of view of the learner. It is almost impossible to find in Bruner’s explications of inquiry learning one illustration of children’s solving problems that are of deep concern to children. (Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 53)

Progressive Education: Vintage 1969

Throughout the 1960s, observers and participants in schools serving minority populations published books that provided horrifying descriptions of some of those schools. Nat Hentoff’s Our Children Are Dying (1966) and Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) are two such examples. The “death” in Hentoff’s and Kozol’s titles described the despair and sense of hopelessness that killed children’s spirit and any belief that they could make a better life for themselves. On the other hand, there were books published in 1969 by Herbert Kohl, George Dennison, Carl Rogers, and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner that were intended to provide information about how to create educational experiences that would enable students to blossom rather than wither and die.

In 1969 Herbert Kohl and George Dennison wrote books based on their teaching experiences—Kohl in a public school in Harlem and Dennison in a small free school on New York’s Lower East Side. Kohl’s book The Open Classroom (1969) was an instructional companion to 36 Children (1967), his inspirational account of his first full year of teaching in which he learned how to connect to his students. He consciously created a non-hierarchical classroom community using interesting magazines, fables, music, field trips, and their life stories as the basis for writing and artwork that yielded academic achievements they had never experienced and which no one in the school expected from them. Kohl (1969) tells us in his introduction that the purpose of The Open Classroom was straightforward: “This book is a handbook for teachers who want to work in an open environment” (p. 15). An open classroom is a communal environment in which the teacher and students are authentically themselves and solve problems together.

In several respects, George Dennison’s The Lives of Children and Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn, both published in 1969, share views that are compatible, though different in origin. Dennison had studied gestalt therapy under the direction of Paul Goodman (himself a well-known educational critic), and Rogers, a psychotherapist, was singularly famous as the creator of client-centered therapy. Like Kohl’s 36 Children, Dennison’s The Lives of Children is filled with examples of students who emerged from failure and despair to become young people who were, to use a Rogerian term, more fully functional.

The key to these successes was the ability of the teacher to step back and relate to the children in the present moment and not dwell on their past failures. The presence of an adult who was non-judgmental but who subtly expressed confidence in them produced results. Dennison was more in tune with the idea of student freedom as practiced at A.S. Neill’s (1960) Summerhill school, while Rogers was more comfortable laying out an array of strategies to promote free-choice classroom options that could be motivational.

In 1971 Dennison, Goodman, Hentoff, Kozol, and John Holt wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Review of Books describing the work of experimental alternative schools that incorporated many of the principles found in their own work. The purpose of the letter was to ← 63 | 64 → solicit money to be sent to a newly created fund to subsidize some of those schools, many of which had serious financial problems. Although Teaching as a Subversive Activity used a different approach to promote educational change, Postman and Weingartner were supportive and aware of the contributions those authors made to the 1960s educational reform movement. In their next book, The Soft Revolution (1971), Postman and Weingartner told their readers:

If you think we need new kinds of schools that are good for kids, and you would like to help guys like George Dennison, Paul Goodman, Nat Hentoff, John Holt, and Jonathan Kozol to get such schools started, send one dollar to…. (p. 181)

Although there is no bibliography in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, one book frequently referred to in that text was Carl Rogers’s On Becoming a Person (1961). Postman and Weingartner were clearly in sync with, and part of, the neo-progressive educational renaissance that reached a crescendo as the decade of the 1960s was coming to a close.

Teaching as a Subversive Activity: The Essential Concepts

Like other social and educational critics, Postman and Weingartner viewed the 1960s as a period of rapid change, not all of which was positive. As was true of all their books—as well as those that Postman later wrote alone—they had faith that education could improve conditions that were negative, but not the way in which education was being practiced.

It is the thesis of this book that change—constant, accelerating, and ubiquitous—is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in, and that our educational system has not yet recognized this fact…. It is not beyond our ingenuity to design school environments which can help young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world. (1969, p. xiii)

In both the first and concluding chapters of Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner use the term “crap detecting” to describe the need for students to recognize, and respond to, social change. Schools should help students reexamine the culture and institutions in which they were brought up and encourage them to participate in transforming them as necessary. Schools and teachers can foster crap detecting by helping students understand that their views of the world are shaped by the medium sending them (McLuhan), and that institutions and cultural norms are not inviolate, but open to interpretation and change (1969, Chapter 2).

The way this can be accomplished in schools is to use the inquiry method, a style of teaching that is “not designed to do better what older environments try to do…. It activates different senses, attitudes and perceptions [and] generates a different, bolder, and more potent kind of intelligence” (p. 27). This approach requires “the most important intellectual ability man has yet developed—the art and science of asking questions—[but, unbelievably!] it is not taught in school” (p. 23). Teachers are the key to creating successful inquiry environments, and in order to do that they must (1) refrain from telling; (2) communicate via questions; (3) accept multiple answers; (4) promote student-to-student dialogue; (5) not summarize responses; (6) develop lessons from problem-based student responses; and (7) measure success in terms of behavioral changes in students (pp. 34–37). ← 64 | 65 →

Postman and Weingartner’s disdain for irrelevant traditional curriculum and its accompanying authoritarian methodology is clear. They cite H.L. Mencken’s line that the main thing children learn in school is how to lie, and G.B. Shaw’s comment that the only time his education was interrupted was when he was in school. They assert that children know that school is a game. “The game is called ‘Let’s Pretend’; and if its name were chiseled into the front of every school building in America, we would, at least, have an honest announcement of what takes place there” (p. 49).

The consequence of the game is profound student alienation, and we have already noted some of the ways Kohl and Dennison overcame that. For Postman and Weingartner, the solution to alienation is the use of a questions-based curriculum. They give four pages of sample questions (illustrations, not requirements), some of which are personal, others of which are language-based, or historical, or scientific or math-related, and so on (pp. 62–65). The questions posed must deal with problems that are perceived as useful and realistic to the learners (p. 81). They must be divergent, or open-ended, which leads to additional questions that probe issues more deeply. Indirectly criticizing Bruner once more, they write that “we will need to start talking more about the ‘structure of the learner and his learning’ and less about ‘the structure of the subject’” (p. 80).

For Postman and Weingartner, an additional crucial consideration is the reality derived from perception studies that things are what we make of them; we are meaning-makers in the sense that our naming and understanding things is shaped by our past experiences. The stuff out there (like school subjects) is not static and grasped by everyone in the same way. Since we acquire and transmit meaning through language, “the new education, in addition to being student-centered and question-centered must also be language-centered” (p. 102). Teaching as a Subversive Activity is replete with explanations, examples, and thought-provoking lists that flesh out the general ideas presented above.

One such list addresses questions about how to be subversive if you are a teacher and buy into the general themes of the book. The suggestions fill a chapter (XII, pp. 193–206), and the first one provides a flavor of many parts of the text. To become more subversive, Postman and Weingartner propose that teachers tape a piece of paper with these questions on the mirror they use every morning: “What am I going to have my students do today? What’s it good for? How do I know?” (p. 193). Next come suggestions about the value of not telling, but listening to students as described in several of Carl Rogers’s publications related to communication theory. Another asks, what would happen if you walked into class with a noticeable assumption that you thought all the students were brilliant? Teachers could make parts of their course outlines and tests concerned with future issues and not just those of the past. There are others, but the chapter ends with these words: “There is nothing in what we have said in this book that precludes the use, at one time or another, of any of the conventional methods and materials of learning” (p. 205; italics in original). This conclusion aligns with what others thought of Postman’s educational writings: “[H]e scrutinized every aspect of schooling…[but] his own conclusions were an invitation, an insistence that we figure things out for ourselves” (Kavanagh, 2003, p. 12).

In The School Book (1973), Postman and Weingartner include a chapter entitled “What Is a Good School?” The chapter fleshes out ideas presented in Teaching as a Subversive Activity and contains statements on ways in which a good school can operate more subversively. The ← 65 | 66 → statements fill 15 pages (pp. 30–44); only a few can be cited here in abridged form to provide some insight about their ideas. A school is good when:

time sequences are not arbitrary;
students are not all required to do the same activity at the same time;
question asking is more valued than memorization;
individual judgments replace standardized evaluation processes;
collaborative relationships are established rather than authoritarian ones;
teachers act as facilitators rather than authority figures;
community participation is valued more than bureaucratic paternalism; and
knowledge, attitudes, and skills being cultivated are future oriented.

Perhaps 75 such statements, much elaborated, fill those 15 pages.

Responses to Teaching as a Subversive Activity Then and Now

Teaching as a Subversive Activity is a timeless book. The 1971 paperback version is still in print, and an online citizen journal in northern India published a positive review of it in 2014, with no mention that it was a 45-year-old book (Kishore, 2014). In the 1960s Postman (New York University) and Weingartner (Queens College) were English education professors and members of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), where some of their earlier work on the “new” English curriculum and linguistics was previewed and discussed. In 1965 they were part of a small cabal of NCTE members who were trying to influence their staid organization, and to do so they created a fictitious special interest group in which they would serve as “secretaries in charge of questioning assumptions.” The group met for 3 years and, humorously, even put out an occasional newsletter. “Something happened after the publication of Teaching as a Subversive Activity,” one member of the group noted, and “over the next two decades Postman and Weingartner made a number of major addresses at NCTE conventions” (Karl, 2004, p. 23). That’s understandable, since these authors proposed that education should be “language-centered”; still, it must have been a little difficult for some members to sit though Postman’s 1969 address entitled “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection.”

Teaching as a Subversive Activity was widely used in foundation courses in teacher education programs and enthusiastically read by prospective teachers who grew up in an era of social protest. It was “the leading education prep book of the time,” notes one professor who was in a teacher-training program when the book was published (Dodge, 2014). Another age-related professorial colleague describes the book as a “manifesto…for those of us who were committed to changing the backward-looking public education system of the day” (Hatch, 2007). The book is still used in some education courses (Johnson, n.d.).

Teaching as a Subversive Activity served as the philosophical starting point for an experimental public high school program in New Rochelle, New York, identified as the Three I Program (Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study). It featured community experiences—so as to allow students’ special interests to flourish—and in-school seminars designed to do the same thing. The critique of traditional curriculum and the description of the desired alternative program outcomes were taken directly from Postman and Weingartner’s text (Shapiro Gaddy Presentation, 1970). At a religiously affiliated middle school in Rochester, New York, two teachers ← 66 | 67 → who had participated in a workshop related to Teaching as a Subversive Activity conceptualized a play entitled The Carnival of Life, which was a critique of the alienation present in modern schools and society. “Men go to the moon to wonder,” the program cover stated, but “children go to the circus to understand.” The carnival framework enabled a runaway girl to meet a magical clown who took her around the circus. There they met performers who sang, danced, and read literary selections and poetry—all of which were related to living an authentic life and creating a world where “you cannot lie.” Clearly, this was not a school that needed a “let’s pretend” sign (E. Ognibene, personal communication, September 16, 2013; M. Weis, personal communication, September 18, 2013). These brief examples only hint at the larger sphere of influence the book had. Jay Rosen, a student and then a colleague of Postman, offered this reflection when Postman died in 2003:

His original and core readership remained teachers, and I witnessed it numerous times, the ritual: a woman in her 40s or 50s would approach after a speech. “Professor Postman, I just want to tell you, I read your book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. That book changed my life.” Often she would have the book with her, and he would sign it…with a felt tip pen. (Rosen, 2003)

There are two themes that run through much of the contemporary commentary (including my own) about the pedagogical aspects of Teaching as a Subversive Activity: (1) I read the book before, and it still influences how I teach, or (2); I just discovered this 1969 book and I am amazed how relevant its classroom recommendations still are (Snell, 2011). As I will note later, Postman and Weingartner’s relevance to the social purpose of education may be even more important now.

Beyond the earlier reference to the book review published in a pro-democracy, online newspaper in India, Teaching as a Subversive Activity has had some international significance. In England, after much debate, the subject “Citizenship Education” became a requirement in the country’s National Curriculum in 2002. Since evaluation of this addition was the next step, explanations and interpretations of the subject have been ongoing. One example is Ralph Leighton’s 2006 article revisiting Postman and Weingartner’s 1969 book and asking, “Is teaching Citizenship Education a subversive activity?” His short answer is yes, and the article tells us why. According to Leighton, prevailing practices in typical English classrooms produce passive students who are taught to accept their place in society and not question authority. Leighton’s solution is crap detection, meaning-making, and the questions-oriented curriculum sections cited at length from Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Reading the article is like reading a summary of the book.

A real-world application of the essential components of Postman and Weingartner’s text can be found in the activities of The Philosophy Club, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. This organization’s purpose is to engage in “collaborative philosophical enquiry with children,” and that is accomplished through co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for students ages 8 to 14. The longest section of the club’s website (Philosophy Club, n.d.) has the heading “Teaching as a Subversive Activity Redux,” and the information presented is almost entirely paraphrased from the text. The activities described are clearly derived from the same source. ← 67 | 68 →

If They Were Alive Today

Postman and Weingartner co authored five books between 1966 and 1973, a publication partnership that ended when Weingartner moved to the University of South Florida, where he became a professor emeritus in 1982. He died in 2007. They were obviously in philosophical agreement about the purpose and practice of education, but the remainder of this analysis is related to Postman and some subsequent material he wrote.

As one commentator noted, Postman wrote some 20 books addressing diverse topics but which “in fact centre on a core of recurring themes dealing with the intersection of technology, language, and education” (Rose, 1996). Postman’s last book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (1999), affirms that perspective and again demonstrates his role as teacher and social critic. In the last chapter of the book (pp. 155–174), he reminds us that one of the contributions of the Enlightenment was the promotion of skepticism as an intellectual virtue. Postman earlier called that quality “crap detecting” and commented that modern educators label that ability “critical thinking,” but do little to encourage it. So once again he calls for question-asking and the study of the role of language as the basis of school curriculum, to which he added science and technology education as sources of inquiry, not content to be mastered, and comparative religion as a way to better understand the aspects of culture and society informed by different faiths.

Postman died in 2003, at a time when corporate involvement in public education was becoming increasingly devastating. Corporate educational priorities include the privatization of public schooling; the destruction of teacher unions, enabling entry-level teachers to be hired and resulting in cost savings and lower taxes; and unfettered access to an education marketplace worth $700 billion. Their methods of destruction are the use of evaluation systems devoid of sound measurement principles, mass funding of alternative schools through corporate foundations whose money is directed to private charter school organizations, and financial support of politicians who would pass laws and create policies that enable all of this to happen.

In 2009 Diane Ravitch published a book whose title, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, explains corporate educational goals and outlines how it is done and who is doing it. Ravitch, a research professor at New York University, is a powerful voice in the resistance to corporate educational dominance. One can only speculate how much Neil Postman, once her NYU colleague, could have contributed to the mobilization of forces needed to stop the corporate takeover of American education. One suspects he would have been an invaluable ally. An essay Postman published in his Conscientious Objections (1988) suggests why.

The essay was a fictitious commencement speech in which Postman contrasts the Athenians with the Visigoths (pp. 185–190). We remember the Athenians, Postman says, because they gave us literacy, philosophy, political democracy, science, poetry, and plays that still touch us, and a reverence for beauty and excellence. In comparison, the Visigoths were marauders who overran the Roman Empire. They did not contribute to culture; rather, they destroyed much of what had been created and ushered in the long period of Western history known as the Dark Ages. There are modern-day Athenians and Visigoths, and Postman points out their many differences, of which this is the first:

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially, the quest for knowledge in high esteem—these are, to an Athenian, the most exulted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people. (p. 188) ← 68 | 69 →

Postman died just at the beginning of the age of insane overemphasis on compulsory standardized testing that results in reduced time for creative, engaging, and experimental activities in order to make graduates “career ready.” In 1982 Postman penned this sentiment: “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see” (p. xi). We can be sure that, if they were alive today, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner would reject the messages being sent and urge more insistently than ever that teaching become a subversive activity. They would be proud, I think, of the ways teachers are doing this now and enlisting the support of parents and community members to help them.


Bestor, A. (1953). Educational wastelands. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Bestor, A. (1955). The restoration of learning. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Broder, D.E. (1976). Life adjustment education: An historical study of a program of the United States Office of Education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, New York, NY.

Brokaw, T. (2007). Boom! Voices of the sixties. New York: Random House.

Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cavallo, D. (1999). A fiction of the past: The sixties in American history. New York: Palgrave.

Conant, J.B. (1959). The American high school today. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dennison, G. (1969). The lives of children. New York: Random House.

Dennison, G., Goodman, P., Hentoff, N., Holt, J., & Kozol, J. (1971, February 11). New nation seed fund. New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/feb/11/new-nation-seed-fund/

Dodge, A. (2014, October 27). Teaching as a subversive activity. HuffpostEducation. Retrieved from http//:www.huffingtonpost.com/arnold-dodge/teaching-as-a-subversive-_b_5724706.html

Dworkin, M. (Ed.). (1967). Dewey on education: Selections. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gitlin, T. (1993). The sixties: Years of hope, days of rage. New York: Bantam Books.

Gutek, G. (2000). American education: 1945–2000. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hatch, J.A. (2007). Learning as a subversive activity. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(4), 310–311.

Hentoff, N. (1966). Our children are dying. New York: Viking Press.

Johnson, R. (n.d.). Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Kirkwood Community College. Retrieved from http://faculty.kirkwood.edu/site/index.php?p=28139

Karl, H. (2004). Of questioning assumptions, crap detecting, and splinters of ice in the heart. English Journal, 94(2), 20–24.

Kavanagh, P. (2003, November 21). Why Postman matters. Commentary, pp. 12–13.

Kishore, L. (2014, September 4). Book review: Teaching as a subversive activity. U4Uvoice. Retrieved from http://u4uvoice.com/jammu-kashmir-news/book-review-teaching-subversive-activity/

Kohl, H.R. (1967). 36 children. New York: New American Library.

Kohl, H.R. (1969). The open classroom. New York: New York Review.

Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Leighton, R. (2006). Revisiting Postman and Weingartner’s “new education”: Is teaching citizenship education a subversive activity? Citizen Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 79–89.

Mazuzan, G. (1994). The National Science Foundation: A brief history. Retrieved from http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/nsf50/nsf8816.jsp

Neill, A.S. (1960). Summerhill: A radical approach to child rearing. New York: Hart Publishing Company.

Philosophy Club. (n.d.). Retrieved from www.thephilosophyclub.com.au

Postman, N. (1969). Neil Postman—Bullshit and the art of crap-detection. Critical Thinking Snippets. Retrieved from https://criticalsnips.wordpress.com/2007/07/22/neil-postman-bullshit-and-the-art-of-crap-detection/

Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Postman, N. (1988). Conscientious objections. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (1999). Building a bridge to the 18th century. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte Press.

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1971). The soft revolution. New York: Dell Publishing.

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1973). The school book. New York: Delacorte Press.

Ravitch, D. (2009). The death and life of the great American school system. New York: Basic Books. ← 69 | 70 →

Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Rose, E. (1996). Review of The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. Journal of Technology Education, 8(1). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JTE/v8n1/Rose.html

Rosen, J. (2003, October 10). Neil Postman: A civilized man in a century of barbarism. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2003/10/10/postman/

Shapiro Gaddy presentation to the board of education: The Three I Program proposal. (1970). Retrieved from http://www.joshkarf.com/3i/proposal1970

Silberman, C. (1970). Crisis in the classroom. New York: Random House.

Snell, R. (2011, January 25). Teaching as a subversive activity. Information and Access. Retrieved from http://informationandaccess.blogspot.com/2011/01/teaching-as-subversive-activity-by-neil.html

Spring, J. (2011). The American school: A global context from the Puritans to the Obama era (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tanner, D., & Tanner, L. (1990). The history of school curriculum. New York: Macmillan.

← 70 | 71 →



The 1970s

← 71 | 72 →

← 72 | 73 →



Charles E. Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (1970)

William M. Reynolds

My motive is political, in the broadest sense of the term—as George Orwell defined it, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s ideas of the kind of society that we should strive after.” (Silberman, 1970, p. vii)

It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public school classrooms without being appalled by the mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, of pleasure creating, of sense of self. (Silberman, 1970, p. 10)


When Charles E. Silberman (1925–2011) wrote Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (1970), he was not faced with public schools and university teacher education classrooms that were saturated with the corporate, neoliberal agenda of standardization, high-stakes testing, accountability, pay-for-performance, and scripted lesson plans. He was appalled for different reasons, but his sentiments certainly echo through the years and have some relevance for the current historical moment. He would, no doubt, be absolutely horrified by the state of public education 45 years later. He was concerned, as were many educational critics, curriculum theorists, and others of that period, by the lack of meaning in public school and university classrooms.

Silberman was not an educator but rather a journalist and sociologist (see Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 2004). In the late 1960s Silberman was a member of the editorial board of Fortune magazine. Crisis in the Classroom was supported by a $300,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation and appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in a pre-publication serial that included ← 73 | 74 → sensation-causing titles such as “Murder in the School Room” and “How the Public Schools Kill Dreams and Mutilate Minds” (Pinar et al., 2004). Both the articles and the book were widely read not only by educators but also by the public in general. Silberman also edited a volume in 1973 entitled The Open Classroom Reader in which he maintained a consistency with the humanistic reform-mindedness of Crisis in the Classroom: “The public schools, those ‘killers of the dream,’ to use a phrase of Lillian Smith’s—are the kind of institution one cannot really dislike until one gets to know them” (Silberman, 1970, p. 10).

Unlike the twenty-first-century fixation with accountability and test scores, in the 1970s the crisis was one of meaning. Education was in need of “remaking.” Silberman wrote the book not only for the scholarly community, but for teachers, administrators, school board members, and the general public as well. In 1971 it reached number 9 on The New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction, quite an accomplishment for a book on education.


The pervasive emphasis on cognition and its separation from affect poses a threat to our society in that our educational institutions may produce cold, detached individuals uncommitted to humanitarian goals. (Weinstein & Fantini, 1970, p. 27)

The cumulative effect of the schooling experience is devastating. We graduate credential but crazed, erudite but fragmented shells of human possibility. (Pinar, 1976, p. 27)

The spirit of humanism was alive and well in the 1970s. Again, the focus of educational discussion was not on improving the technical arena, such as test scores, but on meaning and the human condition. Silberman was shocked by the instrumentalism that governed schools. He wanted them to be remade with a Deweyan concern for the education of the whole child. Education was not only for cognition but for the self as well and thus should be an education for the head and the heart.

Dewey argued in theory: that a deep and genuine concern for individual growth and fulfillment not only is compatible with but indeed demands an equally genuine concern for cognitive growth and intellectual discipline, for transmitting the cultural heritage of society. (Silberman, 1970, p. 220)

This reflects the spirit of 1970s discussions on humanism and education, an orientation that many publications, educators, and educational associations would emphasize in the decade. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), in particular, took up the mantra of humanistic endeavors. ASCD was, at the time, the central organization focusing on curriculum theory, and much of the innovative work done in the 1970s in curriculum, and education in general, came from the writings that it published. (This was before its main emphasis shifted to educational administration.) ASCD gave its 1970 yearbook the title To Nurture Humanness. In this volume, editors M.M. Scobey and G. Graham called for tranquility and self-actualization—the latter concept having been made famous by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1968). In it are several elements of the humanistic position: persons as holistic and in a state of becoming or growing, the necessity of interaction with the environment for learning and knowledge creation, the importance of dialogue for both the ← 74 | 75 → exchange and growth of knowledge, and the centrality of acknowledging and fostering individuality (Schubert, 2002).1 These issues would also concern Silberman. Even though Silberman in many ways defies classification, it would be safe to say that his work fit well with the humanistic tradition—if, indeed, a humanistic tradition does exist.

The Book

Quixotic? Perhaps. Utopian? Maybe so. Nevertheless, we think Charles Silberman has performed a great service, if only because his book may stimulate individuals to effect some changes in their own classrooms. At this moment in our history, that may be all we can expect (Greene, 1970, p. 141).

One of the ways in which Silberman’s book was able to reach such a broad audience was that, though well-researched and copiously documented, it is not filled with sociological or educational jargon. Since Silberman was a journalist, it is not surprising that Crisis in the Classroom is written in that style, —one that makes even his most complex arguments comprehensible to the general reading public. He also uses the journalistic technique of firsthand observations.

Silberman’s book is divided into four parts: “The Educating Society,” “What’s Wrong with the Schools,” “How the Schools Should Be Changed,” and “The Education of Educators.” Let us take a brief look at each section. This chapter cannot possibly offer an exhaustive study of Silberman’s book; rather, it will point out portions of the book that seem relevant, lasting, and important to this author, as well as areas that may have been weak in Silberman’s analysis.

The Educating Society

In the two chapters in Section 1 (“Introduction: Education for What?” and “American Education: Success or Failure”), Silberman addresses some crucial topics. He discusses the problem of mindlessness in public schools but expands that criticism not only to the schools but to the entire educational system and society as well. What did Silberman consider mindlessness? In schools and in society, it is the lack of a sustained effort to question the purposes of education. Why are we doing what we are doing? He does suggest that most public school personnel (teachers, principals, and superintendents) are smart and caring people. But he describes how they “botch” it up: “it is because it simply never occurs to more than a handful to ask why they are doing what they are doing—to think seriously or deeply about the purposes or consequences of education” (Silberman, 1970, p. 11). Silberman claims that we confuse the means with the ends in education. Getting through the day with lesson plans, organization, control, and management constitute the means, but he contends that they are seen as the ends. Silberman uses the example of the “tyranny of the lesson plan”:

[The lesson plan] in turn encourages an obsession with routine for the sake of routine. School is filled with countless examples of teachers and administrators confusing the means with the ends, thereby making it impossible to reach the end for which the means were devised. (p. 125)

This led Silberman to conclude that all in our society could benefit from consistently asking questions about what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

In Chapter 2, Silberman questions whether or not American education is a success or a failure. His answer is that there is a great paradox regarding education and its “pervasive sense ← 75 | 76 → of crisis” (p. 19). He suggests that the crisis is not exclusively an educational problem, but one of the larger society as well. Despite the amazing improvements in many areas of life by 1970, those improvements did not generally produce happiness or contentment, but instead dissatisfaction. The problem is that, as good as things are—and they are better than they were—they are not as good as they could be. Silberman says that the media are in part responsible for making people aware of poverty and violence. He uses as an illustration the nightly coverage of the war in Vietnam. He expands his ideas about the media and education that in many ways foreshadow cultural studies, including the study of popular culture. Silberman argues that youth learn just as much from media as they do in school:

Students probably learn more about certain subjects from television than from schools; moreover, as the sociologist Herbert J. Gans of Columbia University has suggested, television and to a lesser extent the other mass media play a major role in “bringing the news”2 about how to live in contemporary society. (p. 32)

Silberman indicates that other professionals (doctors, lawyers, and social workers, for example) need to view themselves as educators as well in order to make improvements in how we educate the entire society, and that the field of education itself requires philosophical professionals.

What’s Wrong with the Schools?

In the second section of the book, Silberman discusses education and equality, docility and reform. Schools are not “the great equalizer,” and if they are to fulfill that role, they must go about the task of educating youth from “minority-group and lower-class homes” (p. 54). He critiques a rather famous 1969 article from the Harvard Educational Review by Arthur Jensen of the University of California, Berkeley. Jensen argued that genetic factors were responsible for African American students’ lower IQ scores and poor achievement, and he suggested that schools that educate African American students should concentrate on rote learning. Much to his credit, Silberman writes that Jensen’s whole argument “that black-white IQ differences are largely genetic in origin simply does not stand” (Silberman, 1970, p. 77). He follows with a detailed explanation of the cultural factors that must be considered when judging poor children’s development. Regarding Jensen’s argument concerning the environment, Silberman concludes that “Jensen’s whole treatment of environment, in fact, is simplistic almost to the point of caricature” (p. 77). Silberman concludes that the failure of “slum” schools should be placed at the door of societal and school conditions, not on any elaboration of poor children’s inadequacies.

Education, according to Silberman, produces docile students. Education in the late 1960s and early 1970s was (and continues to be in the twenty-first century) about control and compliance. All schools share a number of characteristics that foster this mindless docility. Silberman elaborates on such characteristics as compulsion (the fact that children must be in school), length of the school day, crowded classrooms, and the evaluative condition (Silberman, 1970). This behaviorist orientation, together with a rigid adherence to timetables, schedules, and the like—not only cuts learning short but establishes a rather factory-like obedience to the clock. Children learn to follow schedules in a routinized manner and in shabby classrooms. For Silberman, the fragmentation in subjects and the consequent lack of interest in the subject matter characterize the public schools from the elementary level through high school. Children are not allowed to explore their own curiosity but are compelled to follow the regimentation of ← 76 | 77 → the school day. This time management was exacerbated by rigid codes of behavior, dress, and discipline.

Silberman also tackles the formidable issue of educational reform, describing of the failures of educational reform “sketchily but well” (Greene, 1970, p. 136). He says that the reform movement(s) of the post-Sputnik era promised significant transformation, but nothing much has changed. The efforts at incorporating programmed instruction, technology in the classroom, teacher-proof materials, team-teaching, and so on did not fundamentally change the schools. Much of the reform was ignored by teachers or only tacitly engaged. Silberman quotes Goodlad (1969): “We are forced to conclude that much of the so-called educational reform movement has been blunted at the classroom door” (p. 60). It is interesting that Silberman, once a supporter of the structures of the disciplines,3 at this point changed his mind and continued throughout the book to distance himself from those previously held ideas.

How the Schools Should Be Changed

In Silberman’s third chapter, “How the Schools Should Be Changed,” he outlines his vision of the remaking of public schools. In the case of the elementary school, the “open classroom” is recommended. Silberman refers to the primary schools in England and the Plowden Report (1963) on their status. This report, named after the committee chair, endorsed “informal education” or “open education” (Barth, 1972; Featherstone, 1968) and promoted the “open classroom” concept. Informal education was also known as “schools without walls.” One facet of the concept is that there are no walls separating one classroom from another, giving students more freedom to move around the school. Silberman is strong in his support for this concept. In 1973 he published The Open Classroom Reader. In it he offers a sense of “informal education,” which he contrasted (in this volume and in Crisis in the Classroom) with the heavy-handed, stultifying, teacher-proofed schools. He tells his readers that “open education,” “informal education, “and “the open classroom” are all terms that could be used for this progressive concept:

It is rather an approach to teaching and learning—a set of shared attitudes and convictions about the nature and purposes of teaching and learning, about the nature of childhood and adolescence and ultimately about the nature of man. (Silberman, 1973, p. xix)

With the advocacy of the “open classroom” concept, Silberman was echoing Dewey’s notion that childhood should be treasured for its own sake and not simply as a preparation for later life. His echoing of Dewey received praise from many of his contemporary critics. Silberman states in the book that this “informal education” can happen in the United States (It Can Happen Here). He does not focus solely on young children but also discusses secondary schools as well in his advocacy for a less restrictive, dehumanizing education. He reminds us that, in 1970, there appeared to be a growing movement for a less restrictive environment in high schools. Indicators of this change were more liberal regulations on everything from dress codes to toilet passes (Pinar et al., pp. 188–189). As Silberman writes:

Somewhat bolder attempts to humanize the schools as a whole—for example, by cutting the number of required classes, leaving students with a third or more of their time unscheduled, to be used for independent study, for taking more elective courses, for fulfilling some course requirements outside the classroom or for relaxation and leisure. (Silberman, 1970, p. 337) ← 77 | 78 →

Silberman was for reforming the entire public school system. But his critique and ideas for reform did not end with public schools; rather, they moved to teacher education and universities as well.

The Education of Educators

The remaking of American public education requires, and indeed will not be possible without, fundamental changes in the education of teachers—without, in a sense, the creation of a new breed of teacher-educator, educated to self-scrutiny and to serious thought about purpose. (Silberman, 1970, p. 374)

In his section on the education of educators, Silberman treats the issue of teacher education. Interestingly, many of his same criticisms could be leveled at teacher education in the twenty-first century. Like education in general, education for prospective teachers needs to progress toward a more informal and less technical/instrumental orientation. Prospective teachers need to be given alternative ideas about what teaching and learning can be and what different strategies might be employed to implement those new ideas. Otherwise, according to Silberman, they will teach much in the same way that the teachers before them taught.

After a lengthy discussion of the “Liberal Education of Teachers,” in which the whole notion of just what a liberal education was/is, Silberman seems to indicate that the age-old curriculum question of what kind of knowledge is of most worth, or whose knowledge is of most worth, applies mainly to the liberal arts curriculum in colleges and universities. But Silberman also maintains that the dialogue and cultivation of liberal education is just as crucial for the education of teachers. Accordingly, prospective teachers and teacher educators should think about and focus on the purposes of education—just as he had earlier advocated for continual questioning about public schools. In order for prospective teachers to engage in this kind of self-scrutiny, Silberman proposes that teacher education must emphasize the history and philosophy of education and the study of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. In addition, teachers should enhance their own self-understanding; therefore a liberal arts education enhances teacher education. He also declares that teachers can never read too many books. At the same time, teacher education requires both liberal education and professional education. Silberman felt that good pre-service teacher education should be taught by excellent professors who are excellent teachers—not by pedagogues engaged in “do as I say and not as I do.” One of the issues in the 1970s that interfered with this notion of the professor as teacher was in one sense caused by the shift in colleges and universities to a research rather than a teaching focus. In the competition among universities, even “the second-echelon universities among them, some of the largest producers of teachers” (Silberman, 1970, p. 405), were pushed to become first-echelon. This shift placed a premium on research instead teaching. When that competition heated up, the emphasis was also placed on graduate education and not undergraduate education, and research further trumped teaching:

The process is cumulative: attracting academic “stars” makes it easier to attract able students, and able students make it easier to attract the academic stars. The result is a tremendous pressure toward uniformity and conventionality in undergraduate programs. (p. 405) ← 78 | 79 →

Finally, there is a Deweyan penchant in Crisis in the Classroom for dialogue in teacher education programs. Silberman argues that teacher education programs should be “centers of inquiry rather than buildings for the one-way transmission of information” (p. 522).


Silberman’s book elicited a plethora of reviews and critiques upon its publication (see Etzioni, 1970; Greene, 1970; McCracken, 1971; & Smith, 1971). Among them, Etzioni’s was perhaps the most searing. One of his major criticisms of Silberman was based on Silberman’s use of exaggerated journalistic observations, coupled with a lack of empirical evidence: “As Silberman’s reporting is loaded with such adjectives, I cannot but start wondering about the reliability of all his first-hand observations” (Etzioni, 1970, p. 94). Among several other criticisms of Silberman’s book, the review included a critique of a lack of specificity on informal schooling, questions about humanizing teacher education, and a lack of clarity in regard to the benefit of these informal schools for working-class or lower-middle-class students:

It may seem ungrateful to a book which raises many provocative issues to conclude by saying the best we can hope to do is outgrow it rapidly—both as a policy guide for educational reforms and as a form of educational research. (Etzioni, 1970, p. 98)

Another negative appraisal, written by Robert Dreeben of the University of Chicago, appeared in the American Journal of Sociology in 1971. Dreeben’s assault centered on Silberman’s research, which Dreeben felt lacked substance. He indicated that many of Silberman’s footnotes were “irrelevant.” Again, Silberman’s shortcoming was felt to be his scholarship. Dreeben characterized it as “scholarship light”: “Most disappointing, Silberman fails to indicate systematically what schools look like, how they work, and how they are connected to surrounding social conditions” (Dreeben, 1971, p. 596).

Rodney P. Smith of Yale University (1971) and Samuel McCracken of Boston University (1971) also critiqued Silberman’s book. Although these evaluations were more forgiving, they presented some thoughtful reflections. Smith believed that Silberman’s book, despite the criticisms of others about his lackluster research, was the most scholarly, knowledgeable, and current “compared to all the critics of education in the past two decades” (Smith, 1971, p. 845). Smith’s criticism focused on Silberman’s failure to ask questions about the connections between the reform of schools and the renewal of society.

What is the place of education in a renewal of society? No, Silberman does not ask this question, though he might have. In this respect, on careful reading of Crisis in the Classroom, one sees that Silberman is not so much the harsh critic of education as he is the Dutch uncle of society in general. Thus, the blame for the present crisis in American education is to be shared by the educational establishment and the rest of the country. (Smith, 1971, p. 847)

McCracken faulted Silberman for being “longer on diagnosis than on prescription” (McCracken, 1971, p. 86). He indicated that Silberman’s book could lead to conflicting and unhelpful reforms, yet he found the book to be “useful to the discerning reader” (McCracken, 1971, p. 86). ← 79 | 80 →

The most insightful essay review of Crisis in the Classroom was written by Maxine Greene of Teachers College, Columbia University. Greene stated that it was difficult to agree with Silberman’s optimism, given the state of the nation in 1970, but that he had provided some “positive assertions about a humane education for all” (Greene, 1970, p. 136). Greene writes that it is a fine, if flawed book. She also makes clear that Silberman was influenced by the work of John Dewey. Although the successes and failures of progressive education in the 1920s and 1930s are discussed, Silberman succeeds in “defining present situations in which Dewey’s relevance is being newly recognized” (p. 133). She also indicated that Silberman did an excellent job of presenting recent educational history. Greene’s closing paragraph is perhaps the most poignant commentary on the book.

We share his hopes for a humane society. We are pleased and impressed by his Deweyan affirmations. We also believe that free days, open classrooms, and carefully structured learning environments will save the lives of many schoolchildren and help them learn to learn. But we are much afraid the “mindlessness” so effectively challenged by Charles Silberman is not the only obstacle to a transformation of the schools. There may be an entire civilization to be remade. (p. 141)

Finally, those that were working and studying in the critical tradition in education in graduate schools in the mid-1970s particularly critiqued Silberman for not taking into consideration the Marxist/neo-Marxist reproduction theory of schooling in his analysis of education in the United States. This was and remains a valid criticism.

Many of the critical assessments of Silberman’s work are correct: he did not produce a dense “scholarly” treatise on education, and it did lack a sustained critical political analysis. However, if the purpose of Silberman’s endeavor was to reach a wider audience or open the conversation about education and society in the early 1970s, the book was successful. A journalistic style might have been—and might still be—a way to accomplish those goals. Crisis in the Classroom (1970), despite the criticisms it received, helped the American public to recognize significant issues and dilemmas in American education, and it raised awareness about the hope of humanistic reforms rather than the over-emphasis on instrumentalist reform (see Pinar et al., 2004, p. 189)—both in schooling and the larger sociopolitical context. As I read this book, there was an eerie sense that many of the problems that Silberman discusses are questions we are still debating in 2015. Given the present state of American education, which is producing consumer citizens for the corporate economy through high-stakes testing, accountability, core curriculum, exclusive job focus, and the like, perhaps the author of a best seller from 45 years ago just might have some ideas worth listening to once again. At the very least, we might well consider his call for a more humane society.


1 Pinar et al., p. 190.

2 See Gans, 1966.

3 For a discussion of the structures of the discipline notion of curriculum theory, see Bruner (1960). ← 80 | 81 →


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Weinstein, G., & Fantini, M. (1970). Toward a humanistic education: A curriculum of affect. New York: Praeger. ← 81 | 82 →

← 82 | 83 →



Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

David Gabbard

I. Synopsis

Deschooling Society (Illich, 1971) should begin where it ends, with the story of Pandora. In what Illich describes as the prehistoric telling of her tale from matriarchal Greece, Pandora was an Earth goddess, sent to Earth with an amphora or pythos—what we would recognize today as a lidded urn made of clay. Within this urn dwelt every variety of evil. It contained only one good, and that was hope. One day, Pandora accidently allowed all of the evils to escape, but she replaced the lid before hope could follow.

Pandora’s story intertwines with that of two brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Both are central to our understanding of what Illich means by our “schooled” society and what “deschooling” that society would look like. What he does not mean is a society in which people have created schools. The presence of schools does not define a schooled society. Schooling signifies something far different, something Illich associates with the figure of Prometheus and how his story, as the bearer of foresight and the god of technological innovation, mirrors the story of modern man.

Through his trickery of the gods, Prometheus brought fire to humans, granting them the power to forge iron, enhancing their capacity to produce tools, and giving rise to the inseparable ideas: that first, with the right tools, humans can plan and control the world because, second, the world is in need of planning and control. Illich locates the origins of these ideas not in the matriarchal society of prehistoric Greece, where we find our original Pandora, but in classical Greece, which had grown into a rational, authoritarian patriarchy that degraded Pandora’s myth. In its misogyny, classical Greece attributed the release of all the evils not to accident, but to Pandora’s deliberate ← 83 | 84 → disobedience of the gods’ order not to lift the lid of her urn. This moment marks, for Illich, the origins of modern man. Her willful transgression released every evil into the world, creating the demand for planning that would bring order to the chaos she’d unleashed.

Illich characterizes this demand as “the Promethean endeavor to forge institutions in order to corral each of the rampant ills” (Illich, 1971, p. 105) released from Pandora’s urn. It leads to what he describes as the Promethean ethos—the notion that human beings must plan and control predictable processes that produce results upon which they can rely and “have a right to claim” (p. 105). Under these conditions, expectations displace the hope that pre-classical Pandora retained in her urn a hope defined by Illich as “faith in the goodness of nature” (p. 105) and “dependence on personal good will” (p. 111) that “centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift” (p. 105). Stated more simply, the Promethean ethos proclaims that human beings must plan and control predictable processes that produce expectations that these processes will satisfy the demands created by those same processes.

Compulsory schooling functions as one of those processes to be planned and controlled in order to produce predictable results—expectations. Illich defines it as “the age specific, teacher-related process requiring full time attendance at an obligatory curriculum” (Illich, 1971, pp. 25–26). It takes on special meaning for Illich, however, because of the centrality of compulsory schooling’s role as the primary social ritual for conditioning people into the larger Promethean ethos. Illich’s background as a Catholic priest for over 20 years prior to the publication of Deschooling Society provided him with a unique vantage point from which to discuss the ritualistic role of compulsory schooling. Within theology there is a field of study known as ecclesiology. Illich viewed ecclesiology as a precursor to sociology. It concerns itself with the origin, development, and structure of that community known as the church, studying the corporatization of individuals into that more or less unified community. This leads us to understand Illich most literally when he makes claims such as “school has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of secular salvation to the poor of the technological age” (p. 10). Or, “The school system today performs the threefold function common to powerful churches throughout history” (p. 37). Compulsory schooling serves an ecclesiastical role by preparing children for a society dominated by the Promethean ethos.

Relatedly, liturgy forms a field of academic specialization within ecclesiology that examines how the church uses multiple series of rituals for socializing people to recognize and judge their own status as members of the church. Schooling teaches children to need school, but they will remain unfit for society until they learn to consume school. The more school you consume, the more power you gain as a consumer—more power to consume more. More power translates into more status, which explains why Illich identifies the college graduate as setting the standards for consumption in a schooled society. Everyone aspires to consume at the level or standard set by the college graduate.

Schooling, then, takes on the form of a commodity, and education becomes its fetish, which helps to explain the opening lines of Chapter 1 in Deschooling Society: “Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process with substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; escalation leads to success” (p. 1).

Returning to the “threefold function” that it shares in common with “powerful churches throughout history” (p. 37), compulsory schooling serves as “the repository of society’s myth” (p. 37)—the Promethean ethos. Children are born unfit for society. They must be made fit, ← 84 | 85 → and can only be made fit through the planned and predictable process of schooling. If they internalize the myth, they, along with their parents, come to claim a right to this process because of the value it purports to hold for them.

It seems odd to think that people can be made to claim a right to something that is, in fact, compulsory. However, Illich argues that the second function served by schools and powerful churches entails the “institutionalization of that myth’s contradictions” (p. 37). Finally, and relatedly, the third function relates to the school as “the locus of the ritual that reproduces and veils the disparities between myth and reality.” Students become “schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new” (p. 1). No reforms to compulsory schooling will succeed in lifting the veil that disguises these disparities. We must demythologize schooling.

Doing this, Illich suggests, demands that we recognize ourselves, not in the heroic figure of Prometheus that fuels this myth, but in his fate. As punishment for his trickery of them that allowed him to bring fire to humanity that gave them the power to forge iron, the gods condemned the god of foresight and technological advancement to spend eternity bound to a rock by iron chains. Every day, a huge eagle would come to eat his liver, which the ancient Greeks viewed as the seat of the human soul and intelligence. They also may have known something of its regenerative power, for Prometheus’s liver would heal every day only to be eaten again by the eagle, which symbolized Zeus taking his vengeance upon him.

For Illich, this scene mirrors compulsory schooling’s reproduction of the contradictions and disparities inherent within the Promethean ethos. It should reveal to us the futility of compulsory schooling as central to society’s larger “Promethean endeavor to forge institutions in order to corral each of the rampant ills” (Illich, 1971, p. 105) unleashed from Pandora’s urn. Illich captures this futility with the image of a small metal casket or box that he saw in a New York toyshop. To open the box, you must push a button. When it opens, you expect to be able to take something out of it. Instead, a mechanical hand reaches out, recloses the lid, and locks it from the inside. “This contraption,” he says, “is the opposite of Pandora’s ‘box’” (p. 105). We find no satisfaction or hope in that box. We have become slaves to our technologies, our tools, and our institutions. Our delusions otherwise chain us to them, like Prometheus at the rock. This is why we must, as Illich argues, deschool society by disestablishing school. Because they are the repository and reproductive engine of society’s myth, creating a constitutional-level separation of school and state requires a demythologizing of society. We must bring the Promethean Age of expanding expectations to an end.

The transformation of society called for by Illich entails a rejection of Promethean expectations and a return to hope that he sees as characteristic of more primitive times in our species’ history. Remember, Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus. Prometheus was known for foresight, which understands the past and the present solely in terms of the future. When this notion of foresight becomes wedded to rituals of progress, expectations expand endlessly. Our ever-expanding list of perceived needs that can only be served by planned processes can, simultaneously, never be satisfied. We render ourselves insatiable, and society unsustainable. Epimetheus, on the other hand, was known for hindsight, which, as I will explore more fully below, suggests the capacity to know the present and contemplate the future through the lens of the past. While Prometheus abandoned her, Epimetheus married Pandora, whose amphora contained hope. The social transformation made possible by deschooling society would signify a shift from Promethean expectations to Epimethean hope. Again, Illich defines hope in terms ← 85 | 86 → of “faith in the goodness of nature” (p. 105) and “dependence on personal good will” (p. 111) that “centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift” (p. 105). “Children,” he says,

phantasize flying their spacecrafts away from a crepuscular earth. From the perspectives of the Man on the Moon, Prometheus could recognize sparkling blue Gaia as the planet of Hope and as the Arc of Mankind. A new sense of the finiteness of the Earth and a new nostalgia now can open man’s eyes to the choice of his brother Epimetheus to wed the Earth with Pandora.

At this point the Greek myth turns into hopeful prophecy because it tells us that the son of Prometheus was Deucalion, the Helmsman of the Ark who like Noah outrode the flood to become the father of a new mankind which he made from the earth with Pyrra, the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. We are gaining insight into the meaning of the Pythos (Amphora/urn), which Pandora brought from the gods as being the inverse of the box: our vessel and Ark. (Illich, 1971, p. 115)

Illich titles his final chapter of Deschooling Society “The Rebirth of Epimethean Man,” because this level of social transformation could only be made possible by a transformation of human consciousness. And only this transformation of consciousness, marked by hope and “dependence on personal good will” rather than institutional expectations, can make his inversion of compulsory schooling into “learning webs” possible.

II. An Epimethean Man Living in a Promethean Age

In many ways, Illich personified the hindsight associated with Epimetheus, tempting us to view him as an Epimethean man living in a Promethean Age. As previously stated, hindsight entails more than the ability to look in our rearview mirrors at the objects disappearing behind us at ever-increasing speed. Illich valued hindsight because of the value he placed on history. In his view, the study of history enhances what I think he means by hindsight: our capacity to know the present and contemplate the future through the lens of the past.

In the introduction to what amounts to his first volume of a collection of dialogues with and monologues by Illich, David Cayley (1992) emphasizes the importance of this understanding of Illich as a “radical traditionalist” whose obedience to virtues long forgotten made him “‘very consciously a remainder of the past, one who still survives from another time’” (Cayley, 1992, p. 3). This “other timeliness” of Illich’s laid the foundations of the vantage point from which he questioned, understood, and evaluated that present and its certainties. Any commentary on the context and time period of Deschooling Society, then, must address his hindsight on that present.

Illich cultivated much of his hindsight from his family’s deep roots in their European past and their centuries-long relationship with the Roman Church. The family home, built during the Middle Ages and the time of the crusades, stands on an island off the coast of Dalmatia. “The very same olive-wood rafters,” Illich told Cayley, “supported the roof of my grandfather’s house. Water was still gathered from the same stone slabs on the roof. The wine was pressed in the same vats, the fish caught from the same kind of boat…. For people who lived off the main routes, history still flowed slowly, imperceptibly” (pp. 2–3). Born in 1926, Illich spent his early years between his grandfather’s house in Dalmatia and his grandmother’s house in Vienna. According to Cayley, ← 86 | 87 →

By 1938 Illich already knew in his bones that that the world into which he had been born was vanishing. Soon he would become a wanderer…but he took this fading world within himself where it would nourish a stance so radically traditional that for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s excited North American audiences though it was vanguard. (p. 2)

Because of his mother’s Jewish ancestry, Illich was forced to leave Austria in 1941, when he began his pre-university studies in chemistry and crystallography in Italy. He would later earn degrees in theology and philosophy at the Gregorian University in Rome, rounding off his studies with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Salzburg in 1951. Soon after completing this final degree, Illich, having already taken his vows in Rome, began his work as a priest in New York City, where he requested assignment to a parish comprised of a growing population of Puerto Rican immigrants. There he developed many of the most important foundations of his thought on institutions, the Catholic Church in particular.

Puerto Rican immigrants presented a problem for the institutional church, or what Illich called the Church as IT. In the eyes of IT, the Puerto Rican problem stemmed from the immigrants’ never having learned to need the institutional church. Most of the Puerto Rican parishioners had come from rural areas of the island where the institutional church had not established any physical or social presence. They had never experienced the Church as an institution demanding compulsory attendance. Furthermore, they were experiencing increasing levels of discrimination as immigrants. This led Illich to work with them and Cardinal Spellman to establish San Juan Day in celebration of Puerto Rico’s patron saint.

In 1956, 5 years after arriving in New York, Illich received a new assignment as vice rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico. It was during that time that he met Everett Reimer, with whom he began a series of long conversations on the topic of schooling. Early on, Illich recognized the polarizing effects of compulsory schooling on the island. Schooling tied equal economic opportunity to equal educational opportunity, but making the latter equally accessible to all was not economically feasible. What upset him most, however, was hearing people blame themselves for “failing to achieve the impossible” (Illich, 1971, p. 7), which only compounded the effects of poverty.


X, 422
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2016 (April)
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.


Title: Popular Educational Classics