I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. (Dewey 1897)

In the first lecture, I introduced a view of culture as a dialogical process among historical conditions, discursive interpretations of these conditions, and disputes about these interpretations. Above all, I emphasized that this dialogical process drives what I understand as constitutive actions, that is actions that make new historical conditions requiring further interpretations. This dialogical process must thus be seen as a recursive, systematic, process where what appears like the "effect" of an earlier action then becomes the "cause" of a later one. I have used this framework to introduce what I take to be some of the basic characteristics of the American educational system as it has been constituted within the North American landscape. In this lecture, I go further in the identification of the systematic properties now inscribed in American institutions and driving its continuing evolution.

Hammers, ergonomic hammers, right-handed hammers, disability, left-handed hammers: the inscription of cultural properties with systemic consequences

But first, I would like to develop further what I mean by saying that culture is a dialogic process that produces objects never yet quite seen in human history (even when they are made of pieces borrowed from other such objects). As I like to say when teaching this material:


or again


This metaphor of culture as "house" is intended to emphasize the concreteness of the institutional solutions to the problems facing all human beings. In the context of lectures about the development of American education these problems concern above all, but not solely, what to do with children who cannot become part of adult worlds without deliberate work. The metaphor of culture as house is also intended to focus attention on the continuing controversies that move people, often quite passionately, to work hard in particular ways–and also to play. This tension between historical constructions and continuing activity drives cultural evolution. Analytically, we can think of this evolution as involving three steps which, in actual practice of course, are always performed concurrently:

• an analysis of a historical situation (which may be a purely psychological event);
• discussions shaping what alternatives are considered (which may stay in the realm of ephemeral talk);
• the eventual constitutions of physical as well as legal institutions that thereby escape the world of ideas as they get physically inscribed over the landscape and change it. These constructions can perdure for a very long time and outlast the persons originally involved in the analyses and discussions

This process then restarts as earlier analyses, discussion and institutions reveal themselves to be inadequate in one way or another. Through this process, an American School has appeared in the history of the United States, with its philosophers, pedagogies, curricula, bureaucracies, buildings and critics–all concrete objects over which all will stumble even as they marvel at what it can do for them.

Note that I have distinguished for analytic purposes between the North American continent, the United States and America. The first is the ecological niche divided historically to make a political area within which the laws and regulations of the United States have legitimate, sovereign power. These boundaries, along with the international recognition of U.S. sovereignty constitute the political field within which America is powerful, dominant, hegemonic (depending on one's political take on the legitimacy of this domination)

Over the centuries, more and more people got involved in this American school and it became ever more enmeshed in their private lives. It has now become so compelling that many will not consider alternatives. Cultural psychologists often talk of this as of a psychological process of enculturation that close the imagination or rule emotional reactions to what is now seen as foreign or hostile. Pierre Bourdieu has offered another explanation that has proven quite convincing. According to him members of the social classes who control the schools use their control to convince members of other classes of the legitimacy of their own domination ([1970] 1977; [1972] 1977). By adding the idea of legitimacy, Bourdieu added something central to the analysis of schooling. But he also postulated that, by attending schools, the dominated classes come to a misunderstanding the nature of their domination–thereby adding a psychological mediating term on what could have remained a purely sociological theory.

I first came upon the metaphor of the house as a direct challenge to these theories of what Bourdieu calls an habitus. Instead, I want to understand the compelling reality of cultural constructions as arising out of the very physical and institutional concreteness of the cultural objects. Schools are now so profoundly rooted in the American landscape that to erase them would require more energy than even the most powerful society on earth could produce. I also want to talk about this compelling reality as deriving partially from the fact that cultural constructions, particularly those with a long tradition, in fact do satisfy not only needs that they may have produced, but also possibilities for humanity that other cultural objects might close. My colleague, Ray McDermott of Stanford University and I, once wrote a paper titled "Culture as disability" to emphasize that what is disabling about any kind of physical peculiarity is the institutional arrangements within which they are placed and the responses of institutionalized others. We are also thinking of a paper that might be titled "Culture as genius" to emphasize also that while all culture disable some human potentialities they also enable other potentialities. All in all, schools, as culturally constructed, are compelling not because people misunderstand them but rather because they have no choice but to deal with them practically in the detail of their actions.

Note that practical understanding does not always take the same form as analytic understanding. The linguistic and conversational forms each can take can be quite different indeed!

For the sake of this presentation, I will summarize what America has inscribed on the lands it directly controls as a set of entangled properties. Initially, these properties may only have belonged to a European imagination about the nature of humanity, the shape of the good society, and the steps to take in order to transform human beings into the New Man still to come. Those who imagined this community may have been few but they were now located in a field where what they imagined could constitute itself for many more in the present of their time, and then for even more in the future that you and I now inhabit. The properties imagined for the coming community that was to be America partially contributed to the setting up of an educational system in the 18th and early 19th century along lines that are still visible, even in the context of new historical conditions, including some that are the direct product of the original choices.

In this lecture, I present America somewhat deductively as a mater of first principles actualized in history. My underlying analytic process is more inductive: in my research work, I always start with ethnographies of everyday life, and then search for the signs of constraints on possibilities that have their sources outside the local setting. I illustrated this process in the first lecture, when I started with a small town and its complex arrangement of "private" and "public" spaces differentially regulated by various kinds of more or less formal processes. It is this kind of inductive analysis that allows me to talk of fundamental cultural properties.

An example of this could be found in the set of discussions and then decisions that led to the carving up of the North American landscape in terms of a grid pattern of fractal squares (squares within square within squares) starting with the boundaries between many American states, moving down to the county, township, claim, and town levels. Jefferson and others did not invent the grid pattern: they borrowed it from various European utopians of the 16th and 17th centuries. But, in Europe only a few towns were led according to a grid pattern, and the idea never imposed themselves. In North America however, it is not only the idea that perdures to this day (though new towns are now rarely led on rectangular grids), it is the fact that Jefferson made. The grid pattern was a solution to an administrative problem in the 18th century (where to place the boundaries between states in areas with few European settlements). It has become a fact for all who how come to North America and, possibly, a new problem.

Once this is understood, it makes sense to say that, in America, the fundamental constraining properties revolve around the primacy of the individual as self and its social corollary: the consensual community as the only social form that can build and preserve individual autonomy. Politically this is expressed as "one man one vote": all must participate in the building of the collective--political power derives from the individual, not from the collective. In the world thereby being constituted the School is both essential and secondary to the community and its legislatures. The school is essential because it is the only institution that can properly train individuals in ways that must be recognized by other individuals. It is secondary because it is dependent on the legislature that governs it and lends its legitimacy to its products: an all powerful school independent from State regulation would subvert individual self-determination and community control.

To highlight the dialogical properties of these institutions, I will present them in the context of four major moments in the history of the United States when some of them were reconstituted in a manner that continues to resonate both because they are very much there, as objects, and because they continue to be profoundly contested:

  • as they discussed the emerging Constitution of the United States, the "Founding Fathers" as they are sometimes called, did not include education as a Federal function. Two hundred years later, education remains a local matter even as generations of political reformers have attempted to have the central government intervene. Often they have succeeded but always through indirect and extensive political work. Thus local schools were desegregated; the separation of Church from State was strengthened ; many special funding programs were created through the "Great Society" in the 1960s; a federal department of education was created in 19801980. At this point, the greatest controversy centers around the issue of what is known as "high stake testing." Typically, President Bush is now pushing for those through financial incentives and regulations setting conditions for the awards. It is unclear whether he will be successful, given the opposition of the dominant forces in education. Still, with all his other powers, he cannot directly impose either curriculum or pedagogy.
  • by the early 19th century, the States, typified by Massachusetts and its famous commissioner of education, Horace Mann, began to argue for the importance of making public schools available to all. In fact local towns had already begun to institute these but his advocacy helped all states eventually to require that local communities have their public schools under their direct political control (through elected school boards and local taxation) but within a regulatory and constitutional framework. In spite of this decentralization, all American schools look very much alike now. But this has much more to do with the power of schools of education, text-book publishers, architects, insurance companies and the like (that is private institutions) than it has to do with prescriptions by central governments.
  • one hundred years ago a large number of poor, non-English speaking immigrants moved into large urban centers. This population movement across the oceans was made possible by the development of the American economy who needed them. It was also a trigger for ideological and moral concerns that translated into the call for the reform of older schools and the development of new types with different curricula and pedagogies. In 2000 now, as in 1900, a renewal of immigrations has produced calls for a further reconstruction of school programs (bilingual education, multicultural education, total immersion, high-stake testing, etc.).
  • one of the most powerful of these reform movements was what came to be known as "progressive" education. In many ways, what was started most prominently by John Dewey, but in fact could not have happened without the help or context of many others, including both persons (for example Thorndike) and institutions (arguably Teachers College), is still alive today, for example in the work of Maxine Greene or Ted Sizer. It remains profoundly contested, most directly in recent years by Diane Ravitch (2000).

To an American audience this list of major controversies at difficult historical moments would justify an analysis of American education as purely a matter of political struggles between irreconcilable interest groups in an ever shifting historical context of large-scale social mutations that are neither predictable nor controllable. A popular example of such unpredictability would be the sudden emergence first of computers and then, even more powerfully, of the Internet. Educators in 1970 did not imagine what they would have to face in 2000. Thus, to talk of systemic processes, as I do in these lectures would appear to fly in the face of what many think is the only self-evident theory of history: the "sound and fury, signifying nothing"pessimist vision–to quote Shakespeare.

As I have argued in my earlier lecture, I take a different view of the facts made in history for new people to struggle with. There is little to gain, I believe, by adopting the vision of the ruthless, amoral, unprincipled, and defeated Macbeth still trying to justify his actions at the moment of defeat. It is analytically more useful to take the position of those whose words were soon concretized in buildings, constitutions, wars and changed laws–the position of someone like Winthrop preaching; or the position of Jefferson writing the declaration of independence, or of Lincoln making speeches justifying the killing of Americans by Americans, or of Martin Luther King dreaming. Theirs were ultimate speech acts that we cannot dismiss. As history proceeds, what they and many others made acquires a weight that cannot easily be shed precisely because it becomes the inevitable material with which to make music and peace (as well of course as sound and fury). We must pay attention to all those who have called for "revolutions" in our recent histories because such calls to radical action can have major consequences on the lives of so many. But we must also pay attention to the apparent impossibility of any of these revolutions radically to transform historical properties that prove to be much more powerful than even the most charismatic leaders. These are the properties that interest me as they make America for all who encounter it in their everyday life. These are the properties that I, like many others before me, recognize in the very controversies that rack the United States, in the attempts at transformations that have had some modicum of success, and in those who have not, for they all have moved people in the United States over the past two or three centuries.

The Individual, The Community Individuals Make, And The School They Reconstruct

I start this summary presentation with the first two steps in the overall dialogical process I sketched earlier: historical conditions requiring practical interpretations as far as educational institutions are concerned. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize two poles in the interpretive framework of earlier conditions. First I will focus on the ideological pole that models what might be wrong with any political system. Second, I will mention the economic pole that models what might be wrong with any economic situation. Both, of course, also provide the models "for" what might have to be done about each (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1953: 357; Geertz [1966] 1973: 93).

- e pluribus unum: A more perfect union

The American ideological framework is well-known, at least in its own terms, given the articulateness of all those who have conversed with it, from the founding fathers themselves, to sympathetic critics like de Tocqueville, to most of the political thinkers of the 20th century from Dewey onwards. The self-constituting individual must be at the core of any proper political order. This is an observational fact ("we hold these truths to be self-evident," "the psychological process is the basis of education"). It is also a prescription for the good society (Paine) and the good school (Dewey). It is also a problem for the constitution of the good society: how do we get such individuals to work together? For the Founding Fathers this meant a particular form of government; for Horace Mann, this meant a particular institution, the school; for Dewey it meant a particular form of school. Note that all start with an analysis of current political realities from the point of view of whether the centrality of individual self-expression is allowed. The Founding Fathers were concerned with the British colonial rule of North American territories in the context of a customary kingdom with no formal Constitution. Dewey, his colleagues, and followers to this day, worried that the older immigrants that had come to dominate the United States were acting as if America was a matter of birth and ancient privilege. American must be a matter of continuing achievement in a neutralized field.

The maxim included on the American seal must be quoted here because it is so apt as a summary of this ideological stance: e pluribus unum– "from the many one." The unity of America is based on the plurality of its people. This is an American fact: all persons are different. It is a goal: pluralities must work together to insure that the conditions that allow for their reproductions are maintained. And it is a measuring rod to evaluate whether this or that policy, in its implementation, does acknowledge plurality, helps maintain it, and does not threaten the hoped for resulting unity. Individuals make communities; they make these communities on the basis of a personal movement towards each other. This movement outward must be nurtured deliberately, both through the proper organization of the polity and through the proper education of the young.

Even as Jefferson, and later Dewey and his followers, made these points and worked hard at constituting them in a massive set of laws and regulations, they also worried that the actual United States that they were observing would not be quite friendly to these institutions. Jefferson mused that only in small rural towns would American democracy really work. What would happen in large urban centers where, already, many new immigrants were coming in was a puzzle. It is now well-known that he did not focus as much on slavery as he should have and that some of the compromises inscribed in the original constitution remain shameful (particularly the decision to count slaves as only 3/5 human). Dewey's followers to this day worry more that the most powerful people in the United States will insist that new immigrants become like them, impose particular stylistic forms for America, and thereby prevent the development of other possibilities.

- The pursuit of happiness

There is however another, less immediately ideological, set of analytic principles. These concern the organization of the proper economy that would not only be political correct but would also actually deliver "happiness" understood as material prosperity: what is the economic system that both produce more material happiness than any other while at the same time allowing for the fullest expression of the individual self in a precisely dialogical process. This, of course, is indeed ideological as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber on to this day have insisted. But it will move people to push for different kinds of institutions, particularly different kinds of schools in their pedagogies and curricula. Simply put capitalism requires democracy which requires capitalism; and also more capitalism means more democracy (individual self-expression, creativity and "happiness") which means more capitalism (prosperity, technological innovation, etc.) in a felicitous spiral (and not a vicious circle). More specifically with regard to the education of the young, capitalism requires focused skills as well as spaces unfettered by regulations to allow for new ideas to flourish. The place of schooling, in this vision, is ambiguous: skills must be taught somewhere, but perhaps not in schools run by professional educators.

Whether this is true or not, there are significant differences between the imagined requirements of the proper democracy as a Dewey might summarize them and the imagined requirements of an advanced industrial economy. Specifically, this produces a perennial debate among those concerned with education. One the one hand, there are those who advocate what, in America, is called a "liberal arts education" with an emphasis on literature and the arts and breadth of outlook rather than depth of specialization. On the other hand, there are those who advocate a technical or professional education focused on a particular trade or skill. One of these battles was fought one hundred years ago at the founding of Teachers College. The philanthropists who provided much of the initial funding started with an analysis of the situation that emphasized technical training: what the new immigrants needed was training in the particular skills that the industries of the United States needed. The professional educators whom the philanthropists hired pushed instead for a normal school. This school would train the teachers that would allow these immigrants, or their children, to enter America not as servants (or employees in the ‘service' industry) but as citizens. This struggle remains inscribed on the walls of Teachers College: One of the oldest building that now houses my department is described as the "Macy building for manual arts." And one of the most formal room in the College were many dissertations are defended was initially built as a "Table Service Laboratory" for students in the "Household Arts."

The fight over Teachers College was won by the liberal educators who thereby constituted the world of the (progressive) School. Over the following half-century, Nicholas Murray Butler (the first president of Teachers College), James Earl Russell (the third president), John Dewey, E.L. Thorndike and many others directly participated in the constitution of the American School through the drafting and defense of regulations, procedures, bureaucratic definitions, processes for entering into professional roles, etc. Often as well they constituted the resistance against all these both from the left and from the right on the political spectrum (Cremin 1961; Illich 1970; Ravitch 2000). Most fatefully perhaps the continuing debate over progressive education as the tool for the empowerment of newcomers to America also reconstituted the distinction between education and skills training. It also constituted a major divide between the publicly controlled school and any other institutions, whether family or community based, as legitimate sites for deliberate education. In other words, over the past century, the American school in its dominant form has become more and more particular in what it does and how it does it. And thus, more and more of skills training is now taking place outside of the world of the (public) School. There is of course much skills training in the United States, but much of this is done in other institutions, for example the military, industry, and a multiplicity of for-profit schools. To this extent, to talk about ‘one' American educational system and focus solely on schools. At Teachers College particularly, a group of us, led by Cremin (1976) and Leichter (1975, 1979) have emphasized that much education also proceeds through informal institutions like families or communities in the daily routines of every child's lives. What might be the policy implications of all this remains an open question even as a strong movement of "home schooling" develops (Varenne 1997), now aided and abetted by the development of the Internet.

Still, to emphasize the complexity of the parallel institutions also involved in education in the United States should not lead one to miss the ideological dominance of schooling, and specifically of the Model School as legitimate institutional shaper of individual selves. This is the School dedicated to sharpening critical thinking. It is the School that ensures that all special characteristics are taken into account and remedied when they stand in the way of development. And it is the School that gives legitimacy to particular outcomes. Above all, it is a very particular School. For this summary purpose, one can look at take Teachers College as an example of this Model School. It is no real accident that it trains teachers for only four or five high school subjects: English, Social Studies, Math and Science, and to a certain extent the Arts. This is the high school proposed by Ted Sizer (1984). Note that there is no place in this school for the teaching of foreign languages, engineering, business, etc. It is no accident either that the largest programs of study at Teachers College are those training the psychologists who will help the next generations of American children grow into mature selves. After all, one of the most quoted experiment in broadening the scope of the Public School is one proposed by the clinical psychologist James Comer (1996) in which therapeutic and other services to both children and parents are made part of the School.

If I were to try my hand at predicting the future of American education, I would bet on an ever more bifurcated model with, on the one hand, the therapeutic, regulated and bureaucratized school helping children to learn how to learn, and, on the other hand, a multitude of other institutions teaching a subject matter or a skill to a limited audience. Some might be very focused on a single skill, and others, like families, might be quite diffuse in what they offer children. But, of course, I will not predict the future for no structure is ever determinant.

The rugged individual vs. the educated self: society vs. community

From a purely ideational point of view, the distinction between education and training reflects a distinction between, on the one hand, those who think of society as a community–the view I associated here with Dewey–, and, and on the other hand, those who think of society as a machine of positions and functions to be carefully oiled. As Parsons (1959) once wrote in contradistinction to Dewey, the structural function of the school is the production of people with skills. In the world of the School that I inhabit at Teachers College, this view of the school is altogether abhorrent. It reeks of paternalism, anti-intellectualism and prejudice.

Indeed, one of the most mordant critic of American schooling was David Tyack who saw in high schools factories for the production of industrial workers and bureaucrats... [CHECK]

And yet one should also consider that most people in America inhabit a world of personal skills they practice everyday of their lives with a modicum of satisfaction–if only because one discovers in the process that one is needed by many others who cannot do what has to be done. This world of work is also a world where schooling and its intellectual symbols is altogether marginal. To take Teachers College again as an example, it is not only a Model School, it is also an actual complex society that survives only because of the work of a multiplicity of people with strong, specific, highly differentiated. It is no accident that the majority of these people are not in their positions because of what they learned in school. Indeed, no one on the faculty directly teaches the skills necessary to become a budget director, a computer technician or a carpenter, not to mention a janitor–to address the continuum of functions that all make it possible for the academic faculty to accomplish the primary mission of the institution. And what must also mention what is hardest for me, as a person fully implicated in the world the School, it is also the case that the majority of employees at Teachers College are in the position they occupy after having been identified by the School as somehow failing.

Many commentators claim to be surprised at the number of adolescents who say that they hate their schools. This number would be enormously inflated if it included all those adolescents who spend much of their symbolic activities distancing themselves from the "geeks"–that is the few among them who actually begin to live intellectual lives. One should take seriously the marketing wisdom of those who sell objects and entertainment to prosperous adolescents in the United States and endlessly attack the intellectual foundations of the School. And then there is a set of research in the worst of schools where authors like Willis (1977) or MacLeod (1987) focused on what has come to be called the "resistance" of students who refuse to even try to learn. Researchers and other school-based critics of the School mostly treat the revulsion of privileged students as a superficial display, or as a psychological syndrome. Some treat the resistance of the less privileged as somehow related to an understanding of class or race based inequalities, others to a mis-understanding (Gibson and Ogbu 1991; Ogbu 1978, 1998).

It is probably the case that there is a psychological aspects to privileged adolescents refusing to bend fully to the intellectual pretensions of the School. It is also probably the case that there is a sociological aspect to less-privileged adolescents refusing to compete academically. But it would be interesting to see more in this. The stylistic rejection of the School may also be a practical recognition that the shape it has taken in the dialogical confrontation between progressive educators and local politicians is fundamentally inimical to the actual expression of individuality and the right of critical thinkers to assemble on the basis of their own understandings. If the figure of James Dean in Rebel without a cause remains a kind of American archetype (along with Rambo and other such figures), it must have something to do with the School remains somewhat odd to many given the deeper principle that "all persons are created equal"–that is essentially different and worthy of institutional respect even before they are built into selves.

Given a caricatural American framework, spokes-persons for the reconstitution of the American whole would call for a consensual ‘common ground' where both liberal arts and skills training, the person as self and the person as individual, the community and the society would converge. I take the position that such consensus are rarely productive and would hide something powerful that continues to drive American history. It is the case that, by now, the division between the two educational systems is so institutionalized that it is extremely unlikely that it will collapse in the near future. The teachers of teachers and of administrators have had little interest in reincorporating skills training in their proposals for further schools reform; industries cannot wait to train their employees in new technologies and procedures. And thus, massive institutions keep reconstructing themselves physically and in terms of their personnel.

There is something paradigmatic about one of the perennial complaints of the clerical and janitorial staff at Teachers College that this school of education cannot in fact train long time employees to perform the new tasks made necessary by technological and administrative evolution...

This, as I mentioned in the first lecture is a matter of principled action in uncertainty. The people of the school, intellectuals like myself, and all the future teachers and administrators that I educate, must fight for the preservation of something the value of which is precisely not self-evident. And the people outside the school, whether those much more powerful than it is, or those much less powerful, can be counted upon to continue struggling and challenging.
For the struggle is not simply the product of interest groups struggling for political domination. This struggle is an American struggle with a particular human logic that we must analyze if we wish to constitute new solutions that will not fully reconstitute the old problems. Nietzchean or post-modern skepticism of modern institutions will paralyze research if it does not consider the possibility that conflict can also be generated by the very principles that it reconstitutes. Individualism is not a value of persons in a psychological sense, it is a problem that persons have posed to each other, it is a set of solutions, and it is as unsatisfactory as it is compelling. We will explore these contradictions in the next lecture.

March 7, 2001