In the first lecture, I start with the reality of the experience of the foreigner entering the United States and noticing a powerful difference. What might give rise to this experience of difference and what was involved in producing the conditions for this experience?
As an instance of what might, for some, produce an experience of difference, I use the grid pattern that was imposed on most of the North American continent. On this scale it was a single event that produced a singularity in human history that has become imperative on all other human beings, whether they take for granted the experience of flying over the central Plains and looking down on a landscapes of square within squares, or whether they remain astonished by what was done to the planet.
I also use the political organization of the control of educational institutions, from local school boards, to the historically recent federal Department of Education, to the textbook publishers, Schools of Education, etc.
In the process I make the argument that what must be referred to as 'American culture'-or, in this case, the American way to education-must be understood as a set of constitutional acts constructing new realities for future generations to deal with.
In the second lecture, I sketch some of the properties of this construction. I argue that, in the history of the United States, certain ideas become discourse become institutions which, at every stage, catch more and more people who must then conduct their life in the terms suggested by the institutions, and particularly so as all get to see the limitations of earlier institutions and work extensively at reconstructing them.
I make the argument for education by discussing this reconstruction, or perhaps 'reconstitution', at four moments in the history of the United States: the original constitutional period, the building of the 'public' school system, the reaction to immigration at the end of the 19th century, and the establishment of progressive education.
I show that the complex interaction between the ideologies of individualism (freedom, personal merit, self-expression), democracy (power of the people as individuals, rewards for accomplishment), community (agreement of the individuals to accept individualistic democracy), produces a particular kind of school that may even be inimical to aspects of the ideology, even as it pushes to the background other possibilities.
In the third lecture, I show how the cultural organization of education as it has been constituted over three centuries of interaction within the United States continues to produce particularly kinds of difficulties and conflicts that the current system can only mitigate but not cancel.
I first present some of the self-recognized difficulties. First, I summarize the Jeffersonian recognition of the difficulty of governing the United States, or even most smaller parts of it, as a community. Second, I mention the continuing difficulties about what to do with new immigrants. As John Dewey recognized, there is an inherent contradiction between given them the freedom to build their own communities and ensuring that these communities are internally constituted on the democratic principles that require the granting of the local freedom.
Second I argue that some of the most perennial problems in American education, particularly the race issue, are the product of the very structures that produce individualism, democracy, and the stress on community. In this process human difference, even when produced by social and historical forces, are understood only in their individual manifestations, thereby requiring that constitutional action be directed on the individual. In this cultural logic, people in poverty (or slavery) are in their position because they are (or have been made) "poor" in personal abilities. Whether the "explanations" for personal poverty are explicitly racist, or psycho-therapeutic (emotionally or cognitively), practical attention by institutions is focused back on the individual.
This is a continuing dilemma because this very socio-logic reconstituting the individual as an object in history has been so successful in so many other ways. After two centuries of internal and external critiques of America, all imagined alternatives have either been cast away or have ended reconstituting the mitigated and tightly controlled individualism that we encounter when we roam the corridors of American schools, or drive down America highways.