School: The Story of American Public Education. Stone Lantern Films, Inc..
Reviewed by Joel Spring
Published on H-Education (September, 2001)
<cite>School: The Story of American Public Education</cite> is a four part documentary originally broadcast by PBS September 3 and 4, 2001. The pricing indicates an institutional (library and school) market. The order of the episodes and the presentation of the material within the episodes is roughly chronological and spans from the post-Revolutionary era to the present day. In style the series will be familiar to those who have been exposed to the work of Ken Burns. It employs the now familiar combination of voice over narration (in this case Meryl Streep), moving camera shots of historic photographs, paintings and drawings supplemented by archival footage as the series moves toward the 20th century, interspersed with comments by historians, historical actors and others. Individual segments within the episodes are framed by relevant statistics written on an animated blackboard and, in the last episode, on a faux computer screen. <p> The first episode, titled "The Common School (1870-1890)," is largely devoted to Thomas Jefferson's belief in the new nation's need for an educated citizenry and Horace Mann's contributions to the common school movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Challenges to Mann's program are discussed primarily in the context of Catholic opposition to pan-Protestant content of the curriculum. A portion of the episode is devoted to efforts by African Americans in antebellum Boston to force racial integration of the schools. The education of slaves and Native Americans is mentioned briefly. <p> "As American as Public School (1900-1950)," the second episode, ranges widely. Among the topics addressed are: Immigration, Child labor, John Dewey, Americanization, manual training, industrial education, the growth of bureaucracies, IQ testing, tracking, life adjustment education and the post-Sputnik prioritization of math and science. Except for the last, these are presented as aspects of "progressivism" and many are touched on in an extended treatment of William Wirth's work in Gary, Indiana. Mexican Americans are prominent in the discussion. <p> The third episode, "Equality (1950-1980)," after an introductory segment begins with <cite>Brown v. Board of Education</cite> and the fight against de jure segregation. The narrative then moves immediately to Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" expansion of federal funding of education and the use of these funds as a carrot for desegregation. Bilingual and Bicultural education are the foci of a segment on Mexican Americans and school politics in Crystal City, Texas. This is followed by a treatment of gender bias and Title IX that revolves around Dorothy Raffel (Koch) and her fight against exclusion from participating in interscholastic sports. After a brief mention of related efforts to achieve educational equality by students with disabilities, the program closes with a segment on the failed effort to use inter-urban busing to combat de facto segregation in the Detroit area. <p> "The Bottom Line (1980--the present)" examines contemporary issues. The 1983 <cite>A Nation at Risk</cite> report serves as a basis for discussions of a variety of reforms. The idea of competition figures heavily in this episode, which discusses charters, magnets and private management of public schools are all discussed. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, voucher program, the East Harlem (New York City, District 4) public-school choice experiments, and the management of a Baltimore, Maryland, schools by Educational Alternatives, Inc., are put forth as examples of the variety of ways competition has been introduced in public schools. Calls for increased accountability through standardized testing are noted as a manifestation of the emphasis on business models in recent educational debates. The final substantiative segment is a parallel presentation of the curricula in schools that follow E. D. Hirsh's "Core Knowledge" plan and the portfolio approach of the Central Park East Secondary School, labeled "progressive" in the episode. <p> A Showcase for Conservative Educators <p> A review of a television documentary is quite different from reviewing a book where the words of the author can be directly contested and debated. In a documentary like <cite>School: The Story of American Public Education</cite>, hours of interviews are carefully edited and spliced into a final product. This adds a level of uncertainty about debating the words of the interviewees as they appear in the video. Editing decisions could have resulted in statements being taken out of context, given a different meaning from what was intended, or completely distorted. Without access to the original tapes or knowledge of the editing process, the reviewer, at least from my perspective, should not dwell on the words of the people appearing in the documentary but should focus on the total meaning conveyed by the documentary and what is emphasized or neglected. <p> Also, a documentary of this type is a commercial enterprise. The public relations and advertising accompanying a PBS documentary is far greater than that accompanying the publication of a scholarly book on the history of education. As a commercial venture, the documentary has product spin-offs. The series is accompanied by a book published by Beacon Press and the sale of tapes to the general public and for use in classrooms. It is difficult to measure the effect of these potential sales on decisions about the cutting and splicing of the film. Based on my personal experiences and research into the media industry, I would hypothesize that market forces would cause the director's decisions to lean in the conservative or centrist direction. <p> Compounding the problems inherent in reviewing a television documentary is my own participation as a talking head and my pre-broadcast criticism of the composition of the board of consulting scholars. About five years ago, I was asked by the director Sarah Mondale and the assistant director Sarah Patton to be interviewed for a documentary on educational history. I failed to ask about the major consultants to the project. I was interviewed and the event quickly slipped into the back regions of my memory. Then at an academic meeting two years ago historian David Tyack casually mentioned to me that Diane Ravitch had threatened to withdraw from the project because of my participation. At the time, I didn't know that Tyack and Ravitch were both project consultants or that the documentary was actually being completed. <p> Last month I received a press kit announcing the PBS broadcast and the names of the major consultants to the project, who are David Tyack, Diane Ravitch, Carl Kaestle, James Anderson, and Gilbert Gonzales. I respect and use the scholarship of David Tyack and Carl Kaestle but from the perspective of educational politics they are conservative or if one wants to stretch the issue they are moderates. Anderson and Gonzales are primarily interested in issues of race in education which I would argue involves an inherently critical approach to history. Diane Ravitch, on the other hand, is a gadfly of the right who constantly appears in public as a representative on right-wing foundations and think tanks including the infamous Manhattan Institute which sponsored the openly racist book <cite>The Bell Curve</cite> and has strongly influenced the educational agenda of President George W. Bush. <p> Having just returned from a meeting of whole language experts who condemn George W. Bush's efforts to turn reading instruction into a skill and drill phonics program, I sent an e-mail to the group with a copy to the documentary's directors warning them of the conservative bias of the consultants and the lack of any ideological balance to the ultra-conservative Diane Ravitch. The director Sarah Mondale responded with a demand that I apologize since I had never actually seen the final film. I sent out another e-mail indicating that I had not seen the final film but also stressing the conservative nature of the consultants. <p> The upshot of this exchange was that when I was asked to write this review, Sarah Mondale refused to send me pre-broadcast copies of the tapes. It appears that because I had expressed concern about the conservative bias of the program's consultants that she was afraid that I would write a biased review. <p> My previous comments were written before watching the PBS broadcast. My initial surprise upon watching the broadcast was the appearance of non-historians as commentators in the first three parts of the series, including Chester Finn, former Assistant Secretary of Education in President Ronald Reagan's administration; E.D. Hirsch, advocate of cultural literacy for all Americans; and Nicholas Lemann, journalist and author of <cite>The Big Test</cite>. The first three parts of the series were devoted to the history of education before 1980, while the last part served as a summary of current issues in education. The historians appearing in all four parts were Diane Ravitch, David Tyack, Carl Kaestle, and James Anderson. Finn and Lemann appeared throughout the documentary while Hirsch appeared in the first and last parts. <p> Why Finn, Hirsch, and Lemann as commentators in the historical parts? It is interesting that Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education in President George Bush's administration, has closely worked with Chester Finn at the conservative Hudson Institute. She has never held a full-time academic position and has spent her years working with the Hudson and Manhattan Institutes and other conservative organization. <p> Given that Ravitch and Finn are Republican cronies and conservative bed fellows, I wondered why former officials in Democratic administrations and representatives from liberal think tanks were not asked to comment on educational history. Also, E. D. Hirsch has long been an opponent of multiculturalism and advocates indoctrinating American children into his brand of American culture. This is what he means by cultural literacy. Both Finn and Ravitch oppose multiculturalism. Nicholas Lemann's book, <cite>The Big Test</cite>, provides a good critique of the SAT. However, he advocates a national standardized curriculum on which students would be tested for college admission. National testing and a standardized curriculum are also favored by conservatives Ravitch and Finn. <p> Interestingly, I was told that the names of the commentators would be presented without their institutional affiliations being mentioned. I wonder if this was to avoid listing Ravitch and Finn as affiliated with the same conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute. <p> Why the promotion of these conservative figures in the historical portions of the documentary? The documentary history was presented as if there are no controversies over the historical interpretation of American education. The only place that disagreements between commentators appeared was in the final part devoted to current issues. The historical parts were presented in the fashion of a high school textbook and left the impression that there is a general agreement about the development of American schools. Interestingly, since the 1960s there have existed major disagreements between educational historians including between myself and Diane Ravitch, David Tyack, and Carl Kaestle. Jim Anderson has also been an outspoken critic of historical writing in education. Presenting conflicting interpretations would have enriched the first three parts of the documentary. <p> Discussions of disagreements over historical interpretations would certainly have clarified the erroneous impression created at the beginning of the documentary that American leaders invented public education as a radical experiment in democracy. Journalist Nicholas Lemann opens with the declaration that public education was "a new, radical, crazy-seeming idea." In fact, Prussia established public school system before the U.S. which was visited and praised by common school advocates including Horace Mann. The idea of graded schooling was borrowed from Prussia. After visiting Prussia in 1843, Horace Mann applauded their graded school system and wrote, "the first element of superiority in a Prussian school [...] consists in its proper classification of scholars." Would it be proper to say that public schooling was an experiment in monarchy? <p> The documentary sidesteps the issue that both totalitarian and democratic nations have had public school systems. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union claimed that they had superior schools. The documentary seemed to imply that any form of public school was good as long as it was equitable. For instance, Thomas Jefferson's plea for public education was wrongly equated with the ideas of Horace Mann. Jefferson believed that everyone needed to learn to read so that they could form their own political opinions through the reading of a free press. Mann believed that schools should impose political and moral values. <p> Rather than continuing with a detailed critique, I will present a list of issues missing from the first three parts of the documentary. My emphasis of these points is a reflection of my own historical interpretation. The neglect of these issues, I would argue, resulted in a very conservative interpretation of educational history. The presentation of both sides of the historical debate would have made for a balanced program. <p> 1. There was no discussion of the role of the Workingmen's Parties in the 1820s and 1830s in promoting the idea of public schooling as a means of providing the poor with knowledge that they could use to protect their interests against the rich. <p> 2. There was no discussion of the role of education in American imperialism except for a brief mention of Indian boarding schools and teachers being sent to civilize the expanding Western territories. The use of schooling to make conquered populations loyal to the United States occurred after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and the annexation of almost half of what was then Mexico, the conquest of Indian lands, and the takeover of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines. <p> 3. There was no discussion of the attempts of the residents of these conquered territories to retain their cultures when faced with the cultural imperialism of American schools. While discrimination against Mexican Americans is discussed, there is no mention that this problem arose because of the conquest of Mexican territories. <p> 4. While the documentary briefly mentioned the anti-communist attacks on public school textbooks in the 1950s, there is no mention that this began in the early 1920s by the American Legion. The American Legion and other groups were responsible for the purging of so-called radical teachers, state requirements that teachers sign loyalty oaths, and the censorship of textbooks from the 1920s to the 1960s. <p> 5. Progressive education, certainly one of the targets of conservative scorn, was presented as an idea that covered a whole range of topics from John Dewey to Life Adjustment education. Educational historians, including David Tyack, distinguish between administrative progressivism and radical progressivism. The program never mentioned that Dewey's teaching method was directed at educating a particular type of citizen for a particular type of democratic society. <p> 6. Since the documentary avoided any discussion of the ideological content of instruction in the twentieth century, which certainly is an important aspect of schooling, the viewer is left without any knowledge of the potential impact of schooling on society. Despite citizenship education, why does the U.S. have such a low rate of voter turnout? What is the relationship between what people learn in school and their actions or reactions to economic, political, and social issues? <p> 7. The documentary gives the impression that equity, teaching styles, and school organization are the only important elements of educational history. Again, I would argue, this approach reduces or eliminates any discussion of the ideology of the curriculum. I wondered as I viewed the documentary whether or not this was to sell the idea of a standardized national or state curriculum favored by Ravitch, Finn, and Lemann. A standardized curriculum would dictate the ideology of instruction. Maybe it would truly make public schooling into an experiment in monarchy or totalitarianism. <p> The above is presented as an illustration of critical ideas pertaining to the history of education which I believe is part of the general history of ideas. Certainly, historian Merle Curti recognized in the 1930s the importance of public schooling as part of the ideological management of a nation. Even in the final part of the documentary on current issues educational problems were presented as mainly ones of equity and school organization. There was no voice expressing concern about the actual ideological content of what schools teach. <p> I wish I could have been behind the scenes of this production so that I could understand how this history documentary was turned into a showcase for conservatives. Was it a reflection of the opinions of the directors? Was it a result of trying to please a potential market for product spinoffs? Or was it the result of pressure from funding sources? <p> Notes: <p> . Horace Mann, "Seventh Annual Report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1843," in Ellwood Cubberley, ed., <cite>Readings in Public Education in the United States: A Collection of Sources and Readings to Illustrate the History of Educational Practice and Progress in the United States</cite> (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), pp. 287-288. <p> . Merle Curti, <cite>The Social Ideas of American Educators</cite> (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935).
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