USIH Review: Gaither on Hartman

Review of Andrew Hartman's Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). ISBN-13: 978-0230600102. 264 pages.


Review by Milton Gaither, Ph.D.

Messiah College

March 2008


          Andrew Hartman has written a very unfashionable book, in at least three respects.  First, in an era of historiographical hyperspecialization he has given us a work of synthesis, drawing more on the published works of other historians than on his own original research.  Second, he has written an intellectual history that only glances in the direction of social context or bottom-up approaches, but focuses almost exclusively on the published writings of intellectuals.  Finally, the political vision informing his work is so unfashionable that it seems today almost quaint, for Hartman likes to think of himself as an unreconstructed Marxist.


          Education and the Cold War's main contribution is to place educational history at the center of the Cold War historical narrative.  For him, public schools were the most prominent battleground between progressive and reactionary forces from the Great Depression to the 1960s.  He demonstrates this in nine chronological chapters.  Chapter one summarizes the familiar story of progressive education: its leading theorists, its bifurcation into a “social efficiency” wing and a “social democracy” wing, the Committee of 10 and Cardinal Principles reports, and other landmarks.  His goal here especially is to provide a sympathetic and accurate picture of Dewey given the conservative criticisms of Deweyism that will come later.  Chapter two begins with the story of Communist activism in the New York Teachers Union, moves on to describe the Social Frontier thinkers like George Counts and Harold Rugg, details the persecution of such orientations in the 1940s, and concludes with an examination of leading anti-progressive theorists Irving Babbit and Paul Elmer More.  Chapter three brings the story into the Cold War by covering the intellectual wing of the anticommunist movement, most notably the career of Bella Dodd, a communist party insider-turned conservative Catholic and government informant.  Chapter four continues the story with an examination of the educational thought of several conservatives including Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Milton Friedman, ending with a careful study of the rhetorical battles that followed the firing of respected progressive educator Willard Goslin in Pasadena in 1950.  Chapter six covers the more liberal side of anticommunist thought, especially the educational writings of Robert M. Hutchins, Arthur Bestor, and Richard Hofstadter—all of whom tried to convince the country that liberals could be just as tough on progressive education as were conservatives.  Chapter seven describes the postwar shift from global citizenship training in schools to a more narrow emphasis on national security, and offers a sensitive and sympathetic reading of educator Theodore Brameld, whose utopianism and commitment to leftist ideals marginalized him.  Chapter eight argues that the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement cannot be understood apart from one another, and uses debates over integration in public schools to make this case, showing that both integrationists and segregationists articulated their positions in the language of Cold War anticommunism.  Hartman ends this chapter with an examination of the film Blackboard Jungle and its popular reception, showing again how linked were the concepts of race relations and Cold War ideology.  Chapter nine begins with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviets and the Federal response that led to the passage of the National Defense Education Act.  Here again stress is placed on the thought of moderates like James B. Conant, conservatives like Max Rafferty, and finally the leftist critic Paul Goodman.


          As the above summary indicates, Hartman covers a lot of ground for a two hundred page book, and through it all he succeeds in placing educational history at the center of the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century.  He thus achieves his central aim.  But Hartman seems to have secondary motives as well.  It is not hard to discern in his account who the good guys and bad guys are (and yes, they’re mostly guys).  Hartman’s readings of the works of his figures are always intelligent and fair, but he clearly favors the leftists and has little sympathy for moderates and conservatives.  It seems at times in fact that Hartman is still fighting these ideological battles himself, using his historical figures as proxies to get in a good shot every now and then, and using his text to exonerate those who the historical record have marginalized or disparaged.  Educational historians might see this book as a sort of throwback to the revisionist days.  Hartman here takes the mantle of the revisionists of old, speaking his Bowles and Gintis truth to Diane Ravitch’s Left Back power, a book he relies on heavily even as he snubs it as a “polemic against progressive education” (p.205n13).


          The question is whether anyone by now much cares about these issues.  Few people write intellectual history like this any longer.  Even fewer read it.  Perhaps Hartman succeeds in saving progressive education from the ignominy heaped upon it by conservatives past and present.  But I don’t predict a large readership for what he presents, and this is a shame, for buried in the summaries of figure after figure and book after book are some important insights.


          Perhaps the most important is Hartman’s explication of the way schools became the subject around which the two disparate tendencies that became the political right coalesced.  In the popular mind it was Ronald Reagan who was able to bring religious conservatives and free market libertarians together into a powerful political coalition.  Hartman shows us that this coalition was forged decades before as epistemological traditionalists appealing to universal truth, and fiscal libertarians sick of the New Deal, both united against “collectivism” as manifest in progressive education in public schools.  A second and equally interesting insight to emerge from Hartman’s careful study of leftist thought is the shift in popular consciousness from Dewey’s heyday in the early twentieth century to the Cold War era.  In the former, many Americans were looking for a philosophy that would help them escape the metaphysical certainties of Victorian Christendom, and pragmatism fit the bill.  By the 1950s that battle was over, and more and more people were worried not about a stifling objectivism but a confusing and paralyzing relativism.  Hartman’s careful study earns him the right to criticize the left for its failure to provide what many in the postwar period (and many still today) were searching for:  a sense of certainty, of truth, of a higher authority.  Conservative ideologies have provided this in spades, and they have won the day.


          In closing let me offer just three minor criticisms.  Any book covering so much ground will of course make itself open to all sorts of objections to this or that detail, and the margins of my copy have their fair share of this sort of thing.  But here I’ll skip the details and only voice a few larger concerns.  First, I wish Hartman had given us some sort of definition of “conservative,” a term he uses frequently, often pejoratively.  For example, he notes at one point that “the impact of the second red scare was, without exception, conservative” (p.73). What can he mean?  Certainly not what John Stuart Mill and other Victorian reformers meant when they associated conservatism with a heavy-handed national government that imposed tariffs and other measures that limited free trade.  What he seems to mean by conservative is what historically was called liberalism, the free market liberalism of Adam Smith and many others.  This is important, for if free market capitalism is considered conservative, then it is more difficult to make the point that it is often the free market itself that undermines traditional moral norms.


          My second critique pertains to his chapter titles.  Hartman’s titles consistently promise more than they deliver.  “John Dewey and the Invention of Childhood,” “Education and the Great Depression,” “Growing Up Absurd in the Cold War,”—these titles led me to expect a good bit more social history, institutional history, and history of childhood than was provided.  Those looking for an account of the invention of childhood or of what it was like to grow up in the Cold War will have to look elsewhere.  Like intellectual history tends to be, and somewhat ironically given Hartman’s ostensible commitment to Marxism, this book is nearly exclusively about the writings of elite thinkers.


          My final comment follows from this.  Possibly excepting the anecdote with which he opens chapter seven, Hartman nowhere explains to what extent all these ideas he covers impacted kids who actually attended public schools.  This too is important, for it is these children, trained for life adjustment and acquiescence in American imperialism, who in a few short years will emerge as some of the most radical critics of American foreign policy, racism, sexism, and corporate greed.  Is there an intellectual history that can explain that?  If so, it may lie not in the works of educational critics but of the advertisers, corporations, and media people such as those chronicled in Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool, or perhaps in the parenting advice books of Spock and others.  Recent postwar social history has uncovered a conservative sixties.  Hartman’s work here makes me want a good social history of a more liberal fifties, for if his story is all there is to tell then it is hard to understand why sex, drugs, and rock and roll happened.  But they did.


          But perhaps I ask too much of one book.  As it stands Hartman succeeds not only in placing educational history at the center of Cold War historiography but in providing clear, coherent summaries of the works of many important and influential figures.  Anyone interested in the intellectual pedigree of both progressive and conservative thinking about education would do well to read Education and the Cold War.



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