Cremin, Lawrence A(rthur)
CREMIN, Lawrence A(rthur)
(b. 31 October 1925 in New York City; d. 4 September 1990 in New York City), Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, author, and popular educator and administrator who achieved distinction in the 1960s with a pioneering study breaking down the parochialism that for years had separated the fields of education and history.
Cremin was the elder of two children born to Arthur T. Cremin and Theresa Borowick, cofounders of the New York Schools of Music. Cremin spent his youth working with his parents at their music schools. He attended the Model School of Hunter College, and in 1941 graduated from Townsend Harris High School at the age of fifteen. He promptly enrolled at City College of New York (CCNY). His college studies were interrupted by military service during World War II, during which, beginning in 1944, he served nineteen months in the U.S. Army Air Corps, based in Milledgeville, Georgia. Discharged in November 1945, he returned to CCNY. Cremin was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with a B.S. in social science in 1946. He enrolled at Columbia University's Teachers College in the fall and planned to major in music education, but his exposure to the teachers in the department of social and philosophical foundations of education changed that plan. He received his M.A. in 1947, and his Ph.D. in the history of American education in 1949.
In 1949 Cremin joined the Teachers College faculty. His dissertation The American Common School: An Historic Conception was published in 1951, and initiated a prolific writing career; the dissertation was replete with relevant data and "exemplified an instrumental view of education history." From 1952 to 1959 he served as associate editor of the Teachers College Record and as editor of the Classics in Education series, which eventually numbered over fifty volumes. On 19 September 1956 Cremin married Charlotte Raup, the daughter of R. Bruce Raup, his former teacher and colleague. They had a son and a daughter.
The 1961 publication of The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876–1957 solidified Cremin's reputation as the foremost authority in the field of the history of education in America. The book won the 1962 Bancroft Prize in American history and was considered a model of the "new" historiography that championed the "thoughtful interpretation of the role of educational forces in certain great movements in American history." Anticipating the social forces altering U.S. society in the latter half of the 1960s, Cremin's work effectively "located the origins of educational reform in the progressive era and the two preceding decades of liberal dissent." The book showed how progressive education was an integral part of the liberal response to forces, such as industrialization, urbanization, scientific reasoning, and immigration, that were reshaping U.S. society. In 1966 Cremin was awarded an unusual joint appointment as a member of Columbia University's history department and the Teachers College department of philosophy and social sciences.
In many ways The Transformation of the School linked the progressive education movement to the humanitarian efforts facing the new urban-industrial civilization. Seeking to explain the social role of progressive education, Cremin focused his work on four issues: (1) attempting to broaden school programs in health, vocation, and the quality of family and community life; (2) applying in the classroom the pedagogical principles derived from new scientific research in psychology and the social sciences; (3) tailoring instruction to the different types of children entering the public schools; and (4) believing in the radical faith that culture could be "democratized without being vulgarized."
Unlike previous efforts in the history of education, Cremin's work added significant areas of exploration in American intellectual, social, and political history. His theme was that "the exciting revolt against formalism at the turn of the century degenerated into a caricature of itself after 1960." The movement to improve the schools met with some initial success, reaching its height in the 1920s and 1930s, gradually declining in the 1940s, and ultimately dying in the 1950s. Cremin's books persuasively argued that the functions of the school should be broadened "to base teaching on the new science of psychology, to make learning relevant to the pupil, to extend culture to the many, and to look to education as an agency for social change."
Cremin's Transformation challenged the often uncritical and celebratory nature of works in American education history. At a time when "the topic of modernization was producing a rich body of historical literature," Cremin's work "showed how discourse on education and educational practice was a major element in one of the great watershed eras in American history." He effectively demonstrated that children and schooling were "central to the goals of those searching" for appropriate responses "to the ills and opportunities of the new urban industrial society." His work was considered pioneering in its efforts to develop "a usable past for educational policy." One reviewer in the American Historical Review summed up Cremin's achievement in these words: "He is the first historian to take the transformation of the school seriously enough to place it in the context of history and to give it the considerable attention it deserves." Fittingly, Cremin's book enabled other scholars to challenge the conventional histories of American education. Works like Michael B. Katz's The Irony of Early American School Reform and David Tyack's The One Best System utilized Cremin's historical approach to explore the social and political forces shaping the structures of American education.
In the 1960s, as social protests against the war in Vietnam and racial discrimination heated up, Cremin continued to explore the social structures of education. Although not a participant in the political and social struggles of the decade, he did explore how education in the United States acted as a fundamental lever of social change. Beginning in 1965 Cremin labored to produce his three-volume masterpiece. The first volume, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607–1783, appeared in 1970. Ten years later American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876 garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Cremin. The trilogy was completed in 1988 with the publication of American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876–1980. All three volumes reiterated Cremin's belief "in the generative significance of ideas, values, and purposeful actions in efforts to educate—hence, the attention given to religious institutions, to thinkers both great and popular, and to individual educational biographies." Beginning with The Transformation of the School and concluding with The Metropolitan Experience, Cremin's major works viewed schooling as an "adjunct to politics in realizing the promise of American life."
Throughout the 1960s and later, Cremin also managed to publish smaller, more general observations on the history of American education. These works focused on what he termed "configurations of education." In The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberly (1965), The Genius of Education (1965), Public Education (1976), Traditions of American Education (1977), and his final work, Popular Education and Its Discontents (1990), Cremin forcefully argued "the need to acknowledge in contemporary public policy the fact that 'many institutions educate' and to develop more and better knowledge that might help to ensure that those institutions were effective in educating all the people." The famed Columbia University philosopher and educator John Dewey, who developed the instrumentalist approach in philosophy, proclaimed that children learn best by doing. That idea became the engine driving the progressive education movement. In typical Deweyan fashion, Cremin looked beyond formal schooling to examine what constitutes education. Three of his favorite themes were popularization, "multitudinousness," and politicization. The question of how all three played pivotal roles in shaping public-policy debates in education was at the heart of his historical research.
Although Cremin "considered himself primarily a teacher, not an educational administrator or an author," he was all three. Cremin combined an energetic scholarly pace with involvement in public affairs. The general spirit of activism in the 1960s led to his greater involvement in organizational leadership roles. In 1965 he helped found the National Academy of Education and served as its president from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the Curriculum Improvement Panel of the United States Office of Education from 1963 to 1965, and served on the Carnegie Commission on the Education of Educators from 1966 to 1970. During Cremin's forty-four year association with Teachers College as a student, faculty member, and administrator, he channeled his energies into promoting educational programs that urged future teachers to view schools as a primary mechanism for social and political regeneration. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Teachers College Institute of Philosophy and Politics of Education. He served as Frederick A. P. Barnard Professor of Education from 1974 to 1984, and as the seventh president and first Jewish president of Teachers College, also from 1974 to 1984. While serving as president, he continued to teach a popular course in public policy and education. In 1984 he decided to return to full-time teaching and research. A year later he accepted the presidency of the Spencer Foundation (a public policy and educational think tank) at the University of Chicago. He planned to retire from the foundation's presidency in 1995.
Among his many awards, Cremin received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1957. In 1969 he received the American Educational Research Association Award and in 1971 New York University's Award for Creative Educational Leadership. In 1972 he was awarded Columbia University's Butler Medal for distinguished service. The sixty-four-year-old Cremin suffered a fatal heart attack on his way to work, and was pronounced dead at Saint Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital near the campus. Cremin is buried at the Beth Israel Memorial Park in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
In a fitting memorial tribute, friend and longtime colleague Harold J. Noah summed up Cremin's contributions to scholarship and learning: "[The] story of American education incorporated a peculiar genius for individual and collective action, so that what was wrong would be presently put right and a better future would surely emerge. He devoted himself…tothe twin tasks of amelioration and reconstruction." Throughout Cremin's life, his spirit of practical optimism was reflected in his leadership, teaching, and publications.
Exhibits and publications in tribute to Cremin, as well as his personal papers, works, and manuscripts, are in the Milbank Library at Teachers College. Cremin did not write a memoir, nor is there a biography. Scholarly articles on Cremin's career and scholarship include Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Patricia Albjerg Graham, "Lawrence Cremin: A Biographical Memoir," Teachers College Record 96, no. 1 (fall 1994): 102–113; Neil Sutherland, "Does Lawrence Cremin Belong in the Canon?" Historical Studies in Education 10, nos. 1 and 2 (1998); and Jurgen Herbst, "Cremin's American Paideia," American Scholar 61 (winter 1991). Sol Cohen, a former student of Cremin's, examines his contribution in "The History of the History of American Education, 1900–1976: The Uses of the Past," Harvard Educational Review 46 (Aug. 1976); and in "Lawrence A. Cremin: Hostage to History," Historical Studies in Education 10, nos. 1 and 2 (1998), which places Cremin's scholarship within the context of humanistic studies. Diane Ravitch wrote a moving tribute, "Lawrence Cremin," in American Scholar 61 (winter 1992): 83–89. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 5 Sept. 1990), Chicago Tribune (6 Sept. 1990), Los Angeles Times (8 Sept. 1990), and the American Historical Association's newsletter, Perspectives 28, no. 8 (Nov. 1990).
Charles F. Howlett