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They Remember Larry

A group of TC-affiliated scholars describe the influence of TC's great education impresario

With the College celebrating its 125th anniversary, the day’s keynote address, by Bard College professor Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (Ph.D. ’78), who received the President’s Medal of Excellence before her speech, was devoted to the legacy Cremin, her mentor and, as President Susan Fuhrman put it, “the preeminent historian of education.”

But more than just remember the past, the celebration underscored how much Cremin’s broad and pluralistic approach to education continues to drive TC. “His vision informs all our work today,” Fuhrman said. “It is the foundation on which we are building TC for the 21st century.”

When Cremin came to TC as a master’s degree student in 1946, Lagemann said in her address, he did not expect to stay long. His original plan was to obtain the degree in order to bolster the prestige of his family’s music school, which he was in line to direct.

But his encounter with the so-called “Frontier Thinkers”—a group of progressive TC educators that included William Heard Kilpatrick, George Counts and occasionally John Dewey, set him on a different course. “He shifted to the history of education,” Lagemann said, studying with Counts, earning his doctorate and joining the faculty where he would serve 41 years, until his death in 1990.

With his 1962 book The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957, a landmark in the field, Cremin’s “immersion in the college’s pluralistic tradition became evident,” Lagemann said. “He placed education in the larger social context, and educational progressivism as one branch in progressivism writ large. It began the movement of education becoming a vital, integral part of mainstream historical scholarship.”

The book helped draw Lagemann, who read it as a college junior, to TC for her graduate studies. At the College, she studied under Cremin and worked as his research assistant on the second volume of his magisterial three-part history of American education.

“He believed in alternative routes to education and versions of education,” she said, including practical and vocational education, in an echo of TC’s roots in Grace Dodge’s Kitchen Garden Association and Industrial Education Association. “He challenged his colleagues to study education across the entire life cycle and in all its institutions.”

Today, Lagemann said, Cremin would likely call on TC to keep a sharp focus on its traditions of professionalism, pluralism and purpose, “especially in the times we live in, which are not always friendly to the combination of excellence and equity in education, and that focus on schooling over the other roles in education.” Without this, she said, “those who believe education is a simple technical exercise will carry the day.”

A panel of TC faculty who knew Cremin at various points in his career agreed that Cremin had the gift of expanding people’s horizons while giving them confidence to find and follow their own path.

“I knew him as a friend,” said Edmund W. Gordon, the Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Pyschology and Education. “We used to debate issues of epistemology. He got me thinking about the fact that the world is full of realities that are hard to understand independently of the context and perspective each person brings to them.”

"He did not have an urge to channel you into his mould, but to sense what was your interest,” said Robbie McClintock, Emeritus Professor in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, who studied with Cremin in the early 1960s.

AC fest panel


Amy Stuart Wells, Professor of Sociology and Education, said her course on the history of American education policy is the direct descendant of the one that Cremin and Lagemann co-taught when she herself was a graduate student at TC.

“It was Larry Cremin who gave me my sociological imagination,” Wells said. She had come to TC with a background in journalism, a field that many scholars typically look down on compared to academia. Not so Cremin. “He valued my efforts to communicate with the broader public,” Wells said. “As a senior scholar, a lot of people didn’t respect journalism, but he did. He supported me and inspired me.”

In awarding the President’s Medal of Excellence to Lagemann , TC Provost Thomas James read a citation that honored her own career as a historian and policy-maker in education, first at TC, then as president of the Spencer Foundation and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“You have preached a gospel of education as a means to achieve social justice,” James said – most recently at the Bard Prison Initiative, where Lagemann is now a senior fellow. “It’s safe to say Larry Cremin would be proud.”

Published Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013


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